Friday, November 02, 2012

What are you reading right now?

Simon and I are reading this series:

The Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

Young Twig lives in the Deepwoods, among the Woodtrolls, but he isn’t one of them. In a brave attempt to find out where he belongs, Twig wanders into the mysterious, dangerous world beyond the Deepwoods. He meets a collection of odd companions, such as his wise guardian, the Caterbird; the Slaughterers, a peaceful race who butcher animals for their livelihood; and the vicious, bile-swilling Rotsucker. Always watching out for the horrible Gloamglozer, whose presence haunts the thoughts of all the inhabitants of The Edge, Twig steadfastly pursues his quest until he discovers his roots, not among the trees, but in the skies. . . .

Lexile level: 720
Fountas and Pinnell: approximately V

I'm a little pissed at you all for never telling me about them! They are super cute. He got the first one yesterday at the library, blew through it last night, and would have finished the second this evening, but we had family movie night (the 1970's animated Phantom Tollbooth, with Mel Blanc, et al). I read someone compare these to Terry Pratchett's discworld, and I think that is very apt. They are more gross and gory than many books he'd read. A tree tries to eat Twig. A hover snake has a bite which can make victims explode. There are pictures like this:

But the world is so fully formed and alien that it doesn't feel as adult as, say, Artemis Fowl, and the menace doesn't feel so close as something like the Egypt Game serial killer or even the conspiracies in Benedict Society. I really enjoy the interior monologue Twig has going, and the pros and cons Stewart lays out for the different variations of Deep Woods societies.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I think this audience might appreciate this sort of link:

For babies, toddlers, and little kids who need glasses. Our Simon needs glasses, and his pretty princess perfect vision mother has no idea where to find him some good frames. This is a good starting point, though!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

We seem to be doing a sort of Tony DiTerlizzi author study in our house, and I thought I'd recommend him generally to our other precocious readers. I have always enjoyed Neil Gaiman, both the books and the movies, but for my kids at least, books about people sewing buttons on their eyes or toddler ghosts are just no goes, regardless of how charming the rest of the book is. But for a similar feel- maybe a bit more epic, definitely more save the world heroism- DiTerlizzi really delivers. Not as dark, but still incredibly imaginative.

I'd recommend Kenny and the Dragon for the youngest set- it says 8 and up, but it's really just a more fantastical, less potty humor version of How to Train Your Dragon. Very innocently written, with good vocabulary.

Then The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is actually a fairly long and well developed series, in addition to the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series

and the Wondla series

The Search for WondLa
 for those able to handle a plotline about robot societies and a scene where the heroine is in danger of having her body "opened" by a well meaning populace who assumes she will be unharmed, as she is supposed to be a robot. (It all ends well). Claire Helen, my generally more sensitive reader, read the first book this week, and immediately asked for the second (Hero for Wondla, which just came out in May) while grabbing the Spiderwick Chronicles to hold her over.

There's a movie of the Spiderwick Chronicles (6 books crammed into one 2 hour Hollywood fest), which is pretty good, if probably for 8 and up. The internet has tantalizing pictures of Uma Thurman in a Wondla style costume on a search, but the movie is still "in development," so who knows if it will ever happen. I hope it does! He keeps a blog, and has apparently been at Comic Con this week, which I find inexplicably charming. Check it out:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How adorable is this? And there are several in Seattle! I especially love the one made from an old newspaper racks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

For the love of a good system

It is summer time, which for us means bi or even tri-weekly library trips to stock up for those long lazy afternoons. It also has meant a couple eye-popping fines as I not too adeptly try to manage everyone's library bounty. I am pretty sure I know why:

This is our library system. I call it "Hey, don't take that book out of the living room!" I have tried a few things. Claire Helen has her very own Seattle Public Library bag (Chanel for the bookish set), which, completely unforseeably, she takes the books she gets OUT of, at which point they disappear into the melee. Simon has three supposed locales for books- a shelf, a nightstand, and the top of his dresser, and that is apparently enough confusion that everywhere becomes an acceptable book receptacle, and thus nowhere is. Penelope is a whirling dervish, so I don't even need to go into that.

