Review x 3: The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, Jack, and Meet the Austins

Aug 5, 2017

Earlier this week, I wrote a few brief thoughts about each of the books I've read so far this year. It irritated me to not be able to link to some of the reviews (because they hadn't been written yet), so I'm remedying that this week.

1. The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt
First up, the silliest book out of the three. In my one-sentence summary, I described Nanny Piggins as "the most unorthodox of nannies," and she is that. For one, she's a pig babysitting human children, so there's the mayhem you might expect from crossing over cultures and, um, species. She enjoys eating (especially chocolate), getting dirty, and skipping school to go on adventures. She has absolutely zero regard for money, and, oh, did I mention she used to be part of a circus?

As you might expect, the children (Derrick, Samantha, and Michael Green) think she is the best nanny ever; their father (if you can even call him that--he never demonstrates even a smidge of parental affection) can't stand her, but she's cheap, the cheapest nanny he's ever had, so he keeps her.

The story is wildly funny and entertaining. I bookmarked a few of my favorite lines so I could give you a little taste of the humor:
After being disqualified from a self-portrait competition: "'But that's pigism,' bellowed Nanny Piggins. She was really cross now. 'How dare you stand up there and be piggist? In front of children too. You should be ashamed of yourself.'"

After getting stranded in a boat in the middle of a downpour: "'Ahnyong,' Nanny Piggins called up to the two men. (This is how you say 'hello' in Korean.) Nanny Piggins may never have been to the seaside but she had spent many long nights playing backgammon with two Korean trapeze artists. And they had taught her enough Korean to buy a chicken, rent a motorbike, tell someone to be quiet in the cinema, and all the other things essential for day-to-day life."

While trying to come up with a plan so Nanny Piggins won't have to return to the circus: "'I once had myself fired through an open window at the cinema just so I wouldn't have to pay for the ticket,' confessed Nanny Piggins.
'Oh gosh!' said Samantha.
'I know. I'm not proud of it,' admitted Nanny Piggins. 'Although I am proud of my landing. I did a perfect somersault into an empty seat in the middle of the back row. I didn't disturb anyone, unlike those people who actually walk in front of people to get to their seats.'
'What are we going to do about the Ringmaster?' asked Derrick.
'Don't worry,' said Nanny Piggins. 'I have a plan.'
'Already?' exclaimed Michael, deeply impressed.
'Oh yes,' said Nanny Piggins. 'I can regale people with anecdotes from my sordid past and think at the same time.'"
The author also occasionally breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, which I am always a fan of and which instantly increases the humor for me. The only negative thing about the book is that Nanny Piggins is downright naughty at times, and, well, if you don't appreciate the "responsible" adult being the naughtiest one in the book, this story might not be for you. For all others, it's quite the ride.

2. Jack: the True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk by Liesl Shurtliff
A few years ago, Aaron and I met Liesl Shurtliff when she was in Salt Lake City for a book signing (for this book). At the time, we were in the middle of her first book, Rump, and so we bought Jack so we could read it when we were done. And we just now finally got to it.

Jack is not an easy child to parent. He's not bad per se, but he still gets into a fair amount of trouble and likes to mercilessly tease his little sister. His mother doesn't know what to do with him. Then one day, his entire village, including his father, is swept up into the sky. Jack witnesses the whole thing: great booms coming from the sky, dirt falling from the clouds, and giants dropping down to earth. But his mother doesn't see it and thinks it is just another one of his far-fetched stories, which she doesn't appreciate at a tragic time like this. But Jack knows better, and he is desperate to get up to the land of the giants and save his father.

My kids absolutely loved this book. Jack is adventurous and brave and loyal, and, as I said with Rump, it was nice to read a fairy tale retelling with a boy protagonist.

For my part, for whatever reason, the book felt long. I'm not sure what it was exactly because I thought the characters were great and the retelling was clever, but it felt tedious to read out loud. Instead of being anxious to return to it each day and willingly agreeing to read "just one more chapter," I found myself looking for excuses to cut our reading time a little short.

