Calm and Compassionate Children by Susan Usha Dermond

Sep 30, 2013

Sometimes I fall into the trap of labeling my children: I tell people that Aaron is shy, Maxwell is imaginative, and Bradley is aggressive. I always feel a little guilty when I do this because one of the main points that stuck with me after reading ScreamFree Parenting was that labels (even positive ones) can have a detrimental effect on children.

Plus, my overarching, all-encompassing labels usually come back to bite me.

Case in point: Maxwell. I've always claimed that he is my kindest, most generous, most naturally compassionate child. While Aaron is kind because he knows he is supposed to be, Maxwell is kind out of the true goodness of his heart.

Or so I said.

Whether he heard me touting his virtues and decided to prove me wrong or is just going through a new stage and testing his boundaries a little, his recent actions have suddenly made a turn in the unkind (you might label it "mean") direction. While I am hopeful that, at three years old, most of his actions and words are innocent reactions and observations, I still wonder where my kind and compassionate little boy went. I've realized that, as a parent, I do have a certain responsibility to see that he understands the divide between kind and unkind words and to help him feel empathy and love towards the people around him.

So when my education group decided to read Calm and Compassionate Children for September, I thought they couldn't have picked a better month for it.

It's written by Susan Dermond, a teacher and the founder of the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon (a private school that emphasizes virtues and morals and, quite appropriately, kindness). Much of the book is based on her experiences in the school setting, as well as her personal experiences as a step-mom and collected stories from other moms and caretakers.

The book is divided into three sections. The first two are very hands-on and discuss influences within and without the body that contribute to a child's sense of self and ability to reach out to others. Each chapter ends with a list of practical suggestions for application. The third section is mostly about things in the environment beyond our control and how best to help children cope when they are in a less-than-ideal setting.

Overall, I found the suggestions in the book quite helpful. Most of them were not earth-shattering but rather good reminders or new ways to think about something.

For example, I loved the chapter on music. Music has always been an important part of my life, but I've realized recently that I have not made it as much a part of my children's lives as I intended to when I was still single and childless and thinking about my future family. I believe that music has the power to change or influence our moods, but I haven't used that knowledge very much to help my own family. In this chapter, she talked about how music can be used to calm us down or (using different music) energize us.

I noticed this energizing effect a few weeks ago when I was trying to get the boys to pick up the playroom (always an arduous task). I hadn't read this book yet, but I love to listen to music while I clean, so I thought the boys might want to, too. I put on some children's songs I had from the library, and the transformation in my kids was immediate. They began picking up while singing and dancing, and the entire playroom was cleaned up in a matter of minutes.

So when I began reading this chapter, all the behaviors I had recently observed in my kids were confirmed. While I had already seen the energizing effect music had on my family, I hadn't used music as much to try to calm them down. I checked out a couple of her relaxing music suggestions, and I have used those at times when my kids are wired and crazy. I haven't noticed that music calms them down as quickly as it picks them up, but I am willing to keep trying.

Music has once more gained a prominent position in our home, and we are seeing positive results all around. I used to always just listen to the radio in the car, but now I let them choose what we listen to. It keeps them happy for hours, and we haven't had to rely on the DVD player like we used to on longer trips. I've also noticed that if they're fighting or bothering each other, all I have to say is, "Would you like to listen to some music in your room?" and it instantly restores the good feelings we want to have in our home (at least for a few minutes). And, I've also been letting them listen to music at night as they go to sleep, which has definitely helped them calm down and (in the case of Maxwell) stay in their beds.

In contrast, I actually didn't love the chapter on books and reading as much as I expected to. Perhaps it's because reading is already a very well-established tradition in our home, so I didn't pick up anything new to try and implement. Usually though, I like reading about the importance of reading (remember how much I loved Raising a Reader?) because it helps me feel like I'm doing at least one good thing as a parent. In this case, I think my lukewarm feelings in this chapter stemmed from the fact that I was just not that impressed with her book suggestions. She gave relatively few, so I assumed that she saved her very favorites for the list, but they didn't seem that stellar to me. (However, I haven't read some of them, so I will reserve judgement on this matter until I can speak from experience. Anyone have any opinions on Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher?)