I wonder if this is the sort of problem that could be solved with baskets. I seem to have solved the Plague of the Pre Soccer Shinguard Search with baskets, perhaps library books are calling out for the same treatment. And then my house will be completely filled with baskets, and if you walk in you might mistake it for a romantic Moroccan market. Only with, you know, slightly sweaty size youth medium soccer jerseys everywhere.

Monday, June 25, 2012

School's out for summer!

In my little corner of the world, this was the first weekday of summer vacation. How'd we all do? I would give us a solid sort-of-ok. We need to get ourselves organized, which for me mostly means creating lists of books. Then I like to check them off. Sometimes I like to write down the ones we have already read, and it is just glorious.

Three a piece to get us started.

For Claire Helen-
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
The Wind in the Willows

Wondla by Tony DeTerlizzi

The Little Grey Men by B.B.
(author's name not enough to persuade you? Here is what Dame Julie Andrews says-

"There was a little book that we found and my father leafed through it, and he said, 'Here you are, darling. I think you'll like this.' And it was a very small children's novel called The Little Grey Men, by an English author called B.B. And it was a very simple nature tale of the last four gnomes left on this earth in England. Very much like Watership Down, that kind of big nature study, and it was set in four seasons. It was a terrific adventure story. I swallowed it up." )

For Simon:

Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Twenty One Balloons, by William Pene du Bois

The Twenty-One Balloons

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost Giants

I'll let you know how they are once I read them!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer reading

Tomorrow is the last day of school for the bigger beanlets, so of course we are gearing up for summer reading. If you're in Seattle, the public library has a lovely program-
Summer Reading Program

Every time you read 10 books you get a pony. Well, not quite, but it felt like it. We turned in one of Claire Helen's forms, and she came back with all manner of loot- including a trip for the whole family to the Burke Museum- and is quite energized to get stickers to put on her name tag on the library wall. Sign up, if you are local!

We're just back from a little family jaunt to Iceland, and mean mother that I am, I assigned the elementary schoolers "homework" for our trip, since they were missing school. For Claire Helen, in part that meant 2 books with attendant mom book group discussions-

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Fountas and Pinnell: level Z
Lexile: 830

I am an unapologetic judger of books by their covers, and this cover art absolutely drew me in. Isn't it lovely? Calpurnia is an 11 year old girl living in 1899 who loves science (especially botany), much to the frustration of her very proper mother. It had a very Anne of Green Gables feel to me- not quite so fuzzy/romantic, much more scientific, but similar spunky main character with modern morals overlaid.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Lexile: 750

The lexile level is deceiving- this is a difficult book. It's worth it, but it's not easy. Manhattan sixth grader Miranda begins receiving cryptic notes after a falling out with her best friend, which she has to puzzle through while dealing with her game show obsessed mother and keeping it together. A Wrinkle in Time makes an appearance, and there is time travel (!). We had some great discussions about it, particularly the way that the book discusses a book we already know. I'd recommend it, but it's worth talking about while they're reading it, for the bullying incident (mild, but focused on), if not to explain what the 20,000 Dollar Pyramid was, back in the age of dinosaurs.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Five Great Books for Boys Not About War

We have a wonderful bookstore near here, and I often take the big kids on dates to it, to wander the aisles and pick out one little treasure to take home. Simon will do a little bit of gender bending, but not a lot. Mostly his tastes are pretty classic "boy." And he likes series. So I often find myself poking around the boy series, and they all seem to go like this- troll war, owl war, bear wars? Hmm, Greek god war, oh, there's a cat war there.

They are all great, epic series, I am sure, but Simon is only 6 and not that into war. So! Here, benefit from my searches, 5 great middle great books for boys not about war.

1) Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey

These are hilarious books. Robert McCloskey, of Blueberries for Sal fame, draws a sort of milder Dennis the Menace type character who lives in Ohio and stops snake oil salesmen and gets in trouble with infinite doughnut producing machines at his uncle's diner. It's 6 small town stories, very innocently but funnily written. It was published in 1943, so though I'd say it was progressive for its time, there are still some odd depictions of race, and the rest of the tone reflects the time it was written. For me this is a positive, and Simon found it novel, and not so unrelatable as a lot of early 20th century boy adventure novels.

