Tag Archives: read alouds

Historical Fiction Overload

We’ve been a little overloaded with historical fiction read alouds for American history this year.  In the middle of the last book, both kids gave me a pleading look and declared that they were done.  They wanted something different so we’re reading Harriet the Spy followed by The Hobbit.  Still, it was a nice run while it lasted.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
Unlike the rest of these, which we read more of less back to back, we read this gem earlier in the year.  It’s the story of a young Objiwa girl and her family in the mid-1800’s.  Seven year-old Omakayas sees both beauty and tragedy in this story, which is one of the most beautifully written books we’ve read in our homeschool.

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’m not personally a huge fan of the Little House books.  If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, you may even remember a bit of a rant about how I do not get the fanaticism over them.  However, people convinced me to read this volume aloud, about the early years of Wilder’s husband Almanzo in New York.  It has lovely descriptions of food and farm chores.  While it’s lacking in much plot, my boys enjoyed the anecdotal quality of the story.  It was hit.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
This recent book about the Civil War won a Newbery Honor.  In Homer’s funny voice, it tells the rollicking adventures of a young boy from Maine on a quest to save his older brother from the battlefield by chasing the Union Army all the way to Gettysburg.  On the way, he meets with some tragic and many amusing adventures and tells numerous lies.  While we enjoyed it (and I really loved it), this was the book that broke the camel’s back for the kids, who are clearly done with historical fiction for awhile.  The kids laughed at Homer’s adventures, but they also asked to finish quick.

Bull Run by Paul Fleischman
This is a short volume about the Civil War battle of Bull Run.  Paul Fleischman tells the story in more than a dozen voices, from an elderly southern lady to a Union general to a young Georgia boy in the Confederate army band.  It’s very different from most of the historical fiction for children, but the writing in the different voices is so strong and the tiny chapters worked well for me to occasionally pass the book to the kids to hear them read aloud as well.

The Great Brain and the rest of the series by John Fitzgerald
We tore through these books about a Catholic family in a small Utah town near the turn of the century.  Younger brother JD tells the story of his con-artist brother Tom’s wild exploits and rescues. Sometimes there is genuine drama and tension, such as when a murderer kidnaps a young boy, but most of the stories are much more lighthearted and a lot less tragic than some of the other historical fiction books we read, which probably explains why we read so many of them.  These gave us a great opportunity to talk about how narrators don’t always give the whole picture, as JD is often fooled by Tom in ways obvious to the reader.

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm
This is the story of a tomboy girl in an isolated Finnish immigrant community in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century.  May Amelia has such a strong, funny voice, told in an interesting dialect that my kids found her very compelling.  This book swings from very funny to extremely sad in places, comparable with The Birchbark House in terms of tragedy and death.  Still, understanding that death was so much more common in the past seems like an essential part of history and I hope my boys have been benefiting from reading so much cathartic literature.

The Saturdays and the rest of the Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright
This charming series of four books about a set of four siblings was not historical fiction when it first came out.  However, the themes of buying bonds and planting Victory Gardens make it such.  Even just the old cars and the descriptions of New York before the war are great for historical setting.  In fact, all the descriptions in this series are beautifully written and richly detailed.  These books are often compared to the Penderwicks series, and the comparison is justified.  My kids enjoyed them greatly.

A Kindle Complaint: 10 Books…

Ten books that are vaguely on our to read at some point aloud list that I looked for on Kindle that were not available.  I usually rely on library books, but with our trip coming, I wanted to fill up my Kindle for read aloud options.

