Raising Readers: Create a Book Timeline to Preserve the Memories

Aug 3, 2015

When I was little, I kept a spiral bound notebook to record what books I'd read and when I'd read them (the Goodreads of yesterday). To this day, I still love to look through those pages, see my haphazard 8-year-old printing, and remember those early days of reading.

I've been reading chapter books to my kids for three and a half years now. That's a lot of books. And although I've kept diligent track of those books on Goodreads, I wanted something my kids could see--a large-scale spiral bound notebook, if you will.

So I created a book timeline.

Create a book timeline so you and your kids can enjoy remembering all the great books you've read!

I first got the idea for a book timeline from Everyday Reading. Quite awhile ago, Janssen put up a bookworm on their playroom wall. On each circle, she wrote the title of a book she and her oldest daughter had read together. I loved this idea of visually capturing all those books.

In our home, we have a small room in the basement that we've turned into a library. I decided to use one of the walls to visually track all of the chapter books the boys and I have read together.

Because space was limited, I scaled down Janssen's model. Each circle is 2-inches in diameter and tells the title of the book, the author who wrote it, and the month and year we read it in. Then I mounted each circle onto one that is 2 1/2 inches. I also decided to make it into a timeline, rather than a bookworm.

This sounds like such a simple project, right? And it is. Don't be afraid to make one for yourself. But it took me forever to finish (and I still don't know that I'm 100-percent happy with it, but that could just be because of the space I'm working with and not because of the timeline itself).

For one thing, I decided to laminate all the circles. This was maybe a little overkill, but I didn't know if this was something I'd want to keep for years and years and years, so I decided to make it as durable as possible.

Then there was the problem of how to display them. My original idea was to have them go around the entire perimeter of the room, but the ceilings are so low (since it's a basement), and so I would have run into a tall bookcase and a window, and it just wouldn't have worked. Then I thought maybe I could make them into a garland of sorts and string it back and forth across the ceiling. That might have been cool, but it would not have been very timeline-y, which was what I wanted.

Create a book timeline so you and your kids can enjoy remembering all the great books you've read!

Finally, I settled on the one available wall in the room. I put up the circles in rows and stood back to admire my work . . . and there was still something missing. That's when I decided to add a header at the top (I agonized over this for several weeks but finally, for lack of thinking up anything better, went with the rather cliché, "Lost in a Good Book") as well as years placed between the circles. Both of these additions made it look less like a jumble of circles and more like an actual timeline.

Create a book timeline so you and your kids can enjoy remembering all the great books you've read!

I can tell you, we've already enjoyed this display immensely. Aaron and Maxwell love reminiscing over old favorites, but it's also made us realize that some books fade much more quickly than others. There are some titles they can't remember at all, but hopefully, this wall will help remedy that.

Create a book timeline so you and your kids can enjoy remembering all the great books you've read!

It's also just kind of fun to see the sheer number of books we've read over the last three years: fifty-three at last count. That's a lot of happy hours spent reading.

I was also really happy to recently add Redwall with the little asterisked note, "Read by Dad." I hope there are many more asterisks in the future. (Related post: Give Dad a Turn)

Create a book timeline so you and your kids can enjoy remembering all the great books you've read!

Stay tuned: In next month's Raising Readers post, I'll reveal the entire library (all 40 square feet of it). (But I'm wishing I could move it out of the basement for just an hour to photograph it.)

I'd love to hear about how YOU preserve your book memories: do you keep a reading journal, use Goodreads, or have an Excel document? Or do you have something more visual like this that you and your kids can enjoy and remember with together?

A Little of This and That in July

Jul 31, 2015

I think a little monthly update might be in order. I have a lot of odds and ends things to say--none of them quite long or important enough for their own post but taking up valuable brain space until I get them out. So consider this a bit of a dump.

Right now, I'm . . .

Reading . . . the third book in the Emily trilogy to myself (it will complete one of my reading goals) and Just So Stories and Story of the World to the boys (plus lots of picture books--I try to highlight our favorites on Instagram).

Listening . . . to The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I'm on disc three and already loving it so much more than The Forgotten Garden.

Loving . . . my new header. Do you like it? My friend, Molly, painted it for me, and I think she perfectly captured what reading looks like in our family right now (at least, the way I want it to look . . . )

Neglecting . . . the backyard, which is slowly being overtaken by weeds. Actually, not so slowly. You leave it for a day, and when you come back, the weeds have taken up residence again.

