KidPages: Three Great Stories

May 30, 2012

I'll be the first to admit that while I love reading out loud to my boys, I'm not particularly fond of long books...long meaning more than two sentences per page. I'd rather read five short books than one long one. There are a few reasons for this.
  1. I feel like I'm trapped if I read a long story. Of course I have to finish it, but what if Bradley decides to have a melt down in the middle of it? Then I have to read for another ten minutes with a fussy baby. Short books give me flexibility.
  2. Lame writing, lame plots. Does anyone else feel like there is an overabundance of poorly written picture books containing more than their fair share of words and pages? Of course there are lame short books, too, but they are more easily endured.
  3. A lot of the longer books have more mature themes that my boys don't understand yet (i.e., dealing with bullies or divorced parents, etc.).
So when I come across a longer picture book that not only holds the interests of Aaron and Max but my interest as well, I know I've scored big time.

I now present to you three just such books:

1. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
Robert McCloskey's stories are practically legend. I'm sure you grew up on them and probably your parents before you, and maybe even your grandparents before that. They're now being passed onto the fourth generation of kids and still holding strong. And why? Because they are great stories.

In Blueberries for Sal, Sal and her mom spend a day filling their buckets with blueberries. It scores points right off the bat with Aaron and Max because (1) they love blueberries and (2) they can't imagine anything more fun than picking them right off the bush. Heaven.

But then, things get even more exciting when a black bear and her cub wind up on the same hill, and somehow the cub and Sal switch places and start following the wrong moms. Aaron has lately been obsessed with bears (he is firmly set on a grizzly bear cake for his fourth birthday), but then there are also the elements of humor (Little Bear is following Sal's mom! How silly!) and suspense (what will happen when the moms find out they're being followed by the wrong children?).

This is actually one of Robert McCloskey's shorter works (if you're feeling especially long-winded, make sure to check out Burt Dow, Deep-Water'll feel like you went on a vacation in Maine), but even it takes a good ten minutes. But it's well worth every one of those minutes.

2. Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner
I honestly was not sure about this one when I first picked it up (many months ago). Mike read it to the boys before I did, and he loved it. Always a good sign. And after I read it, I had to agree; it was a keeper.

This story encourages kids to use their imaginations. It is about a siamese cat who pretends he's a chihuahua. He goes on a wild adventure (all within the safe confines of his bedroom closet) to the land of Mexico where he must help save the chimichangas from the evil bumblebee, Alfredo Buzzito. Isn't that what every good story should do? Take you to a new and exciting place, somewhere you've never been before?

Besides that, this story offers the opportunity to use some fun accents. I'm not as good as Mike, but even I think it's fun to say "serious beez-ness" and "Holy Guacamole!"

Skippyjon Jones has many more adventures in later books. So far, I haven't been as impressed, but I think I've only tried the outer space one.

I thought it might be a little too long for Max, my two-year-old. But  during a recent re-reading, just as we got to the climax, he shouted out, "What's going to happen?! WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN?!" And I knew we'd struck gold.

3. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
So I'm somewhat reluctant to recommend this one because I've only read it once. Yes, once. Why did I pick this one to write about when there are so many other great stories out there that have stood the test of dozens of re-readings? Well, because sometimes first impressions are authentic and real and long-lasting, and I have a feeling it will be so with this book. And also, because this is my blog, and I want to review it even if I've only read it once.

Flat Stanley is flat because a bulletin board fell on him in the middle of the night. Rather a dramatic beginning but with the result that for most of the story, Stanley is only half an inch thick. Being flat has its perks (like being able to slide under doors or be mailed to California for a vacation), but its greatest advantage is made manifest after several valuable paintings have been stolen from the museum. Suddenly, Stanley has a great idea...

From creativity and ingenuity to danger and intrigue, this book has all of the makings of a good story. During my first and only reading, the plot carried me along, and I wanted to find out how Stanley was going to catch the art thieves.

I've yet to make mention of the illustrations in any of these three books. Usually it is the pictures that pull me into children's stories (we refer to them as picture books after all), but in the cases of these three, it was the words that grabbed me first. That said, I do love Robert McCloskey's art; I would happily frame and hang it in my children's bedroom. It is simplistic yet detailed. As for Skippyjon Jones and Flat Stanley, I would say that the illustrations perfectly complement their stories, and really, you can't ask for more than that.

So if you're in the mood for a nice, long story but have no desire to read Curious George and the Hot Air Balloon or Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (those are real titles, btw), then try out one of these great books.

LibraryPages: Reading = Money

May 28, 2012

When it comes to money, I'm stingy. I could give examples (I don't want to pay $200/month for my son to go to preschool. I continue to wear clothes that are more than, eight...years old. I like driving around in a '94 Buick).

But when it comes to spending money on things of absolutely no value (preschool, clothes, and cars all hold some value), I get even stingier.

Library fines, for example. The only reason for me to have a library fine in the first place is because I was lazy...forgetful...irresponsible. It kills me to pay money for my own negligence.

So it is with much regret that I admit to accruing some fines for overdue items (for DVDs, no less, not even books...I'm paying to have my children watch the TV...fantastic...).

Luckily for me, our library lets you read down your fines. (Is this a service common to all libraries?) Since I read to my boys a lot, this works out to be easy-peasy for us (except that since we have to read at the library instead of in the comfort of our home, sometimes Bradley doesn't last for very long).

Anyway, last week, the boys and I read off $6 in fines. Just like that. And since we check out about 100 items per month, I figure that even if I have to pay $6 every six months, that's still a rip roarin' good deal.

Heaven is Here by Stephanie Nielson

May 27, 2012

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but the main reason I decided to read this book was because of Gretchen Rubin's endorsement.  (You know, Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project?) When I read her praise of the book, I believed it. Usually I pick books because the plot sounds interesting or the cover is beautiful or a friend has recommended it. But I think this is the first time an author recommendation, that they get paid to write, actually convinced me to read a book. I guess those book marketers know what they're doing.
That's not to say my interest wasn't piqued when I originally saw that Stephanie Nielson's memoir was out. Like most Mormon moms, I knew who Stephanie Nielson was and had even looked at her blog a couple of times. But I never got pulled in, and I was never a faithful reader. (But, um, if it says anything, since finishing the book, I haven't missed a post.)

For those few of you who haven't heard of Stephanie Nielson, let me bring you up to speed. In 2005, Stephanie started a blog (NieNie Dialogues). It was mainly a way to stay connected with family and friends while they were living across the country, but it soon gained widespread popularity. It was an uplifting blog to read because Stephanie loved her children and husband so much. That, in and of itself, is probably not enough of a story for a memoir, but in 2008, Stephanie and her husband, Christian, were in a terrible private plane crash. Christian was burned over 30% of his body, and Stephanie was burned over 80%. She was in a medically induced coma for three months. Once she woke up, she had to relearn how to do all things physical. She's undergone countless surgeries and deals with pain on a daily basis. All of that is memoir-worthy material, for sure.

In spite of my original hesitation, I loved Stephanie's story. The first third, which was life before the plane crash, was interesting but also made me want to roll my eyes in more than a few places. I know it was set up so the contrast between life before and after the crash would be even more stark, but it seemed so idyllic to the point of seeming shallow (although after looking through her blog archive, it seems that it was a fairly accurate portrayal).

But after the plane crash, the book gained insight and purpose for me. I admire and respect Stephanie for writing in such an honest and forthright way. Surely it must have been difficult to relive so many dark days where hope seemed a far off thing. Parts of the recovery might have seemed repetitive except that the repetition made the experiences and tediousness of recovery feel real and therefore easier to relate to.

The book ends with so much hope for the future. In April, Stephanie gave birth to a healthy baby girl, which I think is an amazing testament not only to the capablities of the human body but also the resiliancy of the human spirit. Even though there will continue to be challenges and trials as a result of this accident, life will go on, and as Stephanie said so many times, there will be many moments of happiness.