2) The Neddiad, by Daniel Pinkwater

We just got this book last weekend, for two reasons. One, I am a shameful book judger by the cover, and this is a great cover. Love the doodle turtle. Also, the little staff recommendation card under the book said "Tom Robbins for kids!" I didn't need to know anything else- I love Tom Robbins.and think Jitterbug Perfume is one of the most tragically underappreciated great works out there.

As you can tell from the title, this is an epic (NOT in dactyllic hexameter, you'll be relieved to hear). Nedd is moving from Chicago to Hollywood, with no regrets of course, because he wants to be like Dartagnan from the Three Musketeers, and go away to have adventures. I don't know that I would exactly say this is Tom Robbins for kids, but as I said, that's a pretty high bar for me. But this is definitely for kids who like that sort of thing- matter of fact appearances of Yiddish shamans, saving the world with a "French substitution," and Galapagos turtles. You know if you have one of these kids.

3) Boom, by Mark Haddon

Another book by an author better known for his adult fiction- Mark Haddon also wrote the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fixture of book clubs all over the country circa 2008. Is it just me, or are more and more adult fiction authors dipping into not just YA, but children's? And apparently he made a couple of efforts before this one really took off.

Jim, our narrator, and his best friend Charlie, discover there are aliens in their small British town. Of course there is conspiring, loads of plot, and some zaniness. It's very tonally like Men in Black, and of course there's a very happy ending. Great for a little something different. As I said, I'm not sure why this book didn't take off the first time around. It's not Great Literature, but it's a great boy book; the friendship between the two boys is particularly well drawn, I thought.

4) Great Brain, by John Fitzgerald

You don't really need this reviewed for you. I'm just reminding you. Right! The Great Brain! That kid who lives in a Mormon frontier town in Utah, but is not a Mormon, scams his buddies and brothers out of money by being clever, has great escapades along the river. There's a whole series, of course. This is a lot like Homer Price- earlier, so more context, and harder vocabulary (shhhhh, don't let on there's learnin'), and plenty more beating up, but not graphically or cruelly so.

5) Lawn Boy, by Gary Paulsen

This book somehow weaves its way from a bum present by a grandmother of an old lawn mower to a wrestling sponsorship arranged by an ex-hippie stockbroker. I still don't exactly know how, but what I love about Gary Paulsen is how clearly he shows the perspective of the character he is writing. It's terribly wry, which might fly over the heads of some of the younger readers, but I actually found this one very approachable for my particular 6 year old. If not this one, Paulsen is quite prolific- try another one.

Our hero here is a capitalist through and through, and this is his triumphant journey. I doubt that is going to sell this book to your adventure wanting boy, so, hey, wrestling!

Monday, May 28, 2012

And the winner is...

Two things this Memorial Monday evening-

First, dress like a book character day-

Tock the watchdog from Phantom Tollbooth(little mini review for you here- love the book; he loved and thought it hilarioud, but it was a bit too much idiom understanding requirement wise for a 6 year old, even a verbose one such as the one pictured here. It'll keep, though, and I hope he'll pick it up again when he's older.) and Nancy Drew. Both had a great time. Boy do I ever love that day at school. Tons of Pippi Longstockings, Red Ridinghoods, and of course Harry Potter characters. The best part was so many I had never even heard of who the kids clearly knew so well.

Second, look who's a poet and knows it?

That's Claire Helen, reading her award winning poem at the ceremony our public library had last week. She was bursting with pride, and I was too. She invited her school librarian, and I'm kicking myself for not getting  a picture of the two of them together.

I know, I know, I have not been around to nearly the degree I promised. But I had a very inspiring conversation this afternoon with a blogger who actually knows what she's doing, and now I'm determined to blog more often too. Tomorrow, 5 great middle grade books for boys not about war.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

RIP Maurice Sendak

I think the question to ask today is not who has a special association with Maurice Sendak, but who does NOT have a special association with Maurice Sendak somehow? His reach was so broad- picture books, novels, even a production of the Nutcracker. Not my favorite, but a whole ballet! Impressive. My Facebook page is covered, today, with the quote from Where the Wild Things Are, when Max leaves. "Oh please don't go. We'll eat you up, we love you so..." And I can't think of a mother I know who has not used that expression to describe her love for her children at least once.

