ABC and 123

There are a lot of counting and alphabet books out there. We don’t read many of them these days as my kids have mostly outgrown the genre. But these two newish picture books caught my eye at the library on our last visit. I was glad they did as both are beautifully done and go beyond just a simple ABC or 123 book.

What in the World? Numbers in Nature by Nancy Raines Day is somewhat deceptively simple. Going beyond counting, the text guides the reader in seeing sets of numbers in nature (one moon, two pairs of wings on a bird, ten toes on a boy). Some of the examples are much more complex than I expected (three body parts for a bee, seven colors in a rainbow) which was a nice surprise. The clear colorful illustrations by Kurt Cyrus are a perfect accompaniment to Day’s crisp prose.

Elisha Cooper’s 8: An Animal Alphabet is simply a listing of animals that begin with each letter. Some are expected (D for dog). Some are slightly more exotic (D for dung beetle). The charm comes in Cooper’s illustrations and in the quirky decision to put 8 of one kind of animal on each page. Why 8? Just because. Ruth had fun finding which animal on each page was the lucky “8”. It wasn’t challenging for her but I could imagine that for a 3 or 4 year old it would be quite a fun search. As a bonus, at the end of the book Cooper includes a brief interesting fact about each animal in the book (and there are a lot of them). We all had fun reading the facts and found some that none of us knew. That’s fairly unusual for animal books given that David spends most of his reading time perusing weird fact books or animal encyclopedias.

Both of these books would be most appropriate for preschoolers, although I have to say that all three of my kids enjoyed looking at them, and that includes the 12 year old.

2015 in Books

Last year I didn’t really make any Bookish Resolutions except to read more (which is always a goal for me). I did read two more books this year (73 total) than last year so that’s a success. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the one reading challenge I did in 2015, Amy’s Newbery Challenge, and I intend to join in again this year.

Some years when I reflect back on books read a clear theme emerges. Some years are the year of non-fiction or the year of the short story or the year I rediscover young adult fiction. In 2015 I read more broadly without any clear theme emerging. I don’t like to pick my favorite book of the year or even a top 10. Below are a few thoughts on the one’s that stand out when I look back at the year. If you’re interested here is the full list.
The Book that I will Never Forget Reading

I read Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocolyptic Station Eleven (about the world post pandemic flu outbreak) while lying in bed feverish and coming down with the flu. I was on my yearly birthday getaway in a hotel room alone and reading about a woman in a hotel room coming down with the flu and wondering what was going on outside her door as the flu ravaged the world. The book itself is fabulous and stands alone but sometimes the circumstances of reading a book are such that you will never forget the actual experience of the reading. This was one of those for me.

Other fiction books that were especially memorable this year:
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Redeployment by Phil Klay

The Author I Was Most Glad to Finally Get Around to Reading:

I have had Rebecca Stead on my TBR list for a long time but finally read When You Reach Me for Amy’s Newbery Challenge. I loved it and also read and enjoyed her newest novel, Goodbye, Stranger. Yes, she writes for middle-grade kids but her books are complex and intriguing and defy the category of “juvenile fiction”. I was very glad to discover how much I enjoyed her this year.

The Author I was Most Glad I Gave a Second Chance:

I listened to Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap on audiobook a few years ago and really didn’t like it. Maybe it was the wrong book at the wrong time but it was just too whiny and navel gazing for me. However, I decided to read Belzhar, her new young adult novel this year and really enjoyed it. I kept seeing it compared to her earlier novel The Interestings so I decided to give it a try, this time on audiobook. This time I was totally captivated by the world of her characters.

Vocation meets Avocation:

I used to read more books about medicine, but in the past few years I’ve gotten away from it somewhat. Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking for more of an escape in reading than reading about something close to what I do. This year I read several outstanding books about the medical profession:

*Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Paul Offit.

*Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

*Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

I’m reluctant to make big reading resolutions for the year except again to read more. Semicolon is hosting her usual Saturday Review of Books this week and it’s got oodles of book lists if you’re looking for books to add to your own TBR list.