Stephanie is very open (both on her blog and in her memoir) about her faith in God. She is Mormon and does not attempt to separate her beliefs from her writing (which would have been near impossible, as far as I could tell). I appreciated how easily church and faith and the Savior were intertwined throughout the story, but I am curious how it read to those not of the LDS faith. I felt like she tried to explain things as needed but wonder if it seemed like too much or too little to people with little exposure to the Church. For example, going back to Gretchen Rubin, what were her thoughts on that aspect of the memoir? I know from The Happiness Project that she herself does not subscribe to any religion, so I wonder what her thoughts were on that?

In the epilogue, Stephanie says this about her experience: [The] cornerstones of faith, family, and community were the framework of my life before the accident, and I thank God that they were strong enough to support me afterward, too. When the worst happened, that foundation withstood tremendous pressure but didn't collapse. Quite the opposite: it carried me...

I love this image, and it gives me hope that in my own life, when my own storms and tribulations come, if I have held fast to those things which are truly important, then I will be able to make it to the other side, too.

I borrowed this book from my sister-in-law, Sonja.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

May 25, 2012

My parents read to me a lot when I was little, but somehow they missed The Phantom Tollbooth. In fact, I had never even heard the title until, oh, maybe a year or so ago. And then it was like the floodgates opened, and I heard about it everywhere. I find it so funny that I could go for 27 years and never hear mention of it, and then, randomly, there's no end to it . Was I just not paying attention before?

I decided that since it is somewhat of a classic (it was published in 1961 and seems to have held its popularity, at least among adults), I wanted to read it for myself.

It is about a young boy named Milo who, bored out of his mind and with very little imagination, discovers a magic tollbooth kit in his room. He constructs the tollbooth, drives his car through it (yes, lucky for him, he had his own small car), and finds himself in the Kingdom of Wisdom. (It seems that, perhaps, his imagination was not so bad after all...) Upon learning of a longstanding feud between brothers, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician, which resulted in the princesses Rhyme and Reason being banished, Milo decides to rescue them and hopefully save the kingdom.

I read children's novels for two reasons: First, for myself, because I honestly and sincerely enjoy them, and second, for my children; I want to know which ones to share with them as they get older. To be quite honest, I'm having a hard time reconciling this book from either point of view.

From an adult's perspective, I thought that many of the puns and turns of phrase were extremely clever and funny. In fact, after listening to the first few chapters, I told my husband he should listen to it, too, because I thought he would enjoy the wit. But the actual plot held very little appeal for me. I wasn't engaged in Milo's journey but kept listening because I enjoyed the words.

So then I started wondering if my children would enjoy it in a few years. While they probably would like Milo and Tock the watchdog and the Humbug, I don't know if those things would hold their interest enough to sustain them through the wordiness and wordplay that comprises so much of the book.

I feel like I'm being disloyal since this book seems to be so universally loved. If any of you loved it as a child, maybe you can cast some additional perspective on the subject. Also, I'm so curious if it is a book that children are falling in love with today or if it is mainly adults who are holding onto it as a classic.

I checked out the audio book from my local library.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

May 24, 2012

This is why I feel fairly confident in saying I have absolutely no aspirations of ever writing a novel: Because I would want it to be like this book; and it never would.

It's difficult to say why I even liked it so much. Anna Quindlen said, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human." So you could say that it doesn't have a gripping plot...except that for me, human nature is gripping, and far more so than dragons or vampires or zombies.

Then there's the writing, which, in a word, is exquisite, but not in an extravagant, flamboyant way, but as something so simple and realistic that I literally thought I could taste Katie's made-over bread and feel the pencil groove in Francie's desk. It was tactile and tangible; it's the way I wish I could write.

Because there isn't a driving plot, the characters really are what move the story along:

Johnny: okay, yes, he was kind of a bum father, but what a kindhearted, gentle, devoted bum father he was! Maybe I'm just comparing him to Rex Walls from A Glass Castle, but I thought Johnny was (almost) everything Francie needed him to be. Sure, providing clothes and food would have been nice, but really, Francie had a strong enough work ethic that she could provide those things for herself. What she really needed was someone to love her, praise her, and need her, and Johnny did all of those things.

Katie: In my opinion, Katie was the most complicated character in the book. It would have been so easy to paint her as mean and cruel or, on the flip side, warm and nurturing, but neither would have been as believable as what Katie was: strong-willed but vulnerable, knowing she loved Neeley best but not wanting Francie to know it, having her own dreams but sacrificing them for her family, hard on the outside but with a soft spot here and there.

Neeley: It took me a good chunk of the book to decide if I was going to like Neeley or not. There wasn't anything to dislike about him in the first chapters, but she kept hinting at "his gang" or drinking and smoking, and I was just so afraid he was going to turn into a real punk of a brother. Thankfully he didn't, and I think my favorite scene with Neeley was when he was in a hurry, and Francie offered to iron his shirt. There was an identical scene (parts of the conversation were even word-for-word the same) with Johnny and Francie.

Sissy: In what other book can you find such a promiscuous character who is as lovable as Sissy? I mean, really.

Francie: And then, of course, Francie, who was the perfect easy to love and hurt for. She was lonely and never had a best friend (which, in some ways, was so refreshing since sometimes best friends are annoyingly attentive and supportive with no real character of their own). I loved Francie as much as I've ever loved any of my favorite heroines.

There was only one part of the story that really irritated me, and that was Katie's conversation with Francie after Lee has been exposed as a total jerk. I didn't agree with Katie's assessment of "first love." Disagree with me if you will, but I'm grateful I didn't waste even a kiss on my 16-year-old crush.

Aside from that, I loved the book. If I could visit 1916 Brooklyn, I think I could find my way around although I think I'd be a bit terrified since I'm not made of the same kind of steel.

If you're somewhat intimidated by classics, then this is the perfect one to try. Since it's not as classically classical, it is very readable with many touching moments (my favorite being the flowers after graduation). In my eyes, this was a near-perfect novel.

Running and Reading

May 23, 2012

I run every weekday morning.

I never thought I would be able to say that without adding a million qualifiers (...except when it's raining or ...unless I go to bed after 11:00pm or long as my baby doesn't wake up more than once or ... if I don't forget to set my alarm).

No, I really do think it's safe to say I run every weekday morning. (Okay, just one qualifier: unless I'm laying on the bathroom floor with the stomach flu. I'm not that hard core.)

It has become such a habit to run every morning that I might go so far as to say I'm addicted to it. Even when my running partner and dear friend, Kathy, is out of town, I still go running. And that's saying something. I never thought I could or would run without her.

A little history: Kathy and I started exercising in January 2011. We were both pregnant and wanted to stay in shape. We started with P90X in the living room on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We exercised through both our pregnancies and resumed soon after our babies were born. It was then that we switched to a Monday-Friday, 6:00am schedule.

Anyway, when Kathy can't run with me, I still get up with the sun (or before the sun as the seasons may be), put on my running shoes, and run through the sweet-smelling streets. (Side note: this really is the best time of year to run outside; it's a privilege just to be outside when the mornings are so heavenly. I feel sorry for all you runners who wait until 9:00am. You are missing out.).

When I have to run by myself, I take my iPod. But instead of listening to music, I listen to books. It distracts me and makes the time pass so quickly.

I usually change up my route from day to day because I get bored easily. And I've noticed something interesting. Sometimes when I pass a certain house or a specific street corner that I've run past before, a scene from a book will flash across my brain. It's so crazy. It might not even be an important part of the story, but for some reason it got logged away in my brain and is permanently linked to a specific location.

For example, I listened to Once Upon a Marigold last summer. I didn't particularly like it, and I'm sure I would have forgotten all the details by now except that when I run down a certain street, I'm suddenly back in the part of the story where Marigold and what's-his-name are sending letters back and forth across the river.