Ella Enchanted (Hardcover) ~ Gail Carson Levine (Author) Cover ArtGreat Brain,The (Paperback) ~ John D. Fitzgerald (Author) Cover ArtHowl's Moving Castle (Paperback) ~ Diana Wynne Jones (Author) Cover ArtHomer Price (Paperback) ~ Robert McCloskey (Author) Cover ArtPippi Longstocking (Puffin Modern Classics) (Paperback) ~ Astrid ... Cover ArtThe Witches (Paperback) ~ Roald Dahl (Author) Cover Art

1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

2. The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald

3. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

4. Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright

5. The Witches by Roald Dahl

6. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

7. Homer Price by Robert McKloskey

8. Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson

9. Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

Some of them I realized I knew about (oh yeah, that’s what Pottermore is going to sell) and others are slightly forgotten (I guess there’s not much love for the Melendys or the works of Elizabeth Enright these days or for the Moomins, sadly).  But others of these are Newbery winners and works by authors that are still selling quite well.  I mean, can you believe that none of Roald Dahl’s or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works are on Kindle?!?  Or that classics like Pippi or Homer Price aren’t?  Or that Gail Carson Levine’s most famous work, one that was made into a popular movie, even if it was awhile ago, can’t be read on e-book?

The Secret Garden (Paperback) ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett Cover ArtThe Blue Fairy Book (Dover Storybooks for Children) (Paperback)  ... Cover ArtThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniversary Edition (Books of  ... Cover ArtFive Children and It (Puffin Classics) (Paperback) ~ E. Nesbit ( ... Cover ArtPeter Pan and Wendy: Centenary Edition (Sterling Illustrated Cla ... Cover Art

Oh well.  I guess I’ve gotten too spoiled by our instant gratification, all digital age.  On the bright side, here’s a nice list of free classics from Satori Smiles you can get on your e-reader.  It includes lots of suggestions that led me to realizing that you can find most all of E. Nesbit, George MacDonald, Andrew Lang, L. Frank Baum, Frances Hodgson Burnett and other great old authors.  So we may not have gotten The Great Brain (rats!  that’s the one I wanted to read next most!) but at least we got the next Oz book for nothing.

Away to Fairyland!

We are wrapping up reading aloud The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne Valente.  I have to begin this review by saying that this book completely blew me away on every level.  I’ve had to read it a bit piecemeal because the Husband and I alternate read alouds in the evenings, but I’ve mostly covered it and it’s amazing.

September is an ordinary girl living a mundane life in World War II era Kansas.  Her father is away at war and her mother works in a factory.  When she has the opportunity to leave and go on adventures in fairyland, she seizes it.  After all, she’s a child and children, the book explains, are heartless, so not only does she jaunt off, September does so without much of a thought for her mother.  September makes lots of friends, including a Wyvern who is part library.  Fairyland turns out to be under the thumb of a rather horrible young marquess who wants to use September for her own purposes.

The story is layered and complex, with some incredible symbolism.  However, the best part is the language.  The voice in this book is so strong.  It’s both old-fashioned, reminding me of greats like E. Nesbit as well as modern, reminding me of the disconnected voice of Lemony Snicket that has become so popular in other works.  Suffice it to say, it’s a unique tale.  If I had realized just how much there was to this before we embarked, I might have waited a year or two.  Mushroom and BalletBoy have enjoyed it, but I think it might have been better waiting on a shelf for a little while.  However, it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve read in awhile and I highly recommend it.

Prisoner of Azkaban

We’ve just wrapped up our third Harry Potter volume, though in audiobook format.  I read the first two aloud myself, but we tore through the first three on audiobook over the last couple of months.  I have to say that I was reminded why this may be my favorite Harry Potter volume.  The story is the tightest by far, with a lot of twists and turns you have to keep track of, yet a story that doesn’t have unnecessary diversions or subplots.

Even better than the story was seeing Mushroom and BalletBoy’s new, more mature sense of plot and anticipation.  When we read the first two book quite awhile back, they enjoyed them, but there was something missing there.  They were still young listeners for longer books and didn’t always catch all the ins and outs.  They missed details.  Foreshadowing was lost on them.

Not so this time!  As we read, Mushroom realized with excitement that the “grim” Harry keeps seeing is Sirius Black.  Then, he realized that the other person who was with Ron as Sirius drags him under the Whomping Willow was his rat.  Practically jumping up as he listened, he proclaimed, “It’s the rat!  The rat!  There’s something about the rat!”