Hosting . . . lots of house guests. We've had some friends from our BYU days, my little niece and nephew, Mike's cousin and her family, and Mike's brother and his family.

Planning . . . for a new school year (and bitterly wishing summer wasn't coming to a close). Aaron and Maxwell will be going to two different schools this year, the explanation of which probably does deserve its own blog post. Stay tuned.

Bragging . . . about my friend Sarah's new podcast, Bringing Up Betty. It's pretty fantastic. You should give it a listen.

Learning . . . how to knit. I've wanted to learn for so many years, and an older woman in my neighborhood recently offered to teach me. I just finished my first project, and I might have a slight obsession.

Appreciating . . . these long summer nights. We try to get our kids to bed at a decent hour, but if the weather is perfect and the neighborhood is out in droves, we make an exception (which means that going to bed at a decent hour has become the exception).

Rescuing . . . items from the trash or the toilet or the pool. On Sunday alone, he threw away the older boys' markers, my shoe into the toilet, and Mike's watch into the trashcan at church. That boy has to be watched like a hawk.

Basking . . . at the pool. Becoming members of our neighborhood swim club was probably the best decision we made this summer. We've gone almost every day (although in the last couple of weeks, it's tapered off just a bit), and the three older boys love it so much. (Clark loves running around the deck and chucking anything he can find into the water, which means this is not really my summer to relax at the pool.)

Dreaming . . . of a new roof. Ever since we moved into our house almost a year and a half ago, we've been planning to get a new roof. Every time someone asks us what projects we're working on, we don't have much to report because all we're doing is saving for that darn roof.

Going . . . to a million family events. I'm really grateful for all the things we get to do with our families, but sometimes I need a day or two to catch my breath, and sometimes the activities are packed so closely together, I don't get a chance.

Chasing . . . Clark. He runs, he climbs, and he gets into everything. The only way I survive is by keeping the doors to every single room closed so that I know exactly where he is and what he's doing.

Missing . . . Mike's parents. They moved to Germany yesterday. The last time they lived out of the country was eight years ago in Chile. That was before any of our kids were born. This absence will hurt a lot more because it won't just be Mike and me missing them but our kids, too. On the bright side, we're already planning a vacation to Europe.

Hoping . . . my parents will move to Utah. With Mike's parents so far away now, I want at least one set of grandparents close. They're dragging their feet though.

Working . . . on our summer goals. With it being the end of July already, I'm realizing that I may have set the bar too high. In the meantime, we keep chipping away at them.

Crying . . . about having a seven-year-old. Seriously, how do you pause this growing up thing?

What have you been up to lately?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Jul 29, 2015

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin book review
Ever since we discovered the Ling and Ting series earlier this year, I've wanted to read something else by Grace Lin. I figured anyone who was able to write for early readers with that much wit, humor, and style would not be half bad for a slightly older crowd.

And then, when I was reporting on my reading goals for the first half of this year, I mentioned that I still needed to read a past Newbery honor book to fulfill one of the goals. Beth suggested this one, and that was all the additional encouragement I needed.

Minli lives on Fruitless Mountain with her Ba and Ma. The name suits the place, and they have to work hard just to eke out a meager living. In the evenings, Ba tells Minli stories--a pastime that Ma does not approve of ("Our house is bare and our rice hardly fills our bowls, but we have plenty of stories. What a poor fortune we have").

One of those stories is about the Old Man of the Moon, who reads the Book of Fortune and directs the destinies of people on earth. When Minli hears it, she decides to travel to Never-Ending Mountain and ask the Old Man how to bring fortune to her house. Of course, once Ba and Ma discover Minli is gone, they are devastated. As Minli journeys and Ba and Ma hope for her return, they all realize the fortune they had might not have been so bad after all.

I started out liking this book but not loving it. I felt like I could see the end from the beginning: Minli would go on this long journey and never find the Old Man of the Moon, but she would meet people along the way who would help her realize that the love of her Ba and Ma was all the fortune she needed. Her fortune wouldn't change, but her heart and expectations would.

I was right in part: at its heart, this is a story about family and relationships and how those are the most valuable possessions. But it was the parts I was wrong about that made me switch from a mere liking of this book to a strong loving of it. I can't share the resolutions of those false predictions without giving away the best parts of this book, but if you read it, just put aside all preconceived notions and let the story beautifully unfold.

