The Book Blab Episode 6: A Man Called Ove Book Discussion, Plus Two Readalikes (with show notes)

May 30, 2016

Ever since Suzanne and I started The Book Blab, I've been worried about the possibility of technological difficulties. Technology has never been my thing, but at least with a blog, if I have issues, I can get them all sorted out without anyone knowing there even were issues. But the blab is live and we have a set time to go on air, so we can't afford to have problems. But on Thursday, we had problems. I guess I should be grateful that it's taken until episode 6 before we ran into any major difficulties, but it was still really frustrating.

For some reason, my mic wasn't connecting to my computer, so Suzanne couldn't hear me. My technical skills are limited to "find headphones jack; plug in headphones; talk." So when I wasn't being heard, I didn't know what to do. I tried a different set of headphones without success. Finally I switched to our older laptop and got things working, but I had to open a new blab, which was such a bummer because it meant that anyone who wanted to watch the live show and participate didn't get the chance, and I'm so sorry about that!!! I wish I could say it will never happen again, but I don't have that much confidence in myself, especially since I still don't really know what the issue was.

Anyway, even though we can no longer get your real-time responses to the questions, we would still love for you to participate in the comments. Please share your reaction to the story, opinions about the characters, how many times you laughed or cried, etc. Let's keep this discussion going! 



0:50 - Suzanne finished her master's degree!
1:54 - This month's topic: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
3:25 - Spoiler-free plot summary
5:54 - What is your favorite funny moment?
  • 6:28 - Saab references
  • 8:36 - Ipad scene
10:40 - How did you feel about the structure of the novel? How did it influence the way you thought about Ove?
  • 12:00 - Brilliant emotional manipulation
  • 13:05 - True to real life
13:45 -  Does Ove's personality change during the course of the story? Is it influenced by Sonja or, later, Parveneh?
  • 14:43 - Ove's personality doesn't change, but our perspective of him does.
  • 16:08 - His friends learn how to interact with him.
17:45 - There are several interesting marriages in this book. What makes them work?
  • 17:55 - Ove and Sonja
  • 20:00 - Parveneh and Patrick
22:27 - How did you feel about Parveneh's character? Was she rude and invasive? Or should more people be like her?
  • 23:28 - Is their friendship realistic?
  • 25:40 - Introverts and extroverts
26:58 - What was your takeaway from the book?
  • 27:30 - "We can busy ourselves with living or dying."
  • 28:45 - You can't judge people when you don't know the backstory.
30:20 - Two similar recommendations to A Man Called Ove
  • 30:46 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 33:00 - Amy's recommendation
36:05 - Conclusion

Links from the show:

Suzanne's review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Suzanne's review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Amy's review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Thanks for watching! And again, we'd love for you to chime in with your questions, thoughts, and opinions in the comments! We'll be back in about a month with another fun discussion about books!

Why I Decided to Make My Life Less Crazy and Send My Kids to One Elementary School

May 27, 2016


Today is Aaron's last day of school. As always, it's bittersweet. I cried when I talked to Aaron's teacher this morning. She has been so fantastic and was such a perfect match for Aaron's personality. I wish we could just keep her for next year too.

Now you might be wondering, What about Maxwell? Well, today is not his last day. No, he still has another week because, you might remember from this previous post, he has not been attending the same school as Aaron. And as sad as I am about saying good-bye to Aaron's teacher, I am not at all sad about saying good-bye to this school year. In fact, I've been counting down the days, and even now, want to get up a do a little dance for joy that we are almost done, DONE, with two schools, and I hope not to do such a thing again until we're forced into it in junior high. It actually seems rather fitting that we're ending the year with a conflict of schedules since that is what we've been dealing with for the last nine months.

When we put Maxwell in the charter school instead of in the school Aaron was already attending, we had our reasons (namely: I wasn't so sure about the kindergarten teacher at Aaron's school; I wanted somewhere for Aaron to end up if he didn't get into the gifted program for third grade; I was curious to see what the charter school was like).

I think I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a hassle of a year (half day kindergarten is anyway, but then throw in two schools on two different schedules, and things become rather ridiculous), but what I didn't plan on was how removed I felt from both schools as I failed to do double duty.

