Hillbilly Elegy

271611561 I first heard about J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis early last summer from the assistant pastor at our church. I heard about it over the course of the summer and the fall by friends in real life and online. And then pre and post-election I heard it mentioned over and over again in the media, mostly as a way to “understand why Trump won”. So when someone at my book club offered it up as a suggestion for our next selection I was glad to finally move it from my TBR pile to my read pile.

I’m still processing what I think about the book, and the book club meeting tomorrow night will probably help with that. Overall, I highly recommend it.

It’s really two books. The first is the memoir of Vance’s family. On its own, as a memoir only, the book is fascinating. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio as the grandchild of two self-proclaimed hillbillies from Kentucky. His childhood and adolescence were marked by domestic violence, a mother who struggled with addiction and a string of revolving stepfathers and boyfriends of his mom’s who were in and out of his life. However, he also writes about the fierce loyalty of his kin and the grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) that essentially raised him and his sister. He eventually broke the cycle of poverty by joining the Marine Corps, followed by college at Ohio State University and then finally by Yale Law School.

The second part of the book is the “memoir of culture in crisis” and is the part that has been lauded by conservatives and liberals alike as providing an understanding of the white working class. This part of the book is also the part that has been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike. Depending on your political leanings you might either feel that Vance is blaming the poor for their own problems or that he is suggesting too much government intervention in society.

The more I think about the book I think that the genius of it (and also the weakness in it) is that it reflects the messiness of life: both in the personal and in culture. When Vance tell his own story he very openly attributes his success to the people he had in his life that were willing to fight for him: his Mamaw, Marine instructors, his sister, and even Amy Chua (yes, that Amy Chua). However, it also is obvious to any reader that not every kid in Appalachia who has a strong grandmother and loyal sister will end up at Yale Law School. It’s a mistake to read a memoir and try to apply the lessons directly to someone else. We all owe our success (or lack thereof) to a mix of innate talent, personality,  grit, the family that we are part of, location, luck, friends, mentors, timing.

Similarly, the problems of any particular culture are messy. Vance  portrays this with sympathy and honesty. He talks about friends from high school who choose not to work because they don’t want to get up early. He talks about how addiction can be both a disease but also how the addict has some personal responsibility for their choices. His arguments don’t easily fit into a political box, because the problems don’t fit neatly into the box. It’s a book that makes you think and that is definitely worth a read.

For further reading:
Some critical reviews:
 J. D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones in The New Republic 
Review in the Guardian by Hari Kunzru

And some positive ones:
The Lives of Poor White People by Joshua Rathman in the New Yorker
Janet at Across the Page

Interviews with Mr. Vance:
in the American Conservative with Rod Dreher
on Cleveland.com with Henry J. Gomez

 

Cybils Finalists

cybils-logo-2016-round-lgThe Cybils finalists were announced on Jan 1st. I used to follow this annual award contest more closely. For several years I made an attempt to read as many of the fiction and non-fiction picture books as I could and I served as a non-fiction judge one year. Judging was super fun and I would love to do it again but I’m not sure I blog enough to qualify.

Even if we’re not reading as many picture books as we used to and I’m not blogging much about the chapter books we read, I still look forward to the finalists each year. The Cybils is unique among book awards in that the books are selected based on literary merit AND kid-appeal. I pretty much can always find excellent book choices for all three of my readers from the winners and finalists.

This year I’m especially excited about the new audiobooks category. We listen to a LOT of audiobooks (which probably is mostly a reflection of spending too much time in the car). I’m going to look for Out of Abaton and The Inquistor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog in our library. Both look excellent. I think my fantasy loving 13 yr old will love Illuminae and it’s hard for me to find anything he hasn’t already read so I’m excited to give him something new to try.  I also put pretty much all the fiction picture books, non-fiction elementary books, and middle-grade graphic novels on hold. It’s like Christmas in January! If you have kids, check out the Cybils website and the lists of finalists (this year and past years). I guarantee that you will find something good.

And more Christmas Books…

 Susan Jeffers’s The Twelve Days of Christmas is pretty much exactly what you would expect and that’s a good thing. The text is mostly just the familiar song. The illustrations are the lush colorful paintings typical of Jeffers complete with plenty of glitter. Jeffers adds a bit of a story to the carol, told mainly through the illustrations and a little bit of added text. A girl named Emma breaks her snow globe and is transported to a magical land by Santa. If you have a girl who enjoys other Jeffers books, she will likely be delighted by this one as well.

We love the Duck books by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. This Christmas edition is just as fun and goofy. Duck as usual is up to his old tricks and manages to get all the animals stuck in Farmer Brown’s chimney. Luckily there is someone coming who can save the day!

Our Christmas book basket has become our favorite Advent tradition. (As I might have mentioned once or twice or a hundred times.) Some days we read funny books (like Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! )Some days we read beautifully illustrated books. Some days we read books with favorite characters. Some days we read books that make me cry.  Some days we read books that remind us all of the real reason for Advent.