I just find it fascinating the way the brain connects things, and how something that I thought was gone long ago can pop back into remembrance if it's triggered by the right image or smell or sound. It makes running even more of an adventure and is my own personal testament that running is not only good for my physical health, but my mental health as well.

My Own Space

May 22, 2012

Those who know me probably saw this coming. I've been leaving not-so-subtle hints for more than a few months.

Such as:
  • Our family blog has been taken over by book lists, picture book reviews, and posts about how much I love the library.
  • I can't seem to have a normal conversation without mentioning something from a recent read.
  • I think the library is one of the best places to go on a date, or by myself, or with my kids.
  • My library card is one of my prized possessions.
  • If I could splurge and spend money on anything my heart desired, I would go to The King's English and buy the whole set of Mercy Watson in hardback.
  • Hands down, I'd rather curl up on the couch and read a book than curl up and watch a movie.
  • I don't know how to wash the dishes if I'm not listening to a book.
  • My idea of fun is to grab a huge stack of picture books, snuggle my boys on either side of me, and settle in for some good reading.
So consider this the first official post of Sunlit Pages. I put up some of my old reviews just so it wouldn't feel like I was starting in dry. I'm excited to finally have my own space for all those thoughts, conversations, and ideas that have been clamoring my brain.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

May 22, 2012

This review discusses some important details to the story. 

I am absolutely amazed at the resiliency of some people...and Louis Zamperini is one of those people. I loved this book so much. There is something thrilling about reading a true story that is more exciting and unbelievable than any fiction ever could be.

For me, the most unbelievable part of the story was not the 20-foot shark leaping onto the raft with jaws opened wide; nor was it the Bird's unrelenting attacks in the dead of night. No, I had the hardest time believing Louie's overnight transformation (literally) after the war. Here he is, drinking himself into oblivion, having horrible flashbacks and nightmares, and then one day, he listens to Billy Graham and remembers the promise he made on the raft, and, BAM!, no more bad dreams, no more alcohol, a changed man. Once he made the decision, it just seemed to happen so easily and effortlessly. I definitely believe in the power of the Atonement to change people, but I know many who have struggled for years with various ailments and issues, and it's part of their personal growth to work through their problems. Maybe it wasn't as easy as the writing made it sound, or maybe it had to do with Louie's personality: his intense drive and determination to overcome any challenge in his way. Really amazing no matter how you look at it.

And it wasn't just the story itself that I loved; it was the writing as well. I felt like Hillenbrand kept it all true to eye witnesses, personal accounts, fact, etc. It was paced well. She pulled in other sources to offer a more complete picture of the war. Just really, really good. I want to read Seabiscuit now.

Everyone should read this book. I really do mean that. It will restore your faith in the strength of humankind (after totally crushing your faith in the goodness of humanity, that is). It will make you think that maybe, just maybe, if you had to, you could do impossible things too.

(Content note: there is some language, including one instance of the f-word. I like to be forewarned, so if you're like me, there you go.)

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodges Burnett

May 21, 2012

If you are going to read (or re-read) this book, might I recommend April as the perfect month to read it in? I didn't even think about the appropriateness of the season when I started it, but it was so fitting to read about the bare, empty branches and the cold, rainy weather giving way to tiny, green shoots and new life and brilliantly colored flowers. It made me enjoy our own spring that much more.

I was so impressed this time around with the transformation of Mary's character. Frances Hodgson Burnett made it so believable. Even though Mary grows kinder and less selfish and happier, she never loses her personality. She still has that stubborn streak and can get fired up in a second. Mary's change is so gradual and subtle, and in the end you really do like her, but she is still Mary.

Speaking of Mary, the ending was a bit disappointing for me. The whole book is about her, but she takes a back seat in the last chapter, and Colin gets the final word, which didn't seem quite fair.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

May 21, 2012

This review discusses some important details to the plot.

Really, such a sweet story. I loved the setting: 1942, Seattle, Chinese boy in love with a Japanese girl. I've read very little about the Japanese internment...maybe we're a little ashamed? We actually IMPRISONED other Americans? I understand it was a time of fear, but still...

Anyway, the format of the book goes back and forth between 1942 and 1986. My only disappointment was in the ending (of course). It just wasn't as fulfilling as I wanted it to be. I wanted Henry to get more into the search for Keiko...I wanted more pulling of the old heartstrings. Plus, I was really disappointed that he didn't give Keiko all of her photographs back. After all the lengths he went to to keep them safe, I think he should have taken them to New York.

This was, surprisingly, a very clean swearing, no uncomfortable scenes, etc. I feel like I could, and would, recommend this book without reservation.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

May 19, 2012

I wish I had a way to describe how much I loved this book. I don't give out very many five stars, so I kept asking myself, "Is this really a five-star book?" And finally I decided that yes, it was, for these reasons:

The writing style immediately drew me in. There are many books out there with two or more stories glimpses of the past while figuring things out in the present. But, to date, I think Walk Two Moons does it in the most seamless way I've ever read. Instead of it being like, "Chapter 24: Present," "Chapter 25:Past," it just feels like you're floating between the two stories. As Salamanca tells Phoebe's story, it reminds her of memories from her own life. She comes to terms with events in her past because of what she learned from Phoebe. In that way, I guess it's really three stories: Phoebe's, Sal's past (unconnected to her involvement with Phoebe), and Sal's present. All details are important, but Sal just gives little pieces here and there. She leaves one thread hanging while tying off one she left awhile back. For example, at one mid-point, you find out that Sal's mother was pregnant, but in the present day story Sal doesn't have a sibling, so that little fact kept teasing the back of my brain: when is she going to explain about her mom's pregnancy? Unanswered questions like that really kept the story moving.

The characters were great. One of my favorites was Phoebe Winterbottom, Sal's best friend. I kind of have a pet peeve with books where the main character has a best friend just to have a best friend. That's not the case with Phoebe Winterbottom. In part, I think that's because she gets her own story, but it's also because she's not completely likeable. She's a bit rude, and she and Sal don't really even seem like they have the same personality type. Instead of just being the best friend who is helping Sal, she has her own problems and struggles, and Sal really doesn't even like her sometimes. It was a very real friendship.

The story itself was so thought-provoking. I kept wishing I was reading it for book group so I could discuss it with someone. Maybe I'll have to recommend it for next month. Sal's and Phoebe's mothers were especially intriguing to me...

I listened to this book, so maybe I shouldn't have given it five stars until I know whether or not it would pass the paper test as well. I know that listening to a book can be a completely different experience than reading it, and sometimes it really can make or break a book. I hope it will be just as good in my hands as in my ears. Nevertheless, I stayed with the five stars because I know it WILL be a book I will reread; and it WILL also be a book I will own someday. And those are two tests that say "five stars" to me.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

More Favorite Picture Books

May 19, 2012

I wrote these reviews before creating this blog.

1. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, Mo Willems
I wouldn't call myself a die-hard Mo Willems fan. (His very popular Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was only so-so at best. Maybe it will be funnier when Aaron is a little older.) But Knuffle Bunny was easy to fall in love with.

As a quick summary, Trixie is a toddler, absolutely in love with her stuffed bunny. Tragedy strikes when Knuffle Bunny is accidentally left at the laundromat, but Trixie doesn't have the language skills to tell her daddy.

I can completely relate to the frustration of communication barriers between toddler and parent. Aaron and Max LOVE the page where Trixie desperately tries to make the words come out: "Aggle, Flaggle, Klabble!" (or something like that). I have to read that page over and over again, and it's always met with a duet of giggles.

The illustrations are very unique: ink sketches superimposed over photographs of Brooklyn. Unlike Soup Day, which also combines different artistic elements but in a random way, I love these pictures. Very fun.

P.S. And just for the record, in our house we've decided, after much deliberation and research, that the correct pronunciation is "Kuh-nuffle." We beg you to differ.