There were different fundraisers, carnivals, art fairs, science nights, programs, volunteer opportunities, and schedules.  Sadly, I found myself getting downright irritated anytime one of the boys came home with another flyer for something I needed to do or go to or pay money for. In the past, I've been excited for any opportunity to become involved; I've even sought them out. But this year, since they were coming in all the time from all directions, I battened down the hatches instead and waited out the year, prepared to emerge when it was all over.

I think part of the reason I sort of checked out for the year was because I honestly didn't know where we were going to end up for 2016-2017. I found it hard to put so much time, energy, and loyalty into a school that we would just be leaving at the end of the year (a bad attitude, I know).
 
But there were many unknowns, and we just had to wait and wonder (and okay, in my case, stress and agonize) until we finally heard back from various options.

First up: the charter school. I filled out an application for Aaron for the coming year. The charter school fills its classes through a lottery, but siblings get first preference. It's hard to get a spot in the upper grades since someone has to leave in order for there to be an opening. But if there was an opening, I knew Aaron would have a fairly good chance of getting it since Max was already a student there. And sure enough, in March we found out there was a spot in the upcoming third grade class. I didn't know if things were going to work out for him in the gifted program at his school, so I went ahead and registered him and essentially kept my foot in that door.

The second unknown was the gifted program. Aaron had been in it for first and second grade, and it was perfect for him, but prior to third grade, all of the students had to be re-tested (as well as any other students in the district who were interested) so that anyone who wanted to be in the gifted program had a fair chance of getting in. If Aaron ended up staying in the gifted program for third grade, I wanted Max at the same school (plus, I knew that with his personality, he would really thrive in the gifted program), so I had him tested as well. That testing happened in January and February, but we didn't hear the results until much later.

And finally, there was the French immersion program, which was also housed at Aaron's school. If Aaron made it into the gifted program, but Max did not, I still wanted them to go to the same school, so I filled out a French application so that Max could do that instead. We heard back from them in March and accepted the spot, to hold our place there as well.

So there we were with three different options. If you had asked me in September what my ideal school situation would be, I would have answered, "the gifted program for both boys" without a second thought.  But in March, as I registered Aaron at the charter school, all while anxiously checking the mail every day for word about the other school, I began to change my mind. After all, even if Aaron and Max both got into the gifted program, that would only keep us safe for two years. Then Max would be the one going into third and Bradley would be the one going into first, and we'd have to go through this all over again. And then, if that worked out, we'd have to do it again in two more years with Bradley and Clark. I wondered if I should just pull the plug right then while I had the chance and switch to the charter school, regardless of the test results.

But as tempting as that sounded, I could never get myself to feel excited about it, mostly because I loved Aaron's school (and especially, his teachers) so much, and I couldn't imagine saying good-bye to them all, especially by choice.

What's more, and probably more important than what I thought, Aaron loved his school. When I approached him with the idea of switching schools, he was adamantly opposed: "Why would I switch?! I like my school and my friends." This is, of course, the response you would expect from a 7-year-old. In fact, you might expect it from a 6-year-old as well, but Maxwell showed no such reservations about switching the other way ("You mean I could go to chess club with Aaron? Okay!"). In fact, soon after the gifted testing, but long before we heard any results, he even started telling teachers, "Just so you know, I might not be here next year."

March and April were agonizing months for me. I know it's a blessing to have options, but those very options made me feel like I was going crazy. I thought about the school situation obsessively, going over the various possibilities, trying to determine which would be best for my kids and our family even though at that point it was still beyond my control.

We had to wait the longest for the gifted results, and although that was really hard for me, it gave me plenty of time to think and ponder and pray about this decision. I had gone over all the logical, practical, and educational pros and cons, so instead, I started to pay attention to how I felt: when I drove to the schools, when I walked in the front doors, when I talked to the teachers. And once I did that, the answer was so clear, it almost knocked me over, and it just became more sharp and well-defined as the weeks went on.

But we were still waiting on that final card . . . 