I think what it comes down to is that my kids love a good story, and I love good writing. I love to read aloud books where it is a pleasure to say the sentences out loud because they're so well-crafted. That makes it sound like this one isn't well written, which isn't true. The writing is perfectly fine; it doesn't draw attention to itself in a bad way; it just doesn't sparkle. And I think I noticed it more in this book because it was a little bit longer than some of the books we've read recently, and I was ready to move on before it was over.

But enough of that. My kids had no such reservations about it. They loved it from beginning to end, and after it was over, Max asked me to get the third one for him (the true story of Little Red Riding Hood) as a summer reading program prize. Which I happily did. 

3. Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle
It's dangerous for me to listen to the What Should I Read Next podcast because even when I'm not  asking that question, I almost always come away with books I feel compelled to read right that second. A few months ago, one of her guests, Carolyn McCready, listed A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle as one of the books she loves. She and Anne talked about how much they love Madeleine L'Engle and about how she was such a prolific writer but readers don't always go beyond the Wrinkle in Time series. I certainly never did (in fact, I think I never read more than the first one in that series because, you know, sci-fi). But A Ring of Endless Light sounded different--like it was about a typical girl in a typical family, which was exactly the kind of series I would have loved as a teenager. I really wanted to read A Ring of Endless Light, but it's the fourth in the series, and I thought I better start with the first one.

It's narrated by 12-year-old Vicky Austin. First-person novels can be a bit hit and miss for me because sometimes the narrator is just a touch too witty or clever, and I just can't buy it that anyone would talk or think like that in real life (unless they're British--I'll believe anything if they're British). But in this case, Vicky's voice was natural and authentic (read: not always eloquent but charming in its own right . . . and very convincing).

Her family lives in a small town where her father is the community doctor and her mother is a homemaker. She has one older brother and also a younger sister and brother. Early on in the story, her parents take in 10-year-old Maggie after her father is tragically killed in a plane crash. Maggie has been spoiled all her life, a trait which, compounded with grief, makes her extremely difficult to live with. At first everyone in the family grits their teeth while silently hoping Maggie's grandfather will take her away soon, but after awhile other events, both happy and sad, bring them all together and make Maggie feel like a real part of the family.

It had a very similar feel to some of my other favorite books when I was a teenager: the Melendy quartet by Elizabeth Enright, the Beany Malone series by Lenora Mattingly Weber, and the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Just a sweet, functional family with normal ups and downs, a few sibling squabbles, and a general feeling of contentment. Now my only problem is going to be finding time for the second and third in this series so I can actually read the book I set out to in the first place.

Books of 2017, First Half

Jul 31, 2017

After feeling a lot of self-induced pressure last year, I decided to set a lower numbers goal this year. I committed to read 48 books, and at the end of June, I'd finished 27. I may have set it a little too low, but it's actually been quite nice to take a break from obsessing over numbers. That's not what reading should be about anyway, but I can't seem to help myself.

Here's a list of what I read during the first half of the year. All titles are linked to my reviews.

1. The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, 8/10 (readaloud)
A stuck-up prince, two bad guys who get what they deserve, and a hero worth cheering for--definitely a readaloud winner.

2. Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, 7/10 (readaloud)
If you liked The Great Mouse Detective when you were a kid, this original book series is worth checking out. We enjoyed this first installment and have the second one on our readaloud docket.

3. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, 7/10
The first half was an absolute slog, but in the end, I actually really enjoyed it. It definitely has some memorable, funny moments.

4. Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent, 10/10
Chock full of crazy, unbelievable birth stories. Exactly what I wanted it to be.

5. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, 8/10 (readaloud)
In which I discovered the sheer delight of E. Nesbit.

6. Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine by Richard Hamilton, 5/10
Honestly, I could have passed on this one, but I would happily recommend it to kids without reservation.

7. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, 6/10
A really inspiring story about the uphill battle of getting out of a destructive family cycle, but be forewarned: there was so. much. swearing.  

8. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, 8/10 (audio)
Out of the WWII books I've read in the last couple of years, this one is my favorite. Plus, I love the title.

9. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 3/10 (audio)
I agree with people when they say that this is an important read, but if I'm being perfectly honest, it was a bit too bitter and accusatory for me.

10. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, 8/10
Can a book be tightly woven and compelling while still being a little too long? Because that's how I would sum up this book.