I’ve been seeing this with all the books we’ve read recently.  During Knight’s Castle, both of the kids excitedly realized who Roger and Ann’s mother was at the beginning, connecting it with Eager’s other books we already read, and figured out that Ann had done something with the pea soup can at the end before it was spelled out explicitly.  They’ve been catching lots of things that are just implied instead of spelled out, something they didn’t used to do much at all.  Having our experience with the earlier Harry Potter books in mind, it’s been so clear to me listening to this complex story with them that they’re really in a new place with stories.  It’s so exciting because I know it opens doors to more books.

Pineapple Place

We just finished a delightful little read aloud from the early 80’s that just came back into print.  It was recommended to us by the book lady at our local toy and bookstore.  I have long had issues with small, local bookstores.  I’ll spare you my ranting, but I’ll say I’m pleased to have finally found a bookstore where I can trust that they will be respectful of me and my kids and know what they’re talking about, a rare combination.

The book is The People in Pineapple Place by Anne Lindburgh.  Excitingly, it takes place here in Washington, DC, so local places, albeit mostly around Georgetown, which isn’t exactly our neck of the woods, get lots of mentions.  There is a trip to Glen Echo, where the kids ride the carousel, which Mushroom and BalletBoy have ridden many times over the years.  The kids also go roller skating in the National Gallery, which made Mushroom and BalletBoy’s eyes bug out at the audacity.  There are apparently even teachers who give their students tours to explore the places in the book.  I’m seriously considering recreating it.

Bookstores and local references aside, it’s a well told little story.  August has just moved to DC from Vermont after his parents’ divorce.  He spends his days cooped up, moping about until one day he follows what seems to be a bag lady and discovers a secret alleyway that leads to a street trapped in time.  There, on Pineapple Place, he meets April and her neighbors, children who have been frozen in time since before the second world war, never aging or changing, invisible to almost every but August.  They show August his new city, both in the present and the past.  It took Mushroom and BalletBoy a little while to warm up the story, but in the end they really enjoyed it.  The ending is bittersweet, but August, unlike the children of Pineapple Place, changes and grows up a little.  I recommend this one highly.

Our Last Four Bedtime Reads

As I sat down to write this, I realized with a bit of a shock that the last four books we read aloud for bedtime were all from the 1950’s (Well, almost – Comet in Moominland was actually published originally in the late 40’s). I’m finding something magical about the books from this era, at least as read alouds.  They are imaginative and have rich, complex language.  Some of these are newer discoveries for me as well, which makes them extra fun.

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
We had already dipped into two Moomin books, but had not read the first one.  What a delight it was!  Moomintrolls are funny little creatures who live in a fantasy world populated by other things you’ve never heard of, but just have to accept as you read about them.  In this first volume, young Moomintroll and his friend Sniff set off to find out if a comet is on its way to destroy Moominvalley.  Along the way, they meet a cast of characters and have adventures fighting off poisonous bushes, octopi, and lizards.  All the Moomin books are a bit absurd.  You just have to dive in and go with the flow.  They’re incredibly popular in Jansson’s native Finland, where you can apparently visit a full size replica of Moomin house.  Mushroom wrote about Finn Family Moomintroll for his library book review contest entry and when he found the pictures of the Moominhouse, he announced that we really ought to go Finland just to see it.  If I’m ever in Finland, I’m sure we will.

Magic or Not? by Edward Eager
All of Eager’s books are a lot of fun.  I like the sense in them that magic, when it comes into the real world, inevitably goes awry in some way, or turns out to be more mysterious and confounding than one might have imagined.  In this book, twins Laura and James move to a new house in the countryside.  Quickly they find themselves embroiled in adventures helping people and encountering strange coincidences.  In the end, they can never decide if what has happened happened because of magic.