It was a warm April morning and we'd just returned home from a soccer game when I checked the mailbox and saw two official-looking envelopes, one to Aaron and one to Maxwell, waiting inside. I know it sounds silly, but my heart leaped a little when I saw them and my hands were clumsy and shaky as I broke the seals. Both boys had been accepted into the gifted program, and I started to cry from the sheer relief of it all.

For months, the decision had felt so daunting and impossible, but when it was time to finally, finally, make the actual decision, it was as easy as pie . . . and not because it was made for us through circumstances but because we already knew exactly what we wanted.

When Mike got home, and I told him the news, he was totally nonchalant about it: "Oh really? Well that's good." Aaron and Max were happy, but after about ten seconds, they were busy with other things and totally forgot about it.

But me? I was on cloud nine then, and I'm still there five weeks later. The relief I felt at a decision finally being reached was overwhelming for me. It was like Christmas. After that, anytime I was in a bad mood (about anything!) I'd think, "Yes, but Aaron and Max are going to the same school next year," and the world would grow a little rosier.

I've thought a lot about whether keeping so many options open for so long was really necessary or even helpful. In some ways, it was a great comfort to me to know that if one scenario didn't work out, we already had something else lined up. But on the other hand, it created a rather stressful year, and I really didn't like feeling so divided between schools. Part of me wonders if we would have done better just committing to one school and having faith that things would work out the way we wanted them to.

But here's the thing: at the beginning of the school year, we didn't know what we wanted or what would be best for Aaron and Max. It was only after we waded through the months of insecurity that we (mostly I) felt at peace with a decision. I don't know if we could have got there any other way. Plus, Max really did have a good year and got to go to school with several of his friends from the neighborhood, and I'm glad for that. And I think a part of me would have always wished that we'd tried out the charter school. So I'm not going to say that we shouldn't have done it because it all led to a good decision in the end, so I guess that's what's important, right?

Of course I realize that even though this decision feels so right right now, it might not stay that way. And I'm okay with that. If anything, this year has taught me that we can be flexible.

Now if we can only get through this final week of school with Max so that summer can officially start!

Sunlit Pages Turns Four (and a Giveaway!)

May 23, 2016


When I clicked publish on my first official post in May 2012, I don't know where I thought (or hoped) this blog would be in four years. I started it as an outlet for my reading passion. I wanted to be able to keep a record of the books I'd read, and I wanted to be able to connect with other readers. But besides the book reviews, I also wanted to capture how our family felt about books and reading and life in general. I never wanted it to become a family journal where I documented every activity (and I don't think it has), but I also didn't want to separate my actual life from the book reviews. I wanted this blog to be me, and I feel like I've stayed true to that original vision over the last four years.

A lot of bloggers recap their blog's highlights at the end of the year, but I prefer to do it in May when Sunlit Pages turns another year older. I hope you'll indulge me as I reflect back on some of the changes and additions that have happened over the last year and also remember a few favorite posts.

Here are some of the more notable things that happened on the blog:
  • It got a major redesign last summer. My friend, Sarah, helped me with the new template. And my friend, Molly, drew the picture for the header. I still smile every time I open up this page and see all of us sitting under that tree because it reflects my ideal even if that's not what reading looks like for us all the time. 
  • I conducted my first official survey. I was so happy so many of you chose to take it, and the information was very helpful.
  • I took a three-week break. On purpose and with intention. It was so good for me and helped me realize that I still like blogging. However, I continue to search for the perfect balance between blogging and mothering and my other interests and responsibilities. You may have noticed that I've been averaging two posts a week instead of three lately. I think that's just the season of life I'm in lately, and I'm working on being okay with it.
  • I opened up my Raising Readers series to guest writers, and it's been so fun to see how other families encourage a love of books and reading in their homes.
  • Suzanne and I started a monthly(ish) blab, which we appropriately christened, The Book Blab. Although we record it live (and always let our readers know when that will happen), we always post the videos with the show notes after we're done so anyone can watch them at anytime. Episode 6 will air later this week (Thursday, May 26th, at 7:00pm MST). 
  •  I became an Amazon affiliate. Now if you click through one of the links into Amazon and then purchase something (anything!), I'll make a small commission.
  • I started giving monthly family updates. I actually love putting together these posts, and even though they usually don't have too much to do with reading, I love summing up the big and little happenings in one post.
  • I was a Cybils judge for the easy readers and early chapter books category. This was one of the most fun and rewarding things I did this year, and I'm hoping to participate again next year.
I don't foresee any big changes for this upcoming year. I'm hoping to return to more frequent picture book posts (I've let Instagram take over for me there (#kidpages for all of my recommendations), but I like writing longer reviews sometimes). Also, I haven't kept my archived lists of book reviews very up-to-date, and I'm hoping to do much better with that this year. Is there anything you'd particularly like to see more of in future posts?

