Scenes from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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The kids spent this past weekend at my parents. H. and I had a lovely, if much quieter than usual, time together. Quiet didn’t mean boring. We ate well, saw a couple of movies, golfed (him), read books (me), did some school planning and thinking (me). We also saw two excellent exhibits at museums: The Greeks at the National Geographic Museum and a retrospective on the work of Kehinde Wiley at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (all the photos above are from the Wiley exhibit). I would highly recommend both. The Greeks was fascinating and full of really remarkable artifacts. (Photos were not allowed so you’ll have to just believe me on that or, even better, go see for yourself.) I knew nothing about Wiley going into the exhibit at VMFA but I came out feeling like I had learned a lot. Both exhibits are around for just a bit longer so if you are in the area consider checking them out.

This Week in Books

Our first week of the 2016-2017 school year is under our belt and we’re on our way. It was a good week, fairly light but just enough to get us back into the groove of having a little more structure in our lives.

I think one of the best finds of the school year is going to be Mystery Science. I have become a believer in doing interest-led science for elementary and middle school aged kids but I’m not always sure how to do it in practice. I love science and maybe because of that I tend to be more critical of formal science curriculums. So I think about doing more informal science, but then it ends up getting pushed to the back burner. Mystery Science looks like it will be the perfect solution. The lessons are organized in units by topics and then each lesson is a short video that presents a mystery. The videos are well done and walk the kids through making hypotheses and thinking about the answers. Then there is a short hand-on activity for each lesson. I’m using it for my 2nd grader and 5th grader. This particular video was below the grade level of my 5th grader but it’s fairly easy to add in books and other resources as you need. And as a bonus, Mystery Science is currently offering a one year membership free.

Ruth picked plants and flowers to do as our first unit. The lesson (video plus activity) took about an hour total to do. We then also read A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long and Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move by Joann Early Maken. Both were excellent. I especially recommend any of the Aston/Long books as beautiful poetic scientific non-fiction for kids.

200256Ruth and David and I are also embarking on a year of American History study. We’ll use this series by the Maestros as a spine. We read The Discovery of the Americas this year as a beginning of a unit on Native Americans. We also will use some of The History of the US by Joy Hakim and of course, lots of other picture books and other books. John is going to be doing a year of Civics this year. He will use We the People as his spine and also do some Boy Scout merit badges (all the Citizenship ones). In addition, we’re hoping to go to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Philadelphia as a family and use lots of the resources here in DC as well.

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As his first book of the school year, John (and I) are reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. This might seem like an odd choice for a fantasy loving almost 13 year old boy. And in many ways it is. However, one of my main goals of his 8th grade year is to push him a bit with his reading. He is an excellent reader and loves to read. But he also loves to stay in his comfort zone of middle-grade and young adult fantasy. He reads a lot of books that are fairly easy for him, not just in vocabulary but easy in terms of ideas. So when I heard that Sense and Sensibility is coming to the Folger Theater in DC this year I decided to get student tickets and have him read the book first. So far, so good. He enjoyed the first week assignment and seemed to understand it fairly well. We did watch the movie version first, breaking my normal Book Before Movie rule. I thought that for this particular book it would help him enjoy the book more to have some idea of the storyline first.

For our current family read-aloud we are reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ruth was ready to read it on her own but I convinced her to let me read it aloud instead. It’s fun as it’s one of the few books we’ve read that is equally enjoyed by the 6 year old and 12 year old. In the car we are enjoying Gregor and the Marks of Secret. This is the second time we’ve listened to Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles and it’s just as great the second time around. 18774964

Me? In addition to Sense and Sensibility I’m reading two other books: David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. The first is enjoyable and interesting but really dense. The second is predictable but no less charming for that.

So, all in all, a good bookish first week of school.

How about you? Are you back at school yet? Reading good books?