Grace Lin is a storyteller, and she has that rare talent of being able to tell a story within a story within a story: part of the plot depends on the folktales of Minli's father and others; part of it is made up of Minli's own journey; and eventually, Minli's story joins the others as being one that is passed down from generation to generation. The folktales not only relate to Minli's own journey but also to one another: the same characters and objects appear again and again (i.e., the magistrate, the moon, the red thread, etc.), and even little details (like peaches) keep the stories connected.

Minli gets her instructions for how to get to Never-Ending Mountain from a goldfish. (Minli bought the goldfish in a rare frivolous moment but then decided her family really didn't have enough money to be able to feed themselves and a pet.) The story cuts to the next scene before the reader finds out what those instructions are, and so each new step in Minli's journey is a surprise.

There were two really poignant moments in the story for me. One occurred after Ba and Ma return home after trying to find Minli (the narrative skips back and forth between Minli and her parents). Ma catches Ba with his ear in the goldfish bowl (long story, but as they were searching for Minli, they ran into the goldfish man, and he gave them another goldfish). Ma doesn't know that Ba can hear the goldfish talking to him and so has no idea why he would be doing something so ridiculous as sticking his ear into the bowl. Ba feels embarrassed, and both of them start laughing. "Their laughter intertwined but when they looked at each other, they could see the tears forming were not from joy." I felt like real grief was captured in that moment: the situation was funny, but as they laughed about it, that emotion released another and gave them permission to cry.

The other moment occurred when Minli is at the base of Never-Ending Mountain. She is saying good-bye to the villagers who live there. They are a perpetually happy people, and before she leaves, they give her a brightly colored coat that they made overnight. As they raise their arms to wave good-bye, she realizes  that each one is missing a square of cloth from his or her own sleeves, and she realizes that each one gave a piece to make her own coat. She is touched by the generosity and kindness, and I was too.

Speaking of the villagers, Minli's story is supported by a wonderful cast of secondary characters: Ba and Ma, the goldfish man, the goldfish(es), the dragon, the buffalo boy and his friend, the king, A-Fu and Da-Fu, and, of course, the Old Man of the Moon. Each one was important and memorable, and as the narrative shifted and focused on each of their stories in turn, I began to see how they were all connected and how Minli's story was just one that fit into this seamless history--hence, the story within the story within the story.

I read (actually, listened) to this by myself (and, although I liked the audio, the actual book is worth checking out because it is filled with Grace Lin's beautiful illustrations), but I think it's one my kids would have enjoyed listening to also. I'm kind of sad I didn't take them on the journey with me, but not really because now I can read it again.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Jul 27, 2015

A book review of "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A few months ago, I read MotherStyles and discovered that I'm an ISTJ.

Since that time, I've been a little obsessed with personality type, so it's probably no surprise that when Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy (one of my nine favorite blogs for book recommendations) came up with a list of sixteen different books highlighting each personality type, I had to read the one with an ISTJ protagonist.

Which happened to be this book.

A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island. He's not terribly successful since he's not really interested in selling books he doesn't like (a quite expansive list, including "children's books, especially ones with orphans"). For years, he did okay because his wife, Nic, was more personable and knew how to sell books.

But about a year and a half before, she was killed in a tragic car accident, and since that time, A.J. can't bring himself to care much about what other people think. Already introverted and unemotional (hence, the ISTJ label), A.J. turns even more inside himself after the accident.

But early in the story, two things happen that begin to soften A.J. Fikry. He meets Knightly's publishing rep, Amelia Loman (their first meeting does not go well, and it's several years later before anything really starts to happen between them), and a two-year-old girl (Maya) is abandoned in the children's section of his store. The mother left a note pinned to her saying that she wants her daughter to "grow up in a place with books," but of course, A.J. has no interest in becoming a father (especially not under these circumstances).

