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

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
The Nutcracker Comes to America by Chris Barton

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

DSCN0050

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.

297891

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

24365602
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.

23080097

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?