11. Ereth's Birthday by Avi, 6/10 (readaloud)
I think I like prickly Ereth more as a side character than the main protagonist. His complaining and "swearing" is funny in small doses, obnoxious in large.

12. The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, 9/10 (readaloud)
I think I could read the chapters about the mumps and the near-suicide over and over again and not get tired of them.

13. The Gift of Giving Life by Felice Austin and others, 10/10
Unlike any other birth book I've ever read, it transformed the way I think about birth and motherhood.

14. More Adventures of the Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, 7/10 (readaloud)
More antics, more conniving, more laughs.

15. The Distance Between Us by Kasie West, 6/10
A rather silly, totally unbelievable romance, but then, it's YA, so what was I expecting?

16. Me and My Little Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, 8/10 (readaloud)
Apparently, we were on a Great Brain kick. This one was more intense and frightening than I was expecting, but it had a slam bang ending.

17. Ten Miles Past Normal by Francis O'Roark Dowell, 6/10
Totally lukewarm about this one. But it is clean, so there's that.

18. The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt, 7/10 (readaloud)
If you want a book about the most unorthodox of nannies, this one's for you.

19. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, 9/10 (audio)
For a girl who normally doesn't love fantasy, I was a major fan of this one.

20. "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket, 7/10
I spent a good portion of the book feeling moderately confused. It is a prequel of sorts to A Series of Unfortunate Events, so it might have helped if I'd read that first?

21. A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett, 7/10
The memoir of a woman who was kidnapped and held captive in Somalia for fifteen months. Well told, but it's not for the faint of heart.

22. Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary, 6/10
To tell you the truth, it seemed a little underdeveloped to be written by Beverly Cleary.

23. Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, 10/10
The format is unusual, the content is poignant, the takeaway is unforgettable.

24. Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk by Liesl Shurtliff, 6/10 (readaloud)
My boys absolutely LOVED this one, but the writing felt a little tedious to me (at least, while reading aloud).

25. Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle, 7/10
I started this series because I really want to get to the fourth book (A Ring of Endless Light) which was recommended in an episode of What Should I Read Next.

26. Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, 7/10
My kids have read this series over and over this summer. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

27. Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 8/10
Top-notch historical fiction about Thomas Jefferson's slave children.

I'd love to hear about some of your most memorable reads from the first half of the year!

Checking In With My Reading Goals

Jul 26, 2017

We've crossed the halfway point of 2017, which means it's time for me to take a look at my reading goals and do a little accounting and also a little planning for the rest of the year. In a nutshell, I've read ten goal-related books so far; I have three more that are in progress; and I still have six I need to crack the cover on. So just the numbers are looking good, but the specifics are leaving me a little worried. Take a look:

1. Read two books about childbirth (complete)
I knocked this one out early since Ian was born in April. I chose two very different childbirth books, but I loved both of them immensely (and gave each a five-star rating). If expectant moms asked me for book recommendations, I'd recommend these two before any of the other ones I've read, especially if they're wanting a natural birth (but, as you know, this time I went with an epidural, and I still loved reading all the birth stories, but maybe that's because, at heart, I think I'm still a natural birth kind of gal). Anyway, the two books were: Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent and The Gift of Giving Life by Felice Austin.

2. Read three books with Maxwell and three books with Aaron (partially complete)
In the preceding six months, this goal has been slightly modified to include Bradley. At first, Maxwell was not at all interested in reading some of the same books as me (he has since graciously changed his mind), but Bradley was. The whole point of the goal was to motivate myself to read some of the same books as my kids so I could be more involved with their reading, so I feel like my heart is in the right place even if it's not a strict three and three between Aaron and Maxwell. And just to clarify, these are not readalouds but rather books that we're reading separately but during the same span of time. So far I've read The Mysterious Benedict Society with Aaron, Who Could That Be at This Hour with Aaron, Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine with Bradley, Muggie Maggie with Bradley, and Zita the Spacegirl with Aaron, Max, and Bradley. So as far as numbers go, I really only need to read one more book to complete this goal (and Max has agreed to have us both read Abel's Island by William Steig), but I'm pretty sure I'll read beyond the required number with this one.