2015 Read-Alouds

We now have three kids who can read on their own but our family read-aloud time remains a treasured part of our day. Our typical nightly routine is to all sit on our (me and H’s) bed and read for about 30-60 minutes. I usually read two books: one is for the boys and one is for Ruth. In reality, almost always all three listen to both books. John will sometimes read his own book while I’m reading the “Ruth” book but often he ends up listening, or at least listening to the parts that he remembers that he liked when he was that age. We aren’t able to do this every night between my work schedule and swim meets and basketball games and Scouts and other activities. I only imagine that it will get harder as they get older but for now I am enjoying this quiet (relatively) time together at the end of the day.

I still also read a book at lunchtime, although that has gotten harder also. I often find myself reading other books at lunch. Sometimes poetry or picture books or something to go with what we are currently studying. And sometimes we are eating in a hurry or we do a popcorn lunch (which really means we watch a movie).

We also pretty much always have an audiobook that we are listening to in the car. We drive a fair amount, although not as much as some families I know, so we have plenty of time to get immersed in a story together.

So that’s the how we do it.

Here’s the what:

Bedtime Read-Alouds

Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander
Taran the Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
The Island of Dr. Libris by Chris Grabenstein
Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bergman
Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary

Ramona and her Mother
by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary
Ramona’s World by Beverly Cleary
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Matilda by Roald Dahl

Lunch-Time Read-Alouds:
Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Return to Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright


The Sisters Grimm (all 9 books)
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsell
Nurk by Ursula Vernon
The Sixty Eight Rooms series (all 4 books)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu




There weren’t any books listed above that we didn’t enjoy. This seemed to be the year of the series. The boys and I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series. Zoe loved both Ramona and Laura, two girls that she would love to know in real life. We spent many happy months with The Sisters Grimm in Fairyport Landing. I feel like I should also point out that our list reminds me that good stories don’t need to stay in categories of age or gender. When asked what their favorites of the year were both boys mentioned On the Banks of Plum Creek. Now admittedly, the 12 year old likes it solely for the leech scene, but he still likes it.

We are still finishing two of our books from the year: The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage by Chris Kurtz and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The latter is only for the boys as Ruth found it too scary. Next up we have waiting Mossflower by Brian Jacques (at the request of David) and The Doll People by Ann Martin. And for the car we have Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliott.


A friend suggested Cara Nicoletti’s Voracious to me. The combination of great books and recipes/meals inspired by those books sounded intriguing but I admit that at first it also sounded a little too much like yet one more “let me pick something to do and blog about that will get me a book deal” books.

Well. I certainly couldn’t have been more wrong. Nicoletti is the granddaughter of a butcher who grew up loving food and books. She worked her way through NYU studying English and working in kitchens in New York City. She has been a baker, pastry chef and now works as a butcher in Brooklyn. Voracious was born from her blog, it’s true. But the blog, Yummy Books came from a book club that she had with friends that evolved into a supper club where she cooked a meal for the book club somehow inspired by or related to the book they read. In other words, she’s the real deal, without even the hint of gimmick.

Beyond all that, it’s a wonderful read. The book is divided into three sections: Childhood, Adolescence and Adulthood, with each section comprised of books for that age range. You get pancakes from Pippi Longstocking and Biscuits with Molasses Butter from To Kill a Mockingbird and a perfect soft-boiled egg from Emma. The recipes are fun to read. For someone at my stage of life, many of them were too difficult or time-consuming but I still enjoyed reading them. The real treat for me was reading Nicoletti’s reflections on each book. She weaves in biography and how the books influenced her with thoughts on food in literature and with stories from the various kitchens she’s worked in.

The best thing about books about books is that you come away with multiple additions to the every-growing to-be-read list. If you like growing your TBR list or you are just looking for a light, fun and altogether delicious read, Voracious is a great choice.

Other Great Book about Books:
Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
The Heroine’s Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore
Booked by Karen Swallow Prior
Walking a Literary Labyrinth by Nancy M. Malone
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen
So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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.