Category Archives: Children’s Books

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

Our Favorite “Issue” Books

Not too long ago, I posted about how my kids just aren’t that into fantasy books. And I bemoaned it all. Alas! Alack! What I didn’t emphasize so much is how Mushroom in particular actually does like another sort of book that I wasn’t a huge fan of as a kid – books where kids have some sort of issue to overcome or face. We’re talking books with illness, death, depression, learning differences, and other such challenges for kids. These, for whatever reason, are right up Mushroom’s alley.

But that’s okay. “Issue” books, if done right, aren’t a bad thing at all. I talked about how fantasy helps kids face the darkness, and so do some of the books about death or illness in the real world. And they can give kids a different perspective on life, that of someone who is different abled or who had a unique experience. So I give you a list of some of our favorites, though keep in mind that this is just a taste of what’s out there. Some of these Mushroom has read and loved and others he has yet to discover, but they’re books I really like. There are some great young adult books in this category, but I stuck to books in the middle grades age for this list.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
This is a book about a girl with cerebral palsy who is unable to control her movements or even communicate. Underneath, she’s brilliant, but until a computer arrives to help her speak, no one knows and everyone underestimates her, treating her like she can’t ever become smarter than a young child. This is a classic story of overcoming disability and others’ preconceptions. Draper is an amazing writer and Melody’s reality really comes to life in this book.
The Issues: Cerebral palsy and giftedness.
Appropriate for: Any age. This is one of those books that’s aimed solidly at middle schoolers. Like many on this list, it’s fine for younger readers, but best appreciated by about 9 or 10 years old and up.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
This book was such a smash hit that I’m sure most people are aware of it. It’s quickly becoming one of those modern classics that makes the “must” list for kid reading. Auggie has a deformity that is immediately obvious and causes most people to feel extremely uncomfortable or to shun him. For the first time in his life, he attends school and tries to fit in and make new friends. The story is told in changing voices that are extremely well done. Palacio has issued a second book of extra chapters or stories that can be added to the understanding of the characters.
The Issues: Physical deformities and bullying.
Appropriate for: Nearly any age, though it might be worth waiting a little on this one. Probably best appreciated by age 8 and up.

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
Georgie is an average kid with average problems. He and his best friend might be growing apart. A girl at school occasionally torments him. His parents are expecting a new baby and he’s not too happy about it. However, Georgie is also a little person and he worries that many of his problems stem from his size. This is a great little book because the problems Georgie faces are so relateable. However, Graff occasionally pauses the narrative with “assignments” for the reader, to illustrate how different life is for Georgie, how furniture, musical instruments, and the world in general just aren’t made for him.
The Issues: Being a Little Person (dwarfism).
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level on this book is a nice lower end middle grades level as well.