3. Read Rose in Bloom by Louise May Alcott and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (partially complete)
As I write this, I'm about halfway through the audio of Rose in Bloom. However, as I've mentioned before, I'm getting through far fewer audio books than I once did, so I've actually been listening to it for awhile, but I'm just making really slow progress. But we'll get there. I'm so excited to start The Blue Castle. I've been looking forward to this book for years but just haven't made the time for it. Until now.

4. Read a book about slow, conscientious living (not complete)
I've held off on this book on purpose because I think it will be most beneficial in November, just as we enter the cold, dark days of winter (shudder). Not that I don't think a simple lifestyle is appropriate in the summer. It is. But it just feels so much more necessary in the winter, like it might be the very key to my survival. I'm leaning strongly towards The Year of Living Danishly, but I would love any recommendations you think would fit the bill.

5. Start a new mystery series and read another mystery by Agatha Christie (not complete)
I love reading mysteries in the fall, so I've been saving this goal as well. But I have no idea what I want to read! So start sending in those suggestions! The two Agatha Christies I've read so far are Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. I enjoyed both, so what would be a good one to read next? And as far as a series, I don't want anything too intense--think more along the lines of cozy mystery.

6. Read Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson throughout the year (partially complete)
This goal. Oh, this goal. It's going to be the death of me. I feel like I've read so much already, but my kindle says it's only 10% complete. I've been tempted to abandon it, but I feel like I haven't even come to the parts I was truly interested in, so I'm going to set some serious weekly goals to help myself knock out a big chunk of it. So far though, I think it's been rather disappointing. It seems rather ridiculous and unrelatable, so in the long run, it might not be worth investing fifty more hours of precious reading time. For now, I'll keep chipping away at it, and I hope I'll give myself permission to stop if it doesn't improve after another 20%.

7. Read a parenting book (not complete)
I just borrowed my mom's copy of The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax, so I should be starting this goal anytime now. I've been meaning to read this book for over a year, so I'm excited to finally make some time for it.

8. Read two Young Adult novels (complete)
I've read two, and neither of them satisfied, so I'm still on the hunt. They were The Distance Between Us by Kasie West and Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O'Roark Dowell. Honestly, they weren't bad (and they were clean, which was one of my major stipulations), but give me another three months and I know I'll have forgotten pretty much everything about them. You all have done a great job with the recommendations though, so I'm excited to check some of them out and continue my search.

9. Read the 2017 Newbery winner (complete)
This was a fun goal to make because, at the time, I didn't know which book was going to win. It ended up being The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, and it was fantastic. I've now discussed it with Suzanne in Episode 13 of The Book Blab, as well as my book club, and I'm convinced it was completely worthy of the Newbery.

10. Read Glimpses Into the Life of Marjorie Pay Hinckley (partially complete)
This book has been an absolute joy to read. I'm probably about three quarters of the way through and am already making plans to reread parts of it. I don't think my natural disposition is the same as Sister Hinckley's, which is terribly unfortunate and something I plan to write more about in the future, but I am incredibly inspired nonetheless. I'm glad the first half of 2017 has been filled with the wit and wisdom of this amazing lady.

I'm planning to do two more progress reports soon (a look at my 2017 plan and a list of the books I've read so far) because if there's one thing about me, it's that when I make a goal, I hold myself accountable.

How are your goals shaping up so far?

A Little of This and That in June

Jul 21, 2017

Summer is at its height, and we've been living it up (and by "living it up," I mean, "slightly changing our normal routine"). So far, we've been . . . 

Walking . . . to the library. We live relatively close to our library, but because of the way the streets in our neighborhood are arranged, there isn't a direct route there. On top of that, one of those streets is quite busy and has been under construction for a year, so we've opted to drive. But Bradley is always begging to walk and decided to make that one of his summer goals. So at the beginning of June, we did just that, and I'm so glad we did. It wasn't suffocatingly hot yet, and with all of the road construction finally done, it was actually quite pleasant. We'll have to do it more often (after it cools down again).

Eating . . . doughnuts. The first Friday of June is National Doughnut Day, and it's one of those random, ridiculous holidays that we happen to take quite seriously. We mark it on the calendar, and we splurge on our favorite doughnuts (Banbury Cross). Yum.