In addition to these two chapters, here are a few more points that made me think:
  • "Daily exercise is vital for children to achieve the state of calm stillness. Think of exercise as the inhalation and calm stillness as the exhalation...Lots of movement is essential for a child's emotional health and physical and mental calmness." I see this with my piano students every week: some of them are fine sitting for the entire lesson; others literally need to be moving every few minutes. Reading this chapter has made me more aware of this need for movement and more willing to follow my students' leads for what they need. In the book, she calls these short spurts of physical activity "movement breaks."
  • "It is so easy to disempower children when we are teaching them right from wrong; for example, when we force them to apologize for something when they are still feeling resentful and not at all apologetic. This takes away from them the opportunity to practice apologizing sincerely out of a feeling of regret." I have maybe thought about this paragraph more than any other single paragraph in the book. At first, it was like a revelation to me . . . it sounded so true. But then, I started to look at it differently, and now I'm not at all sure I agree with that statement. For older children, yes. But for my 5, 3, and 2-year-olds? If I wait for them to feel sorry, the moment will be past, and they will completely forget what it was they were supposed to feel sorry about. They will have no experience apologizing and making restitution. I well remember a little boy I knew whose parents rarely insisted that he apologize. Consequently, he just never thought he was in the wrong and didn't learn to make things right. Anyone have any personal thoughts on this? I am fine with letting my kids wait a little while before they apologize but not if they're just going to begin another activity and forget about their behavior.
  • "So often when children are unruly or uncooperative, we correct them verbally; we lecture them; we explain why. And really what is needed is a hug! A little human contact, love, and understanding can often help us release the tension we're holding and relax into peace." I have noticed this with my kids, especially Aaron. If he is melting down and out of control, putting my arms around him and holding him close does wonders for his ability to calm down.
  • At the end of the book, there was a "Calm and Compassionate Self-Inventory" quiz for parents. I took it, and I could immediately see where my weakness was: "I practice patience, deep breathing, and lovingness as I wait for my children to get out of the car, walk up and down steps, or tell me a lengthy story about what happened." Oh, dear. I had to answer the question honestly, and the truth is that I have a very, very difficult time being patient in moments like those. So, something to work on.
The book does have a slight hippy-undertone, as this example demonstrates: "The day of our trip we talked about what it might be like to see so many ladybugs in one place; the class was very excited about it. I led a visualization asking them to close their eyes and imagine the ladybugs, sending them love and blessing any we might accidentally step on." I do believe there is great strength in positive thinking, but sometimes I read some of her statements with a bit of a skeptical smile.

If you feel like you could use a little more compassion in your house, this might be the perfect little reminder for you. It is a short, fast read and makes for a great discussion between husband and wife or among friends. I'm really very glad I took the time to read it.

Starstruck Over Kate DiCamillo

Sep 28, 2013

I can still remember my first Kate DiCamillo book (it was only like four years ago, so you would hope I could remember it). I listened to The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and I couldn't believe how such a short, simple story could impact me so profoundly. I think that was one of the first moments where I realized that anyone who thinks children's literature can only be enjoyed by children is CRAZY.

Edward Tulane was soon followed by Winn-Dixie who was followed by Despereaux. Once my kids were old enough, we devoured Mercy Watson (they became our stand-by, comfort books) and Bink & Gollie. When I heard Kate DiCamillo had a new book coming out this year (Flora & Ulysses), I was so ecstatic, I wrote about it here.

A few weeks ago, I found out she would be speaking at our library, and do you think I was about to miss it? Not a chance.

I was going to go with a friend, but when she sadly ended up with a migraine, I asked Aaron if he wanted to go instead (it was only fair since Maxwell got to go when the Steads came two weeks ago).