Counting By 7’s by Holly Sloan
Early in the story, Willow’s parents die in a very unexpected accident, leaving her completely alone. Willow is a genius, profoundly gifted in a variety of ways, but stuck in a school where her talents are largely unrecognized. She seizes on to one of the only people she likes, a Vietnamese American girl who saw the same disaffected school therapist once a week. Willow manages to move in with the Nguyen family and slowly transforms their lives as well as the therapist who is supposed to be helping her.
The Issues: Parental death, learning disabilities, giftedness, and depression.
Appropriate for: The writing in this book is sparse and not too hard, but the perspective can feel very heavy and dark. Probably best enjoyed by age 9 or 10 and up.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
There’s so much packed into this little book, it’s pretty amazing. The narrator, Caitlin, has autism and is struggling to deal with her brother’s recent death in a school shooting. Through therapy sessions at school, new friendships with younger students, and finishing a project her brother started, she learns to get closure and move on. There are allusions to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird throughout the story, adding an extra layer of depth to an already packed tale.
The Issues: Autism, school shootings, and sibling death.
Appropriate for: This is one of those great books that straddles the gulf between middle grades novels and slightly more graphic or grown up young adult fare. The school shooting isn’t graphically described so younger kids who are more comfortable with dark fare should be okay with it and it’s not a difficult read, but especially with all the literary allusions, I’d save it for about age 9 or 10 and up, just because most kids will get more out of it at a slightly older age.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
This is a graphic memoir about the author’s youth growing up deaf. Bell became mostly deaf at a young age and was helped to hear in a mainstream classroom by a special device that her teachers wore that would broadcast their voices right into her ears. At first, she felt like an outcast, but as time went on, she came to see it as a superpower, especially when she realized that she could hear the teachers gossip or use the bathroom when they forgot to turn it off. The art in this book – the characters are all rabbits – is very sweet. I’ve mentioned it on my blog before because it’s one of Mushroom’s all time favorites. The messages are all positive and it’s one of those stories that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
The Issues: Deafness.
Appropriate for: Any age. The reading level is relatively low. Great as a “serious” graphic novel read for a reluctant reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos
So many books feature kids who are contemplative or quiet or generally “good” kids. That’s not this book. Joey is a kid who can’t sit still, who constantly makes the wrong choices, who simply can’t seem to help himself from bouncing off the walls. I have to admit that while my kids liked a lot of Gantos’s other work (and if you ever have a chance to see him speak, he’s a great speaker!), this series wasn’t for them. However, I love Joey and have seen some former students who really identified with these books. I’m glad they’re out there and they’re definitely worth a read for a lot of kids. These are funny, fun books.
The Issues: ADHD and divorce.
Appropriate for: Any age. Gantos does a great job of explaining how Joey is “wired” differently. However, I suspect that many younger kids wouldn’t fully understand that Joey’s “bad” behavior isn’t entirely his fault, so I wouldn’t automatically hand it to a precocious young reader. Written at about a 4th grade level.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm
This is a graphic novel with bright and cheerful artwork, but a darker subject gets introduced partway through the story. Sunny has gone to stay with her grandfather in his retirement community. At first, it’s like a vacation, but soon it becomes clear that she’s there because her family needs to deal with drug and alcohol abuse by her brother back at home. The story doesn’t really flinch from showing the negative behavior that her brother’s drug use led to. However, it also has the humor that’s characteristic of all of Holm’s books. Overall, a great book.
The Issues: Drug and alcohol abuse.
Appropriate for: We liked this book, but I think the marketing on it really missed the mark. We even saw Holm discuss the book before we happened to read it and had no concept that it was an issue book that dealt with some dark moments. The cover and back flap make it sound light and fun. When you add in that in the graphic novel world the Holm siblings are mostly known for the younger kid friendly Babymouse and Squish series and that the reading level on this graphic novel isn’t much higher, the drug abuse seemed to come out of left field. I would say at least age 8 or 9 and up unless it’s a topic that a younger child already has some familiarity with because of family history. And because the reader may be expecting a different sort of story, introducing it by saying that it covers some difficult issues is probably a good idea for any readers who don’t like to be blindsided.

Crash by Jerry Spinelli
I could have put a lot of Spinelli’s books on this list, but this one, about a bully in the process of reforming, is one of his best. The main character is a stereotypical jock who likes to pick on a stereotypical underdog. However, when his uncle suffers a stroke, he begins to understand how his priorities have been all wrong. From the outside, the book sounds pat, since the former bully and his former victim become friends. However, Spinelli’s writing and good characters manage to help the book transcend the afterschool special cliches.
The Issues: Bullying and family illness/disability.
Appropriate for: Any age. The social and friendship issues covered make this book best for about age 9 or 10 and up. It’s written at about a fourth or fifth grade level.