2. Press Here, Herve Tullet
This book is so simple, why didn't I think of it myself? Seriously, WHY?! I could have even provided my own illustrations...and there are not many books I can say that about.

Really, this book is so clever in its simplicity. It is interactive without any flaps, touch-and-feel, or pop-outs. The concept is this: the reader is asked to "press here"...a single yellow dot...and turn the page. Wonder of wonders, there are now TWO yellow dots! Press the dot again, and now there are THREE. You get the idea: by performing certain actions on the dot or the book, the reader is led through all kinds of fascinating changes. And of course, to a child, it looks like he's initiated all the changes.

I love it! Imagination WITHOUT having to tape back on the flaps or glue the pop-outs back together.

3. Bubble, Bubble, Mercer Mayer
Having grown up on nearly every Little Critter book available, I have always loved Mercer Mayer. But this particular book is a newly acquired favorite.

The basic premise reminded me a lot of Chalk: a boy buys some "magic" bubbles. He creates all kind of shapes and pictures, including some dangerous animals. Using his quick wit, he blows bigger bubble animals to scare off the others. Finally, he gets tired of the game, and with one finger, he pop, pop, pops all the bubbles.

The text is very simple, and the illustrations are delightful. Maxwell loves bubbles, and it is one of the few words he can say, so we have read this story quite a bit.

*There is something about the cover that makes me feel so reminiscent...I'm not sure why since I had never read the book until last week...I think it's just Mercer Mayer's style.

4. The Seven Silly Eaters, Mary Ann Hoberman, illust. Marla Frazee
You know how there are some books where you love the illustrations, but the text is just downright awful? you're thinking, "someone was actually paid to write that?!" or "the 'author' gets to be acknowledged on the cover for writing three ridiculous sentences?" It can go the other way, too...delightful text, poor illustrations.

Well, THIS is NOT one of THOSE books. I repeat, THIS is NOT one of THOSE books. Both the text and the illustrations deserve awards, they're that clever and adorable and memorable. Seriously, every time I read this book I can't decide if I like the story or the pictures better. So, I give up. I love them both. In fact, I wish I could quote a part of the text here, but sadly, the book is back at the library, and my pregnant brain can't remember it verbatim.

Anyway, anyone from a big family can relate to this book (and if you didn't grow up in a big family, you'll wonder, "is it really like that," and yes, it is). By the end of the book, there are seven children, and each one has a favorite food (pink lemonade for Lucy, homemade applesauce for Jack, etc.). Mrs. Peters is simply frazzled by the end, trying to meet the demands of all her "darling little Peters." I can well remember my own mom telling us that she was not a short-order cook when we would make similar requests.

There is one illustration that I particularly love: Mrs. Peters is at her wit's end, and the house is an absolute disaster: overflowing bread coming out of the oven, folded (and unfolded) laundry on the kitchen table, dirty dishes just looks so real.

The book has a very sweet, very clever ending, which I won't spoil here, but needless to say, this is a book I would highly recommend. Five stars all the way.

5. Eating the Alphabet and Planting a Rainbow, Lois Ehlert
These are two books that, I'll admit, I'm a little surprised Aaron likes so much.

The first one, Eating the Alphabet, showcases each letter of the alphabet by showing every fruit and vegetable beginning with the showcased letter. Some letters, like "P," have four pages filled to the brim with yummy produce. Some letters, like "X," get less than half a page because, honestly, can you think of any fruit or vegetable that begins with "X"? (Well, there's one...xigua...a type of watermelon grown in China; now you know.)

The second book, Planting a Rainbow, goes through the process of planting a flower garden: planting the bulbs, buying the seeds, watering the plants, and enjoying beautiful bouquets of blossoms.

I guess my surprise comes because I never suspected Aaron to have a fascination with swiss chard or papaya or artichokes. I didn't know he would love zinnias and tulips and marigolds.

So, in Aaron's love for these books, I have to give Lois Ehlert ALL the credit. Her illustrations are so bold and bright, without any unnecessary detail. Some artists you love for their lifelike depictions, for all the little things they can pack onto a page. Lois Ehlert is the opposite. You love her for all the things she chooses not to include and for her use of bold shapes and solid colors, with limited shading and shadows.

And just as a random fact: we tried swiss chard for the very first time yesterday. It's really not too bad.

6. Good Dog, Carl, Alexandra Day
This has been a family favorite for a long time, but it has recently reclaimed a prominent position in our most-read pile because Max is currently obsessed with dogs. And I think it's his dream to have a dog as his babysitter.

Carl, a Rottweiler I believe, is left in charge of the baby while the mother runs a few errands. Carl is the epitome of a good babysitter: he entertains, feeds, and bathes the baby. Shortly before the mother gets home, Carl cleans up the house and puts everything back in order. The mother finds everything exactly as she left it.

We happen to have a Rottweiler that lives on the other side of our duplex. I'm not thrilled about it. Rottweilers are big, muscular, usually aggressive dogs, and I would never trust one alone with my children. But there's something so lovable and endearing about Carl, so he definitely gives his breed a good face!

Even More Favorite Books

May 19, 2012

I wrote these reviews before the birth of this blog.

1. The Roller Coaster, Marla Frazee
If you had never been on a roller coaster before, then reading this book would be the next best thing (or maybe the best thing depending on how you feel about lurching stomachs). The book takes you step-by-step through the excitement of a roller coaster ride...from standing in line to climbing to the top of the first hill to rushing through the loops and twists in wild-screaming-abandon. There's a two-page layout of the entire roller coaster that Aaron and I love to trace our fingers around. I also really love all the facial expressions on the riders.

2. Hippos Go Berserk, Sandra Boynton
We've featured Sandra Boynton in Favorite Books before, and while, unlike some parents, I'm not a die-hard Sandra Boynton fan (some I like, some I don't), this book has been read enough times in our house that it deserves mention. (In fact, I wish you could have heard Aaron's excitement when he rediscovered this book at the library a few weeks ago.) The plot is simple: one hippo is lonely, so he decides to throw a hippo party. They come by twos and threes and fours until there are forty hippos, and they all go berserk. Then, in similar fashion, all the hippos leave until the one hippo is left alone again. So, yes, it's a cute story, but the reason this book has stood the test of library returns is because six of the hippos show up with a "guest"...and that "guest" happens to be a blue monster. If you know anything about how Aaron feels about monsters, well, enough said.

3. The Wide-Mouthed Frog, illus. Jonathan Lambert
Aaron and I have been reading quite a bit of folk stories and fairy tales lately. This is one that I did not grow up with, had never even heard of, but Mike remembered it and showed me how to read it out loud "correctly" (making your mouth very wide or very small as is appropriate to the story). This adaptation is fun because the frog's "wide mouth," as well as the mouths of all his associates, pop out of the page and open and close.

4. The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Paul Galdone
Earlier this week, Aaron, Max, and I were at the zoo, and we were acting out this story on the bridge (yeah, I'm pretty sure all the other kids were wishing I was their mom...actually, there were no other kids's December, for crying out loud...not really "zoo weather.") Anyway, it reminded me of this book, and more specifically, this illustrator, who we really like. I've checked out many of Paul Galdone's books, and I've yet to find one I don't like. He has illustrated many of the "classics" (The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Boy, etc.), and the reason I like him so much is because he maintains the original storyline and characters (he doesn't try to make the little red hen a rock star or put the gingerbread boy in ancient China). While variety and originality are nice, sometimes it's better to just keep the story in its true form. So, if that's what you're looking for, check out Paul Galdone.

