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.


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.

School Days Around the World

We’ve been spending this school year studying about world geography and cultures. This new book by Margaret Ruurs was a fun addition to our studies. It’s a fairly simple picture book but manages to highlight both the similarities of children around the world while also showing the differences that make them unique.

We visit Tamatoa in the Cook Islands who is called to school by a wooden drum and spends recess at the whale-watching fort by the sea. We meet Annika in Denmark who goes to forest school where they spend most of their time outdoors learning. And the one we were excited about: Amy and Gwen who are homeschoolers in Alaska and say, “The world is our classroom!”.

Ruurs includes different types of schools as well as showing the diversity due to different cultures. There are public schools, boarding schools and that one homeschool. There are kids who are blind and who live in an orphanage. There are kids that go to small village schools that have to share the building with other villages. And there are kids at very large busy city schools.

You could argue that this kind of very general survey misses a lot and over-simplifies. Obviously, this is true. The one US school is the homeschool in Alaska and that is a very different experience than most US school children have. However, by focusing on specific individual kids rather than a generic “Brazilian” kid or “German” kid, Ruurs manages to drive home the idea that kids around the world have a myriad of different experiences while still all learning, playing and growing up. Of note, the endpages  mention that all the kids and families in this book are real. My kids liked knowing that. It made the different school environments that much more real to them as well. I would highly recommend this book to go along with any elementary school aged study of world cultures.


A Week of Newbery Winners

I’ve spent the past week reading the 2016 Newbery Award Winners. I didn’t exactly plan to read them all at once, but they all arrived for me at the library at the same time so it seemed serendipitous.

Matt de La Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street is clearly the big topic of conversation this year, as the first true picture book to win the Newbery Medal. It also was named as a Caldecott Honor Book. The book tells the story of a young boy, CJ, and his Nana as they travel on the bus after church to the last stop on Market Street. CJ is a typical young kid who asks his Nana a lot of questions and expressed dissatisfaction with life as it is (Why don’t they have a car? Why do they always have to go where they are going on Sundays? Why can’t he have an MP3 player like the other boys on the bus?) His Nana lovingly and wisely answers his questions and helps to show him the beauty in the everyday world around him. The language is realistic and has the cadence and sound of real people talking but is also sprinkled with lovely and unexpected imagery.

My first impression after reading it was probably similar to a lot of people’s. It is a great book but I was a little confused about why it was deemed the Newbery Medal Winner, an honor I associate with much more complex books. And much longer books. However, the more I think about it the more I like the choice. So often I see parents want to move their kids along from picture books because they are “just for little kids”. As soon as kids start reading on their own we push them towards chapter books and out of the picture book section of the library. But there are so many wonderful picture books out there and I think by giving one of them the Newbery the committee has legitimized the idea that a good picture book is worth reading for all ages of kids, even those who have “graduated” on to much longer books. I love that my seventh grader still reads through the stack of picture books we bring home from the library each week. He likes good books, and I love that he doesn’t see himself as too old to enjoy a good picture book.

After serving on the Cybils selection commitee two years ago, I realize that the very concept of picking the ONE BEST BOOK is just ridiculous. There are so many wonderful books for kids and so many different reasons that a book might appeal to a committee at a particular time. I do think that this book was probably picked partially because the issue of diversity in children’s literature is a very hot topic right now. However, that doesn’t mean Last Stop on Market Street is not also without literary merit. It just happened to be a beautiful book that also fits in with the current thoughts about what is important and desired in kid lit. I’ve been reading along with Amy’s Newbery Through the Decades Challenge for the past year and one thing I’ve learned is how much books reflect their time and place.

I also read the three Newbery Honor Books this week and thought all three of them were very deserving of the honor. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan were both WWII era stories. Echo has some fairy-tale and fantasy elements that weave together three different tales about three children in difficult circumstances during WWII. Music is the theme that binds together all three stories. I enjoyed it but I really loved The War that Saved My Life, which tells the story of Ada, a young girl in London with a clubfoot who has been locked inside a room her entire life by her mother. When WWII begins Ada finds a way to escape with the other child evacuees to the country where she slowly begins to find a new life. I loved that the happy ending is not something that is easy. Ada struggles with being afraid of being happy and loved as it might all be taken away from her again. It’s a book that felt very real.

Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl also felt very real. Almost too real, like experiencing all the angst of middle school all over again. Perhaps this is the year of the graphic novel for me as I was totally charmed by this story of Astrid, a girl who is trying to figure out where she belongs. Her best friend is becoming interested in fashion and boys and ballet and Astrid feels left out and unsure of who she is until she finds her tribe at a roller derby camp. One thing I really liked is that Astrid is complex, not always likable, but always realistic and sympathetic. Similarly, we see that the friend isn’t all bad. It isn’t that girls who like ballet and fashion are bad and girls who like roller derby are good. It’s more how do you figure out how to become your own person while still hanging on to the friends you had when you were little and things were simpler. I would highly recommend this one for anyone in the middle school or almost middle school age.

Africa Picture Books

21965198We recently finished a unit study on Africa (part of a larger year long world geography/cultures study). I previously shared some of the broader survey type of books we read and some of the young adult and middle grade fiction that we’ve read. We also read quite a few non-fiction and fiction picture books. Interestingly, many of the non-fiction picture books fall in the general category of “inspirational stories”.

Laurie Ann Thompson’s Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmauel Ofosu Yeboah is certainly inspirational. It tells the story of a young boy born with a severely malformed right leg who grows up to bicycle across Ghana with one leg. More than just succeeding at a challenge for himself, he aims to change the view in his country of people with disabilities as people who are worthless or cursed. It’s a beautiful story (and has also been made into a documentary) that was nominated for the Cybils this year in the non-fiction elementary/middle grade category.


Another inspiring story and Cybils nominee is Miranda Paul’s One Plastic Bag: Isatou
Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia.
 This one tells the story of how one woman began a campaign to clean her country of the thousands of plastic bags that were littering the countryside. She learns how to cut the plastic bags into strips, crochet them and make them into purses. You can see how they do this on this YouTube video (and there are links to purchase the bags themselves if you are so inclined). Another inspiring story of enivromental activism was Franck Prevot’s Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees. Maathai was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in reforestation in Kenya. 23688743

The Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella is not about one person’s inspiring story but instead looks at the good one donated bicycle can do. A red bicycle is loved by Leo, a boy in a small North American town. But eventually he outgrows the bike and he decides to donate it to an organization that takes bikes overseas. The bicycle is followed as it belongs first to a  young girl in Burkina Faso who uses the bike to help her grandmother bring items to the market and then as it finds a third life as a hospital ambulance.

Other Africa themed books we read and enjoyed: 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa by Gerald McDermott
Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric Kimmel (just one of many Anansi stories)
Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora



January Reading

Fiction Read in January: 

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
What is the What by Dave Eggers
Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

A Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
The latest in the Coromon Strike series. These mysteries border on the too-graphic for me, sort of like some of the Elizabeth George books. Similar to those, I’m pulled back by the ongoing character development of Strike and his assistant Robin and to see what happens as the relationship between them grows and changes.

Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James
Read for Amy’s Newbery challenge.  I’m enjoying reading through the Newbery books, but found this one a little slow for my taste. I’m probably not enough of a horse girl to appreciate the very detailed and loving descriptions of the life of a horse. The ending was also tainted by some very blatant racism, something that I’m not surprised by in books from that era (1920’s) but that still felt pretty ugly.

Non-Fiction Read in January:
Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson
I plan to post more about this memoir in the next few days. Suffice to say for now that I already know that it will be on my list of best books of the year. 

Read with the Kids:
The Doll People by Ann Martin
Ruth’s recent bedtime book. She loved it and has requested the next one in the series. 

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz
We all were charmed by the story of Flora, an intrepid pig who wants to be part of a sled dog team. Part Charlotte’s Web, part Babe and part it’s own quirky self, this was a fun read. On a recent long and difficult walk in the snow I got Ruth to keep going by chanting Flora’s mantra , “Pigs. Don’t. Give. UP.”