A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
This is one of my favorites and definitely by favorite by Mass. The main character, Mia, has a secret that she’s kept for many years. She can see sounds and numbers have colors. Mia has a love-hate relationship with her abilities. She loves them but she also worries it makes her different from everyone else and it makes math incredibly difficult. However, early in the story, she realizes that it’s part of a condition called synnesthesia. The rest of the story is about Mia coming to terms with her condition as part of her identity and helping the people around her understand her better. Unlike a lot of the books on this list, Mia doesn’t have a huge amount of hardship to endure (her condition acts like a learning disability in some cases and she deals with tricky middle school growing up stuff). However, it’s a great one for getting into the head of someone who sees the world differently.
The Issues: Synesthesia, a condition that’s like having your senses wired incorrectly.
Appropriate for: This is one of those books that’s on the bubble between middle grades and young adult. There’s nothing inappropriate per se, but there is some mild romance and a tiny bit of early teenage rebellion. Fine for nearly any age, but probably best appreciated by 9 or 10 and up. The writing is right at that level as well.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This is our current read aloud and I’m remembering what a good job Creech does interweaving all the different threads of the story together. I’m about to give major spoilers in this blurb, so apologies. The main character, Sal, is on a cross-country trip with her grandparents to visit her mother. Along the way, they encounter adventures and she spins a tale, ostensibly of her friend Phoebe, though Phoebe’s story has some parallels to her own, as well as some big differences. The book does a good job of portraying Phoebe and Sal’s different reactions of anger as well as drawing out the mystery of what happened to Sal’s mother. The realization that she died isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s nice the way Sal’s refusal to accept her mother’s death keeps the reader questioning whether their own instincts can possibly be correct.
The Issues: Parental depression and death (spoiler!)
Appropriate for: Another book that’s really tailor made for the middle school age. Nothing inappropriate, though the early romantic tension between some of the kids gives it a slightly older feel. Fine for any age, but best appreciated by age 9 or 10 and up. The writing is perfect for 5th or 6th grade level.

I, Funny by James Patterson
I feel funny including one of Patterson’s churned out ghostwritten novels on a recommended list, but honestly, this series has been so beloved by both my boys that I feel like I couldn’t not toss it in here. Obviously this is on the light end as “issues” goes and the writing isn’t as stellar as some on this list. However, there’s a sweetness to this concept and a sensitivity in how Patterson and co-author Grabenstein deal with it. Jamie Grimm wants to be a stand up comedian, but he can’t stand up because he’s permanently in a wheelchair. However, a nationwide contest may be his ticket to fame and humor. This one is perfect for kids who want a mix of light and dark in their reading.
Issues: Physical disabilities, parental death, and adoptive families.
Appropriate for: Any age, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a read aloud. It’s a longer book in terms of page count, but the writing is a very easy read. There are illustrations throughout.

The Book of Marvels

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You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

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Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

90 Second Newbery

90 Second Newbery is a film festival for kids to make very short movies telling the story of Newbery or Newbery honor winning books. The deadline for films is next week and the screenings start soon. You can find a list of them on the website. I already shared ours a few places because I was so excited by it and meant to blog about it earlier, but life interfered, so I’m sharing it here now.

We chose this as one of our big fall projects and it has been really cool to see the result. One of the most rewarding aspects was that after we sent in the link for the film, James Kennedy, who runs the festival, sent back really specific and positive feedback, which was very cool. Even if you don’t have time to participate this year, I would really encourage everyone to think about this as a project for the future. It involved so much good, positive, creative work and so many good discussions of literature.

This is the film Mushroom and BalletBoy made:

I’m still surprised at how much work went into this project. They’ve made little stop motion movies before as well as some little kid live action movies. Both the boys have a facility with iPad movie editing apps. However, they had never seriously attempted a project this ambitious. And everything, from the choice of the book, to the script, to the music and shots had to be agreed upon and it wasn’t always easy with two directors who had different visions.

The script was especially tricky. In the end, we used the script that Mushroom wrote. He had all these great phrases and moments in it, like a vision of Ivan saying, “Mack didn’t call the vet,” followed by silence to indicate how Stella died and the idea of using a news report to explain how Ivan ends up at the zoo.

Building the set for the stop motion of Ivan was even harder. We started with thin plexiglass walls for the stuffed gorilla playing Ivan, but the glare was terrible no matter how we set up the lighting and we finally had to lose it. We also tried using a green screen and even borrowed a real green screen from a friend, but again the lighting was never quite good enough to make the green screen look good and it refused to pan properly. In the end, the kids just printed out the image of the mall circus store they’d chosen to be Ivan’s dismal backdrop. The green screen was also supposed to be used for the news report, but all the takes didn’t work and we had to wrangle our friends from co-op into doing the report instead.

Filming the crayon drawings also was tricky at times. The Stop Motion app cut off the edges of drawings, which was okay for some scenes, but meant we filmed the final credits (no joke) more than half a dozen times trying to make them readable and not cut off.

