The Road to Character

David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character was our latest book club selection. The main thrust of the book is the exploration of what Brooks calls “eulogy” virtues: kindness, generosity, patience, love, self-control, understanding, compassion. Brooks believes that most of us would rate those virtues higher than the “resume virtues” (ambition, hard-work, intelligence, self-sufficiency, success, power) but that the way we live our lives does not reflect that. Brooks says that each of us has an Adam I and Adam II side. Adam I is the driven, worldly, ambitious, career-oriented side. Adam II is the side interested in cultivating the eulogy virtues. This book is supposed to be about
celebrating those virtues and finding out how to become more of an Adam II in an Adam I world.

To that end, Brooks uses character studies of famous and not-so-famous people in history  to highlight different virtues. The character studies are all interesting to read. The strongest made me want to learn more about that person (Dorothy Day, George C. Marshall). Others were interesting but didn’t always seem to go with the overall flow of the book. An overall strength is that Brooks doesn’t hold these people up as icons. They are all flawed in some way and sometimes the very character trait that is their strongest point is also their weakest point. I found that refreshing in a culture that tends to idolize celebrities or see them as completely fallen. It was good to see these individuals treated as whole human beings.

Even more refreshing is that Brooks isn’t afraid to use the “s” word. That would be sin. It is virtually unheard of to read a non-Christian book and hear that word. Even more refreshing is how much he talks about the idea of grace. Much has been written in the media lately about Brooks’ religious faith and whether or not he has undergone a conversion. I won’t speculate here but I will say that as a Christian, there is a lot that resonates with my faith, in particular in the chapter on Augustine.

As a Christian, I found the biggest weakness in the book to be that Brooks seems to get so much of the concept of sin and grace but still seems to miss an essential part. He presents the idea that we are all made from “crooked timber” (sinners) and that we need grace in order to find our way to cultivating those eulogy virtues. But then he seems to fall back on the idea that somehow we can do it ourselves: try a little harder, be a little better, work more at being good. One of the women in my book club commented that in the end this was a very Adam I way of becoming an Adam II. I think that hit the nail on the head. He even has a “moral bucket list” form on his website for this book.

Now there is nothing wrong with trying to be better or trying to replace virtues like pride with humility. However, as a Christian, I believe that I can’t ever succeed on my own. Far from being depressing or hopeless, that is the thing that gives me hope. I struggle every day with countless small petty sins. Anger. Frustration. Impatience. Laziness. Selfishness. Every single resolution I have ever made to be better and tried to follow through on my own gets broken or twisted. It is only when I completely realize my need for grace that I can begin to be conformed by God into who I am meant to be.

So, a good book. One I’m glad I read. But one that ultimately left the most important part of the story missing.

April Reading

Fiction Read in April

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night by James Runcie
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie
Pressed on me by a friend who became a huge fan of the Grantchester mystery series after watching the adaptation on PBS (it came on right after Downton Abbey). She (the friend) guaranteed that these would be the perfect read during a stressful or busy time of life, and boy was she right. Sidney Chambers is a Church of England vicar who lives in a small town outside Cambridge after WWII and solves mysteries in his spare time. Each book contains 5 or 6 longish stand-alone mysteries. Each story can be read on it’s own but there is ongoing character development subplots that tie all the stories together. Chief among these are the two women that Sidney finds himself drawn to romantically and ultimately choosing between. These are perfectly charming cozy mysteries but what sets them apart is the main character’s occupation and musings on issues of a spiritual nature. Sidney often finds himself wondering if he is being true to his calling as a vicar by being distracted by his detective work. He also ponders topics like the existence of evil.

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon edited by Laurie King and Leslie Klinger
This is the second collection of homes-inspired stories edited by King and Klinger and was just as much fun to read as the first one. There are stories that are re-writes of original Holmes stories, stories that modernize one of the familiar tales and stories where Holmes is only a peripheral figure.

Non-Fiction Read in Apri

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest For Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
An amazing, inspirational story about a rowing crew team from the University of Washington in the 1930s. One of the best explorations of teamwork and what that really looks like that I have ever read. It will make you care about rowing the way Seabiscuit made you care about horse-racing. And even though you know the outcome from page 1 (spoiler…they win the gold) I found myself on the edge of my seat at times nervously reading to find out if one boy would make the team or whether they would win the big race.
Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni
We aren’t quite at the point of being swept up into college admissions mania, with our oldest child being a sixth grader. However, I know quite a few people navigating those scary waters. I found this book a refreshing look at college, however, I think it was probably written for a fairly limited audience. In fairness, Bruni is fairly clear about that early on. For those of us who live in large well-educated metropolitan areas it can seem like every one who know has a child applying to or accepted at an Ivy League school. It can feel like the ultimate validation of your educational and parenting choices is acceptance into one of a certain very small select number of colleges. This book is for those people. I also realized that although we live in that kind of area, we aren’t really those people. But it was still nice to read a book that was fairly reassuring about college and that promoted the idea that there are lots of good schools and the likelihood is that your child can get into a school somewhere that will be a good fit and a good experience for him.