But my special association is with an even wilder, stranger book of his. In the Night Kitchen was the first book Simon ever read to us out loud-

Mickey, our dreamer/hero, wanders through the night, diving naked into "morning cake" batter, narrowly avoiding being baked into it by three Oliver Hardy lookalike bakers, and saves the cake by flying to a giant bottle of milk in a plane he made out of dough and bringing some milk back. Not before diving stark nekkid into the milk, of course.

Not exactly three adorable bunnies trying to steal some cabbage, am I right?

But I love it! It's so weird. We'd just gotten the book, and I hadn't read it in ages, if at all. Simon was so teeny, and he liked to "read" books to us, ones I thought he'd memorized. As far as I knew he could kind of recognize his name, and maybe sound out "Mac sat" in a BOB book. But he pulled this one out, never having seen it before in his life, and just started going. "Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing's the matter!" How can you not like that?

I don't have a picture of the event, but Sendak has been such a part of my children's lives I made Penny sit down this morning so I could take a picture of her reading her own favorite Maurice Sendak:

Oh please don't go. We'll eat you up, we love you so...

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

How to start a book club with your kids

I have been thinking about confessing something to you all. Lots of those books I have been reviewing down there, I didn't just read for the blog. I read them for the mother daughter book club I am in with Claire Helen. Ours is quite strong, a year after we started, and I've heard of several people who were in them but they faded away or disbanded. Here are some tips and questions you should ask yourself to organize yours so it sticks and is fun for everyone.

1) How big should my club be?
This requires more finesse than you would think! Since it's parent and child, the numbers can get out of control very quickly. If you have too few people, everybody thinks they have to come to every single one, and they feel too much pressure and decide not to do it. If you have too many, the meetings are chaos, nobody wants to host, and it's hard to get discussion really going. We have 6 girls and their moms. I think we could handle 2 more pairs, but not more. This way everyone feels obliged to read the book and participate; meetings are not too chaotic, and you don't dread your turn to host. I don't think we should ever dip below 5, to avoid it just being a mandatory book themed playdate.

2) Who should I invite?
I didn't think about this one too much when I started ours. I just picked some moms I liked and some girls who seemed like they liked to read. But upon reflection we lucked into a few things. The kids do not all need to be the same reading level, but they do all need to be interested in the same level books. It doesn't matter if everyone can read Wrinkle in Time  by themselves(some of our girls have their moms read parts of the books to them), but they should all be interested in having it read to them. Our club has a variety of different tastes, but everybody is willing to at least try different genres. The discussions are much more interesting if the girls want to be there and don't dread reading the books(even if they don't always like them).

It's nice but not at all necessary for the girls to know each other ahead of time- the girls in our club all go to school together, though they weren't in the same class at the founding. It's better if it's not just one or two cliques at school. Book clubs can be such a wonderful break from the social morass of elementary school, and I'd hate to see a book club just be an extension of the playground. It could be anything- swim team, dance class, old preschool friends. If the girls don't know each other well, be sure to give it a few meetings before deciding they don't click. Our girls took awhile to get in the groove of being a group, but now you wouldn't know who knew each other from before or not.

3) How often should we meet?
As often as you want, of course! We meet about every 7 weeks. If you stretch it out too much, the kids don't think of it as a "thing" they really do and will have to reacquaint themselves with what book discussion means each time. If you meet too often, some of them are going to freak out and feel pressured(not to mention the parents might want to read something besides young adult literature in their free time!). I think meeting every 5-6 weeks is ideal, but of course we all get busy, and the real key here is to be flexible.