The Mystery at Meerkat Hill by Alexander McCall Smith
Picked to read during our Africa studies but we got a little behind. I didn’t have another lunchtime read-aloud so we sped through this one in a couple of days. It’s meant more as an early chapter book for a young reader and for that it would be perfect. It was a little simple as a read-aloud. The “mystery” is very gentle and not at all scary.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet (audiobook)
We finally jumped on the bandwagon for this very popular mystery series for kids. I had mixed feelings. I liked the quirkiness and the details about art and the kids that were unapologetically intellectual and geeky. But the overall plot bugged me. It depends a lot on coincidences (which itself is part of the plot…whether or not things are really coincidence or some bigger universal force at work). Much of the mystery is solved by the kids suddenly getting a feeling that a place or a number or a color is important and then having it actually be a critical clue. The kids seemed to like it for the most part, although John made some snarky comments about all the coincidences. I think that’s more being twelve than the book’s fault. 

Ongoing/Up Next:
Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin (audiobook)
My current audiobook to listen to when I’m alone in the car. About a small Southern Catholic school run by nuns. I enjoyed Godwin’s memoir on Publishing at the end of last year and wanted to read something else by her and this was what was on the library shelf. 

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
Recommended by Sherry. I’ve only just begun but it’s looking fascinating. 

A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers by D. A. Carson
A group of women at my church is reading through this book on prayer together slowly. It’s challenging and led to some great discussion. 

The boys and I are reading Mossflower by Brian Jacques. Ruth has requested the next Doll People book for her bedtime book. John has repeatedly requested that we listen to The Saturdays and other Melendy books in the car so I think those will up next for audiobooks.

How about you? What are you reading?


Black Dove White Raven

20454599Continuing in the Africa theme for the month of January, I recently read Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein. Like so many people I loved two of Wein’s previous novels (Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire). Like her other novels, Black Dove. White Raven has teenage pilots as the protagonists and takes place around the time of WWII. However, the setting is pre-WWII Ethiopia instead of Europe and one of the two protagonists is a male.

Teo and Em are the children of female stunt pilots who are and also best friends. When Delia, Teo’s mother, dies during  a flying accident, Em’s mother fulfills a promise she made to Delia to take him to Ethiopia to raise him. Teo is the son of an Ethiopian father and Delia wants him to grow up away from the open racism she sees in the United States. Initially their new home on a cooperative coffee far is like an idyllic paradise for the family. However, an impending invasion of Ethiopia by Italy sets in motion events that change their lives.

I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopian history before reading this book. And I realize that I still only know about a tiny sliver of that history. But know I now that there was a Italian-Ethiopian war preceding WWII in which most of the rest of the world failed to intervene because of the fear of escalating tensions in Europe at the time. I know that the Ethiopian church is believed my some to be the home of the actual Ark of the Covenant. I know that slavery was still legal in Ethiopia until 1942. I think one effect of reading is sometimes realizing all the things that I don’t know.

Black Dove, White Raven is a YA novel but the themes and language are as complex as many of the adult fiction books I’ve read. At the same time, although Wein doesn’t shy away from dealing with complex issues like war and slavery, the descriptions aren’t disturbing or graphic. I would be fine with my 12 year old reading it, although I don’t think he would be interested. (He doesn’t love realistic or historic fiction and will only read them as an assignment). It would have been a book I would have greatly enjoyed as a young teen and I would recommend it for middle school or high school students who like historical fiction or strong female characters.


Survival 101

So Jonas is coming. Jonas being a storm that is being called words like “paralyzing” and “historic”. Despite the fact that it hasn’t actually happened yet. Yes, we live in a city that is notoriously wimpy and panicky about snow. But the predictions are fairly consistent that this could be a big one. I’m kind of looking forward to it. We haven’t had any real snow yet this year, or even much wintery weather. The first snow is always kind of fun. And this one which is predicted to start Friday afternoon and go through Sunday could mean a nice weekend at home for all five of us. No pressure to try and make it into work. The list of things that might get canceled is long: ballet, basketball practices x 3, a swim meet, church, basketball games x 3, swim practice. It was shaping up to be a busy weekend but the snow might bring some long lazy days in front of the fire. A girl can dream, right?