Not long ago, I posted about how I think parents should help their children with their projects sometimes. This is a great example of that for us. I did almost none of the work for this movie. Probably the biggest thing I did was make a couple of the protest signs when BalletBoy was sick and they needed to be done so Mushroom could film with their friends the next day. But every other bit of work was completely the kids. Every photo, every bit of filming, every drawing, every idea for the movie.

Mostly what I did do was a huge amount of organization for them. I kept them on schedule. I typed up the handwritten script and helped them edit and revise. I encouraged them to pay attention to the details and redo things when they didn’t work or to let things go when they weren’t happy with the best result we could get. I mediated and suggested compromises between their different ideas. I highlighted the parts of the script that had been filmed to help them keep track. I set aside time for them to work. I played cheerleader and said how great the project would be in the end. And it is great.

I think kids need all kinds of projects. They need things where it’s really completely on them from start to finish. They need things where they have to follow someone else’s rules. They need things where someone shows them how much they can do with a little support. This was a project with a little support and I feel really positive about it and so do the kids.

Anatomy of a Project: Dinosaurs and Evolution

At the end of the summer, I asked the kids what they wanted to study in the fall and “dinosaurs” and “extinct stuff” were two of the proposals. Now we’re toward the end of this project and I thought I’d do another Anatomy of a Project entry. I think a lot of people are intimidated by going DIY with a large portion of schooling or cobbling a subject together using different resources, but it can be really rewarding and positive.

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Planning

I usually embark on these sorts of things by gathering stacks of resources, some of which I buy, some of which I check out from the library, some of which I just make note of in case we want to use them later on. I don’t always have a specific plan for this stuff. Usually I’m just getting stuff to get us excited as much as anything.

The biggest thing I did was talk to the kids about trying their first MOOC. MOOC’s are Massive Open Online Courses offered for free by colleges. I heard great things about Dino 101 from the University of Alberta, which is offered through Coursera. I enrolled myself (after a lot of debate about how to deal with users under 13) and planned to have us all do the course together.

I looked at various curricula. Build Your Library has a unit study on evolution that I flirted with getting but decided against, in part because we had already read the fiction book they use, The Education of Calpurnia Tate. I found a couple of other unit study type things, but they were mostly for younger kids so I decided not to get anything, at least for the moment. The one curriculum book I purchased was Life Through Time, which is a GEMS guide. We’ve used some other GEMS books in the past with success. I got this one and it looked pretty exciting.

Then I dove into the books. I bought and checked out a huge number of books. I didn’t really do a lot of searching. Instead, I found the nonfiction section about evolution and fossils and took out everything in the right reading level. We’re lucky enough to have such a good library that I can do that.

Beginning

We started our school year with a lot of field trips and excursions. We went to sketch and explore the fossil collection at Q?rius, the older kid discovery room at the Smithsonian National History Museum. We looked at a number of different things, but one of the coolest things we got to handle was large agatized dinosaur bone. It was polished and beautiful to see the inside of the bone. I also let the kids spend a couple dollars to buy polished fossils from the shop, which was quite a treat. We added these to other fossils we’ve collected over the years, like shark teeth and ammonites, and put them in a case together with labels.

Not purposefully, but we started with a lot of films. We had a chance to see two IMAX films – one about dinosaurs and another about mammoths. We also immediately turned to NOVA as one of our favorite shows and watched an episode about Spinosaurus, an unusual dinosaur that preyed on fish. Because we had just seen the film about mammoths, we also read the related book Mammoths and Mastodons by Cheryl Bardoe, which was an excellent read.

We began to read more books. We began with Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle. This book was at the right level for the kids to read independently. We used it as a good book for practicing written narrations and summaries. I had them read a few chapters (they’re quite short) and write a summary. We also dove into dinosaur books. I let the boys pick what they wanted to read. BalletBoy chose to read a Scientists in the Field book called Digging for Bird Dinosaurs. Mushroom read Sue: The Story of a Colossal Fossil. Each of those books were longer and more in depth. Again, we used the books as a jumping off point for practicing writing skills.