Acquiring . . . some new swimming skills. I signed up the boys for one session of swimming lessons at the beginning of the summer, and they all improved immensely. There was only one day when Clark refused to get in (ironically, on the second to last day), and other than that, he did everything the teacher asked. Aaron and Max learned the butterfly, and Bradley can swim the length of the pool using side breaths.

Drinking . . . hot chocolate. Early in the month, we had a couple of days where the temperature dropped, and it was windy and rainy. Of course, those two days happened to be right in the middle of swimming lessons, but they just cranked up the heat in the pool, and the kids actually loved it. However, getting out of the water was less pleasant, and the only way I convinced them to do it was by promising them hot chocolate when we got home. 

Hanging . . . out poolside. We go to the pool several times a week, and Ian and I spend most of it like this. Luckily, he's a pretty chill baby, and I don't mind an excuse to hold him (except when it's 101-degrees).

Listening . . . to this episode on the Sorta Awesome podcast. With Aaron going into fourth grade this year, I know the time is fast approaching when we'll need to be having these real conversations with him. But in the meantime, I'm gearing up and preparing. 

Gaining . . . weight. Ian has been packing on the pounds like it's his job (which, I guess, it is). At his two month appointment, he was 14 lbs. 5 oz., which put him right in the 97th percentile. I can't say I was surprised since I do have eyes, but I was disappointed nonetheless. I was so hoping he'd let me enjoy his babyhood a bit longer.

Rushing . . . to finish knitting a blanket for Ian's blessing at the beginning of July. I did it, with just a couple days to spare, and I love the way it turned out (pictured above). It was super fun to knit, too.

Celebrating . . . Father's Day. Because this guy is worth celebrating, and not just on Father's Day either. (And sadly, both of our dads weren't here for the day, so we had to celebrate them with a phone call instead of in person.)

Painting . . . the kitchen. When we moved into our house, the kitchen was a bright, vibrant green. It was kind of a perky color, so we kept it. But recently, it was looking more putrid than cheerful, so we decided to change it. I'm in love with the cool light blue we chose, and it matches the silver light fixture and hardware so much better than the green ever did. It's amazing what a simple change in paint color can do to breathe new life into a room.

Seeing . . . old friends. When we were first married, Curtis and Alicia were among our very best friends. We spent many a weekend with them, playing games late into the night. Now they live in Arizona, but it's amazing how anytime we get together, it is seriously like no time has passed (except, of course, for the fact that we now have TEN kids between the two families). We're so glad they made time for a quick visit with us. It was much too short.

Training . . . Clark to use the toilet. When I took Clark to his three-year checkup, our pediatrician encouraged us to get serious about toilet training. It's not that I hadn't thought about it or attempted to do it. It's just that Clark wasn't responding to training like my older boys had, so I was at a bit of a loss. So imagine my delight when our pediatrician said, "You know, if there's any way your husband could do the training, that would be best." I listened intently to his cold-turkey, fool-proof, one-day method, and then went home and gleefully said to Mike, "Guess what you get to do this weekend?" With my other boys, we've done a gradual transition to underwear, but Dr. V. recommended making a total commitment to underwear from the start. So it's a good thing Mike was in charge because cleaning up a bunch of accidents (and at first, there were quite a few) usually makes my head feel like it's going to explode. On the second day, Clark seemed to be testing his boundaries, and Mike was getting a little fed up with it, and we had a serious chat about whether or not we were in this for the long haul or if we were going to let it rest for another couple of weeks. We decided we were all in, and I think Clark sensed it, too, because that was a turning point for him and within the week, he was trained. (And that's probably more than you wanted to know about the process, but it was one of the best things about June so I had to share!)

Launching . . . rockets. I remind my kids quite often that they have a pretty awesome dad. Case in point: he made them a rocket launcher out of PVC pipe that shoots paper rockets hundreds of feet into the sky. I love it because it keeps them busy for hours, first making the rockets, and then, shooting them off. It's also nice that, because the rockets are made out of paper, they can literally launch them anywhere without the fear of damaging anything. It has gone with us to all of our family reunions and been tested out by all the neighbor kids (and parents), and it is a real crowd pleaser.