But as fate would have it, A.J. inexplicably grows attached to little Maya and makes amends with Amelia and his life begins to have meaning again.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was not at all what I was expecting. And that might be kind of the point. Life, by its very nature, is unexpected, and, if I had to give a succinct summary of this book, it would simply be "a fairly quiet, but unpredictable, recounting of A.J. Fikry's life." The book itself is relatively short (at 258 pages, A.J. would approve since he does not like anything over 400 pages or under 150) and it spans quite a few years (I can't remember exactly how many, but it's over a decade for sure). Gabrielle Zevin doesn't try to get too ambitious with A.J.'s story. She knows she can't tell about every single event in his life, so she settles on the most meaningful and tells them very well. Really, I can't praise her writing highly enough: some might consider it sparse, but it was so tangible that it never felt like anything was missing.

I think Anne Bogel was right when she labeled A.J. as an ISTJ. Although I hope I come across as a slightly more approachable person, I could definitely see myself in him. I like to be alone (preferably with a good book); I often take awhile to warm up to people; I like to think about and analyze stories and relate them to real life (obviously); I am meticulous and rather set in my ways. (A.J. is so happy when the Christmas season is over because he "likes [his] routine. He likes making breakfast in the morning. He likes running to work." I can relate.) But in spite of all these similarities, I didn't read this book and think (like I sometimes do), I wish A.J. Fikry and I could meet in real life. We would work so well together. Our personalities might overlap, but I think our interests might not. I guess that's kind of a funny thing to say since A.J. Fikry loves books, and I love books, too, but it doesn't really seem as if we like the same kind of books. So we wouldn't have much to talk about.

That being said, one of the best parts of this book is all of the references to books. Each chapter begins with a little excerpt from a book journal of sorts. A.J. gives a brief summary of a book and then tells Maya why it is meaningful to him. Besides these little snippets, there are book references scattered constantly throughout the story, and I was familiar with enough of them to feel like a real reader. Besides being about A.J., this is also a book about books, and it's pretty delightful.

I finished this book a few weeks ago, but as I've been writing this review, I've been paging back through it and remembering just how much I enjoyed it. The writing is just so marvelous. (I loved the part when Maya christens their new home Bag End "because it looks as if a hobbit might live here," and "A.J. kisses his daughter on the forehead. He is delighted to have produced such a fantastic nerd.") (I had a similar moment over the weekend when we walked into our hotel room, and Maxwell gave a delighted cry before flinging open the doors of the closet: "It's a wardrobe! It's a wardrobe!" I'm sure he was secretly hoping Narnia would be just on the other side of it.)

And now I'm on the lookout for other books with ISTJ protagonists. Got any ideas?

Content note: I liked this book a good deal, but please be aware that there is some content I don't feel comfortable recommending: language (including the f-word) and some pre-marital sex (but nothing very descriptive).

Nine Blogs I Visit For Book Recommendations (For Me)

Jul 24, 2015

Last fall, I gave you eight of my favorite blogs to go to for children's book recommendations. But what about when I need a good book for myself? Of course I rely heavily on asking everyone I know the time-honored question of, "So...have you read anything good lately???" but I also look to these nine blogs for new recommendations:

1. Everyday Reading
I have been reading Janssen's blog since about 2009. She is one of the few bloggers I knew in real life before blogging (we were freshmen together at BYU). Janssen is a voracious reader, and although she tends to read more Young Adult than I do, our tastes in nonfiction definitely overlap (it's because of her that I picked up The Happiness Project, and you all know how much I love that book). I love reading all of her reviews, regardless of whether or not I think it's a book I'd actually read. She has a captivating way with words.

2. Modern Mrs. Darcy
In my dreams, I can read as fast as Anne Bogel. She cranks through hundreds of books every year, and her summer reading guide is legend (and she's read everything she recommends). She tends to read a lot of nonfiction, classics, and women's fiction, and while our tastes don't always sync, I love reading her posts because they are intelligent and interesting (and the discussions and recommendations she gets in the comments section are amazing). One of my favorite series on her blog is her literary matchmaking series where she considers three books a reader loved, one book they hated, and one they're currently reading and then gives them new recommendations. Her suggestions are always fresh and unexpected, and it's pretty obvious from them how widely she reads.

3. Maybe Matilda
While not technically a book blog, Rachel shares a roundup post every month of what she's been reading, and I love reading her short but insightful comments on each book. Recently she's also been sharing some of the books she's been reading with her four-year-old son, and of course I love seeing those as well. (Oh, and did I mention that she crochets? A hobby that tends to go very well with audiobooks.)