The Dino 101 MOOC turned out to be just as good as people promised. There are interactive questions in the middle of the lessons. While parts of the course have been heavy on vocabulary, for the most part it has been both in depth but accessible to the boys. Many of the topics have allowed the kids to delve into other issues such as basic animal anatomy, Latin word roots (did I mention the vocabulary?), geology, and evolution. It has been a really far reaching course and we’ve all really enjoyed it. The quizzes are pretty easy for me. I cut and paste them into a document and let the kids take them too, though they’re more challenging for the kids. Each quiz is just five multiple choice questions. The kids have mostly done pretty well on them, but I’ve helped them study.

BalletBoy looks for real fossils from the Cretaceous.
BalletBoy looks for real fossils from the Cretaceous.

We also took a field trip to Dinosaur Park. We’re really lucky to have a small regional park nearby where outcroppings are from the late Cretaceous period and have included dinosaur bones. Of course, we didn’t manage to find anything interesting, but it was neat to see so many impressions of bark and other plants from the time of the dinosaurs and to learn how to look.

As topics arose in Dino 101, we used it as a chance to explore other topics. When evolution was explored, we took another look at it, reading the excellent graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hossler and practicing written narrations by writing about how evolution works. We watched episodes of Nature and discussed concepts like adaptation and natural selection. When geologic time came up, we explored it by looking at other time periods and trying to tie together our fossil collection and other topics we had explored, like mammoths earlier in the fall. We especially liked the series A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before the Dinosaurs by Hannah Bonner. The book When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth was our favorite. This series was more in depth than I expected. We made geologic timelines to try to tie everything together.

Mushroom spotted in a catalog that a new Cardline game was about to come out – Cardline: Dinosaurs. If you’ve never seen the game, there are lots of different versions. In this one, each card features a prehistoric creature and facts about it. Players only have access to what the creature is with a drawing. You try to place the creatures in order of a chosen attribute such as how much they weighed. It can be much more challenging than you expect. We immediately bought the game and played it. We also used the cards to practice organizing dinosaur types, distinguishing which ones were dinosaurs and which weren’t, looking at different geologic eras. This was just a great addition to our studies.

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Mushroom’s geologic timeline

We also enhanced our study with drawing a little bit. We found a library book about how to draw different dinosaurs. We added some dinosaur poems to our poetry teas. We had some by Jack Prelutsky and another book by William Wise. They were light children’s poems, but I like the way we can find these connections across the different things we study.

Since we were also using Faltering Ownership from Brave Writer, the next writing project was supposed to be a mini-report about a natural disaster. I wanted to combine this with our current project so I asked the kids to choose a dinosaur to write about instead. It was a big undertaking to learn to write down sources, use notecards for organization, and then write their first real report, but both Mushroom and BalletBoy did a great job. Partway through, Mushroom asked if he could change his to becoming the text of a picture book about Argentinosaurus, which he did.

After the reports, both the boys said they were feeling basically done with dinosaurs and evolution. We still have to finish up the MOOC and we have an upcoming workshop to look at fossils to understand climate during the time of the dinosaurs, but other than wrapping up loose ends, we agreed that the project had wound to a natural end.

Regrets

One of the hardest things about wrapping up a project is all the roads not taken. We read The Sandwalk Adventures but we didn’t get around to Hossler’s equally good Evolution, another graphic novel explaining the concepts of evolution. I had hoped we would go back to Dinosaur Park more often, but weekend commitments made it hard. I had hoped we would do more fossil sketching, but we only did a little bit because the kids weren’t that into it. There are a pile of books on the shelf that we never got to, such as books about pterosaurs and books about the links between dinosaurs and birds. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at Feathered Dinosaurs by Christopher Sloan and thinking, huh, maybe we can squeeze in one ore? I’m especially sad we weren’t able to adapt the activities in the GEMS Guide Life Through Time, but many of the activities didn’t end up making sense in a homeschool context and others were edged out by other things we decided to do.

While I could easily think of a whole other semester of stuff we could do about dinosaurs, evolution, extinction and other related topics, the kids are ready to move on to the next thing and pushing it too far would likely just make them dislike the good work we already did. We’re going to start a unit on philosophy and I’ve asked them for ideas about what they’d like to do next, so I guess we’ll see where we end up after the holidays.

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The books headed back to the library

 

Mushroom’s Techie Bookshelf

Mushroom shows off his BrickPi.
Mushroom shows off his BrickPi.