So far what has been the most memorable book of the season is one that is none of those things. In fact, it is memorable mainly for being so bizarre that we all couldn’t stop laughing from the sheer weirdness of it. Christmas at the Toy Museum by David Lucas is just weird. The story is basically that the toys have no presents to unwrap so they decide to wrap themselves. Then they take turns unwrapping each other and being excited. Alert readers may have discovered the problem with this plan. What does the last toy that gets unwrapped have to unwrap? Perhaps it’s enough to say that my 13 year old loved this book because of it’s so awesomely stupid (his words) and couldn’t wait for me to blog about it. I’ll leave it at that.

New (to us) Christmas Basket Books

18342011A few of the new-to-us books in our Advent Book Basket this year. Kate Westerlund’s The Message of the Birds is a sweet simple story about the birds of the world spreading the message of Christmas to the children of the world. It bothered me a bit that the message of Christmas becomes distilled down to Peace on Earth. That is part of the message but not the whole message. I don’t mind secular Christmas books but ones that are a watered down version of the real story do bother me. The illustrations by Feridun Oral are beautiful, especially if you like birds. My kids also really liked the last page that featured a word cloud of the word Peace in many different languages. We’ve been to several Christmas events this Advent season with different languages featured which has stirred   a general interest/awareness of languages in the kids and this was a nice addition to that.

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Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree
 is the newest addition to the Lori Nichols’s Maple and Willow series about two young sisters. I really like this series because I think is a perfect example of what has become rare in children’s fiction: simple non-quirky, non-snarky stories about real kids.  This Christmas addition is just as sweet as the other books. The girls are thrilled to get their first REAL Christmas tree but then it turns out Maple is allergic to the tree. They figure out a way to make Christmas special. Another thing I like about this series is that Lori Nichols gets the relationship between sisters perfectly. It’s sweet but not unrealistically sugary sweet. My favorite dialogue: “I’m sorry for ruining Christmas”. (Maple)  “I’m sorry you ruined Christmas too.” (Willow). As the parent of three kids, I could completely hear that being said in our house by siblings that love each other (most of the time).

24904391The Reindeer Wish is another book that is part of a series, although we hadn’t read the others. The story is by Lori Evert and features breathtaking photographs by her husband Per  Breiehagen of their daughter Anja. The story is fairly predictable: Anja discovers a baby reindeer and raises it but then must one day realizes he would be happier living with other reindeer. So she delivers him to Santa to live and work with Santa’s sled team. The photographs are amazingly beautiful though and will make even the most snow-hating person want to move to a Nordic country to live.

 

17349000Another book that we enjoyed more for the illustrations than the story was Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno (illustrations by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer) . That is probably due more to my kids ages than the book itself. This was a straight-forward telling of the familiar story of the Three Bears but with Santa Claus instead of Goldilocks. The illustrations are fun with lots of details. Recommended for families with preschoolers as fun Christmas reading.

The Nutcracker Comes to America

25793079Part of the fun of the book basket is re-reading beloved favorites year after year. And part of the fun is discovering new books. Yesterday we opened the first new-to-us book of this year. Chris Barton’s The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition is an unusual look at the history behind the Nutcracker in America. This is a different perspective than usually given in kids books about the ballet. It’s not about E.T. A. Hoffman’s original story or the adaptation by Alexander Dumas or even really the ballet by Tchaikovsky. Instead it tells the story of how and why the Nutcracker became the most performed ballet in America.

I’ve seen the Nutcracker countless times as a child and as an adult and I admit to never really wondering how it became a holiday tradition. I was somewhat shocked to learn that it was first performed in America in 1944; I had imagined it as being an older tradition than that. It was also interesting to learn that about the three Christensen brothers who loved ballet and how the Nutcracker became a shared love of theirs, especially in the shadow of WWII.

I enjoyed this new addition to our Christmas book list. Ruth takes ballet and we are going to see her first “real” Nutcracker this year and I think she also enjoyed the idea of learning more about the ballet. The boys were ok with it but I’m not sure it will become a yearly read for us. It’s an interesting story but might not hold the attention of kids who aren’t especially ballet obsessed. However, if you have a ballet lover or are just looking for a Christmas book that is somewhat different, this is a good choice.

Advent Reading

Reposting from 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

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
The Message of the Birds by Kate Westerlund
The Reindeer Wish by Lori Evert

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
Maple and Willow’s Christmas Tree by Lori Nichols
Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

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
The Twelve Days of Christmas by Susan Jeffers

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
The Nutcracker Comes to America by Chris Barton
Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno

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.

11/26/16- And now, that 10 year is a 13 year old who brought up the empty box for the books on his own because “we always have the book box”. I’d already wrapped them and put them on our shelves this year so I told him not to worry. Even as a teenager he is looking forward to many beloved favorites and to seeing what new ones I added this year from the library.