First Day of School

 

Another school year began for us today. Since we homeschool we can pretty much start when works for us and the past few years that has been mid-August. We’ve pared down our first day of school traditions to a few favorite things. We take first day of school pics with a sign. They pick a special breakfast. This year was ice cream sundaes. We do a treasure hunt in the house. The clues usually relate in some way to things we will study or do during the year and the treasure at the end is just fun school supplies (gel pens, goofy pencils, extra post-it notes, stickers, etc). Last year I left out the treasure hunt because I thought they were tired of it and getting older and less excited about it. I learned my lesson when they all complained bitterly so we brought back the tradition this year.

We do a bit of school in the morning and then do some kind of fun adventure in the afternoon. This year H. and the kids went to the zoo. They enjoyed the animals and enjoyed the sprinklers that the zoo has even more.

A  more serious and newer tradition that we’ve done the past two years is to have each kid write down three goals for the year and three things they want to do more of in school. It was kind of a spontaneous idea last year but I found it helpful. The things they wanted were fairly easy to implement. I had expected elaborate requests but they were things like “more bike rides” and “more time with my brother”. Ruth asked for more glitter, easy to do from day one. It was also helpful to look back at the end of the year and show them how they had each met their goals from the beginning of the year. They wrote down goals again this year and then I met briefly with each of them to talk about my goals for them (not always the same as their own) and also how I thought each of them could help to make our school year successful.

It was a good beginning.

Living like a GPS

So one of the posts I’ve had rattling around in my brain this summer is the idea of how life is like a GPS. That’s not a particularly original idea. I first heard it from a speaker at our homeschool co-op who pointed out how often during the day she hears in her head a voice saying “recalculating”. That idea struck me as true and funny at the time. Since the spring I’ve thought about it over and over again as I’ve been faced with sudden changes in plans and heard that little voice in my head: “recalculating”.

It’s true on a day to day basis and long-term. People stop by unexpectedly. Appliances break. Kids get sick. A school program that worked for one kid and that I planned to use over and over just won’t work for the next kid. Decisions are made at work that change my schedule and my responsibilities. Friends move away.

IMG_1276I was reminded again of this idea this week. The boys are away at camp and Ruth was signed up for a ballet camp every morning. She loves this small excellent camp run by friends of ours and it was a good way for her to have something special to do while the boys were away. Plus, having the house to myself every morning meant I could get lots of school planning and organizing done. Fantastic!

Then Tuesday night she jumped out of a tree at a friend’s house and landed hard on one foot. Thankfully, it turned out not to be broken but she was unable to walk on it at all the next day. We thought she was out of camp for the rest of the week. And that was ok. We recalculated. We planned some special activities. She was disappointed but understood that sometimes things just don’t work out.

Then one of the counselors from the camp called and said they had figured out a way for Ruth to still be in the end of camp show if she was interested. Interested? Ha! She was thrilled. We were actually driving to a local theater performance that I thought would  help make up for the disappointment of missing camp when we got the call from the counselor. So we got off the highway, turned around and headed back to camp. Recalculating. The camp show was a version of the Nutcracker and they gave Ruth the role of Clara. Mostly she sat on the stage and watched the performance. They started by having one of the counselors play her mother and give her a teddy bear and she had to act happy and then pretend to fall asleep and wake up later. She embraced her role wholeheartedly and did a beautiful job.

I feel like over the years as a parent that I’ve learned over and over that the best gift I can give my kids is the ability to be flexible and resilient. In other words, to know how to recalculate. I feel like if they can learn that they will be successful in life. This is not the same as just “going with the flow”. I’m a planner by nature and so is H. Our kids are pretty much doomed to be checklist checkers, schedule followers and planners. I think that’s a good thing. It’s good to have a plan but it’s also good to be able to adjust when things deviate from the plan. To stick with the GPS metaphor, not having a plan would mean you get lost from the beginning. Having a plan means you start out knowing how to get where you want but you’re willing to try a different route if the original one is blocked.

