Advent Reading

Reposting from 2012, 2013 and 2014. Just like the book box, the post has become an Advent tradition.

The favorite Advent tradition in our house is our book box. I wrap all our Christmas books and put them in a box. Each day the kids get to pick a book and we read it.  I’ve posted in the past about the individual books we enjoy year after year. I thought this year that I’d compile a list with links to some of those past reviews.

For Animal Lovers
Who Would Like a Christmas Tree? by Ellen Bryan Obed
Humphrey’s First Christmas by Carol Heyer
Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman
Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell
One Winter’s Night by Leo and Diane Dillon
Who Was Born This Special Day? by Eve Bunting
Counting to Christmas by Nancy Tafuri
The Animals’ Christmas Carol by Helen Ward
Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown
One Small Lost Sheep by Claudia Mills
Christmas Cricket by Eve Bunting
Dream Snow by Eric Carle
The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald
A Letter for Bear by David Lucas

Just for Fun
Merry UnChristmas by Mike Reiss
The Twelve Bots of Christmas by Nathan Hale
The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
The Christmas Crocodile by Bonny Becker
Morris’s Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
The Twelve Bugs of Christmas by David Carter

The True Meaning of Christmas
Listen to the Silent Night by Dandi Dale Mackall
Little One, We Knew You’d Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones
How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley
A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown
The Christmas Story by Patricia Pingry
This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar
Mary’s First Christmas by Walter Wangerin Jr.
The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park

Because You Have To
The Night Before Christmas by Jan Brett
The Polar Express by Chris VanAllsburg
How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles Schultz

Starring Favorite Characters
Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney
Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson
Humphrey’s Christmas by Sally Hunter
Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas by Cynthia Rylant
Max’s Christmas by Rosemary Wells
Lyle at Christmas by Bernard Waber
Harry and the Dinosaurs Make a Christmas Wish by Ian Whybrow
Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer
Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew
Fancy Nancy’s Splendiferous Christmas by Jane O’Connor

From a Carol
Drummer Boy by Loren Long
What Can I Give Him? by Debi Gilori
Silent Night by Susan Jeffers
The Little Drummer Boy by Ezra Jack Keats

I Dare You to Read One of These and Not Cry (I Can’t)
Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski

And Everything Else 
The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers
Christmas for 10 (a counting book) by Catherine Falwell
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo
Coming Through the Blizzard by Eileen Spinelli
Christmas Is… by Gail Gibbons
The Snow Globe Family by Jane O’Connor
The Smallest Gift of Christmas by Peter Reynolds
Shooting at the Stars by John Hendrix
Santa is Coming to Virginia by Steve Smallman

A lot of other people do an Advent book basket. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to consider making it part of your family’s yearly tradition in some way. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest (get the books from the library or use what you already have) ways to make some great Christmas memories with your kids.

This year my 10 year old was talking about the books he knew would be in the basket. I asked him if he was too old for this particular tradition or if he was getting tired of the same books. “No way,” he said. “I’m hoping to memorize them all eventually.” So there you go. If you’re a homeschooler this can be your memory work and Advent tradition all rolled into one.

Recently Read

Reading together can happen in a living room or a dining room or in a back yard, in a classroom or in a car or in a Florida room or on a wrought-iron couch. Within the confines of a story shared aloud, we get to see one another in new ways. Our hearts are open to the story and open to one another- and because of this, some kind of subterranean magic occurs. Reading aloud binds us together in unanticipated ways.

It brings us home.

Kate Di Camillo, “An odyssey guides the heart of its reader,” in The Washington Post, Style Section, Nov 19, 2015, pg 1.

For the full essay: Go here. It’s a beautiful ode to books and reading aloud.

Recently Read

I woke up with a small thrill of anticipation coursing through my veins. It took me a moment to remember why, but then it came to me: I was due to crack open a new Scientific Notebook. I’d jammed my first one chock-full of many Questions, a few Answers and various observations and sketches…..