It has been interesting trying to foster a budding techie geek when I’m not really one myself. I’m not a computer ignoramus, mind you. I worked in the computer lab in college fixing routine problems and have picked up a lot of basic stuff. On the other hand, I’m not equipped to teach anyone what’s what, especially not for things like robotics or coding.

To some extent, I’ve just had to learn but I can’t say I’ve learned much. Mostly I’ve learned what to suggest that the kids themselves look into. This has been one of those beautiful things about being the parent of older kids. They sometimes know more about something than you! It’s so cool to see Mushroom excited about this stuff, talking a mile a minute about things I barely understand.

Since I’m so little use, luckily there are books and kits and so forth. Mushroom has taken to lugging some of them around sometimes, even hugging them and sticking them under his pillow. His joy when Make comes in the mail is off the charts. While a large part of his hobby is looking at projects, dreaming about the possibilities, and reading about how things are done, sometimes he also does things himself. He has gone through a lot of the most basic projects with his Raspberry Pi and Arduino. He did a project from Make turning his Pi into an old fashioned arcade games player and we downloaded lots of old games to play. He has gotten a really cool Brick Pi from Dexter Industries and begun to build little robots combining his old Mindstorms pieces with the Raspberry Pi. Overall, he’s slowly tinkering and learning, dreaming and imagining.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure by The Lead Project
This one is a bit of cheat. We had the older version of this book from back when Scratch was downloadable instead of all online. However, it was the very first programming book we ever got and it got a fair amount of use from both Mushroom and BalletBoy, who was obsessed with Scratch for awhile. The book uses a comic book format, which is obviously a good hook for kids. The projects are simple and it makes for a great jump start into Scratch. Really, Scratch is simple enough that all kids need to do is dive in and look at other kids’ projects, but sometimes some more traditional instructions are good encouragement.

 Make Magazine
This is really the gold standard in the maker movement. It’s more than just the sort of programming and electronics and computer projects that Mushroom is into right now and even when it has those, they’re often at another level of amazing. My mother saw Mushroom’s magazine and asked him could he make her the crazy backyard fountain project that was in there. Mushroom paid for his own subscription to Make and reads it very carefully, cover to cover every time it arrives.

Magpi Magazine
This is a pretty hefty subscription cost because this magazine, the official one for the Raspberry Pi, is British. You can find individual issues at some bookstores, but the best way to read it is online where you can get at least some issues for free. Mushroom really loves this magazine almost as much as he loves Make. It’s shiny and inviting and I know he wishes he could buy the paper version instead of reading on the iPad. As you might expect, all the projects and articles in here are for the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer you can get for about $30. It’s made to be hacked and built into different projects and comes with software you can easily load on such as the kids programming language Scratch and a version of Minecraft that’s just for the Pi.

Adventures in Raspberry Pi by Carrie Anne Philbin
Mushroom says that this book is the best you can get for the beginner interested in doing projects with the Raspberry Pi. He did several of the beginning projects in the book before deciding that he was ready to try other things with his Pi. Mostly the projects seem to just introduce kids to different ways to use the Pi with languages like Scratch and Python and simple projects like making music on the Pi and turning it into a little jukebox.

Python for Kids by Jason R. Briggs
Okay, now we’ve gotten the books that I know less about. Mushroom kept thumbing through this one over and over though I think most of the Python he has learned has actually been through Code Academy, a free online tutorial for beginning coders in different languages, as well as by simply doing projects he reads about in other sources. Python is an older programming language, but my understanding from Mushroom is that because it’s so basic it’s used as one of the main ways to program the Pi and Arduino.

Arduino Workshop by John Boxall
Make: Basic Arduino Projects by Don Wilcher
Now we come to the Arduino books. Mushroom has both of these and has worked through a few projects from each, though his Arduino kit also came with a book of initial projects that he did most of. Arduino is a type of little controller that you can program to do all kinds of things. Through Arduino, Mushroom has gotten into breadboards and wiring things up. All of his first projects just involved getting various LED lights on a breadboard to come on and off in various ways and patterns. However, he has since played around with an Arduino Esplora, which he has used as a game controller and programmed to use a tiny screen.

 

Fall Book Roundup

This is our periodic round up of mini-reviews of just a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.