 

 

 

 

What I did on my summer vacation

Well, that three months just flew by, didn’t it? How has your summer been? We’ve been good. Busy but good. I didn’t really intend to take a three month break from blogging but it sort of just happened. I’ve had a few posts rattling around in my brain all summer but haven’t gotten around to writing. Part of it has been that I’ve been too busy but more than that I’ve had what has become my semi-annual semi-philosphical crisis about why I blog (or don’t blog as the case my be).

When I started this blog the idea was to have a place where I could write and that could be a journal of sorts about our family life. Along the way I’ve dabbled in book reviews and wanting to be more of a book blog or a homeschool how-to blog. I’ve felt like maybe I should somehow DO something more with the blog. I kind of missed the big surge of amateur bloggers who formed a community. Now it seems everyone either has a polished website that is promoting their personal brand and the community is elsewhere (Instagram, Facebook, etc).  I’ve realized that I don’t post consistently enough or enough about one topic to really be successful as a blogger. So, I come back to the why. I think it goes back to my original purpose: a place to write and a place to record some of our family life. And that’s probably enough of a reason.

So, quickly to bring the blog up to date, this is what we’ve done with our summer vacation.

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Ok, so maybe there was a little bit more than just swimming but that was certainly the main all consuming activity. John broke our pool’s team record for butterfly for his age group, which was his summer goal and was very exciting in our little corner of the world. Ruth joined the dive team and proceeded to immediately learn a flip and do a back dive off the high dive. At one swim meet David easily broke the record for the most temporary tattoos one person could put on his body. We also did some other things. Reading (not enough for me). Board games and card games. A tiny bit of Math. A lot of movies about Paris in preparation for a fall trip. A lot of ice cream. John took a Lifesaving course for Scouts. Both boys are finishing up a week of sleep-away camp tomorrow. So a good summer. I’ve spent the last few days getting ready for the school year which starts for us in about a week. Lots to look forward to there. It’s been good to have a break and it’s good to get back into the routine. That goes for school and for blogging as well.

A Mother’s Day Wetlands Walk

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For Mother’s Day we spent the afternoon at one of our favorite places. It was a gorgeous green day, the first warm and sunny day in a long stretch of cold rain.

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We saw a lot of animals, some that we had never seen before: a water snake, leeches (!!), numerous tadpoles, geese, red-winged blackbirds (my favorite), frogs, turtles, a crayfish, and an unconfirmed bald eagle (spotted in a tree and reportedly an eagle according to people who had binoculars).

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By far, the most exciting sight was this mother cardinal feeding her babies in a nest that we spotted on our way out. Very fitting for Mother’s Day indeed.

April Reading

Fiction Read in April: 

Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights by Alison Case
I loved this companion to Wuthering Heights told from the perspective of Nelly Dean, the faithful servant to the Earnshaw family. I have mixed feelings about Wuthering Heights itself. At one time I though it a beautiful, dark and sad, but romantic story. I haven’t read it in a long time but I think I would see it with a different eye now. I certainly see it with a much different eye after reading Nelly Dean. Similar to how I felt after reading Jo Baker’s Longbourn, I wondered how I could have read the original and not wondered more about the life of the invisible servants. Not that Nelly Dean is invisible in the original, she is the narrator and very much a character. But she isn’t really given the chance to feel or think or be anything other than “housekeeper”. She only has a life in relationship to the life of Catherine and Heathcliff and the rest of the family. 

 I did a term paper on it in high school so I know the story fairly well but if you haven’t read the original you probably should do that before reading this book. Case refers to events from the original but without much explanation and it would be much harder to appreciate Nelly’s story without also knowing the rest of the story.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Another beautiful jewel of a book by Strout. Lucy Barton is lying in a hospital bed for weeks recovering from a surgery when her estranged mother comes to visit. The novel is told in short reminisces and stories that weave together to give us the picture of Lucy’s life. Partially about the mother-daughter relationship, partially about surviving abuse and childhood trauma, partially about what it means to be a writer and write your story, this short novel is a joy to read. 