5. The Circus Ship, Chris Van Dusen
Several months ago, I saw this book as a nominee for the 2011 Beehive Book Award. After reading the summary ("A circus ship has an accident off the coast of Maine which leaves the animals stranded, but they are soon taken in by the citizens of a small island who grow fond of the new residents and fight to protect them."), I decided not to even check it out. Several months later, I heard about it again, and as we were going through a bit of a book dry spell, I decided it wouldn't hurt to give it a try. That may be one of the best decisions I've made all year. The Circus Ship is quickly rising to the top of our favorite books for 2010. Here are just a few of the reasons why we LOVE this book: 1) The already read it above, but as lame as it sounds, it's actually quite entertaining. 2) The rhymes actually rhyme and keep a consistent meter (do authors actually think that because they're writing a book for children, they can pretend that words like "rabbit" and "carrot" rhyme?) 3) It has a villain...the evil Mr. Paine. 4) It is incredibly fun to try to find all fifteen circus animals flying out of the ship, hiding in the village, etc. 5) He's not afraid to use big words, like "menagerie." 6) The illustrations...I saved the best for last...oh, the illustrations! They are so vibrant and detailed and original. They never get old. (And believe me, I've read this book a LOT). Have I convinced you yet that this is a book worth reading? If you don't read any other book from this list, read this one.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

May 18, 2012

A very solid four stars. This was such a fun read (and if you can listen to Jim Dale narrate it, even better). I adored (or hated, depending on who we're talking about) the colorful cast of characters (Tubby Ted being among my favorites).

I love the original Peter Pan. Just absolutely love it. I reread it a couple years ago and got completely caught up in the wit and humor and sarcasm of it all. So I was a bit apprehensive to read this prequel. But happily, it felt and sounded enough like the original that I didn't have any trouble thinking I was reading about the same Peter Pan...although he is far less conceited...maybe that comes with time. The whole story was so creative: from Captain Hook (Black Stache)to the crocodile to clever.

I did feel like the pacing slowed a bit in the middle section because so many of the parties had broken up, so as the story unfolded each part had to be told from three or four viewpoints.

And also, since there are four more books in the series, it seemed like things wrapped up a bit too nicely. I would have liked it if they'd left a few Peter Pan mysteries for the next book (for example, it seemed like the creation of Tinker Bell happened as an afterthought, and they could have fleshed out her story a lot more if they'd saved her for a later book. However, maybe they weren't originally planning on writing five books?) I'll definitely read the next one; it just didn't leave me hanging enough to run out and grab it this very minute.

If you're looking for an engaging story for 9-12-year-old boys, then this is it. (But, as you can see, 27-year-old moms can enjoy it too!)

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

May 18, 2012

 This is the kind of fantasy I love (did I just put fantasy and love in the same sentence?!): well-developed plots, irresistible characters, intrigue and suspense, and not a lot of mystical creatures.

Oh, the characters! I love Peter and Molly and Tinker Bell and George Darling (so great to have George a part of this story). And Lord Ombre is more than creepy; he is downright terrifying. I listened to the audio of this book (which is great, by the way) and was scared senseless one afternoon when I was listening to it while the boys were supposedly napping. I was in the middle of a particularly tense scene when Aaron jumped around the corner and shouted "Boo!" (why he shouted "Boo" I don't know...maybe because he knew he wasn't supposed to be out of bed and so he was trying to be funny...but it sufficiently did the trick to make my heart start racing and stop at the same time).

I think my very favorite scene in the whole book was when Peter was about to be captured by the street thieves again, and he was saved by none other than J.M. Barrie. It was totally unexpected but felt absolutely...perfect. To make J.M. Barrie a part of his own creation was genius. It wasn't too much that it detracted from the actual plot, but it was just the right kind of nod towards the man who gave life to Peter. Loved it.

For awhile, I thought that the scenes with the pirates and the Lost Boys just weren't working...they were too short with too much of the main story in between...but I changed my mind in the final chapter because I thought the triumph of the Lost Boys over Captain Hook was the perfect way to end the story.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

May 18, 2012

This review was written before the birth of this blog.

I have no reservations giving this book five stars. For me, it was truly life-changing. I finished it a week ago and having been mulling over the rating: Does is truly deserve five stars? It was not without its faults, and of course I found something to be critical about (see below), but the truth is, I can't stop thinking about this book. It sneaks into every conversation and accompanies many of my thoughts. It's one of the few books I've read where I actually considered re-reading it immediately after finishing it. I liked it that much...and thought it would benefit me just as much the second time around.

I have felt kind of overwhelmed by writing this review. There's so much I'd like to say, so much I thought I would say when I was reading it. It is the only book, to date, that I've marked with sticky tabs. There was so much I wanted to remember. (I wish, wish, wish I'd bought my own copy. I really don't know how I can take it back to the library.)

In short summary, one day while riding the subway, Gretchen Rubin gets caught up wondering if it's possible for her to make herself happier. Not that she's unhappy. But she wonders if she would actually notice a difference in her level of happiness if she were making a conscious effort to improve it, or if her ability to be happy is so engrained in her genetic make-up that she wouldn't notice much change. She devotes a whole year to becoming happier...each month has a theme (June: Make Time for Friends) with specific, theme-related resolutions.

Here comes my first criticism: it bothered me that one of the main reasons she seemed to be doing this project was because she wanted to publish a book about it. It just seemed so...monetary...insincere. But then I thought, What do I care about her reasons for doing it? I agree with what she's saying! I love what she's saying! The content of the book didn't change just because she might have had ulterior motives. The natural progression doesn't always have to be "Get a good idea, execute good idea, and then think, 'I could write a book about that!" Sometimes it can go, "Get a good idea, think, 'I could write a book about that,' and then execute the good idea."

Here are just a few of the resolutions and happiness thoughts that really resonated with me:

*Act the way I want to feel
*What's fun for other people may not be fun for you (total revelation! I feel so completely liberated!)
*Tackle a nagging task
*the one-minute rule
*Indulge in a modest splurge
*Pursue a passion

Since my religion is a huge part of my life, and therefore my happiness, I wondered if I wouldn't relate very well to Gretchen Rubin's resolutions, since she readily admits to not being very religious (if I remember right, "respectfully agnostic" is the way she describes herself). But even though that might seem like an impossible chasm to bridge between our lifestyles/personalities, I found it really wasn't difficult at all. There were so many principles that I could apply, maybe in different ways, but very applicable nonetheless.

The one part of the book that irked me (though not enough to bring down my rating) was all of the blog comments. I liked seeing the perspectives of other people but thought that they were poorly selected and that overall, there were just too many of them.

I feel embarrassed to admit that I've been steering away from this book for over a year. Even though all the reviews I read were positive, I still viewed it with very cynical eyes. Another book about happiness? Gag. I know how to be happy without reading a book about it. But then after reading a particularly glowing review, I decided that it actually sounded like something I would like. And lo and behold, I not only liked it, but I want it to have a permanent home on my bookshelves. It wasn't just full of reminders of things I already knew; it literally changed the way I view happiness and my ability to make myself happy.

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

May 18, 2012

Rapturous sigh. This book gets five stars because if I'm going to read for pure enjoyment, this is exactly what I want: the time period, the characters, the pacing of the romance, the romance itself...I'm telling you, it seemed like it was tailor-written for me! I faced this paradox through the whole book: do I keep reading because I'm dying to know what happens next? Or do I take a break so it's not over too soon and I have something to look forward to? Every time I put in my bookmark, I felt like I literally had to tear myself away from it. Am I gushing too much? Yes, probably, but I can't seem to help myself.

When it was over, I wanted to go back and re-read some of my favorite parts, and then I realized "my favorite parts" would be the entire book over again. I'm sure I will do that soon enough.

While Mr. Knightley and Gilbert Blythe are in no danger of being knocked from their pedestals (they're pretty solidly anchored there), I will happily add another one for Philip. He was so different from those two, but I loved him just as much.

Julie Donaldson can count me as a loyal fan; I will read anything she writes.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Favorite Picture Books

May 18, 2012

I wrote the following reviews before creating this blog. 