In a word, Kate DiCamillo was delightful. She's short (just like me!) and funny. Her humor feels spontaneous even though I'm sure she's told many of the same stories and answered the same questions again and again.

We loved hearing about the inspiration behind Mercy Watson. One day (I think while she was traveling), she had a picture of a pig come to mind with the name "Mercy" under it. (When I related this story to Mike, he said, "Okay, that's a little weird," to which I retorted, "You've had plenty of strange ideas yourself, mister, and we all happen to love Mercy Watson around here, so I wouldn't be criticizing how she came about if I were you!"). Then awhile later, she thought of Mr. and Mrs. Watson and realized they weren't going to be pigs but humans. The last piece of the puzzle came one morning when she was driving her friend to the airport. Her friend came out to the car with a large piece of toast, which she proceeded to eat on the drive. Kate eventually asked her to save the rest until they were at the airport as she was getting greasy crumbs all over her brand-new car, but instead of stopping, the friend proceeded to give all the reasons why buttered toast was the perfect food.

I loved hearing this story because it demonstrated how stories come a piece at a time and how it's so important to pay attention to those little flashes because eventually they add up to something much bigger.

I had been planning on buying her newest book, but then the line was so long and I had another meeting I had to be to in the evening and I thought Aaron was probably getting tired and restless. But Aaron said he really wanted to stand in line and meet her. So we did, and I'm so glad.

Even though she hears it from everyone, I was glad that I personally could tell her how much we love her books. Our lives really have been so richly blessed because of them.

Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary

Sep 25, 2013

The very first chapter book I read aloud to Aaron was The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

That was a year and a half ago.

I had no intention of waiting so long before picking up another book by Beverly Cleary. In fact, several times over the last few months, I've had one or another of her books in my hands, ready to read to the boys. But other books kept creeping in and stealing their places.

But finally, Henry Huggins had his turn, and I would be surprised if we wait very long (certainly not a year and a half!) before returning to Klickitat Street.

According to Henry Huggins, nothing very interesting ever happens to him. But one day, as he is about to make his way home on the bus, he sees a stray dog. Henry tries (albeit a bit half-heartedly) to make the dog go away, but the dog seems to like Henry (and from the looks of it, the feeling is mutual). With his mother's permission (she's obviously a much braver mother than I am), Henry makes his way home (not without a good deal of trouble) with the newly-christened Ribsy. The two are instantly inseparable, and just having a dog makes life a whole lot more interesting.

We liked The Mouse and the Motorcycle, but we loved Henry Huggins. Don't tell, but it might beat out Charlotte's Web as our very favorite readaloud.

Aaron and Maxwell were enthralled. For the first time ever, they forgot to look for the pictures because they were so completely wrapped up in the story. I could never read enough for them; they always wanted more. It's very possible we could have read the entire thing in one sitting if we'd had three hours to kill.

The chapters were long, but they didn't seem to notice--probably because they were about trying to smuggle a dog onto a bus or hundreds of goldfish or fat, slimy night crawlers. Although I'm sure girls would like it too, this book was clearly intended and written for boys. And that fact alone instantly endeared it to me.

I think I can best sum up our feelings by just talking about our favorite chapter: "Henry and the Night Crawlers." In this episode, Henry and his friend, Scooter, are playing catch with Scooter's new football. It is just the kind of football Henry has been longing for: genuine cowhide stitched with nylon thread and laced with buckskin thongs. Quite by accident, as they are tossing the football back and forth across the street, a car zooms past, and the football sails from Henry's hands and through the open window of the backseat.

(It was at this point that Aaron and Max's jaws dropped open in disbelief. They felt instant empathy for Henry's predicament.)

Scooter tells Henry that he'll have to buy him a new football by Saturday. (Here, Aaron kept saying, "Scooter is not very nice.") Henry feels hopeless: he has no idea how he'll ever make so much money in just a few days' time.