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
This book was reissued a few years ago by the New York Review Children’s Collection, which has happily put a number of forgotten gems back into wider circulation, though this one may be the most welcome and popular to benefit from it.  It’s a sort of fairy tale though it’s hard to describe beyond that.  On one level, that’s all it is – a prince must rescue a princess from an evil duke.  On another level, it’s much more and if you haven’t read it, then Thurber will delight you by playing with literary constructs and language. The world needs more books with this many alliterations and unexpected rhymes.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton
This book tells the story of tiny people who live in your home, slowly stealing little bits of things to live.  I really liked these as a child, but on this read, I admit that Homily, the mother, drove me a little crazy.  Why is she such a pain to her poor husband, Pod, or overemotional when it comes to her daughter Arrietty?  I have no clue.  Luckily, the parts about Arrietty as she goes out on her first trips borrowing and befriends the boy are much more enjoyable.  And there’s something fun about picturing the scale of things when the Borrowers take thread spools to be chairs and tea saucers to be tables.

Can I Be a Penderwick too?

I just finished up the most recent Penderwick book, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall.  If you don’t know the Penderwicks, they are a family of four girls who look out for one another, in part because their mother died when they were young.  Each girl has a different strong personality, but they all support and love one another through various family adventures.  This latest book is the third in the series.  All the books have an old-fashioned, timeless feel about them.  They remind one much more of Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats or Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy series than anything coming out these days.  The books have a similar target age as well, for middle grades readers, though I hear they work nicely as read alouds (we intend to read the first one to Mushroom and BalletBoy soon as a break in our trail of older books, and I think they will enjoy it greatly).

I’m enamored with the whole series, and this volume was no exception.  This book takes us back to a summer setting, a year after the first volume.  The girls lose their motherly oldest sister to a separate vacation, while they (along with their honorary brother, Jeffery) go off with their aunt to Maine.  Skye must struggle with being the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick, that is), Jane has her first crush on a boy while trying to write a novel about love, Batty discovers a talent for music, and Jeffrey continues to have to deal with his difficult family.  The story lagged a little in the middle for me, but it’s a minor quibble.  Overall, I enjoyed it greatly.  The language and the way the perspective of the books flows from one Penderwick to the next is as enjoyable as always.

We Tackle the Classics

Two of our last three read alouds have been classics of children’s literature.  (The third was an almost-classic, the book Arabel and Mortimer by Joan Aiken.  I posted about the first one back here and I highly recommend them!)  We tend to be heavy on more contemporary fare, but I’ve enjoyed diving into some older books with the kids.  One of the things that interested me most was the editions we checked out, so I thought I might post about that.

First up, we read The Wizard of Oz.  I had not read it since I was a kid (and I admit it didn’t strike my fancy much at the time).  I can’t recall the edition I read back then, but I seem to recall it was sparsely illustrated, with full plate inserts like so many old fashioned books.  The edition we opted for (the library offered us 4 different choices, I believe) is a reprint of the original book with the illustrations by William Wallace Denslow.  The New York Times review of it at the time said that the, “pictures fight with the text,” which is the best description I can give.

The bright greens, oranges, blues and reds that litter nearly every page do indeed fight to be seen before the text, which is often set quite literally on top of it.  I found a fairly typical example so you can see what I mean.  The style is blocky and bold.  You can see how the book was printed in an old-fashioned way, which colors being layered on top of each other.  I imagine that for anyone with vision difficulties it might be a nightmare, but it’s truly a work of art from my perspective.  I’m not sure how I made it to this point in my life without seeing it.  Everything about the book design tells you that this book is different.  If you read this aloud to your kids or give it to them to enjoy, please give them this edition.  It’s just incredible.