That’s it for April. Turns out the theme was mysteries and non-fiction. Who knew? I am still participating in Amy’s Newbery Challenge but I chose to read my April selection (Gone Away Lake) out loud with the kids and we’re still working on it. We’re also reading Little House in the Big Woods and The Castle of Llyr and still loving listening to The Sisters Grimm series in the car.

Read Aloud Thursday: From the New Shelf

We read a lot of picture books, although less than we used to and less than I wish we did. Today I have to share a small, somewhat random sample of some recent finds from our library’s new shelf that we have enjoyed. The first, Penguins in Peril, finds a penguin the unwilling captive of three dastardly cats. The cats have spent all their money on movies instead of food and craft. They come up with a plan to perpetrate the most daring robbery of all time and get all the fishes they want. But first they need a secret weapon: the penguin. The penguin outwits them in the end and the cat’s plan is thwarted. A first book by Helen Hancocks, this one definitely takes a dry sense of humor to appreciate. The somewhat flat text and graphically simple illustrations have a certain plain-Jane charm. My kids liked it when reading it the first time but I haven’t seen them reading it again on their own or seeking it out for second or third readings.

On the other end of the spectrum from the conniving cats in Penguins in Peril, is Sarah Weeks’ Glamourpuss, the title character in what can best be described as the Fancy Nancy of the feline world. Glamourpuss is, well, glamorous. The most glamorous pet ever. But then Bluebell, a tiny toy dog, comes to visit. Bluebell wears fancy clothes: hoopskirts and tiaras and fruit-covered turbans. Bluebell dances and does tricks. Glamourpuss starts to doubt herself. Then however, Bluebell tears up all her fancy clothes and Glamourpuss realizes that maybe there is room for two fabulous pets in the same house. David Small’s (one of my favorite illustrators) humorous illustrations are a perfect paring for this quirky and sweet story.

And for my last offering, we go back to simple, at least in concept. Mac Barnett’s Telephone takes the game of telephone and imagines how it would go as played by birds on a wire. The concept is simple but the execution is picture perfect. The message gets more and more garbled. Illustrator Jen Corace’s birds tell a story of their own as each bird changes the message according to his own job or hobby.

One reason we don’t read as many picture books as I might like is that with older kids, we spend more time reading chapter books. Chapter books are great fun as well to read, and I love our nightly “special book” time. But I think too often parents think that once their kids are old enough to move on to reading “big books” that the time for picture books is over. I recently discovered that my sixth grader still reads every picture book I bring home from the library on his own. It makes me happy that he doesn’t feel too old to enjoy what some kids might feel are books just for little kids.

Stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday and share what you family is reading together.

A Spring Wetlands Walk

IMG_1757 IMG_1772 IMG_1789 IMG_1801 IMG_1887 IMG_1906Friday proved to be too beautiful of a day to stay inside and “do school”. We made the spontaneous decision to go to one of our favorite places and enjoy the day. Spotted: many frogs, snapping turtles, red-winged blackbirds, swallows, cardinals, geese. The coolest thing was perhaps the several sacs of frog eggs that John recognized.


March Reading (The better-late-than-never edition)

Fiction Read in March: 

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty’s books are big, fun, juicy, frothy delicious reads. The women in them feel familiar to me even though they are Australian and inhabit a more upper-class world than my own. The overall subject of the book (domestic abuse and bullying) is serious but Moriarty manages to write about it in a way that is engaging to read and light in tone without making light of the horror of her topic. 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
McEwan on the other hand could never be called light. Or frothy. I think I’m going to have to face the fact that I will never love a book of his as much as I loved Atonement. I keep reading him waiting for that completely blown-away by a book experience again and it hasn’t happened yet. Some of his books I’ve greatly disliked, this one I did enjoy reading except for one part that just didn’t ring true to me. The story is of a judge who is in the midst of a personal domestic crisis and who must render judgment on a case involving a minor’s right to refuse medical treatment. The boy is dying of cancer and needs a blood transfusion but is a Jehovah’s witness. The book is very much about the conflict between science and religion. 