Working . . . on summer goals. I wrote about them in detail here, but, as always, they've been one of the highlights of the summer.

Seeing . . . more and more smiles from the youngest member of the family. He has even granted us a few laughs, which makes us just want more. Basically, he's everyone's favorite.

Reading . . . and reading and reading. We brought back our summer reading program from last year, and my kids have been reading a ton. Mostly graphic novels and comics, but I've bribed them to squeeze in some other types of books as well.

Playing . . . at the pool with my mom and sisters. They came up for a sleepover and then we went to the pool in the morning. My mom even let Clark squirt her in the face because she's a super nice grandma.

What have been the highlights of your summer so far?

The Book Blab Episode 14: Summer Reading Programs Plus Two Books With Settings We'd Love to Visit

Jul 18, 2017

With summer in full swing, I'm sure many of you are participating in summer reading programs. Last summer, I became so disenchanted with my library's summer "reading" program that I created my own for my kids. It was a huge success, and we're doing it again this year. So on this episode of The Book Blab, Suzanne and I discussed how to start your own summer reading program and why external motivation can be a good thing (and I even convinced Maxwell to come chat with us for a bit).

Before we jump into the episode, I'd like you to think about three questions, and answer them in the comments if you feel so inclined:

1. What does your ideal summer reading program look like?
2. What incentives would motivate YOU?
3. What topic would you like Suzanne and I to discuss on a future episode?

And now, on with the show!

0:20 - Suzanne's busy summer
0:57 - Today's topic: summer reading programs
1:42 - Suzanne's experience with summer reading programs
4:10 - Amy's experience with summer reading programs
7:15 - The summer reading program Amy created for her kids
9:47 - Special guest appearance by Amy's 7-year-old, Max
  • 10:54 - Max's favorite prize
  • 11:53 - Max's thoughts on being rewarded for reading
  • 12:48 - The number of hours Max reads every day
  • 13:53 - Becoming an adventurous reader
  • 14:33 - One of Max's favorite books this summer
15:52 - The good and bad of incentive programs and external motivation
21:30 - What would a summer reading program look like for adults?
24:40 - Tips for tracking time
25:40 - Two books with settings we'd love to visit
  • 26:15 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 28:24 - Amy's recommendation
30:25 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

Sunlit Pages: Raising Readers: Summer Reading Program
Sunlit Pages: A Summer Reading Program You Can Do at Home
The Secret Garden by Francis Hodges Burnett (Amy's review)
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (Amy's review)

Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Jul 12, 2017

I put Jefferson's Sons on my to-read list right after Janssen reviewed it . . . in 2012. But whereas some books get added and gradually lose their appeal, Jefferson's Sons continued to look interesting to me, so I finally made time for it, and it was well worth it.

It is one of the greatest ironies of history that the man who wrote the memorable words, "All men are created equal," also owned slaves. But even more ironic is the fact that some of those slaves were his own biological children.

This book follows two of them, Beverly Hemings and Madison Hemings, as well as a third slave, Peter Fossett. Even though the book is a work of fiction, every character in the story was a real person, and nothing was included that was in direct disagreement with the facts. In other words, it is as historically accurate as possible and every story and conversation could, in theory, have really happened.

Before I started the book, I was really worried that it would make me hate Thomas Jefferson. Or just that it would be so jaded, I would feel forced into a certain opinion. But it did neither of those things.

Beverly and Maddy's mother was Sally Hemings. She was actually half-sisters with Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles. While there are many things we don't know about her relationship with Thomas Jefferson, it appears that there wasn't anything between them until after Martha's death in 1782. At least, Sally didn't have her first child until 1790. It also seems likely (or at least this is the way this particular author portrays it) that Thomas Jefferson did in fact love Sally Hemings and was also a victim of the constraints and laws of the times, which wouldn't allow a white man to marry a black woman. He made sure his children were always well provided for (all while never acknowledging that they were actually his) and eventually gave them their freedom when they turned twenty-one.