1. Go, Dog, Go! P.D. Eastman Show me a child who doesn't love this book. Go on, I dare you. And then show me a parent who after the first reading didn't say, "Okaaaay...and what exactly was the point of that book? Of all the random..." But then after a few more readings, show me the same parent who doesn't spontaneously burst out with, "Work, dogs, work!" or "Do you like my hat?" during appropriate, or perhaps inappropriate, points during the day. Obviously, this book has become a much-loved favorite at our house. And I keep asking myself, Why? Is it because there are red dogs and blue dogs, and yes, even green dogs? Is it because the commentary is simple and easy to memorize? Is it the sheer spontaneity of the whole thing (dogs in the water, under houses, on snowy mountaintops)? Or is it because it ends with a totally awesome dog party on top of a tree no less? This is currently one of Maxwell's favorite books. Now that we've read it, you know, close to 100 times, he can jump in whenever he wants, especially on the recurring hat scenes. If you haven't read this book before, then there's no time like the present. Give it a few rereadings before discounting it as complete randomness (and then ask yourself if I could possibly use the word "random" one more time?).

2. Where is the Green Sheep? Mem Fox
Was this book written with Aaron in mind? A regular white sheep is pretty boring. A black sheep, although more rare, is still not anything special. But turn it green, and you need do nothing else to have Aaron hooked.

Through the whole book, the reader is searching for the green sheep. He finds the brave sheep and the scared sheep but repeatedly asks, Where is the green sheep? (Fitting title, don't you think?)

Anyway, this is the perfect read-aloud because the kids can supply almost all the words: Here is the ______ (and they fill in the blank). Plus they can act more and more exasperated each time they ask, But where is the green sheep? and no green sheep appears.

Really, I feel like this is the epitome of the perfect children's book: simple illustrations, repetitive text, imaginative ideas (what will those sheep do next?), and a final, happy resolution. I've been so inspired by this book that I just checked out Mem Fox's Reading Magic, which is her book for adults about the benefits and joys that come with reading out loud to your children.

3. Katy and the Big Snow, Virginia Lee Burton
I have to get this one in before spring officially arrives and we're thinking about swimming pools, and snow is, mercifully, a thing of the past.

If Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House, or even Mike Mulligan, seem a bit text-heavy for your child, you might want to try out this one. Maybe I've failed to notice the boys' increasing attention spans, but Katy and the Big Snow seemed to have less text per page and hold their interests the whole time.

In quick summary, the city of Geopolis gets blasted by a huge snowstorm, and it's up to Katy to quickly plow out the entire city one street at a time so that everyone else can resume their jobs and keep the city functioning.

The illustrations are great. The whole city disappears beneath a blanket of snow, and throughout the course of the book, it is gradually uncovered. I always feel like hibernating with a blanket after reading this one.

4. Swirl by Swirl, illus. Beth Krommes
Oh, I was so sad this didn't win the Caldecott this year. Not even an honor! In fact, I was going to devote a whole post to the injustice of it all...but I refrained.

In beautiful wood engravings, the shape of the spiral is explored: roses to tornadoes to animals curled up in dens.

We only had to read this one once to love it. What's more, as soon as we were done, we grabbed some paper and markers and drew our own spirals. It's been several months since we read it for the first time, and Aaron is still drawing spirals because of it (and I'm grateful for that because Aaron hasn't really shown much artistic inclination's one of the few things he will draw). I feel like the mark of a good book is when it inspires the reader beyond the reading.

This has the potential to go over the heads of younger readers and to be somewhat boring for older readers, but the illustrations totally make it. They can't help but be pulled in when there's a glistening spiderweb stretched across the page. The illustrations captivated all three of us, and I wish we could read it again for the first time so we could have the fun of turning the page and seeing each picture afresh. I'm always curious with a book like this if the text or the illustrations came first. Because really, in this case, the text is fine, but the illustrations are breathtaking.

4. No No Yes Yes, Lisa Patricelli
I have a vague recollection of reading this book over a year ago when Aaron was much younger. I think we read it once. And then promptly returned it. I was horrified by all the bad examples in the book (drawing on the walls, putting toys in the toilet, etc.). Even though each bad example (No No!) was contrasted with a good example (Yes Yes!), I didn't trust 18-month-old Aaron to choose drawing on the paper when he'd been presented with such a fun, never-thought-of-before alternative.

However, now that he is older and has a grasp on choices and consequences, it has actually turned into a very funny book (many thanks to my friend who made me curious to take a second look). And it has led to many fun conversations and laughs.

Because it is a board book with very simple drawings and sparse text, it's tempting to disregard it for a three-year-old, but I personally think that is a more appropriate age than anything under two. I've even heard of it being used in preschool/kindergarten classes with rousing success.

For those of you who have read it, do you think I'm being an overly paranoid parent by banning it from my younger child?

6. I Spy With My Little Eye, Edward Gibbs
Not to be confused with the ever-popular I Spy books, this book is simple enough that Max likes it, but it holds Aaron's interest as well.

The layout of the book is as follows: one page shows a single eye, belonging to a mystery animal. There is a clue (ex. I am the biggest animal in the world). The eye is a cutout, and when the page is turned, the eye fits into the rest of the animal (a blue whale). The illustrations are captivating, the clues are simple, and it features some of our favorite animals. What's more, the back of the book has a hole in it through which you can spy all sorts of amazing things.

5. No Dogs Allowed! illus. Kristin Sorra
I've decided that I really like wordless picture books. I used to be intimidated by them; I didn't want to have to think up what to say to accompany each picture. But now that's part of the fun. Each time I read it, I can focus on something different or find something new. Together with Aaron and Max, we can make the story exactly like we want it. (Oh, and it's also super convenient that if it's time for bed, we can make it short, and if we're waiting for Mike to come home, we can make it long.) Really, wordless picture books are so versatile.

In this particular story, a restaurant owner begins the day with his sign loudly proclaiming, Welcome! But then he sees a boy with his dog approaching, and so he quickly erases the sign and writes, No Dogs Allowed. I'm sure you can see where this is going...someone else comes with a cat and then a rabbit, and so he keeps changing his sign to include all the animals that are not allowed. Finally he has shunned so many critters that he has no customers. Luckily, he has a change of heart and comes up with a great solution.

But notice that I've been referring to this as "wordless" picture book, and yet if you look at the book cover, you'll notice that it says "written by Linda Ashman." I've puzzled over this for a good five minutes at least. Does that just mean the idea originated with her? I mean, literally the text consists of a few conversation bubbles with things like "Nooooo!" and "Yes?" in them as well as the changing chalkboard marque. That's it. I guess if you've already established yourself as a children's book author, you don't have to do much to get your name on the cover.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

May 16, 2012

I was a little worried that with Death narrating this book, the story would be too morbid and creepy. Also, I wondered what Death would even talk about: Would there be an actual story? Or just a recounting of millions of deaths? To my relief, it was very readable, and Death is even able to offer some objective humor. He tells the story of Liesel Meminger, and although he jumps around quite a bit, and spoils the ending on more than one occasion, it's still very easy to follow. I've talked to some people who didn't really like the more modern writing style of this book (they felt like Death's bolded notes broke up the text and that some of the descriptions were just too obscure and artsy). I actually loved the writing was one of my favorite things about the book. I love it when an author packs a lot of layers of description into one sentence, when he describes a very basic element of nature (like the sky) in a completely new way. Markus Zusak does just that.

I was disappointed with the amount of bad language. I can understand including some in order to be true to the culture, time period, and class of people, but all the variations on taking the name of God in vain bothered me.

The characters are wonderful though. And I was very impressed that the three men that are most influential in Liesel's life (Rudy, Papa, and Max) are all good in their own way and do everything they can to help and love Liesel. Really, all the characters seem so real, you'll want to go look them up on wikipedia to find out the rest of their stories. :-)

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin

May 16, 2012

A couple of years ago, I attempted to listen to Team of Rivals (also written by Doris Kearns Goodwin). I hate to not finish books (especially good ones), but it was so long, and I couldn't finish it before it was due, and then there was a massive hold list...and so I gave up.