It's hard to see some of my favorite posts get lost in the archives, and so every year I try to resurrect just a few of them by highlighting them here. Hopefully you discover some that you haven't read before!

In no particular order:

Eye-Catching: 15 Awesome Birthday Cakes (a round-up of all the cakes we've made for our kids over the years)

Sentimental: The Most Marvelous and Exciting Father (a tribute to my dad)

Mind-Shift: The Lightning Bolt of Habit Change (it's pretty awesome when a good habit just sort of happens)

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat (if you haven't read this book yet, hopefully this review will convince you)

Survival: 8 Rules to Follow to Make Library Visits Work With Kids (I've finally had to give up the stroller, but I still follow the rest of these tips)

Agony: Why I Decided to Make My Life Crazy and Send My Kids to Two Different Elementary Schools (the follow-up to this post will be up at the end of this week)

Happy: Make a Library in Your Home (it's small, but I love it)

Mantra: I'd Rather Read Than Waste Time (what would YOU rather do?)

Rant: The Lost Art of Saying Thank You (one of those posts I didn't plan to write but couldn't help myself)

Honest: On Being Authentic (I continue to think about this one and cut people some slack because of it)

Activity: Poetry Snack Time (everything you wanted to know about this family activity that puts the spotlight on poetry)

Collection: 20 Parenting Books Later, and This is What I Remember (be sure to read the comments section of this one for even more ideas)

And finally, to celebrate Sunlit Pages' fourth birthday, I'm giving away one copy of Little Men in the Puffin Classics edition. This was one of my favorite books in 2015, and then, just a few weeks ago, I found it in this darling edition (that inspired me to write this post).

To enter, simply leave a comment! (Make sure your email is either linked to your profile or included in the comment so I can get in touch with you if you win!) (Oh, and also, should you win, I'll give you three days to reply to me with your address, afterwhich I'll select a new winner. Last year, the winner never responded and so the prize went unclaimed, and that's just too sad.) Giveaway closes on Thursday, May 26th, at midnight. (U.S. residents only. I apologize to my international readers! I still love you guys!)

Thanks for another great year of talking books and other things! I love reading your insights and recommendations in the comments or through email. There's nothing quite like connecting with other people who have that same passion for reading. Cheers!

P.S. In case you missed it mentioned in the post, Episode 6 of The Book Blab will air this coming Thursday, May 26th, at 7:00pm MST. We'll be discussing A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. We hope many of you will join us live and engage in the discussion! See you then!

The Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge

May 20, 2016

For me, buying books gives me the same kind of thrill that buying shoes gives to other women. I love looking at the shiny cover and crisp pages and hearing the spine creak open for the first time.

But as much as I love buying new books, I have pretty strict criteria for what I'll buy: I have to have already read and loved it and think that at some point down the road I might want to reread it. (Or, it needs to look really pretty on my bookshelf.) (Or, it needs to be by a favorite and well-trusted author.)

Okay, so maybe my criteria isn't that strict (for more on this subject, watch Episode 2 of The Book Blab where Suzanne and I discuss our book buying habits). The point is, I have criteria.

When The Invisible Girls was selected for my book club in May, neither of the library systems I use had a single copy, so I was in a predicament. It wasn't a book I'd read, loved, or wanted to reread. It wasn't a gorgeous edition. And it wasn't by an author I'd ever read (or even heard of) before. I try really hard to read every book we pick for book club, but the fact that I was going to have to purchase this book in order to read it was a major deterrent (cheap-skate, right here).

Luckily, my friend, Jen (who's now famous on this blog), came to my rescue and bought the book herself, read it, and then loaned it to me, so I avoided having to agonize over my book-buying standards.