4) Where should we meet?
We rotate houses, so each pair hosts once or twice a year. If you live in a less drizzly climate you might be able to go to a park, or maybe you have a community gathering spot that is perfect for these sorts of things. Personally I like the rotating homes thing because the girls just love seeing each other's houses, and we're not restricted by food or scheduling rules, but it does mean someone has to take on the job of hostessing each time. I originally proposed the the hostess gets to decide what day and time the book club will be, but in practice we have ended up using doodle polls. The hostess suggests 3 or 4 dates, and we go with the one with the most votes.

5) How much structure do we need?
I think this is really the most important part, and it's determined by the make-up of your group. At our meetings, the kid hostess is supposed to have a question or two to start discussion. Mostly they do, sometimes they do not. The grown-ups definitely have to help the discussion along. Some of them have been pretty halting, and some of them just take off, which is wonderful to see. We usually try starting a discussion for about 15 minutes, and if it hasn't taken off by then, let it go for a while. Usually it does, and they talk about the book for a half hour or so before going off to play (usually the play is about the book- for Swordbird this time, they were all pretending to be...wait for it...birds.).

Sometimes the hostess gets really into hostessing- for A Cricket in Times Square our hostess recreated the newsstand from cardboard and household objects. Sometimes the hostess does nothing, and the tenor of our book club is that that's ok too. Maybe you have a group of uber crafty friends who would enjoy egging each other on; you know your people. Our group works well for our members because expression about the book is celebrated- Claire Helen dresses in costume for each meeting and beams to the approving comments from the moms and kids- but not required. I know of another book club that has an hour of discussion/free play, and then a couple moms take the girls off to do a craft or activity related to the book they read that month for the second hour.

6) Should we have food?
I'm going to break form and just answer yes or no- YES. Have food. Remember- half the point is to keep the kids excited about reading and books, and hungry kids are grumpy kids. But make it easy. Nobody wants to host the equivalent of a Christmas party every couple months. We order pizza from the same place every time, and then the hostess does or does not add to it. I made a waffle bar for Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle which went over well, but is about as much effort as is necessarily a good idea for these things.

7) How old do the kids need to be?
I started ours when the girls were late 6- early 7, and I think that is about as early as you could really get a book discussion going and have at least some of the girls read the books by themselves. But if you are chomping at the bit with preschoolers, by all means form a book-themed playgroup, and watch it blossom into a strong book club as the kids get older.

8) Hey, why is yours all girls? Do you think it needs to be just one gender?
I dunno. Maybe. Up to you. I will tell you that whenever Simon is ready for one, I will probably go all boys for him. There are phases when boy and girl literary tastes often diverge quite a bit, particularly in early elementary school. Maybe you will see that as an opportunity to broaden your child's horizons, and to you I say good on you! You have to decide if you want to take on that challenge as well as whatever other challenges your particular book club presents.

9) How do we pick the books?
Why, visit, of course! Other, less superior ways- there are a squadrillion lists out there. Look up Fountas and Pinnell lists for the zone you're interested in. Have the kids bring suggestions. Try three different mystery series in a row(may I suggest Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and Hannah West?). Read Newbery medal winners from the 70's and the 2000's. Ask your school librarian. Ours is wonderful, and I bet yours is too. Sky's the limit here. I would suggest involving the kids somehow. We tend to discuss as mothers a few choices, and then bring them to the girls for a final decision. We also pick a few in a row, so the girls can get ahead if they want to, and so we don't have to spend half an hour of every meeting talking about what book to read next. I know several successful book clubs who pick once a year the twelve books for the year. I think a whole year might be hard with young children, since their taste and ability can change so fast. But 4 is a safe bet.

That's it, I think. Have a wonderful time! Any other questions? Leave them in the comments!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hannah West in the Center of the Universe

First, two book related pieces of business- what are your kids doing for Poem in your Pocket day? The national one is April 26-  but their school did it a couple weeks ago. Claire Helen took an Emily Dickinson poem- "A Soft Sea Washed around the House" for those in the know. Simon took several original compositions derived from Shel Silverstein poems. Mostly along the theme of being, uh, digested by a dragon. They loved it though, and as a tip, wore clothes with lots of pockets so they could write new ones throughout the day and swap with their friends. Great fun.