That said, Thomas Jefferson still owned slaves--a lot of them. And although the house slaves were treated well, the field hands experienced many of the depravities and abuses common to that time. At one point in the story, one of the slaves runs away. When he is eventually caught and brought back, he is whipped, and all of the slaves are forced to watch. Beverly is young at the time and idolizes his father and can't believe he would have ordered the whipping. But Beverly's mother explains, "All James Hubbard did was try to get free. Running away is against the law, but it's not wrong. Sometimes laws are wrong. Master Jefferson told the overseers to whip James Hubbard. They wouldn't have done it otherwise. They wouldn't have dared."

Thomas Jefferson might have been a more humane slave owner than some, but he still treated his slaves as property--something that could be bought or sold just like a horse. In fact, the book ends soon after his death as his slaves are being auctioned off to pay the enormous debts he has incurred due to unwise financial decisions. He took care of his own flesh and blood but left his other slaves to the mercy of those who came after him. One of those slaves is little Peter Fossett, and the ending is quite chilling.

The book is written for a middle grade (8-14 year-old) audience. Although it spans about twenty-five years, it follows Beverly first, then moves onto Maddy, and ends with Peter, thereby keeping the thoughts and feelings and experiences focused on a child while still letting us see what happens to the others as they grow up.

One thing I really appreciated was the way the author nudged the reader into thinking about difficult issues. It wasn't blatant or heavy-handed. I didn't feel like I was being preached to. But many of the conversations that happened in the Heming's cabin made me think. It's impossible to know if they really had such deep discussions on the morality of slavery, but it seems likely. We know that Sally was well-educated, and it's obvious that many of her actions were prompted out of a love for her children and wanting to give them their best possible chance at a decent future. And with their father being who he was, how could they not help but see the deep unfairness of their situation?

But the author was slow to pass judgment. For example, when Sally tells her children about their great-grandma, who was kidnapped in Africa, Beverly asks if the men who took her were white or black. Sally responds, "I don't know. Might have been either, or both. Evil comes in all colors." And I know if we looked at the entire history of the world, we would find that to be the case. One race isn't more evil than another. We all have the capacity to be good or bad.

There is one really tender scene in the book. It's in Maddy's section. Maddy is smart and loves to read. He doesn't blindly love his father the way Beverly does, but he still craves little moments of attention. When Mama tells him that Master Jefferson's mockingbird died, Maddy and his best friend, James, set out to catch another one. They're successful, and they take the bird to Master Jefferson. He is so pleased with the new bird that he gives each boy fifty cents. Maddy should be thrilled with the money, but he's not. Instead he thinks, "That bird had been free, and now it was a slave. From now on it had to live where Master Jefferson wanted it to live, eat what Master Jefferson gave it to eat, even whistle the songs Master Jefferson wanted it to sing. He, Maddy, had sold that bird into slavery."

In my book club, we read a different genre each month. One of those genres is adolescent literature, and we originally chose this book for that month. We ended up changing it because we'd already read a couple of books that explored similar issues, but I'm kind of sad about it because there would have been so much to discuss. I really love books like this that don't paint everything as strictly black and white (even on issues such as slavery that seem obvious) but introduce the many shades of gray that are a result of the culture of the times and the foibles of human nature.

Review x 3: Muggie Maggie, Zita the Spacegirl, and "Who Could That Be at This Hour?"

Jul 7, 2017

What do all three of these books have in common? Not a thing, except that they're all books my kids were reading, and then I decided to read them too (and cross a few more books off my reading goals list in the process).

1. Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary
Bradley earned this book after completing his first twenty hours in our summer reading program. When he started to read it, I asked him if I could read it too since it was a book of Beverly Cleary's that I'd never read before.

Maggie is in third grade, which means it's time to learn that one thing she's been dreading . . . cursive. She can't see the point of it, and so she refuses to even try. But then one day, her teacher makes her the message monitor, and the messages she's carrying back and forth look so intriguing, especially when she recognizes her own name among the curves and loops of the teachers' handwriting. Unfortunately though, her cursive reading skills are lacking as much as her cursive writing skills, but suddenly she has the right motivation to learn.

When I gave Bradley this book, I hadn't taken into account all of the cursive passages, which, not even being in kindergarten yet, he couldn't read. So he needed either Aaron or I to interpret them for him. However, the fact that he couldn't read them led to the book being even more realistic because he could understand Maggie's frustration at not being able to read them either.