Providentially, Henry's next-door neighbor, Mr. Grumbie needs night crawlers for an upcoming fishing trip. Mr. Grumbie says he'll pay Henry a penny for every night crawler he catches. Don't ask me how, but Henry actually manages to catch one thousand three hundred and thirty-one, which gives him enough money to buy a new football. (I had to wonder if Mr. Grumbie got perhaps more than he bargained for. The very thought of that many oversized worms makes me squeamish.)

Here, I really liked the way Mr. and Mrs. Huggins supported and encouraged Henry. They never offered to bail him out, which I'm sure many parents today would do, especially after Henry had already put in a lot of time and effort to try to earn the money. Instead, they helped him catch the remaining two hundred and twenty-eight worms he needed. It was actually a great lesson to me: help your children fix their mistakes but never do the fixing for them.

So Henry buys the new football and is just about to take it over to Scooter's house when the doorbell rings. Aaron, Maxwell, and I literally held our breaths as we, along with Henry, heard a man ask, "Excuse me, could you tell me who owns this football?" I read those words slowly, so the full meaning of them would have time to sink in. Our eyes were shining, and the boys were cheering and jumping up and down on the bed as the man explained that he had wanted to stop when the ball landed in his car, but he had to get his wife to the hospital.

Even though I'm sure the future holds many wonderful reading moments together, I think it's going to be difficult to top that one. The build-up was perfect, and we were all so thrilled that Henry got to keep the football he'd worked so hard to earn the money for. I don't know if I've ever seen the boys more excited about an outcome than at that moment.

Each chapter was like that one: a self-contained story with its own little climax and resolution. But there was also continuity between the chapters, which I loved, and also, an overarching story which began and ended with dear ol' Ribsy.

I probably don't need to talk up a book that is 63 years old. Just the fact that it is still being published (with new covers and illustrations, which I'm actually not all that fond of, by the way) is testament enough. But I'll just add my voice to the thousands that have already spoken and say that for me, this was a near-perfect book.

I know there are some excellent children's books that have been published this year. I, for one, am super excited about The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, which I've already seen compared to Beverly Cleary in style and content. I just hope that in the midst of all those great new titles, we will continue to enjoy the truly excellent literature of the past.

Twice as Fun

Sep 23, 2013

My baby is two today.

This is a new experience for me. Not the having-a-two-year-old part, but the he's-still-my-baby part. When Aaron turned two, Maxwell was my baby. And when Maxwell turned two, Bradley was my baby. But now, Bradley is two, and he's still my baby. I kind of love it.

I was just commenting to Mike the other night how I never in a million years would have expected such an angelic baby to become such a rambunctious, strong-willed, aggressive toddler. For his first six months of life, I hardly ever remembered I had three children because, awake or asleep, he was so good. Now, most days, I feel like I have at least four children because he has double the energy of a regular child.(Luckily, he wears himself out and usually takes a solid 2-3 hour nap in the afternoon.)

But oh, we sure do love him. He makes up for his temper tantrums and dangerous antics by being super affectionate and cuddly. And he has the most diabolically cute smile.

Yesterday, we had a small family party for him. One of Bradley's favorite books is Brown Bear, Brown Bear. So Mike made him a Brown Bear, Brown Bear cake.

It turned out so cute, I decided (too late) that maybe I should have built a whole theme around Brown Bear, Brown Bear. But . . . if there's one thing to know about me, I guess it's that I have yet to throw any of my children a themed birthday party with 20 excited friends. I just don't have the desire and, so far, none of them have expressed any interest in such a party.

Bradley was plenty happy about the cake (he kept taking peeks at it in the fridge). And when my brother arrived and asked, "Whose birthday is it?" he happily exclaimed, "Brown Bear! Brown Bear!" even though he knew full well whose birthday it really was.

With my other boys, I made them superhero capes for their birthdays. Bradley has long been an admirer of the shiny capes and often steals one or the other to wear around the house.