4. Mel's Thoughts
Melanie reads a lot, and she is not afraid of long, dense, intimidating books. (She has this really impressive goal of reading a biography of every U.S. president, and she's made a lot of headway so far.) For the most part, we have similar reactions to the same books (although she didn't like Better Than Before, and, well, you know I loved it), which helps me know that if she recommends a book, I'll probably really like it. Besides that, she travels a lot and takes beautiful photographs. She recently moved to Utah, and we met each other in person earlier this year. What a treat.

5. Other Women's Stories
Carrie definitely has her preferred genre (nonfiction, especially biography/memoir), but one of the things I really admire about her is that she's constantly pushing herself to branch out and try new genres. Consequently, I hear about a wide variety of books from her. She also keeps her blog very up-to-date on her reading status, so you always know exactly what's she's just finished, what she's currently reading, and what's in the queue.

6. Avid Reader's Musings
Out of all the blogs on this list, this is the one that is easiest to recognize as a traditional book blog. Melissa reviews pretty much everything she reads. Some of the reviews are long, and some of them are grouped into little mini-reviews. But you can be pretty confident that if Melissa's read it, then there's a review of it. She reads a lot of classics, and I appreciate knowing there's somewhere I can go to find a review if I'm trying to decide if it's worth it to delve into a long one. Even with it being a review-heavy blog though, you still get to see a lot of Melissa's personality, and I really like that.

7. Making Room
I haven't been reading Becca's blog for very many months, but enough to know I like her style and I like seeing what she's reading. Like Maybe Matilda, Becca does roundup posts featuring the books she's read during the month. I love it that she usually includes any chapter books she's read to her young daughter. Those totally count! And it gives me ideas for what to read to my kids (in fact, it's because of her high praise of Pippi Longstocking that it's up next for us).

8. Stacey Loscalzo
Stacey is another blogger who combines her love of reading with motherhood. I love seeing how the two intersect in her life and how she always makes time for reading for herself. She has many insightful posts on the value of reading. (And, I know this is supposed to be about how I find recommendations for myself, but she also shares her family's favorite picture books every month, just fyi.) I enjoy her "in this moment" posts,  as well as her mini-reviews of the books she's read.

9. Such Stuff
Suzanne and I often joke about being kindred spirits. We've never met in real life, but if we ever do, we're just sure we'll be great friends. Suzanne is getting her master's in literature (along with being a mom to two little boys), so of course you know she has good taste. Besides doing roundup book posts at the end of every month, Suzanne takes what she's been reading and applies it to real life in thoughtful, intelligent posts (she even applied The Book of Strange New Things to her own marriage). She probably likes fantasy and sci-fi a little more than I do (okay, she definitely does), but our preferences intersect at many other genres.

As you can see, these bloggers represent a wide range of reading tastes and interests. There's young adult, modern fiction, nonfiction, biography, fantasy, and science fiction among them, so it's highly likely that at least one of these blogs (if not more) will appeal to your personal preferences. Happy reading!

What's your go-to blog(s) for book recommendations?

The Lightning Bolt of Habit Change

Jul 22, 2015

photo credit goes to my brother-in-law, Jon

Many of you know I'm a diligent journal keeper. No, diligent is too mild a word for it. Dedicated? Yes, but still not strong enough. Obsessed? There we go.

But have I ever told you about how that diligence/dedication/obsession came about? Probably not because, the truth is, it's a very short story.

I was a teenager, and, as usual, I was stressing about something (a characteristic trait that, unfortunately, has not changed in the last fifteen years). It was probably a lot of little somethings because I tended to let them pile up in my brain until I grew so overwhelmed I couldn't stand it. My dad was inspired to offer me some short and simple counsel: make a to-do list every night.

And so that very night, I did just that. It felt nice to write, and so I decided that as long as I had a pen in my hand, I would just write about the day, too.

And, just like that, in a single moment, a habit was formed.

I had experienced a Lightning Bolt.

In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin says, "Sometimes we're hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits, instantly. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a long-standing habit--without preparation, without small steps, without wavering--and we pass from before to after in a moment."

That's exactly what happened to me. I don't remember thinking, I'd like to be better about writing in my journal regularly. In fact, I don't remember thinking about my journal at all. I was trying to write out a to-do list. But then, suddenly, there I was, writing about my day every day.

The thing about this particular strategy is that it's unpredictable. Gretchen says, "It's practically impossible to invoke on command. Unlike all the other strategies, it's not a strategy that we can decide to follow; it's something that happens to us."