But now  it was time to bid adieu to the old one and start the cheerful new red one Granddaddy had given me. I opened it and inhaled the smell of fresh leather and paper. Could anything top the promise and potential of a blank page? What could be more satisfying? Never mind that it would soon be crammed with awkward penmanship, that my handwriting inevitably sloped downhill to the right-hand corner, that I blotted my ink, that my drawings never come out the way I saw them in my head. Never mind all that. What counted was possibility. You could live on possibility, at least for a while.

From The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, p 47-48

June and July Reading

Fiction Read in June and July

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
The winner of the Man Booker Prize last year. A beautifully written epic novel about an Australian POW working on the Japanese death train in Burma. Ultimately though for all the beauty of the language, I found this one left me cold in the end.

Redeployment by Phil Klay
Another prize winner, of the National Book Award last year. This one is full of cursing and the ugliness of war. But still, the stories are full of honesty and even redemption. 

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Another “epic” novel following an Irish-American family in New York City over several generations. Ultimately, it’s about marriage and love and faithfulness and also about Alzheimer’s. 

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is sent away to boarding school in Canada. The first day there a corpse falls out of a chimney. And it only gets better from there. 

In the Blood by Lisa Unger
Entertaining psychological thriller. A great summer read. 

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman (audiobook)
A fun twist on a school shooting story.

Figgs and Phantoms by Ellen Raskin
Read for Amy’s Newbery challenge.This one by the author of The Westing Game was weird. 

A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant
Also read for Amy’s Newbery Challenge. One of the very few children’s books I’ve ever read that deals with real religious feelings and faith in children or teens. 

Non-Fiction Read in June and July

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
A deliciously fun read by a long-time proofreader at The New Yorker. Norris deftly weaves personal stories in with grammar education and stories about many of the writers and editors at The New Yorker she has worked with over the years. 

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
I was really excited to read this biography/memoir by one of my personal heroes. I was deeply inspired by Sacks’ books and articles on neurology and medicine. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but it was a bit disappointing. There’s too much in it and it’s somewhat unfocused. The feeling I got was of someone who just wanted to put everything he could think of into one last book. I know Sacks is dying and that might be the case. It’s understandable but didn’t make for the best book. I was also somewhat turned off by the graphic sexual descriptions. Maybe it should have made him more human, but there are just some things you don’t want to necessarily know about your personal heroes, you know?  

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.

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.

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. 

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!

Delicious Reads

Ruth and I just finished a unit on food for kindergarten. One of the favorite books we read was a new one by Emily Jenkins, A Fine Dessert. Jenkins follows four families over four hundred years making the same dessert: blackberry fool. Each family prepares the dessert following the same basic steps. The repetition in the text of the recipe and the similarities between the centuries (each child gets to lick the bowl) create continuity. However, the charm is in the differences. The first mother and daughter pair living in Lyme, England in 1710 use a whisk made out of twigs and cool their dessert in an ice pit in the hillside. The 2010 family (the only father and son pair in the book) live in San Diego and serve the dessert to a multicultural group of friends after preparing it with all the modern conveniences. Sophie Blackall’s delicately detailed illustrations draw the reader into each time period and further serve to tie the centuries together while also showing how clothing and housing and people have changed.

Pat Brisson’s Before We Eat: From Farm to Table is another new book about food. This
one take a less personal approach and looks instead at all the people who are involved in getting the food we eat on our table. There are farmers and ranchers, yes. But also, truck drivers and  grocery clerks and home cooks. The woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian (illustrator of the Caldecott winning Snowflake Bentley) are beautiful and complement the simple text.


We also enjoyed looking through What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. This one is chock full of information but it was a bit too much for five year old Ruth. However, the photos were fascinating. The main interest for us was a photospread for each country showing a typical family and all the food they eat in a month. It was really eye-opening for my kids to see how much less processed food most of the world eats and to see how little some people have to eat in a week.

Other food themed books we recommend: 

Minette’s Feast by Susanna Reich
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban
Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
Time to Eat by Steve Jenkins