It was time for him to join the ranks and get his own:

Honestly, I'm pretty sure all he really wanted for his birthday was to be just like his two older brothers, so I think he was more than satisfied (although he's still finding it hard to keep up . . . curse those short little legs).

I am totally smitten with that blonde little head of his.

Happy Birthday, Bradley! (Also known as Brad-i-lee, Braddle, Brablee, Zoom-Zoom, Hedge, the Menace, and Braddle-Addle)

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Sep 20, 2013

I hate to admit I'm so shallow a person that I judge a book by its cover . . . but I do.

The cover of The Water Castle reminded me too much of a Choose Your Own Adventure paperback. I just could not imagine that I would find anything of much interest in it.

But then, as fate would have it, it just kept getting mentioned on all of the Newbery sites I read. And then, all the Newbery candidates I really want to read (The Real Boy, Flora & Ulysses, The Life of Billy Miller) have not been published yet. And since my goal is to read a handful of potential Newbery titles before the year is up, I decided to see if there was cause for my prejudice.

The story has three key players: Ephraim Appledore-Smith (his father recently suffered a debilitating stroke, so he and his family moved to the inherited family estate (i.e. "the water castle") in the hopes that the Crystal Springs water will have a healing effect on his father); Mallory Green (her family has been the caretakers of the water castle for generations, and she has grown up on the magical legends of the old estate; but lately, with her parents' divorce, she has taken a cynical look at everything she once knew and loved); and Will Wylie (the Wylies and the Appledores have been enemies for many years, but Will has an extreme passion for science which might help break down some barriers).

Ephraim immediately feels awkward in this small town (pop. 1716) where everyone seems to be a little smarter, a little stronger, and a little more talented than the average Joe. So he decides to bury himself in the mysticism which surrounds the water castle. His family has always been obsessed with finding the Fountain of Youth (that's why the estate was built in the first place), and Ephraim is convinced that if it does exist, then he needs to find it so that his father can be healed.

Mixed in with Ephraim, Mallory, and Will's story are flashbacks to 1908 when Orlando Appledore (Ephraim's great-great-great uncle) began earnestly looking for the Fountain of Youth and hired Nora Darling (supposedly Mallory's great-grandmother) as his apprentice.

I can't say I disliked The Water Castle (it definitely did not feel like a Choose Your Own Adventure story), but it never gripped me the way I think it was supposed to. There was quite a bit of mystery surrounding the search for the Fountain of Youth and the convergence of past and present, but the plot was fairly slow-moving.

Also, the language seemed a bit juvenile to me . . . and I don't just mean that the characters sounded young (although, at times, they did). Sometimes the dialogue sounded like it could have been written by a 10-year-old: a bit stilted and formulaic, developing the characters very methodically. I know I'm not doing a great job of explaining what I mean; it just seemed like the kids would meet up, have a civil conversation (with an occasional stereotypical argument thrown in here and there) full of lots of "sures" and "exactlys," and the plot would move the prescribed amount forward until the next conversation. If this ends up winning the Newbery, then I will have to go back and reread it (maybe listen to it then) to see if a second reading helps me be any more enamored with the writing.

The character spouting off the largest number of" annoying sentences was probably Ephraim's older brother, Price. For the life of me, I could not figure that kid out. At the beginning of the book, he tries really hard to be mature and kind to his siblings and fill their father's place, but pretty soon, that facade (because I think it really was a facade) is gone, and he is just a big jerk. Even though he was just a supporting character, his personality was so confusing and vague and changing that it really felt like the development of the story suffered because of it.

I have to admit, I did stay up late to finish it. By the end, I was very anxious to see how all the pieces fit together. Except . . . many of the pieces were left undone. I'm torn because I definitely like it when an author leaves part of the ending up to the reader's imagination (and doesn't feel like they have to tie everything up in a neat little package or extend the whole thing into a tiresome trilogy), but this . . . this . . . felt like there were still too many questions hovering around in my brain. I wanted a little more, and I went to sleep feeling annoyed that I'd stayed up late to find out nothing.