It's really too bad because, as you can imagine, it's actually pretty nice to just wake up one morning and find you've acquired a habit (but only if it's a good one). Gretchen says that big events can trigger Lightning Bolts but that it's often something small: "a passage in a book, a scene from a movie, or a casual comment by a stranger."

That last one? A casual comment by a stranger? That set off a Lightning Bolt for me a couple of months ago.

For a long time now, I've been struggling with how to prioritize my time, particularly as it relates to this blog. I get a lot of joy and satisfaction when I finish writing a post but that can be compounded by feelings of guilt and frustration if I sacrificed time I would have been spending with my kids to write it. For many months, I tried to write during quiet time, which we have every afternoon, but I found that there were still little interruptions throughout the afternoon, and those interruptions broke my concentration and irritated me.

Then, one evening, I was chatting with a new woman in our neighborhood. She's approaching eighty, and so naturally, the three of us who were visiting her wanted to hear all about her long life. At one point, someone asked, "What are your hobbies? Reading? Sewing? Cooking?"

This woman replied, "Oh, I used to sew a lot. When my daughters were young, I sewed all their clothes. But now I wish I hadn't. I was so concerned with getting things done, and it didn't really matter."

Many people express similar sentiments of wishing they'd spent more time with their children, but there, in that otherwise normal moment, hearing that regret hit me hard. I thought, I don't want to share similar thoughts when I'm almost eighty. So something has to change now.

That woman's statement cast an illuminating light on my situation, and all of a sudden, I realized that if I really wanted to write, I should be doing it in the early morning hours before anyone in my house was awake. I've always been a fairly early riser, but I shifted my wake up time even earlier so that I could have a solid hour and a half to two hours before anyone else woke up.

Almost immediately though, I ran into a problem. I have a tendency to stay up late, like 11:30ish, but now I was trying to wake up between 4:40 and 5:15 every morning. I often have interruptions in the middle of the night from the baby or Maxwell who needs to relate all of the details of his bad dreams in order to go back to sleep. I knew I wasn't getting a healthy amount of sleep, but I felt fiercely committed to waking up early, so obviously the change needed to happen on the other end, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

And then, on a Sunday evening just a couple of weeks ago, I was reading this article about how so many successful people follow a pattern of going to bed early and waking up early, and something finally fell into place. It was another Lightning Bolt, if you will.

The article mainly talked about the benefits of arising early when our minds are clear and our energy is replenished, but the reminder that this is only possible if you also retire early made me decide to move up my evening routine an hour earlier. I don't know if I was finally ready for the lesson or what, but suddenly I was able to make the change.

Because I've seen the wonderful results that have come because of these two recent Lightning Bolts, I've been trying to think if there are any ways to encourage them to occur more frequently. I believe what Gretchen says--that it's not a strategy we can "invoke on command"--but I also think there are certain things I can do to make Lightning Bolts more likely: read a wide variety of material (books, articles, current events) that will expose myself to new ideas (and maybe one of those ideas will be just the trigger I need); visit new places, regardless of whether they're near or far from home; chat with new people and glean what I can from their experiences.

And then, once the Lightning Bolt strikes, I can harness that energy by using some of the other strategies to hold it in place. A Lightning Bolt carries a lot of momentum with it, and sometimes it's enough, but it never hurts to secure it.

I'm very interested in hearing about the Lightning Bolts you've experienced in your life. What triggered those positive changes in eating or exercising or [fill in the blank]?

Review x 2: Henry and the Clubhouse and Ramona and Her Father

Jul 20, 2015

The summer wouldn't have been complete if we hadn't had any Henry Huggins or Ramona Quimby in it. So we read one of each.

Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary
My dad used to keep a box of scrap lumber in the garage, and I can still remember the day that my brothers and I came up with the great idea to build a playhouse. We scavenged for wood pieces and started haphazardly nailing them together while talking out our plans: it would have windows! and a door! a real wood floor! a second story even! Who needs plans when you have a perfect vision of it in your mind's eye? I think our enthusiasm petered out by the end of the afternoon. It soon became apparent that not only did we not have enough wood but our skills were extremely limited. We abandoned the project in favor of a game of Monopoly.