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower

31182425It’s a little late for you to enjoy this fantastic new picture book for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration but write it down on your to-be-read list for next year. Written and illustrated by P. J. Lynch this book tells the familiar story of the Mayflower crossing and the early days of Plymouth colony through the eyes of John Howland, a young indentured servant on the Mayflower. During the voyage, John is swept overboard during a storm but miraculously catches hold of a rope in the water and is pulled to safety. Along with the other Pilgrims he endures the hardships of the early years and sees many of those who sailed with him from England suffer and die. Howland initially dreams of going back to London to make a name for himself but when he finally gets the opportunity he decides to stay in the New World and make a life in this new home.

The illustrations are gorgeous. Lynch is also the illustrator of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey and the paintings here have the same realistic richness.

The story is made even more appealing because it is true. John Howland was a young man on the Mayflower who fell overboard and was saved. He was a servant and later married a fellow Mayflower voyager, Elizabeth Tilley. Together they went on to have 10 children and 88 grandchildren. (Yes, you read that right. 88 grandchildren.) Apparently millions of Americans are descended from them, including many famous people.

All of my kids enjoyed this one. It’s a long picture book so probably best for older kids on their own (perhaps 4th grade and up) or for any ages as a read-aloud. The parts of the story are divided into short sections so it’s easy to read all in one setting or over the course of several days (Thanksgiving week perhaps).

To find out more:
P.J. Lynch’s website (where I discovered he is Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature)
Pilgrim John Howland Society (where you can see some of the famous Howland descendents)

And Happy Thanksgiving!

Project Feederwatch

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Are you watching?

Project Feederwatch is one of the best recurring projects we do in our homeschool every year. It’s simple. You just count birds at a site in your yard up to days a week from Nov-May. You can count every week or you can do it once or twice. Once you count, you enter your data on the website. There is a small fee. The first year you get a great poster of common birds in your area and some other materials. The website stores your  data from previous years and it’s fun to go back and look at trends of birds. My kids love doing it and it hones their skills of observation and awareness of nature. It also is a great way to be involved in citizen science.

The season started last week but it’s not too late to sign up and count this year.

And because everything finds its way back to books, a bird themed book list for your young bird and book lovers:

Fiction Picture Books:
Seven Hungry Babies by Candace Fleming
The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend
Leaving the Nest by Moredecai Gerstein
Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin
Louise: the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss
Telephone by Mac Barnett
Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert
Falcon by Tim Jessell
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies (biography of Audubon)
United Tweets of America by Hudson Talbott (state birds)
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
Bird Talk by Lita Judge

Chapter Books: 
The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash
Swordbird (and sequels) by Nancy Yi Fan

Our favorite Field Guide: 
Birds of Virginia by Stan Tekiela- We have others but we use this one the most because it is organized by color which is such a easy way for a beginner to try to find the bird that you are looking at.

The Rules of the House

26245753You may have noticed I rarely review picture books anymore. This is for two reasons.

1) We read a lot less picture books. I find that kind of sad but also just part of having kids get older. I don’t think my kids are too old for picture books and they all still like them. We  still get a stack out of the library each time we go. But now all three kids read on their own and typically go through that stack before I even get to crack a cover. Our family read-aloud time is usually chapter books or books that are somehow related to school.

2) I blog a lot less than I used to (shocking news, I know). Most of the time I know that a hundred other more prolific and faithful kid- lit bloggers have already reviewed anything that I have read. Even when I do read a picture book that I think “Oh, I really need to share this,” it’s rare that I then find the time to write about it.

All that to say that The Rules of the House was one of the few picture books I’ve read lately that I felt compelled to write about. I haven’t looked to see how many other reviews there are because I just don’t care. I loved this book and want to tell you about it.

I’m not always a fan of Mac Barnett books. I have absolutely adored some (Extra Yarn, Battle Bunny) and been left cold by others (Chloe and the Lion). But one thing I do really appreciate about all his books is that they are unexpected. I kept thinking I knew what predictable thing would happen next in this book, and then something else happened. And the something else was always way funnier than the thing I expected.

A brief synopsis of the plot is that a brother and sister go to the woods on vacation with their Dad. The brother always follows rules. The sister always breaks them. The story is about what happens when the sister breaks the rules of the house they are staying in. As you can tell from the cover, there is some mild scariness. It’s a great book for this time of year, although it doesn’t actually mention Halloween.

We read this one along with a bunch of others from the library basket one morning before starting school. I can’t remember why exactly, but Ruth was grumpy. It was the week after we returned from vacation and she was jet-lagged and sick and just not wanting to do school. So to ease her into the day, I offered to have reading time. She, David and I snuggled into bed and read through a bunch of books. None of the others stood out as much as The Rules of the House but the sweetness of the time together reminded me that we should find a way to do that more often.

 

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.