Now comes the part of the review where I retract everything I've just written, and say something like, "All that being said, it was still an enjoyable book." I've noticed I do that a lot at the end of my reviews.

But I find myself wanting to do that again. Because in this case, as much as I personally was dissatisfied with it, I feel like it will find a favorable place among its targeted audience. It's very gender-neutral, it explores some interesting scientific/historical evidence, and it does have some exciting moments (including a dash to the hospital by an underage, unlicensed driver). When my sons hit about nine or ten, I will definitely be giving them this book to read (but I probably won't be buying it).

Maxwell's Preschool: S is for Snake

Sep 18, 2013

Note: Last year, I participated in two different preschool co-ops--one for Aaron and one for Maxwell, and both of them were fabulous. I'm trying to be optimistic that this year's co-op will measure up, but we'll see. I've been slowly writing up my lesson plans from the past year. This is one that I did with Maxwell's group last March. For more of my preschool posts, click here.

When I found out that my week to teach would fall on the letter S, I immediately gravitated toward snakes. Not because I have any immediate fondness for the creatures (I definitely do not) but because it is so easy to talk about what sound the letter S makes when in reference to snakes.

One of our favorite books is The Splendid Spotted Snake by Betty Schwartz and Alex Wilensky. 

I talked about it in greater detail here, but I had a feeling that with its colorful snake that magically grows and its catchy rhymes, it would be the perfect book to begin our lesson with. The children loved it, and after we read it, we met around the table to make our own colorful snakes.

The night before, I cut out a snake-shaped head for each child and also a big stack of red, blue, yellow, green, and black rectangles.

First, they drew faces on the heads:

For the body sections, I told them they could try writing the letter S or just decorate them any way they wanted to.

They glued on tongues, and then I used a small hole punch to make holes in each end of the rectangles.

Then we put brads through the holes to join all the pieces together.

(Incidentally, this has been one of our longer lasting preschool projects. Usually I throw them away after a month or so, but I didn't want to throw away all those brads (and I also didn't want to disassemble the whole thing), so we've hung onto them. I just put them down in our animal bin in the playroom, and they have continued to hold up, even after months of playing.)

The other book I decided to use with this unit was Mouse Count by Ellen Stoll Walsh. 

It's about a hungry snake who goes looking for some lunch. Ten little mice, all fast asleep, turn out to be easy prey, and soon he has collected all of them in a jar. He is just about ready to begin his feast when one of the mice points out a big "mouse" (i.e., a rock) in the distance. Although ten mice should have been plenty, the snake is greedy, and while he is gone, the mice manage to escape.

Besides being a great story, it also focuses on counting (although, I have to admit, I find the counting to be a little confusing to kids since it's broken up with text).

I thought this would make a great flannelboard of sorts (without the flannelboard). I found a picture of a mouse that I liked, copied it ten times, and laminated it. I also gathered a snake, a jar, and a rock.

After reading the story, we acted it out. I hid the ten mice around the room, and then the children got to take turns being the snake and putting the mice in the jar. At the end, we tricked the snake and all tumbled out of the jar and ran away to safety. The kids loved this story . . . both listening to it and acting it out.

Then we talked about how snakes use their tongues to smell. Even though our tongues can't smell, we decided to use them to try and identify different flavors.

I made three different kinds of pudding: vanilla, lemon, and chocolate (above is just the vanilla).

The idea was for them to dip their tongues in the pudding and try to figure out what they were tasting. Some of the kids didn't want to be blindfolded, which was totally fine, so they just closed their eyes (or, let's be honest, used some of their other senses to aid them in figuring it out).

But a couple of them were adventurous and tried the blindfold.

 It was fun to watch them put their minds to work and think about what they were tasting.

One thing I was surprised to discover is that kids (at least these kids) don't like pudding nearly as much as I thought they would. Chocolate was pretty much the only flavor that was even a little bit tolerated.