Secondly, we’re about to wrap up The Secret Garden.  Frances Hodgson Burnett’s works were favorites of my childhood and the story of Mistress Mary, Colin and animal whisperer Dickon has been like seeing an old friend again.  Some of you may know that I’ve been having quite a time imitating that Yorkshire accent.  I’m sure it’s a dialect crime, what I’ve been doing, but we’ve all been enjoying it.  The library offered an even more stunning array of options for this one.  I believe there were seven choices of edition, including the scantly illustrated one I remember from my childhood.  In this case, we went with one of the newest options, the oversized volume illustrated by Inga Moore.  It’s a lushly illustrated book, with tiny robins and sprouts on practically every page and full page illustrations with the soft colors of spring on the moor and lots of intricate details bursting forth.  One of the things most of the illustrators get wrong for this book is Mary’s looks.  She’s not as hideous as all that, but she is plain and Inga Moore shows her somewhat broad face and slightly big nose, but also her transformation from being a sour, contrary child to an expressive, passionate one.  This has been, by the way, the best book to read as we silently (and sometimes not so silently) will spring to come.  When flowers bloom on the moor, I felt they had to be on their way here too.

What Makes a Book a Good “Read Aloud”

I have this idea, which is perhaps just my own, that some books should be reserved for kids to read themselves, some books are better read aloud and some books are good both ways.  I don’t know if I can totally express what the difference is.  Certainly it’s a subjective sort of thing.  However, I’m going to try to offer some guidelines.

A good read aloud book:

  • Tells a simple story in rich language. Kids in early elementary school are ready to head Charlotte’s Web, but the vast majority aren’t read to read it yet because the language is too complex.  Some books, like The Jamie and Angus Stories, which I keep recommending as a good first read aloud for younger children, will even be boring by the time kids are able to read them independently.
  • Is enjoyable for the reader too. There’s nothing worse than having to read your kids something that you find trite or predictable.  Good children’s literature, on the level of Cornelia Funke, Kate DiCamillo, EB White, or Beverly Cleary, is just good literature.  End of story.
  • Sometimes deals with emotional issues or mature topics. This isn’t every read aloud, but more than just telling a story in more complex terms, a read aloud can touch on deeper topics for kids by dealing with death, bullying, anger, sadness, or any number of issues that kids may not want to tackle alone or may not be able to really get at unless the book is read aloud and talked about.
  • Or is sometimes very funny. Laughter can be good to share and a way to keep a kid interested in a longer book.  Of course, Roald Dahl is excellent for reading aloud.  Nothing better.

On the other hand, a good book to save for independent reading…

  • Tells a story in simple terms. The term “simple,” when you’re talking about independent reading, is not a put down from me.  It’s a positive quality for new readers to read things in simple terms.  That’s how they build up to reading longer, more complex books.
  • Is graphically intensive. I know some parents have figured out how to do it, but the verbal hoops required to read a comic book aloud make me batty.  Ditto to all those nonfiction books with numerous text boxes and little captions for pictures.  Graphic novels encourage reading.  And the nonfiction books are the kind of book that it’s perfect to sit and pour over once you can actually read the text.
  • Is repetitive. Series books, I’m looking at you.  Again, nothing wrong with them.  Repetitive stories can be high interest and can teach children about plot elements and how to anticipate.  They serve an extremely important function.  Some of them are very detailed and well-written.  However, they should be allowed to serve their function, i.e. encouraging kids to read, by being left for the independent readers.
  • Endorses something parents don’t really like. I think it’s fine to let your kid read fart jokes in Captain Underpants or mischievous behavior.  It’s something else to read it to them.  I’ve written about this before, but I believe strongly that kids should choose their own books to read themselves.  However, if I’m doing the reading, I’m also involved in the choosing.

Of course, I break my own rules sometimes.  The kids have been enjoying the Ivy and Bean series aloud, so I know I’ve ruined those for independent reading.  Drat!  Plus, there’s a certain joy in reading a very short book or a pile of picture books after you finish something like Dragonrider. And the best reward should be reading a book independently once they’ve already heard it.  Every kid should hear Charlotte’s Web as a first grader and reread it as a fifth grader, don’t you think?