It's a beautiful fall afternoon in 2012 when Sarah Thebarge starts playing peekaboo with a little Somali girl on the train into downtown Portland. She's with her sister and mother, and during the train ride, Sarah finds out they are refugees, there are three more daughters at school, their father has left them, and this woman has no family support in this vast city. Sarah is drawn to help and gets the woman's address before they part ways.

But of course, meeting a Somali family on a train is far from the beginning of Sarah's story. So she backs up to her childhood and young adulthood, where the reader learns that she grew up in a fundamentalist culture with very clear boundaries between male and female roles and a harsh view of God. In spite of that, she had big dreams and went to college and eventually earned an advanced degree at Yale and began course work on another. But then, at the young age of 27, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and everything changed.

Sarah tells her story by moving back and forth between her past (focusing specifically on her years with breast cancer) and the present (with the Somali family). As you can imagine, her cancer diagnosis completely rocked her faith and her relationship with God. She moved to Portland for a fresh start following her treatments, and as she reached outside herself to help this struggling family, her heart gradually healed and her faith was renewed.

When Sarah goes to the family's home for the first time, she is shocked by what she finds: the rooms are empty of furniture except for a couple of mattresses; the girls are all sitting on the dining room floor, dipping moldy bread in ketchup; the whole apartment is dark and dismal. During subsequent visits, she discovers even more oversights in their basic necessities: no soap, no toilet paper, no cleaning supplies of any kind; the apartment is freezing because they don't know how to use the thermostat; they've been burning all their food because Hadhi has been been setting the oven to broil.

So it's little things like that (which, when you add them all up, turn into really, really big things) that Sarah begins to help them with. At times, she's overwhelmed, and I don't blame her. I'm a little bit of a germaphobe, and, as much as I don't like to admit it, I don't know if I would have been able to get past the unsanitary conditions and continue to go back for more.

But Sarah did, and I really respected and admired her for that. I was also impressed with the way she balanced giving and teaching and encouraging (and even, stepping back). She could have walked in on that first day and thought, We've got to do something fast (like, buy soap!), but she helped very carefully, always making sure not to undermine Hadhi's authority and trying to do things that would also foster independence rather than dependence. She was a mentor in every sense of the word, and that is exactly what this family needed--just someone to be on their side in a country where they were essentially invisible.

Even when things were hard and she felt overwhelmed, Sarah looked forward to going over the family's apartment every few days because she felt such an instant connection with each of the girls, especially the four-year-old, Lelo, who was lively and rambunctious and always full of mischief. Early on in their relationship, she told them she loved them, and I really liked this perspective she shared,
"Past experience had made me wary of saying I Love You to people. I learned the hard way that those words complicate most relationships, and leave you open to more rejection and more pain than if you left them unsaid. But saying I Love You to these girls wasn't like accidentally spilling a fine wine; it was like pouring water on parched ground. They seemed as starved for attention and affection as they were for food."
I think anytime you have an experience helping someone and then write a book about it, you run the risk of it seeming a little self-serving (were you helping because you wanted to or because you thought it would make a great book deal?), but I never got that impression with this book. I think this was due, in part, to Sarah's own struggles and trials (she never comes across as having a perfect life), but also because, in the end, you see how much this refugee family helps Sarah in her own healing process.

But on top of that, any money that Sarah makes on this book goes into a college fund for these five sisters (of course, after I learned that, then I felt really good about my stinginess), and I think that will be such a gift.

About four months into Sarah's friendship with Hadhi and her girls, Hadhi gets very sick and has to be taken to the ER. It is hard for her to communicate her symptoms, and so they get a Somali interpreter on the phone to help. The interpreter introduces herself, "Hi, my name is Lelo." Sarah and Hadhi both perk up at the name because it is the same as Hadhi's fourth daughter (the mischievous one). In that moment, Sarah catches a glimpse at a future for these girls--a future that is far from fear or insecurity or deprivation. It gives her hope, and it's at that point that she realizes she wants to do anything she can to make that future a reality.

I really, really enjoyed this book, and it made me want to overcome some of my own fears and inhibitions and look for ways to help people in similar circumstances in my own community.