Besides the letter S, the number of the week was 19. I realized that making 19 that much different from 18 or 20 is a real challenge!

I decided that I wanted them to be able to get a visual picture of just how many 19 is. I cut up a bunch of straws (I chose straws because they start with the letter S). I gave each child a little bag of 19 of them and then told them they could use those 19 straws to create whatever sort of picture they wanted, but I did want them to try and use all of them.

Some of the pictures were orderly (I just squeezed out the glue in the shape of a house).

Others were more random. (This little girl actually wanted me to draw Ariel with the glue, but I had to confess that that was probably beyond my artistic abilities.)

For our last activity, we played a little game with straws. Each child got a straw and a pom-pom. They had to place their pom-poms at the starting line . . .

. . . and then use their straws blow their pom-poms across the table. The person whose pom-pom fell off the table first was the winner.

Try as I might, I couldn't figure out what pom-poms or straws had to do with snakes, but it was still fun.

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace

Sep 16, 2013

I love Lois Lenski's cover as well, but this is the edition I have.

Raise your hand if the Little House on the Prairie books hold a special, nostalgic place in your heart.

You'll notice my hand is not raised.

Now before I have a full-on uprising outside my blog's virtual doors, let me finish: I like the Little House books. For sure. But I have been reading them as an adult. They were not  really a memorable part of my childhood, and therefore it is impossible for me to have any sort of nostalgic feelings toward them. (I do, however, have very fond memories of watching the TV series. I probably watched every episode. But that is a story for another day.)

But the Betsy-Tacy books? Two hands high up in the air. The nostalgia kicks into high gear as soon as I see the covers. I well remember when my mom bought me the entire set when I was a teenager (although I don't remember why . . . I think it was for some other occasion besides my birthday or Christmas).

You know I'm not much of a read-straight-through-the-series-kind-of-girl, but as a teenager, I flew through the later Betsy-Tacy books. I couldn't wait to see what would happen between Betsy and Joe.

I have been eagerly anticipating sharing the early books with my boys and just hoping and praying they wouldn't be immediately prejudiced against a "girl" book. Luckily, they're still young enough to have a fairly open mind, and we enjoyed this first installment immensely.

When the story begins, Betsy is a month away from her fifth birthday. (By coincidence, we started this book about a week before Aaron's fifth birthday, so it scored major bonus points right from the get go.) Her life revolves around her much beloved Little Hill (where she sometimes eats her dinner) and the elusive Big Hill (which she hopes to someday conquer). One evening, she meets the new little girl (Tacy) from across the street, and although their initial introduction is a little rough (Tacy is terribly shy), their friendship soon takes off. Life is so much better with a best friend. Pretty soon, they are engaged in all sorts of fun activities as well as helping each other through life's difficulties.

This is set right around the turn of the century, and so there were many ideas my boys were completely unfamiliar with (horse-drawn buggies for transportation, the ice wagon, calling cards, etc.), but it was nothing that couldn't easily be explained, and I it definitely added to the charm of the story.

One of the things I loved was the way the story transitioned seamlessly in and out of Betsy and Tacy's imaginative play. Betsy would begin telling a story, and the next moment, they'd be in the story--flying in the clouds or drinking hot cocoa in the ice wagon. In these scenes, Aaron frequently had to ask, "Is this still pretending?" And I had to agree that it was difficult to tell where the pretending stopped and real life began again. But it was this very ambiguity that made it feel so real to me: this is the way real children think! They don't separate their play from life. Their play is life. Instead of being annoyingly confusing, I thought it showed an acute and accurate perception of childhood on the part of the author.

There are two very poignant moments in the story. The first occurs when Tacy's baby sister, Bee, dies.At only five years old, Tacy doesn't quite understand what she is feeling. She is quiet and reflective and her little lip trembles involuntarily. Betsy is only five years old, too, but she somehow seems to know instinctively what Tacy needs. They climb a tree together and share ideas about Heaven; their minds fasten on one idea in particular--that maybe the birds take messages back and forth from earth to heaven. So they decided to send baby Bee a beautiful purple Easter egg via a bird.