China Run by David Ball
Eh. A thriller pressed on me by a friend. It was a good light read when I needed it but just an ok book.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (audiobook)
For about the first third of this book (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) I wondered what all the fuss was about. It was classically Tyler: well-drawn realistic characters, family dynamics in a Baltimore suburb. Then the structure of the book suddenly changed and I got why I’ve saw this on a lot of best of lists last year. The story could be described as an “epic family drama looking at generations within a family” but the brilliant thing is that Tyler telescopes into the past so we look at the family backwards instead of forwards in time. By structuring the book this way we see how characters memories of events differ from each other and change with time. The theme of memory and what is the “true” story weaves throughout the book but as always with Tyler it is the characters that are like people we all know that make the book so readable.

Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark (read for Newbery Challenge)
I enjoyed this coming of age tale of a young llama caretaker in Peru but still can’t believe that it won the Newbery the year that Charlotte’s Web got an Honor Book. 

Non-Fiction Read in April 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My book club was looking for a book to read and someone asked if we could read something not depressing. I started talking about this book that I’d heard about on NPR that sounded really interesting…about a young neurosurgeon who died of cancer. They all looked at me like I was crazy and someone suggested that maybe I didn’t understand the meaning of “not depressing”. In the end we picked When Breath Becomes Air as our selection and everyone loved it and agreed that it wasn’t at all depressing. Sad, yes. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Kalanithi, a brilliant man, dies tragically young, just as he is about to begin his career. However, his voice is powerful and speaks eloquently about what it means to die with grace and even more to live with appreciation for life. The end is full of redemption and hope, not a small achievement for a book that is essentially a memoir of dying. 

In a Different Key: A Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
I didn’t realize this one was going to be 500+ pages when I put it on hold at the library. It’s worth reading every one of those pages though. Donvan and Zucker tell the history of autism from the first description of the disorder by Leo Kanner to the modern controversies over vaccines and the concept of “neurodiversity”. They anchor each new topic or time period with a case study/story. This makes the book very readable. It’s not just a series of interesting stories: their thorough research is evident all through the book. 

With the Kids: 
Ruth and I finally finished all the books in The Doll People series. I decided to go with a classic for her special book: The Trumpet of the Swan. She and I also read the Ivy and Bean books together during school as her reading practice. The boys and I are almost done with A Pocketful of Murder and looking towards what our next book will be.

Up Next/Ongoing:
I’m listening in the car to the delightfully creepy Dark Coners by Ruth Rendell (her last book, sadly). I think I’m going to read The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs next. Our book club selected  H is for Hawk as our June selection so I’ll be reading that soon.

How to Host a Potluck Lunch (and Why)

For the past 16 years we have been part of a lunchtime fellowship group that meets every other Sunday after church. This group has gone through slight variations but what has survived is the basic structure: we meet at a different family’s house every other 1st and 3rd Sunday. Roughly it rotates so each family hosts every third time, or about every 6 weeks. The group is informal: it’s open to anyone who wants to come. One of the good things about the group has been that over the years it’s become a natural place to invite visitors after church.

Being a hostess is not natural to me at all but I’ve learned that the most important thing about hospitality is simply being willing to open your home. Everything else is icing on the cake. Here a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.

1) Your House is Clean Enough. I promise.

Really. It’s ok. You don’t have to scrub your house down before people come over. You don’t have to decorate. If you like to decorate, then go for it. But if not, keep it simple.  Assuming you keep your house reasonably clean (a little dog hair on the floor and fingerprints on walls are ok…moldy dishes in the sink not so much), then just do whatever normal cleaning you do for your own family. Our house is relatively clean but it’s not Pottery Barn perfect and that’s ok. If anyone decides to do a white glove test or check for dust bunnies under the beds, then they will find them but that’s ok.

2) Use What You Have

Over the years we’ve amassed a collection of very basic inexpensive dinnerware, glasses and flatware from places like Ikea and Crate and Barrel. The plates and bowls are all white but mismatched in styles. Paper products are also fine and we have used them plenty in the past. Now that we have enough non-paper stuff  we’d rather use it to save money and the planet. You don’t have to have a matching set of dishes for everyone invited or special themed party paper plates. People can have as good of a time eating off of a paper plate as china. Perhaps more.