Content note: a little bit of language, mostly said by the girls who picked it up at school and didn't realize they were saying anything bad.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

May 17, 2016

When I had The Nightingale checked out from the library the first time, I didn't put a high enough priority on it in my reading queue, and so I was only on page 96 when it had to go back to the library (I know this because I made a note of it so I'd know where to pick it back up when I got it back). Being a very popular book, I had to wait through another long list of people before it was finally my turn again. And you better believe that when I had it in my hands again, I made a point of finishing it.

Obviously I found the first ninety-six pages interesting enough that I was willing to return to it after a month-long break, in part because a couple of my friends knew I was reading it and asked how I liked it and I wanted to be able to talk to them about it, but it wasn't completely gripping. Once I finally got it back though, I found the final three hundred pages much more engrossing than the first hundred and flew through the rest of it.

I wouldn't necessarily say I came away feeling satisfied, but it was one of those books I enjoyed being in the middle of (apparently, since I was technically reading it for two months).

The story centers around two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Although most of the story takes place during World War II, the reader gets some back story (mainly about their strained relationship after their mother dies and their father sends them away) and some glimpses into the future in 1995 when one of the sisters (it's not clear at first which one) is confronted with the past she's tried so hard to forget.

Vianne and Isabelle were never close--not in age (there's a gap of about ten years), temperament, or ability. When their father basically stopped being a father, Vianne met Antoine, whom she later married, and Isabelle got passed around from boarding school to boarding school, after getting kicked out of each one. When they hear the first rumblings of war, Vianne's first reaction is to pull her husband and daughter close and never let them go whereas Isabelle wants to join the resistance and let Germany know that they can't have France without a fight.

The war changes both of them. Vianne is forced to billet a German officer and suffers extreme deprivation as the war gradually strips the country of all its resources. Turns out, she's much tougher than she realized. Isabelle, meanwhile, joins an underground group distributing anti-Germany propaganda and eventually earns the nickname "Nightingale" as she smuggles downed Ally airmen over to Spain where they can rejoin their armies. She is extremely brave but also vulnerable.

At one point, Vianne visits Mother Superior at the convent because she is so worked up with guilt over a decision she made that negatively impacted one of her dearest friends. I love the advice Mother Superior gives her: "Don't think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you."

This idea of choosing your sacrifices definitely becomes a theme throughout the book. As you can imagine with WWII as the backdrop, there are some (actually, a lot of) hard, heavy moments. Over and over again, Vianne and Isabelle make decisions that risk their own safety and that of their loved ones. The options they're given are usually impossible choices: they have to risk one thing to protect something else which in turn puts something else at risk. These choices are completely overwhelming, and I kept wondering what I would do in their place; the very thought made me sick.

Unfortunately, as with many WWII books, this one left me feeling weary and depressed. The story gets progressively darker, and by the end, I couldn't handle anymore. There isn't a lot of actual warfare, but the way the German officers took advantage of the French people and the unwarranted violence and arrests and the horrendous treatment of Jews and the sickening torture meted out to prisoners of war was plenty difficult to read without going onto a single battlefield. When I have enough space between books like this one, I forget the details of WWII and how many people were senselessly killed. So then when I pick one up again, it's like I'm learning about it for the first time all over again, and I honestly can't believe that these kind of atrocities happened on such a wide scale and not very many decades ago.

I have such conflicted feelings about this particular story. I loved the perspective of both sisters and seeing how they served their country in very different, but equally courageous, ways. I thought the love story between Isabelle and Gaƫtan was sweet but also very dramatic, especially at the end. I also thought there were a few too many coincidences at the very end when the story moves back to 1995. Too many characters miraculously showed up, and it felt a little unrealistic.

Shortly after I finished this book, I watched the movie Life is Beautiful for the first time. It's one of Mike's very favorite movies, but I kept resisting because I knew it would be too sad. He kept assuring me, "No, no, it's inspiring. There will be some sad parts but overall, it's really uplifting." So I watched it and by the end, my tears were flowing without restraint (that little boy with those bright eyes!), and I don't think I would have used the word "uplifted" at all. This book had nothing in common with that movie except that they're both heartbreaking, and that's what you have to expect from a WWII story. That war touched millions of lives with sadness.