Also, dress as your favorite book character day is coming up in May- 17 at our school- what are you all thinking? Claire Helen is thinking Nancy Drew:

and Simon wants to be Simon from the Spiderwick Chronicle series:

I think if we can find something to sub in for the eyepiece we should  be good, though it's not the most recognizable character in the world. The pressure is on, though, because Claire Helen was a pretty spot on Harriet the Spy last year:

Perhaps it is not clear that we take our book related holidays quite seriously around here. Ahem.

Onto a review.

Hannah West in the Center of the Universe, by Linda Johns


Hannah West—twelve-year-old adopted Chinese daughter of Maggie West and aspiring detective—is back on the scene in a third original adventure. Someone is kidnapping canines, and it’s got the dog-crazy denizens of funky Fremont—where Hannah and her mom have landed their latest house-sitting gig—all riled up. At first, Hannah’s in heaven in dog-filled Fremont, but when her dog-walking business marks her as a suspect in the dognappings, she knows that this is one case that she’s got to get to the bottom of—for her own sake, as well as for the sake of her canine companions!

Reading levels- unlevelled, around 800 lexile.

Today I'm reviewing one of a series of marvelous, marvelous books before they go out of print. Well, at least they are marvelous to one 7 year old girl in residence. Hannah West is a 12 year old aspiring living in Seattle with her mother. They house sit and so find their way through various character filled neighborhoods in Seattle- this one, obviously, Fremont- and she solves mysteries (often dog related) through cleverness and bravery. 

This is not an especially difficult or narrative-horizon-broadening book. It's not hard to tell, fairly early on, who the bad guys are. I am reviewing it today because Hannah is such a great character for an introverted bookish sort of child who doesn't always feel that they fit in. She approaches adults respectfully but boldly, cares for animals, is funny, and uses her brain to solve the mysteries. Claire Helen loves this series, and returns to it often.

We found ourselves with some extra time over spring break, and even took a little tour of some of the Fremont spots Hannah frequents. Norm's, Markettime Grocery, the troll, and Theo's chocolate factory, which we feel sure she would have frequented, even if it wasn't in the book. Darnitall, I only took pictures at Norms, the dog-friendly dive-y diner, but I think you can tell we had a good time. This is Betty's confused-but-happy face:

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Masterpiece

Cough cough.

Remember that bit about having reviews up last weekend?

That was before we became a house of ill-repute. Actual illness, not just reputed. I find illness to be one of the very few areas where it actually is harder and not more fun to have three children instead of the standard issue two. With three, the illnesses seem to last and last, and when I get it, instead of collapsing to my bed after the kid maelstrom, it's always during at least one of their sick days. Taking care of a sick child while you yourself are sick is such a defeating feeling. That feeling definitely does not lend itself to writing zippy blog posts. But I'm back! And taking a break from the egg factory right now:

This week, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare for Claire Helen types, and Masterpiece by Elise Broach for Simon types.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare

Lexile level: 850
Fountas and Pinnel: W

The blurb:

Kit Tyler is marked by suspicion and disapproval from the moment she arrives on the unfamiliar shores of colonial Connecticut in 1867. Alone and desperate, she has been forced to leave her beloved home on the island of Barbados and join a family she has never met. Torn between her quest for belonging and her desire to be true to herself, Kit struggles to survive in a hostile place. Just when it seems she must give up, she finds a kindred spirit. But Kit’s friendship with Hannah Tupper, believed by the colonists to be a witch, proves more taboo than she could have imagined and ultimately forces Kit to choose between her heart and her duty.
Elizabeth George Speare’s Newbery Award–winning novel portrays a heroine whom readers will admire for her unwavering sense of truth as well as her infinite capacity to love.

Claire Helen has a goal of reading all the Newbery Medal books, which I and a lot of my contemporaries did as children. You may or may not be aware that several decades have passed in the interim (horrors), and with each passing year there is another Newbery Medal, and so the stack is quite a bit higher than when I was young. So I am trying to help her out, and we have listened to a couple in the car, this one included. 