3) Food….it’s a Potluck! 

The beauty of the potluck is that by nature you don’t have to plan and it’s supposed to be spontaneous. In 16 years we’ve never ever had a time where we ran out of food. There have been times when the food choices didn’t go together perfectly or we had a ton of one item but it all works out. On a recent Sunday we had no less than 5 pans of cornbread. The last person to bring the cornbread confessed later that she was impressed that I remained calm when she arrived with her offering. I laughed and sincerely told her that it didn’t bother me. I might have worried about it 10 or even 5 years ago but now it’s just a funny story.

In reality, our lunch isn’t a true potluck. Usually the host family provides something a bit more substantial and then everyone else brings other foods. Some families choose to have a “theme” or to let people know what they are making so others can make food that goes with it. H.’s preference is by far to just say “it’s a potluck” and see what we get. And it always works out.

There are some foods that we’ve found work great to feed a crowd and that can be made ahead (since we want to cook before church). Soups and chilis are great. Baked potatoes with toppings or a taco bar also work well. Anything where people can make their own ______ is good for a crowd because it allows for lots of different tastes. One of our favorite new approaches is a bowl meal where we put out lots of various toppings (beans, meats, cheeses, guacamole, salsa, olives, nuts, veggies, sauces all work well) along with a base like rice and people can make what they want.

4) The Hard Part

As an introvert, the hardest part of these lunches for me is definitely talking to people I don’t know well. Even though this is the part of being a hostess that most pushes me out of my comfort zone, I’ve found that it’s gotten easier over the years. The first trick I’ve learned is that almost everyone likes to help in the kitchen, especially if they are new or don’t know many people. It gives them something to do. It used to be when people would ask what they could do to help that I would answer “Nothing”, thinking that it was nicer for them to have the time to just hang out. But then I would see them kind of standing around awkwardly. So now I save a few easy jobs for someone else to do. Slice bread. Arrange something on a plate. Make lemonade.

I’ve learned from H. (who is excellent at talking to just about anyone) that most people respond well when asked questions about themselves. H. has a technique where he asks questions (some that can appear very random) about things he is interested in. Eventually he hits on some common interest or topic that then sparks a conversation.

I’ve gotten better at talking to people I don’t know well but I’ve also learned to accept that it’s not my strength. Part of being a good hostess is providing the atmosphere and space for others to have an opportunity for fellowship and conversation. Just by opening our home to people and inviting them over, we provide a space for conversations to happen, even if on a given Sunday I might not have been directly involved in most of those conversations.

5) The Good Part

Our closest friends are part of these Sunday lunches. Our kids have grown up together. Sometimes our lives get very busy but we know that every 1st and 3rd Sunday we will get together for lunch. Sometimes the group is very small, which can be nice. Sometimes it is very large and full of virtual strangers, which is nice in a different way.  Over the years we’ve had many people pass through our church who have also passed through our home. We might not still be in touch with them regularly but our lives are richer for the time we did spend getting to know them even a little bit. Who comes any given week is just as much of a potluck as what food we have.

I leave you with a challenge. If you don’t open your home now to friends and strangers, try it. You will be pushed out of your comfort zone but you will find that it is not as hard as you think and that it is much more worthwhile than you imagine.

March Reading

Fiction Read in March : 

Kim by Rudyard Kipling
My first time for this classic. I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed it. John and I each read it and then discussed it together as part of his schoolwork. The discussion might have contributed to the enjoyment. 

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
I had heard great things about this debut novel. I came away thinking that Mona Awad is a powerful writer that I would be interested in reading again but that I wasn’t in love with this book. The main character is Lizzie, the eponymous fat girl, who we see in a series of 13 sketches at different points in her life. Lizzie is not likeable for many reasons. I’m ok with an unlikeable protagonist but I was bothered by the lack of insight she gains in the end. She starts out a weight-obsessed, needy, bitter fat girl and ends a weight-obsessed, needy, bitter thin girl. Perhaps realistic, but it was just depressing to see her remain the same without any small glimmer of redemption. 