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley
Another wonderful chapter in the Flavia deLuce series. This one must be read after the others, it ties up lots of loose ends from previous books. 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I stayed up way too late on several nights reading this book. It’s that kind of book; what I’ve heard called a “thumping good read”. I read a fair amount of mysteries and thrillers so I guessed the solution to this one pretty early on but it still kept me turning the pages to see if I was right and to yell at the characters to figure it out before something bad happened. 

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Non-Fiction Read in March:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Really beautiful memoir told in verse. It’s won a bunch of awards and all deservedly so. 

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow
I hope to review this one in full one day, but it’s a well-written detailed account of the investigation into the cause of pellagra, a disease that effected millions of people in the United States in the early 20th century and is estimated to have killed about 100,000 people. I loved reading Bernard Rouche’s classic books about true medical mysteries when I was a teen and would have been the kid who ate this book up when I was in middle school. A wonderful addition to the young adult nonfiction section of any library. 

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More–Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Prior Swallow
Read for my book club, I had really high hopes for this one. Hannah More was an amazing woman and I thoroughly enjoyed the other book I’d read by Karen Prior Swallow.  This one fell a little short of expectations, however. It’s a bit dry and somehow makes More’s life seem a bit dull, which it was anything but dull. I would recommend it though for the chance to learn more about More, a truly remarkable woman. 

Two New Picture Books

 Jim Aylesworth’s My Grandfather’s Coat is a sweet retelling of a traditional Yiddish folktale. In this version, a young man comes to America and works as a tailor. For his wedding day, he makes himself a beautiful overcoat. Over the years the coat becomes worn out, but he doesn’t ever throw it away. Instead he finds new uses for it until there is only enough thread left for a mouse to use to make a nest. It’s a great story about resourcefulness and recycling. We’ve read and enjoyed Simms Taback’s version of this story, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat  (a Caldecott winner). I liked this new version even more mostly because of Barbara McClintocks’s illustrations. Jim Aylesworth tells the story from the perspective of the granddaughter of the man. At the end of the book you realize she is telling it to her own baby. The delicate yet detailed illustrations tell the story of the family while the text tells the story of the coat. We see the great-grandfather arrive in America, meet his bride, marry, work hard, have a child and then that child grow up.

The second book that was a recent hit at our house was also illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Where’s Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio tells the story of Maria (a human girl) and Mouse Mouse (a mouse girl) who are trying to go to bed but can’t find their mothers. Maria and Mouse Mouse live in the same house and are friends but think that their friendship is a secret from the rest of the family. As they hunt for their mothers the illustrations show their parallel lives. The charm is definitely in the detailed illustrations, especially of the Mouse world. The sort-of surprise ending is also charming. Apparently, this is a companion to an earlier, unknown to us book, Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary by the same author-illustrator pair.

And as a side note, if you are a biology major, Barbara McClintock,the illustrator, is not the same as Barbara McClintock the Nobel prize-winning corn cytogeneticist. Everytime I see the name I do a double take and part of me thinks “Wow! That is one talented lady!” Although Barbara McClintock the illustrator is pretty darn talented without the cytogenetics. Take a peek at her website if you aren’t familiar with her work.

Caught Learning


As a homeschooler I aspire to an ideal where we create a natural lifestyle of learning. In my mind, my three little cherubs spend the day discussing Shakespeare and nuclear physics over freshly baked muffins (that somehow just appear on our table instead of actually requiring me to, you know, bake them). The reality is a good deal more messy than that of course. Despite all my effort to make school FUN and make learning PART of LIFE, I have one kid who hates school and anything that sneakily resembles it. One who likes it but she’s in kindergarten so she likes everything right now. And one who tolerates school but would rather spend his free time immersed in fantasy novels and annoying his siblings than doing an independent study on astronomy or teaching himself Arabic. (As all the homeschooling families in my mind do.)

However, messy that life is when you have real children and not just figments of imagination, sometimes all the stars align. We began a Unit Study on Poetry this month.Yesterday when I was cleaning out the kitchen cabinet that is sort of the junk drawer, I found an old magnetic poetry set. I decided to stick the words up on the fridge. A bit later three hungry kids invaded the kitchen and did a double take, “What’s on the fridge?”. “Why are there all those little words?” I explained that I’d found them and thought it would be fun to put up. I vaguely had some ideas for ways we could use this with our Unit Study but didn’t tell them that.