Luckily, Henry's stamina and resourcefulness and ability far exceeded my own. After Henry inherits a bathtub crate from Mr. Grumbie, he decides to build a clubhouse. He hits the jackpot when Mr. Bingham decides to tear down his garage. He tells Henry he can have whatever he wants, including the windows. Henry recruits Murph and Robert to help. Murph draws up the plans, and before long, their clubhouse begins to take shape.

But Henry has more to think about than just his clubhouse. With his newly acquired paper route, he has a lot of responsibility. He doesn't want to disappoint his dad, and he knows he has a lot to prove to Mr. Capper since he's the youngest paper boy in the neighborhood. But it's hard. Part of the job description of a paper boy is to sell new subscriptions to the paper. Henry has the perfect opportunity when someone new moves onto his route, but it takes him several tries before he's successful.

Meanwhile, he's dealing with a completely different challenge in the form of five-year-old Ramona. She's quite taken with his clubhouse, but he and Murph and Robert have definitively decided that all girls (regardless of age or friend status) will be strictly excluded from entering. Of course, Ramona has plans of her own and ends up saving the day (but not until after she locks him inside his own clubhouse . . . ).

It's kind of funny, but I think my kids actually like Ramona's stories better in the Henry books than in her own books. It's partly because she's a little bit younger in them, but I think it's also because in her own books, her problems are a little too much her own. You know what she's thinking and how she's feeling, and her emotions get all tied up in everything.

In the Henry books, it's all from Henry's perspective, and Ramona is usually (at least part of) his problem. She's irrational and stubborn, and watching Henry deal with the pesky little neighbor girl is quite entertaining. (But for all his irritation, Henry almost always chooses the higher road when it comes right down to it, and that's one of the things I hope my boys take away from these books--Ramona might be shadowing him all around the neighborhood, and it might be driving him crazy, but the night that she's cold and exhausted, he's going to pause what he's doing and help her get home--what a kid.)

Once again, I was so impressed with the set up and execution of this book. When we were in the middle of it, it felt like just an ordinary story with very little going on, but in the final chapter (and this seems to be very typical of Beverly Cleary), little details suddenly had a big impact on the outcome of the story. Things that you thought were just random and pointless came back into play, and it was pretty brilliant.

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
We read these two books back to back, and Ramona takes a little leap in age and maturity between the two. The content moves in that direction as well.

At the beginning of the book, Ramona's father comes home from work, and almost immediately, Beezus and Ramona can tell that something is terribly wrong. Their mother breaks the news gently but bluntly: Mr. Quimby has lost his job.

In all of the books leading up to this one, you get the distinct impression that although the Quimby's have enough, they're always stretching just a little bit to make ends meet. So you can imagine the impact this news has on their financial situation.

But, it turns out, a lack of available funds is only one of the consequences that comes from a job loss. Another one, and, as it turns out, it's the one that Ramona feels even more acutely, is that Ramona's father's morale plummets. His sense of humor slowly fades and his irritability slowly increases, especially after Beezus and Ramona convince him to give up smoking (both to save money and also his health).

So this story definitely has a more serious undertone than the previous ones, but the truth is, Ramona is still just seven years old, and even though she's worried about her dad, she's more worried about not having the perfect sheep costume for the nativity play. I think many authors would have fallen into the trap of taking this serious subject too seriously, but not Beverly Cleary. A seven-year-old is almost always going to be more interested in her own needs than those of her family. It sounds selfish, but it's actually pretty realistic.

And that's not to say that Ramona never worries about her father. She does, and at one point, after their cat knocks their jack-o-lantern off the table and ruins it, she even thinks, "Didn't grown-ups think that children worried about anything but jack-o-lanterns? Didn't they know that children worried about grown-ups?" So it's always present but just not always her first and foremost concern.

However, the reader gets a better glimpse of how tense the situation is based on how Beezus is reacting to it: she is sassy and rude and defiant, and that's also realistic. It's natural that a thirteen-year-old is going to have a better grasp of what's going on than a seven-year-old.

I think it was good for my boys to hear because up to this point in their young lives, I don't think they've ever really considered the ramifications of what would happen if their own dad lost his job. I don't want it to be something that they fret over, but I think it made them appreciate what they have just a little more.

And lest you think, this book is all seriousness with none of Ramona's usual mishaps, think again. The disaster with the crown of burrs is enough to assure anyone that she is still, always and forever, the same Ramona. 
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