But this book was different. For one thing, is was about 600 pages shorter. And because I love reading about the lives of other people, memoirs almost always hold my interest. But unlike other memoirs, this one sometimes masqueraded as a history, and I loved that aspect of it. In Goodwin's unique style, it was the perfect mix between the personal and the factual. She could talk about racism in Alabama and her mother's ill health and somehow tie it all together.

The memoir is set in Brooklyn in the 1950's during Goodwin's childhood. Baseball is the unifying thread through the decade. I would say that you don't have to love baseball to love this book, but Mike also listened to it and definitely wasn't as taken in by the drama of it all like I was. Out of all ball-sports, baseball is the one I understand the best, so luckily I could follow most of the terminology. I think I also have more nostalgia attached to the sport than Mike does (although not nearly to Goodwin's extent). The ending (with the Dodgers finally winning the World Series and then moving to Los Angeles) was actually a little emotional for me.

So whether you love baseball or not, this book will make you feel more American, making it the perfect read for summer.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

May 16, 2012

I've been pondering this review for some time, wondering how I could ever possibly do this book justice. It's been one that I've wanted to read for several years, not only because it's an American classic but because Harriet Beecher Stowe is supposedly one of my ancestors. I expected it to be a bit more of a drudgery to get through...more philosophizing, less story and drama.If you've avoided reading it, then let me just say that, although it's long, you won't be disappointed.

I didn't realize how strongly Christian the book would be, and that was one of the elements I loved best. My very favorite part of the book takes place when Tom has been on Simon Legree's plantation for a few weeks (months? I don't remember). Legree has vowed to break Tom, and Tom has withstood all of the abuse and torture with quiet grace. But his spirit sinks lower and lower in despair. And then one night, the moment of truth comes: he has been degraded to the point that he will either crack or rise above the challenges of mortality. Tom has done all he can to remain kind and human in an unkind and dehumanized world, and it is at this point, after all he can do, that the Savior fills him with His spirit. This part of the book is so beautifully written. I could read it over and over again. Even though Tom is a fictional character, the description of what happens as we endure challenges is real...I've seen it in my own life and in the lives of others.

Anyway, that was a really long description, but just writing about it makes me want to read that part again.

And I have to say, Simon Legree definitely gets the prize for most despicable villain...he is so evil and cruel and demonic he just makes your skin crawl.

This book was not just enjoyable to really did change my life in a positive way, and it will be one that will stay with me for a long time and be read again in the future.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

May 16, 2012

I don't really know how I missed reading this book as a teenager, but it met all my expectations and hopes: great characters (Atticus Finch for a father, anyone?), emotional story, descriptive writing, and heartbreaking ending.

One of the things I loved most was how every part of the story really mattered. At first, it seemed like Boo Radley was just there to give some initial interest and help us get to know Scout and Jem. But their strange little friendship really was important in the end. I love it when every part of a book adds to the overall plot.

(I've actually been mulling and talking over the ending for more than a month. Was Bob Ewell's death supposed to be confusing? Or am I just completely dense? Mike and I watched the movie after I read the book, and Mike said there's no question about how he died...and yet...I'm still questioning it...)

And is anyone else completely fascinated with Harper Lee? After I finished the book, I read all about her; if she could write such a classic on her first try, why has she not written anything else?!?!?!?! You can't tell me that she just doesn't have any more ideas; and it just doesn't make any sense that the overwhelming success of her first book would scare her from writing again. Hopefully they'll find some hidden gems after she dies.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

May 15, 2012

It was engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking. I approached it with an open-mind and read it for what it was...a memoir NOT a parenting book. And so because of that I loved it.

Human nature, personality differences, just people in general fascinate me (yes, I'm the one at the airport who is content to sit for two hours and people watch), so this book was everything I wanted.

I do have one criticism: I read a review that said this book was written 10 years too soon, and I completely agree. My impression was that this book was supposed to show the mother/daughter journey through rebellion and reconciliation. It does that, but her younger daughter (the one who rebelled) is still a young teenager. This book was written during the 18 months following their initial compromise. 18 months doesn't really tell us what will happen in the long run. There's still so much of this story that needs to be lived out. Maybe she wants to write a sequel, so she had to hurry and get this published before they lived any more of their lives. I don't know. But I do agree that it would have been nice to have Lulu and Sophia grown up so that it would have felt more like an ending.

Highly recommend though! I was so sad when it was over!

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

May 15, 2012

I really wanted to read The Glass Castle before reading this one, but when this was selected for book group, I didn't have time to read it first. You definitely don't need to have read it to understand or enjoy this story. I just think it would have given me some added perspective, especially with Rex and Rose Mary, and it would have made Rose Mary's childhood even more interesting. As it is, now I am dying to read The Glass Castle.

Jeannette Walls tells her grandmother's story in first person, and she creates such an authentic voice for her. You just feel like you're sitting at the kitchen table with her while she recounts the events of her life. Even if certain details were fictionalized and certain facts were elaborated, I really do believe that Lily Casey Smith's voice and personality were accurately portrayed. For example, in the book, whenever her first husband is mentioned, she always calls him a "crumb bum." It seemed like that description was used a bit excessively until I realized that's probably how the real Lily Casey Smith always referred to him. She lived an amazing life. I was especially impressed with her attitude when they were kicked off of the ranch...she just looked forward and made the most of her opportunities.

The language is a bit rough for most of the book, and once Rex enters the picture, it gets even more crude. While I didn't love this aspect of the book, I do think it was somewhat necessary to create each person as they really were/are.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

May 15, 2012

I have really mixed feelings on this one. When I read Half-Broke Horses, I wished I had read this first. But then, once I started this one, I was glad I read them in the order I did. Besides providing perspective, it gave me the needed incentive to push through some of the difficult parts. And there are a lot of difficult parts. I can't believe what the Walls kids grew up with.

First, there's Rex. An alcoholic (up to 2 QUARTS of liquor a day), he has one foul mouth. Just be warned...even when he's sober, he swears up a storm. He's a dreamer but lazy and irresponsible.

Rose Mary is so selfish and child-like: She won't go to her job as a teacher because she wants to paint; she owns land worth a million dollars, but her children go hungry; she won't swear or drink, but she's married to Rex. She just has a mind-boggling personality.

There are also some scenes with family members (the grandma and the uncle), as well as some random people, that are disturbing.

So I'm torn because I'd have a hard time recommending it to people because of some of the content, and yet, I want to recommend it to everyone because it was so well-written, so engrossing, and it will make you appreciate your own life. It's a true story, and sometimes it's hard to read the truth but reading it changes your life for the better.

The Walls kids are inspiring: they took care of themselves, they developed a strong work ethic in spite of their parents, and they became successful, contributing members of society. And through all of the neglect, Jeannette Walls still paints a picture of family togetherness and love, and not just between the siblings. Jeannette, although critical of and honest about her father's weaknesses, was also his biggest fan. She does a great job with saying more than, "Look at the hard, terrible childhood we had," but also, "These events and people helped me make the decisions that shaped my life into what it is today."

This is a book that I debated reading for a long time, but in the end, I'm glad I did. Who needs fiction when there are real stories like this?

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

May 15, 2012

I should have been taking notes while I was reading this book so I could remember all I wanted to say about it. It was a very thought-provoking read, and I wish I had a book group to discuss it could really get into some deep discussion about the various characters' personalities, choices, motives, etc. The main characters (the two boys and their fathers) are very well developed.

Sometimes I really have a difficult time with first person fiction, but this style felt very natural and real, maybe because even though it's Reuven telling the story, sometimes it felt more like the book was actually about Danny.