Content note: Violence, immorality, and rape are all a part of this story. It could have been a lot more graphic, but it's still there and very disturbing. There's also a little bit of language.

Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale

May 13, 2016

I'm one of those strange people who feels freed, rather than restricted, by goals. Take this book, for example.

I first heard about Nathan Hale's historical fiction series a few years ago. At the time, I hadn't yet overcome my fear of graphic novels, and so I wasn't interested in trying it. A few months later, I heard about them again and thought they might be good for Aaron at some point down the road. And then awhile after that, they popped up again, and this time I knew Aaron would like them (he's really been into comics lately), but I thought I'd like to give them a try too . . . if only I had the time.

And then I remembered: Wait, I have a goal for that: "Read six books with Aaron." That was all I needed; I had the first book in the series checked out the next week.

I admit it's kind of silly that goals grant me permission to read books I might not pick up otherwise, but hey, it works. And I've really been loving this goal in particular because it's helped me become more familiar with the books that appeal to second-grade boys.

This one, I have to admit, was pretty awesome. It stars Nathan Hale (not the author, but the Revolutionary War spy). When the story opens, he is about to be hanged because, spoiler, the British caught him. But first, he takes the reader back in time to various events in the war prior to his untimely death.

The dialogue is, of course, all made up (except for a couple of salty lines from Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, which are, apparently, the real deal). And the whole account is treated with probably just a little too much humor and irreverence for something as serious as war.

But I really loved it so much. I know I'm an adult, but it honestly made this war come alive for me in a different way than it ever has before.

Take Henry Knox, for example. I've heard his name many times in various books and history texts, but if you had asked me a week ago what he did, or even which war he served in, I don't think I could have told you. Now, of course, it's fresh in my mind because I just read this book, but I honestly don't think I'll ever be able to hear his name again without thinking, Knox the Ox! That's the guy who loves guns!

And that part's true. Henry Knox really was the chief of artillery for the whole army. He really did move sixty cannons across the Hudson River in the middle of December. He really did save one of those cannons from sinking in the icy water when everyone else would have counted it as a loss. And although he didn't have all of the conversations and interactions that are portrayed in this book and probably didn't act quite so much like a ten-year-old boy with a vast number of weapons at his disposal, I have to hope that his exuberant and endlessly optimistic personality were authentic.

Everything about this book was enjoyable, even the acknowledgements at the back of the book, which were also done in a comic strip style. I mean, who even reads the acknowledgements in most books? (Okay, confession, I often do.) But these ones were downright hilarious and had me laughing out loud. (This exchange between the author and one of his baby researchers (don't ask . . . ): Baby: "You need a college degree to get the original documents. Do you have one?" Nathan: "I did a year of art school." Baby: "Wow. I'm sure the job offers just pour in." I just about died.)

I've come such a long way since I read my first graphic novel three years ago (which, interestingly, was also illustrated by Nathan Hale). I've seen how my own kids are drawn to this genre, and because I've tried it out myself, I feel like I can better guide their interest instead of trying to steer them towards other "real" books. And now that I've found a series where we can work in a little history at the same time, I have a feeling we're on our way to more good things.

Have you read any of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales? Know of any other great graphic novels that we should check out?

Rascal by Sterling North

May 12, 2016

My dad did a fair share of the reading aloud to my siblings and me when we were growing up. Although my mom read quite a bit during the day, it was often my dad who read aloud at night. The books I remembered most vividly from him were Black Beauty, The Forgotten Carols (every Christmas), and the entire Little Britches series. (I'm sure my brothers would be quick to mention The Chronicles of Narnia, but I rarely listened in on those.)

But then one day, something reminded me of Rascal, and a quick flash of nostalgia went through me. I could picture my dad sitting in my brothers' room and holding the white cover of the book in his hands. I could remember his quiet, steady voice reading this quiet, steady story.  I wondered what other books I might have forgotten from my childhood, and I knew this was one I had to share with my kids.

It was one of three books I checked out from the library one day when we were trying to decide on our next readaloud, and after reading the synopsis of each book, my kids picked this one.