For my part, I was surprised by how short the book was. I hesitate to question anything Beverly Cleary does because I think she's an absolute genius, but honestly, I felt like it could have been turned into a regular length novel quite easily just by expanding what was already there just a little bit, and I would have liked that. There just wasn't enough there to make it very memorable, which is really a shame because it's a fun story.

2. Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
My kids have been on such a graphic novel kick this summer. I can't seem to keep them in books, but they don't seem to mind rereading a book three, four, or even five times before we take it back to the library. I find myself making rules like, "You have to read another book before you can read that one again." Or, "You can read that book again, but you can't count it towards your reading prize time." But I try not to do that too often because I really don't mind at all if they read graphic novels. I'm so glad I made the goal to try out a graphic novel myself several years ago because I think it gave me an appreciation for the genre that I didn't have before, and that in turn has made me more accepting with my kids' own reading. I'm actually hoping to do a post in the near future about some of their favorite graphic novel series, but I thought I should read some of them first. Hence, Zita the Spacegirl.

Zita didn't start out as a space girl. She and her friend, Joseph, are playing (on earth) when they stumble upon a crater made by a meteoroid. In the crater, they find a kind of device containing a large red button. Not heeding Joseph's advice, Zita pushes the button and watches helplessly as her friend is beamed away from earth. So she does what any good friend worth her salt would do and pushes the button again . . .

Out of all the graphic novels I've read so far, this one was not my favorite. But that has everything to do with the fact that it's science fiction (not my go-to genre) and nothing to do with the actual storytelling and characters (which are quite excellent). I would not hesitate to recommend this, and if it's any indication for how much my kids love these books, when Max saw me writing this review, he tried to steal the book away from me, saying, "I just want to read a few of my favorite parts again." And he's already read it at least four times.

Also, my kids and I loved watching this video about Ben Hatke. He seems like a really cool guy.

3. "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket
It is with some embarrassment that I admit I wanted to read this book solely because I loved the cover and the title of the series (All the Wrong Questions). When I posted about it on Instagram, someone mentioned that it was narrated by the same character as in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Having never read that series myself, I hadn't actually realized this series was a prequel to that one. Oops.

But it must be true because the narrator of this one is indeed Lemony Snicket. In fact, he's more than the narrator; he's the main character. He is nearly thirteen and just about to embark on his first case. Only, things get a little mixed up and he winds up with the most incompetent of chaperones, S. Theodora Markson. They set off on a search for a missing statue, which was apparently stolen and meet a host of interesting characters along the way. But it turns out, Lemony really should have stayed behind and met his associate (not the same person as his chaperone) in a tunnel under the city. But he didn't do that. And now he has to wonder who is behind this complicated mystery and if things are going exactly according to that person's sinister plan?

I gave this book to Aaron for his birthday (again, because I loved the cover), and so when he started to read it, I picked it up, too. We both enjoyed it, but me probably a little more than him but a little bit less than I thought I was going to. Does that make sense? I think I would have liked it more if I'd read at least the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events first. Even though this book technically comes before, I think there were little details that would have been more meaningful (and maybe less confusing) with that groundwork. But I don't know. Someone who has read both should let me know.

While I like a good mystery, I felt like I was floundering a little with this one and couldn't exactly grasp what was going on or even what the characters were supposed to be figuring out. But the writing itself made up for my confusion because it was just so entertaining and witty. And I think that's why Aaron didn't enjoy it as much as I did--he spent half the book feeling confused as well, but he doesn't care about the writing enough to appreciate the little inside jokes and jabs.

Something else I didn't realize when I started it is by reading the first one, you're basically committing to read all four books in the series, and I just don't know if I have it in me. Maybe. But I realize the clock is ticking, and if I don't read the second one sometime in the next three months, I'd have to reread this one first because my memory is that bad.

Anyway, I guess the takeaway from all of this is that if you've read and enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events, you'll probably like this one. But if you haven't read it (or didn't enjoy it), I'd probably hold off on All the Wrong Questions.

Thoughts on any of these books? Please share!
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