I will say that it's not a very fast-paced book. There's quite a bit of repetition, and I kept waiting for something really dramatic to happen, but the book really isn't so much about drama as it is about soul-searching and being true to oneself.

Finding out more about Jewish culture was truly fascinating to me. I still can't remember many of the terms (and definitely can't pronounce them), but I feel a little more cultured and well-rounded. :-)

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age 5 by Lisa Guernsey

May 15, 2012

The information in this book empowered me to make smart media choices for my son...and not feel guilty when I turn on a video for 30-minutes. That alone made the book well worth reading.

However, if you're looking for all the answers, they're not here...mainly because the research has not been done, ESPECIALLY for children under two years old. I never realized how frustrating it must be to work in the social order for a study to be well done, it needs a lot of people (in this case, kids/babies, not the easiest participants, I'm sure), and it needs to continue over a long period of time. So, results are often far from conclusive.

The research that HAS been done is very well presented in this book. Lisa Guernsey herself did not conduct any of the research; she just gathered and presented it in a format that's easy for parents to read. It is very research heavy, so if you don't like reading about study after study, you might not like this book. However, it's not difficult reading. The last 25% or so is fairly anecdotal...sometimes that's all you have to go on when the research isn't there.

Anyway, it presented a lot of good information, and I'm definitely going to be more careful about what Aaron is viewing, especially when he is at someone else's house.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

May 15, 2012

WHY didn't I wait to read this book until the final one came out?!?!?! It has been a loooooong time since I've actually looked forward to the next installment in a series.

This book was just as suspenseful, fast-paced, and engaging as the first one. Maybe I'm just easily surprised, but I really felt like there were a lot of twists and turns in the plot that I didn't see coming. (And, unlike some books, I found the surprises to be believable and validated.)

Like the first book, I felt that even though the plot itself was somewhat dark, the main characters were inspiring.

I gave it three stars instead of four or five because I felt like there were a few slightly inappropriate scenes which would keep me from recommending these books to some people. I tend to be fairly picky when it comes to morality, so even though there wasn't anything very explicit or highly descriptive, it was enough to make me worried there was going to be more as I made my way through the book.

I can't deny though, Suzanne Collins' writing style has me hooked, and I definitely enjoyed this book.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

May 15, 2012

I went into this book with some apprehension, simply because it seemed like it might be a little dark and violent for my tastes. I actually talked to quite a few people about the book before picking it up, just so I could hopefully avoid getting halfway into the book and then deciding to put it down.

In short, I loved it. It has been a LONG time since I've read a book that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. I kept thinking I had certain aspects of the plot figured out, only to be completely taken by surprise. (However, to Suzanne Collins' credit, I usually liked her ideas better than mine.) I'm usually not much of a fan of books in a series, just because I usually feel like I need a break after reading the first one, and then I've forgotten everything by the time I'm ready to pick up the second one. But I have to say I'm really excited, and anxious, to read Catching Fire.

So as far as the violence/subject matter goes, here's my take on it: Yes, it is violent, no question, but I don't think it's any more violent than novels about WWII. However, then you take the subject matter (teenagers fighting to the death on reality TV), and it makes the violence a little more gruesome. (To my relief though, there was less face to face combat than I was expecting...although they relived some of the moments too many times for my liking.)

Some people I talked to felt that this book was rather depressing. However, I actually felt somewhat inspired by it. I loved the main character, Katniss. She was such a real and likeable heroine. I felt like the book showed the depth of human love...we just can't escape caring about other people no matter how dark and awful the situation.

Even though it is very gripping and intense, it is also thought-provoking. Perhaps that's what makes it such an enjoyable read. Regardless, any book after this one is going to seem a little slow and dull.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

May 15, 2012

This review reveals important plot details. Proceed with caution.
Up until about page 250, I was wondering why everyone I talked to seemed somewhat disappointed in this book. I was loving it. Peeta’s changed nature, especially, completely threw me and was a genius move on Collins’ part. In fact, it was around p. 250 that I was just sure Collins was going to have him killed, and I was in agony over it. Although I liked Gale, my heart was always with Peeta, so of course, it couldn’t have ended better for me in that respect. Or could it have? Here is why the book went downhill for me during the last 150 pages, in no particular order:

First, Peeta. Although I felt like enough time passed for his change back to the old Peeta to be believable, as the reader, I was really left in the dark as to the whole process, especially in its final stages. One moment he still wants to be handcuffed to a pole, and the next (yes, I know it was weeks later) he is out planting primroses (which really was a perfect Peeta-like thing to do, but how did we get the old Peeta back? That’s what was missing.)

Next, Katniss. In the first two books, I didn’t think she could be a better heroine. She was determined, strong, kind, and brave. I don’t know what happened in this book, but she lost most of the qualities I loved about her. I understand that war and death and extreme hardship can change a person (and I thought Collins’ did an excellent job of helping us feel that pain…the image of Katniss cracking was very tangible), but it just went a little too far. I had two big disappointments: I wanted to see and feel more real grief from her for Peeta’s condition for Peeta’s sake and not so much anger for the way he was hurting her. We catch a few glimpses of her trying to reach him, but usually she’s just mad and hurtful. Second, I wish she hadn’t voted for another Hunger Games. I guess she had to help Coin feel a false sense of security, but I felt like this was Katniss’s chance to take a stand against the very thing she’d been fighting for the whole time…and she totally blew it.

Speaking of the government, I didn’t feel like that resolved well at all. Of course we know through the whole trilogy that President Snow is evil, and we have our suspicions that President Coin is just greedy for control as well, but we have no real evidence that Paylor is going to be a great leader. Since she was voted in by the people, there’s hope that things are changing for the better, but we really don’t know anything, and for one of the major themes of the book, it took too much suspension of disbelief to just hope that things were all wonderful without being told how they came to be that way. I just couldn’t believe that such a dysfunctional government didn’t have any problems anymore, but if it still had problems, then what was the point of the books?

One of the things that other people have commented on and that I agree with is that there was no closure with Gale. For someone with so much fight, he certainly gave up easily. And what made Peeta fall in love with Katniss again? She certainly didn’t do anything particularly redeemable.

It was difficult to see so many main characters die. But I can’t say I was surprised in that respect.

One of the things that bothered me the most was that Boggs’ final words, about not “trusting them” and “killing Peeta,” were never really revisited. We’re made to feel early on that we can trust Boggs, but he told Katniss to kill Peeta. And obviously Katniss didn’t really listen to him in either respect, so what was he really trying to say?

All in all, I just have to wonder how the book would have changed if Collins had done three, two, even one more revision. Because that was the main problem for me: it didn’t feel as well thought out as the first two books. I really think some things would have changed with a couple more rewritings.

Okay, that got a little too long and involved, but overall I have to say I actually really did enjoy this book, as well as the two before it. The fact that I only gave it three stars reflects the fact that I was somewhat disappointed with certain aspects of it, but doesn’t show how engrossed I was the whole time I was reading and how fascinated I was by the plot and how attached I was to the characters.

Last but not least, doesn’t Collins pick the most perfect names for her characters? Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Haymitch, Cinna…all just perfect.

I wrote this review before creating this blog.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

May 15, 2012

I read this book in preparation for our trip to Gettysburg. Even though I was only about two-thirds of the way through it when we got there, it made the experience SO much more enjoyable and meaningful.

There is quite a bit of mild language. I wasn't bothered by it because Mike edited our copy, but just consider yourself warned.

I felt like I was reading the actual thoughts of the generals and other leaders. All the descriptions were so vivid and realistic. (And then, of course, once I'd actually been on location, reading was even more enjoyable because I knew what it felt like to stand on that historic ground.)

This is a book I would HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend. The Battle of Gettysburg was the major turning point in the Civil War, and is therefore one of the most important events in our nation's history.

I wrote this review before I created this blog.
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