It's the autobiographical account of what happened during Sterling North's twelfth year. His mother died when he was seven, and his older brother and two older sisters are grown up and live away from home. His father, although kind, is far from being an involved parent. He basically lets Sterling do whatever he wants. Hence, Sterling is building a canoe in the front room and has quite a number of pets, and it's not at all shocking when Sterling comes home one day with a baby raccoon that he rescued after its mother abandoned it.

That little raccoon, named Rascal, becomes the best little companion and friend Sterling could ask for. But he is also a wild animal, and the more he grows, the harder it is for Sterling to keep control of him. By the following spring, Sterling knows what he has to do.

Most readalouds take us one to two weeks to finish. This one, even though it was not an especially long book, took us close to a month, and we felt that drag. It was part circumstance, I'm sure--we just had so many evenings where we had other things going on and couldn't read (this prompted me to reclaim some of our reading time and read before school on some days), but it was also due to it being a rather slow book. We didn't feel compelled to pick it up every day because it didn't really matter to our sanity if we found out what happened next, and when we did pick it up, we often only read a few pages because we didn't feel pressed to keep going.

The story was heavy on the descriptions, and these were usually the places that dragged for us. But sprinkled in between these were details of Rascal's antics, and this made the whole book worth it.

I've compiled a few of these moments, which is not something I normally do, but it's these cute pictures I want to remember when I think back on the book, so I hope you'll indulge me:

"But Rascal could only dog-paddle . . . For a three-month-old he was doing excellently. But soon he was panting from the exertion and looking to me as his natural protector. We were in deep water now, and the best I could do for him was to roll over on my back in a floating position, arch my chest, and offer him a good platform. He scrambled gratefully aboard, whimpering slightly in self-pity."
"Rascal was a demon for speed . . . He had learned to stand in the closely woven wire basket [of my bicycle] with his feet wide apart and his hands firmly gripping the front rim, his small button of a nose pointed straight in the wind, and his ring tail streaming back like the plume of a hunting dog that has come to a point . . . What he liked best was going full tilt down a steep hill."
"Rascal was begging for the last of my sandwich, standing on his capable hind legs, patting my cheek and reaching for the food."
"I had taught Rascal to be a living coonskin hat. He would take a firm grip on my ruck of curly hair, brace his strong hind paws on the collar of my Mackinaw, and enjoy the wildest rides he had ever experienced as we glided forward and backward over Culton's ice pond just south of the railroad tracks."
The sad part of the book for me was seeing how lonely this little 11-year-old Sterling was. His father does have some redeeming moments (one time, he takes the day off just so they can go out looking for whippoorwills; another time, they go on a two-week camping trip), but most of the time, he is just unavailable and very unobservant of Sterling's needs. He is not abusive in any way, but he just expects Sterling to be able to take care of himself and has no problem leaving for one or two weeks at a time on business trips.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Sterling spends most of the book building a canoe in his living room. He can't finish it because he needs to purchase a canvas to stretch across the whole thing to make it water tight, but he keeps needing his money for other more pressing purchases. His father never once helps him with the canoe and has no idea that Sterling is in need of supplies, and Sterling is not the kind of kid who asks for favors.

When his sister, Jessica,  comes home for Christmas, she demands that the canoe be removed from the living room, but Sterling explains that he can't until he gets the canvas and that will cost fifteen dollars, which he doesn't have anymore. Jessica is irate with their father for not helping Sterling get the canvas, but he says, "Now be reasonable, Jessica. I'm a busy man. I can't know everything that's going on in Sterling's head and I didn't know he needed money for canvas."

I just felt so bad for Sterling--not that he had to wait so long for a canvas; I don't think kids need to be immediately satisfied--but that his father didn't even know any of the details of the canoe that Sterling had spent months building. Sterling didn't seem to begrudge his father in the slightest, but it seems like they could have had a much stronger relationship if they'd only talked to each other. One camping trip in the summer wasn't enough.

Overall, I think this is a book my kids will have fond memories of, just like I did from when my dad read it aloud to me.

Which books do you remember your parents reading aloud to you? Please share favorite memories in the comments!
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