Jar City by Arnaldur Indrioason
I enjoyed this mystery set in Reykjavik although the city is depicted as a bit too gloomy, cold and rainy to make me excited about our fall trip there. A good, solid police drama type of mystery. 

A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
I keep returning to George’s Inspector Lyndley novels like a moth to a flame. The last few have been a little too graphic for me but I keep coming back because I love her characters, even when I don’t always love what she does to them. I liked this book a lot more than the last few in the series EXCEPT for two fairly major plot points at the end that still kind of bug me. But maybe that’s why I keep returning, even when I’m annoyed by the ending, I still find myself more engaged than with other more satisfying but forgettable books. (Did I just describe myself as having a co-dependent relationship with a mystery series?)

Fog Magic by Julia Sauer
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Non-Fiction Read in March: 

Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-Four Books that Can Change Lives by David Denby
Denby spends a year sitting in on an English class in a small public magnet type of school in New York City. He also visits two other high school English classes. Along the way he meets teachers who are managing to engage students as readers in a world that supposedly is saying that kids of their age are no longer interested in books or reading. Much more an ode to reading and education than a “how-to” manual, I put this in the category of enjoyable books about books. 

 Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D. A. Carson
Finished this month, but read slowly over the past 6 months with a group of women from church. Carson inspired and transformed my thoughts about prayer. 

With the Kids: 
Ruth and I continue to work our way through Ann M. Martin’s Doll People books. We are also enjoying the Ivy and Bean series as team reading during school. The boys and I are reading A Pocketful of Murder (reviewed on Semicolon’s blog). We are still happily ensconced in the world of the Melendy’s as our car audiobook.

Up Next/Ongoing: 
I am almost finished with In a Different Key: The Story of Autism. It is very long, but fantastic and well-worth the time spent. I’m listening to Anne Tyler’s In a Spool of Blue Thread in the car. And like most of you, I expect, I have a stack of books on my nightstand waiting and calling out to me to be picked next.

 

 

Newbery Challenge- 1940’s

1014090I’m participating again this year in Amy’s Newbery Challenge. This month was the 1940’s. I re-read one of my favorite books from childhood: Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses. It’s sort of a sad book and I remember liking it somewhat because it was sad instead of despite the sad. It tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a young Polish girl in a small town in Connecticut. Two other girls, Peggy and Maddie, daily make fun of Wanda. This is partially because of her claim that she has one hundred dresses at home even though she only wears the same old dress to school daily. But it is more because she is poor and foreign and because she is different from them.Wanda ends up moving away and the girls later discover that her story of a hundred dresses was true in a way. She leaves behind a hundred sketches of beautiful dresses. The girls try to find a way to contact her and apologize but it’s too late. In the end, they do hear from Wanda and there is some sense of forgiveness on her part but it’s not a completely satisfying ending.

I think the most compelling character in the book is Maddie. The main instigator of tormenting Wanda is clearly Peggy who is sort of a Mean Girl precursor. Maddie is Peggy’s best friend and is clearly less confident. She’s a little conflicted about mocking Wanda but never speaks up. This may be in part because she is also from a family who is poor. But I think most kids will recognize the conflict of knowing what the right thing to do is but not doing it because you don’t want to lose a friend or stand out or become the victim yourself. I think perhaps that is what attracted me to this book as a kid.

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I also read a new to me book: Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. This one was enjoyable; a girl who finds herself mysteriously drawn to thick fog in her Nova Scotia town learns that she can travel back in time through the fog. Her adventures are fairly tame, she mostly just goes back and visits a local family and becomes friends with a young girl in the past. But the story is sweet and appealing to anyone who has ever dreamed of going back in time.

Up next: the 1950’s. I plan to read The Secret of the Andes which beat Charlotte’s Web for the Newbery Medal in 1953 (Charlotte was an Honor Book). I’ve always been curious about the book that bested Charlotte.