Read Aloud
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Is it possible that this sequel is even better than the original? I think I like it even more than the first book. The writing is so beautiful and detailed and the characters and world are so well drawn. Calpurnia is the only girl in a large, prosperous Texas family in 1900. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, encourages her interest in nature and science while the rest of her family want her to be more feminine. In this book, the Galveston Hurricane, the greatest natural disaster in American history, is explored. Calpurnia becomes closer to her younger, animal loving, soft-hearted brother Travis, considers becoming a veterinarian when she grows up, and learns about the weather. Like the previous book, each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin, though these are drawn from The Voyage of the Beagle. Build Your Library sells a unit study about evolution that uses the first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as a core part of the study. This book lends itself even more clearly to being used as the literary backbone of a science study. Calpurnia builds her own barometer, astrolabe, and other instruments, as well as dissects several creatures, such as a grasshopper and a worm.

Audiobook
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm

We’ve really enjoyed all of Holm’s books inspired by her family history. This book takes place in 1950’s New Jersey, where Penny is caught between her mother and her late father’s large Italian family. Most of the book is light and funny, filled with vivid characters. Penny’s cousin Frankie is constantly in and out of trouble, her grandmother cooks only inedible food, her uncle sleeps in his car, her other grandmother wears only black in mourning for her father, even many years after his death. Meanwhile, Penny spends her time trying to sneak away and have fun despite all her mother’s rules. However, I have to issue a warning and a spoiler. More than midway through the book, Penny has an accident with a clothing wringer that is so gruesome I nearly had to pull the car over because we were all freaking out so much. It works out in the end, but it was really a pretty horrible accident.

School Reading
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle

This book is a great introduction to evolution. We are studying paleontology this year and I wanted to begin with a look at evolution. This book has such a clear text with such great illustrations by Steve Jenkins as well as illustrative photos. It was at exactly the right level for the kids to read independently and the chapters were very well organized. Evolution can be hard to understand, but this book explains it well, including the history of our understanding of evolution and how natural selection and adaptation works.

School Reading
Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age by Cheryl Bardoe

Because we had the opportunity to see an IMAX film that covered the same material during a homeschool science center day, we skipped ahead a little bit in our paleontology study to look at the Pleistocene animals. This book was very well written with great photos. It’s not long and was also at just the right nonfiction reading level for the kids. The opening part focuses on the find of a baby mammoth in Siberia. The mammoth was perfectly preserved and can now be seen in museums. The mystery of the extinction of the mammoths and their kin is also covered.

 

Mushroom’s Reading
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

Mushroom has been loving these nonfiction graphic novels and has already read several of them. Each book covers a different American history topic, generally with a slightly dark or violent topic, including several wars and the infamous Donner Party. Mushroom says he likes the first one, about Revolutionary War spies, the best. A lot of the nonfiction graphic novels that are coming out now are dry or formulaic, but this series has creative storytelling and good details as well as a friendly art style. I think it would appeal to a lot of the fans of the Horrible Histories series.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

BalletBoy wanted something light to read and he picked this book off the shelf. It’s not one of Sachar’s better works, honestly. It’s part of a series of books about middle school kids. This one is about a boy who joins the popular crowd, but it comes with a price. Soon, not only is he not part of the popular crowd anymore, but he’s pretty sure he’s cursed. This is one of those books that explores all the awkward, sometimes terrible things that middle school kids can do to each other. The end message is positive and funny, but BalletBoy didn’t end up loving the book, in part because he felt uncomfortable with how the kids treated each other. My kids have definitely seen some doses of meanness, but maybe not in this same way.

Farrar’s (regrettable) YA Reading
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Why do I always get sucked into these? But good reviews, a little buzz, and an interesting concept and I was suckered into trying this book. In the end, I gave up on it toward the end, not quite finishing it. Mare is a poor “red” girl. She has no abilities and is subject to the powerful “silvers” and their never ending war. That is, until it’s discovered she does have mysterious powers and is swept into an arranged marriage in order for the royals to hide that fact. There’s a rebellion (of course), a love quadrangle (double of course), and a lot of hand wringing. There’s a twist that was a reasonable good idea, but on the whole the book fell very flat for me. It was yet another formulaic dystopian style YA novel with mediocre writing. Bah.