And good thing that I kept quiet. Had I explained how this was going to be a great way to make poetry or play with words, they probably would have all groaned and rolled their eyes. As it was, they immediately went over and started reading the words. “Let’s divide them into groups by things like nouns, verbs, adjectives and stuff, ” said one. And so they did. It was all I could do to act cool but inside I was leaping for joy at the amazing grammar review going on in our kitchen. Then they spent a good 30-45 minutes arranging the words into sentences and making short poems.

So if you also have real kids that would rather tell fart jokes than do Euclidian geometry, take hear. There is hope. Spontaneous learning can happen, and it’s a beautiful thing.

April is National Poetry Month! There are oodles of resources for teachers at the Academy of American Poets webite. You can also sign up for their fabulous poem of the day email subscription.

Strawberry Girl

I’m participating this year in Amy’s Newbery Through the Decades challenge. March was the 1940’s with lots of good books to choose from, many that we’ve already read as a family or that I read as a kid (My Father’s Dragon, Seabird, Misty of Chincoteague, The Hundred Dresses, These Happy Golden Years, Rufus M., The Middle Moffat, Little Town on the Prairie, and The Long Winter).

I was tempted at first to re-read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. I’m not sure why but it was a favorite of mine as a girl. I remember it being very sad but that I liked to read it over and over, and kind of wallow in the sadness. I may still re-read it. I’m curious if I’ll experience it the same way as an adult. However, for the challenge I wanted to read something new so I chose Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl. I had previously known Lenski mainly from her illustrations of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and  I was curious to read something authored by her as well.

Strawberry Girl is one in a series of books Lenski wrote about children in different regional areas of the US. It takes place in backwoods Florida in the early 1900s. Birdie Boyer’s family are newcomers to the area and almost immediately are off on the wrong foot with their neighbor’s the Slaters. The Slaters see the Boyers as being “uppity” and having all kinds of strange ideas like feeding their livestock (instead of letting them run wild through the pine woods). Lenski does a great job of portraying life realistically for these pioneer families. The Boyers are slightly better off than the Slaters but are still obviously very poor. Unusually for children’s literature, the feud between the neighbors is ugly and long. There is also a lot that is familiar to anyone who has read Caddie Woodlawn or the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. (Did every pioneer school have an episode where two big boys try and beat up the young teacher?)

Overall, I liked the book. I think it would be a difficult read-aloud because of the backwoods dialect that the characters use. It also might be a difficult book for younger kids to read for the same reason. But it gives an overall realistic picture of life in one area of the country around the early 1900s. I did find the ending to be a bit forced. (Spoiler: There is a religious conversion of one character.) The feud is a little too neatly and quickly resolved to ring true. That one false note stands out only because the rest of the book seems so believable.

For more Newbery reviews from the 1940s, stop by Hope is the Word. And why not join in? May is the 1950s….there are sure to be lots of great books to choose from.

Read Aloud Thursday: In Defense of the Series

Ruth and I just finished Beverly Cleary’s Ramona’s World, the last in the Ramona Quimby series. She was filled with excitement at finishing the series, not because she was glad it was over, but I think because she saw it as a celebration. We’ve had such a fun time sharing these books. I should add that even though I say Ruth and I read these together I should really say that all the kids listened to these. It was technically Ruth’s “special book” but the boys liked it just as much as she did.

The boys and I just finished Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and are starting the next in The Chronicles of Prydain series, The Black Cauldron. Somehow, I missed these as a kid but I’ve heard fantastic things about these fantasy novels and had them on my to be read list for years. We loved the story of Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his companions and are looking forward to the rest of the series.

In certain bookish and literary circles, the term “series” is almost a bad word. I’ve heard people bemoaning the fact that their kids will only read series books. The truth is that kids love series. And for good reason. A good series is comfortable, it’s like visiting the same friends over and over again. A really good series creates a new world for the reader and each new book in the series expands and defines that world a little more.

There is something to be said for reading books that are not part of a series and something to be said for reading books that are not comfortable. Kids need challenge, just like adults. And it’s true that not all series are created equal. However, both my boys really got pulled into reading through series (and not always all that high quality). And as a family, many of the most memorable read-alouds we’ve done have been part of a series. There is something wonderful about inhabiting another world all together for an extended period of time.

Great Series to Read-Aloud:

The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley (We’re currently enjoying #4 as an audiobook in the car.)
The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker
Humphrey the Hamster books by Betty Birney
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Yes, they are long but one of my best memories with John is reading these together.)
Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

I’m a little late to the party, but it’s not to late for you to stop by Hope is the Word for Read-Aloud Thursday. Be sure to share what you are reading aloud with your family!