As we are apt to do here in the land of snow frenzy, we went grocery shopping last night and stocked up. We have milk, bread and toilet paper. We have dog food and bottled water. We have marshmallows for the hot chocolate and flashlights and candles.

Most importantly, we have books. The library being a much more essential pre-storm trip than the grocery store.


Random picture books for everyone.


David’s stack of graphic novels. Did I mention that he is really into this genre right now?


A little Pinkalicious makes any snow day better.


Some chapter books for David and John. I pulled Hamster Princess off the new shelf for Ruth. It looked too old for her but looked really funny so I got it anyway for David to try.


And a few for me. I had told myself I shouldn’t check anything else out since I have an overly full TBR pile already. But I just couldn’t help myself.

Ok, Jonas. Bring it on. We’re ready.



Africa with Kids

550120This year we are doing a world cultures/geography study as part of our homeschool. For each area of the world we study the geography, talk a little about the history and a bit about the different cultures. This isn’t by any measure a comprehensive study of any one area but instead it’s a survey course where I want the kids to get a taste and feeling for different areas in the world and appreciate just a bit the diversity of the world we live in.

One thing I’ve emphasized with each area is that we are looking at that part of the world with broad brushstrokes. We can’t learn everything about Australia or Canada in three weeks. I also want the kids to realize that when we talk about “South American art” or “Australian food” we are usually talking about something that is a stereotype and not something that is representative of every single person or even most people in that country or continent. I have felt like no where is this more true than our current area of the world, Africa. Too often in the west our view of Africa is one of the savannah with a few nomadic tribesmen roaming the wilderness. When I was planning this unit I realized that if my kids come away with an appreciation for how diverse Africa is then our study will be a success. Maybe the best way to think of it is that I want them to know what they don’t know.

Africa is Not a Country by Margy Burns Knight is an excellent book for beginning a study of Africa with kids. Knight begins by explaining that Africa is not one country but instead 53 (now 54 with the addition of South Sudan). She uses the illustration of a pie cut into slices to explain how much of the land is different ecosystems (savannah, desert, rainforest). She then goes on to describe a “typical African day” by highlighting a child from a different country on each page. Some of the kids are in villages, some in cities. There is snow and desert. There are kids playing soccer and kids gathering water and kids going to school. There are dark skinned kids and light skinned kids. It’s a long book to read-aloud but kept the interest of my first grader.

Children Like Me by Barnabas Kindersley looks at kids around the world. Photographic 835178spreads with a little text highlight what kids in different countries eat, how they go to school, what activites they like to do, what their homes are like, what their clothes are like and what their families look like. We read the pages on kids in African countries to again highlight the diversity of the continent. Both Children Like Me (published in 1995) and Africa is Not a Country (published in 2002) are slightly out of date. However, I felt like they were good introductions to the people of Africa, especially for a younger elementary student.

We also enjoyed Africa by Mel Friedman, part of the True Book series and Introducing Africa by Chris Oxlade. Both were good basic surveys that covered physical geography, animals and well-known landmarks.


Recently Read

Hear me, Atlanta! I am grinning and tears are flowing down my temples because I know that soon someone, perhaps the Christian neighbors, perhaps Edgardo or a passing stranger, will come to the door and say  Who is there? What is the matter? They will feel the guilt in knowing that they could have done something sooner had they only been listening….

I cannot believe that the clatter has not brought anyone to the door. My frustration is worse than the pain of the bindings, of being struck with the side of a gun. Where are these people? I know that people are hearing me. It is not possible that they are not hearing me. But they see it as beyond their business. ….

This is impossible, than no one would come to this door. Is the noise of the world so cacophonous that mine cannot be heard? I ask only for one person! One person coming to my door will be enough.

from What is the What by Dave Eggers, p 162