I'm reviewing it now because it is very perfect for a particular sort of personality. There is a strong heroine (Kit), who is, as in 90% of children's literature, abandoned/orphaned at the start of the action. She leaves her childhood home of Barbados in search of her aunt and uncle in 19th century, puritan Connecticut. Most of the book is her struggle to fit in the small, judgmental community, and what happens when she follows her heart and is kind to another outcast. The insights into Kit's mind are lovely, and her cousins, Judith and Mercy, are very well drawn. 

I didn't really appreciate how much of the book was focused on who got which romantic pairing, even if it might have been appropriate for the period. I wish the male characters had been better developed, though that, too, might have been a function of the structure- it's told first person from Kit's point of view. All in all, certainly a worthwhile read. Getting to know Kit was nothing but a pleasure, and Claire Helen really really loved it. I'd recommend it. Just be aware that romance is in the air, so you are prepared for your less emotionally mature readers.

Masterpiece, by Elise Broach

Lexile level: 700
Fountas and Pinnell: U

And the blurb

Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink in the Pompadays’ apartment. He is very much a beetle. James Pompaday lives with his family in New York City. He is very much an eleven-year-old boy. After James gets a pen-and-ink set for his birthday, Marvin surprises him by creating an elaborate miniature drawing. James gets all the credit for the picture and before these unlikely friends know it they are caught up in a staged art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that could help recover a famous drawing by Albrecht Dürer. But James can’t go through with the plan without Marvin’s help. And that’s where things get really complicated (and interesting!). This fast-paced mystery will have young readers on the edge of their seats as they root for boy and beetle.

In Shakespeare’s Secret Elise Broach showed her keen ability to weave storytelling with history and suspense, and Masterpiece is yet another example of her talent. This time around it’s an irresistible miniature world, fascinating art history, all wrapped up in a special friendship— something for everyone to enjoy.

This book is great! I love the way Broach talks about Marvin's total dependence on James contrasted with the completeness of his little beetle self. There's nothing in here that is too difficult for young readers. Marvin is afraid of being squashed a few times(but I don't think you can write a book about a beetle without the squashing threat). There is art stolen, a betrayal, and James definitely has a hard time when he is put on the spot by the adults who hope he can draw as well as Durer, when really it is Marvin with the talent. 

But mostly the book just strikes a good balance interesting things happen and not too hard for little brains. The blurb is right- you root for the boy and the beetle naturally. Simon wished for a little more action at times, but it's possible that Simon wishes for too much action.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

New reviews this weekend- I am trying to decide what I think of audio books. Generally pro, of course, but is anything especially valuable lost in the translation? Does actually seeing the words matter to you? Is it ok that my children shush me so that they can hear the exciting part of the Witch of Blackbird Pond? (It is not *that* exciting) (and I thought my exposition on the history of mass public transportation was very interesting, thankyouverymuch)

Probably I am too morose and thoughtful this week, with the passing of Adrienne Rich. Have you all heard of her? Her stuff was all over my college political science/feminist what-have-you courses, lo these many years ago. Here's an excerpt from her New York Times obit-

Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work — distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity — brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, with which she had lived for most of her adult life, her family said.

Widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.

Triply marginalized — as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew — Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

As it happens I have a poetry loving daughter. Claire Helen adores Emily Dickinson with a passion that makes my postmodern novel loving head tilt and smile bemusedly, and though I try gamely to do read my part of Poems for Two Voices, it's hard to say I care quite as much as she does. Claire Helen is too young for Rich, I think, but her poet's heart caused me to notice Rich's passing when I might not really have otherwise. Rich was 82; it's not that she was young, but that she was so great.

Diving Into the Wreck

I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. ...
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

--Adrienne Rich, 1973

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place and The Witches

This week for Claire Helen types, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: the Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood, and for Simon types, The Witches, by the inimitable Roald Dahl.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place


Fountas and Pinnell: not given

Lexile level: 1000L

Found running wild in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander, age ten or thereabouts, keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia has a bark that's (usually) worse than her bite, and Beowulf, age somewhere-in-the-middle, is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels. 
Luckily Peneleope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must help them overcome their canine tendencies. 


I first noticed this book, oh, a year or two ago. It was first published in hardback in 2010, so I suppose not as long ago as I imagine, but perhaps it took up so much space in my mind that it feels like I've known about it a long time. Claire Helen was going through a mildly gothic phase; the main character's name is Penelope, and I have a soft spot for all things British. It's a series now- 3 books I think- but it wasn't at the time. I pitched it to Claire Helen (resounding no), then to our mother daughter book club (preferred something with more anthropomorphic animals and fewer spikey fences), before giving up for a while. Several months ago, we saw the whole series at a friend's house, and the little girl was so breathless in her enthusiasm that Claire Helen wanted to read it immediately.

It's good! Of course I think it's good. See above, re: main character, goth, and Britishness. As the Amazon blurb says, Penelope Lumley arrives at Ashton Place to be the new governess for three feral children who have mysteriously appeared in Lord Ashton's care. Over the course of the book, she helps the (very sweet and well intentioned) children transform from childish puppies to puppy-ish children. Penelope is a great heroine- naively righteous and strong willed, hopeful and clever.

We read this book partly aloud, and she read it partly to herself. That lexile level is usually about right for her, but I think it might be underestimated here. The language- especially the first 25 pages or so- is very hard. There is a lot of context setting about the time and place (early 20th century England), and clues we are supposed to use to learn about the characters' various classes and history which were too subtle for Claire Helen. The plot and character outlines are very appropriate for precocious early elementary readers, but the class commentary flew pretty straight over her head. It was a very enjoyable readaloud, and I know Claire Helen really enjoyed the parts she got, but it might be better suited to an older child with more context for the satirical elements and maybe some more experience with the time and place.

The Witches


This Roald Dahl classic tells the scary, funny and imaginative tale of a seven-year-old boy who has a run-in with some real-life witches! "In fairy tales witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. That is why they are so hard to catch." Witches, as our hero learns, hate children. With the help of a friend and his somewhat-magical grandmother, our hero tries to expose the witches before they dispose of him. Ages 7-12.

Fountas and Pinnell: R

Lexile level: 740L

Every time a child goes to kindergarten in this house, I take them to California for a special trip. One of my favorite stops in their town is a tiny little used book store called Toad Hall, which still takes only cash, is at least half children's books, and the other half is mostly behind glass, seemingly deemed "too special" by the owners, for sale. A true labor of love. On this trip Simon finished the books we brought from home, I needed to get him something to get us through our car and plane trip home.

Simon is a chatty sort of person, so hit the owner up for suggestions pretty quickly. She pointed us toward a lot of great comic and picture books, which I am sure he would have loved, but I needed something to occupy him for the whole plane flight so I could do some work. He went back and forth over Hardy Boys and the Fantastic Five series, but finally settled on the Roald Dahl section. He ended up with the Witches, and I'm pleased to say it did its job. He read it on the trip home, interspersed with periods of my reading pages when it got "too scary," and then I read it myself after we got home to see if Claire Helen might also like it (no).

Anyway. The review.

It's not like you don't know who Roald Dahl is- he is an amazing storyteller, and this book is no exception. A young boy and his cigar smoking, aphorism spouting grandmother go on vacation and discover that all the witches in England are attending a convention at their hotel and are hatching a plan to rid the world of children (who smell like poop to them) by using a potion which turns children into mice. Most dastardly of all- they are putting this potion in candy, as many of them are candy shop owners. 

Roald Dahl stories are also very often gruesome, and this one is as gruesome as the come. Our narrator (never given a name) is turned into a mouse at one point, and it sounds like it hurts. The witches are terrifying creatures. The narrator is an orphan (not that unusual in the world of children's literature, but a flashpoint for many young readers). Some children die in very horrifying, tragic sorts of ways. Simon is one of those kids who is not really affected by scariness, and even he had me read bits to him so he wouldn't have to read it himself. I would not give this book to Claire Helen- the vivid descriptions of scary things would be too much for her. Still, this was a really great book that he loved reading. Despite the scary plot points, Dahl always manages to keep enough humor in the telling so that it's enjoyable for the right kid. I love the way Dahl ends books, and I won't spoil it for you, but it's the best kind of sigh. Not entirely happy, but not what you could ever call sad, either.