The second episode happens shortly after the birth of Betsy's sister, Margaret. Betsy's parents are eager for her to be pleased, but she doesn't much like the looks of her red-faced baby sister, and she's not too keen about giving up her own spot as the baby of the family. She leaves the house and goes into the barn where she sobs and cries, "It's a perfectly unnecessary baby" (such a good line). It is there that Tacy finds her. First she doesn't say anything. She just holds Betsy. But when Betsy is finished crying, she offers some sound, practical, and very mature advice: "Most everybody has babies" and "You can't keep on being the baby forever" and "All babies are funny-looking at first." (Tacy's strong words are rather amazing since she usually did very little of the talking in their friendship.)

These two scenes complemented each other perfectly and really demonstrated the mark of true friendship: Betsy was there for Tacy; and then Tacy was there for Betsy. It reminded me of my freshman year at BYU. I had the good fortune of rooming with my best friend, Beth. The first semester, I was terribly homesick. It was awful: I couldn't eat, I cried all the time, and I thought of giving up and going home on more than one occasion. Beth was always there--a steady, reassuring presence. I was so grateful for her, but I couldn't figure out why she wasn't homesick, too. Then the next semester, my homesickness vanished completely, and all of a sudden, Beth was homesick--just as much as I had been. Then I got to be the shoulder to cry on. I've thought more than once how fortunate it was that if we were both going to be homesick, we chose different semesters for it.

I think if you're going to place a theme on this book, as well as the entire series, it would be friendship. There are lots of fun, little examples (going calling in grown-up clothes, setting up a sand store, cutting out paper dolls), but the pinnacle moment for me was really seeing both Betsy and Tacy give a little of themselves in these moments when it really mattered, thereby strengthening and sealing their friendship.

If I'm being completely honest, I probably liked this book better than Aaron and Maxwell. (They liked the next book we read, Henry Huggins, so much more.) But they still liked it and have even asked about when we're going to read the next one in the series. It's ready and waiting for us when we decide it's time.

Why We Now Own a Copy of "A Sick Day for Amos McGee"

Sep 13, 2013

I have made a little informal promise to myself that if an author I like does a book signing, I will make a reasonable effort to go to it.

All of the author events I have been to in the last year have been fabulous. And every time, I come away with a greater appreciation for their work specifically but also for all authors and illustrators in general. Plus, I love getting a little glimpse into their personalities, and I love showing my children that real people create the books we love.

So when I saw that Philip and Erin Stead were going to be at The King's English today, and I looked at our calendar and saw that the afternoon was gloriously free of piano students, I said, "Hey, Max! Want to go on a date with me?"

Luckily he did, and we were soon seated on the floor of the children's section listening to the Steads read from their books.

Philip Stead began by saying how excited they were to be at the King's English, which (according to him) is one of the more well-known independently owned bookstores in the country (always nice to feel that little twinge of pride right off the bat). Then he had all the kids introduce themselves all at the same time to his wife, Erin, because, he said, she is a little bit shy.

They read three of their books: A Sick Day for Amos McGee, If You Want to See a Whale, and Hello, My Name is Ruby (which just came out 11 days ago). They invited the kids to interact and participate. Max loved trying to say "Ugh" in just the right way.

They shared some fun facts about their books, like that the idea for A Sick Day for Amos McGee came about because Philip wanted Erin to draw a picture of an old man and an elephant playing chess together.

Then Erin showed some samples of her work to show the process of sketching, then making the wood cut, then finishing the details. Each page takes her about one week to complete.

They talked about upcoming books, and now I can't wait for next fall. (Sometimes it makes life less painful to not know about the good things on the horizon.)

I loved the dynamic between the two of them. You can tell that they both love what they do, and it was so fun to hear about the ways that they collaborate and edit and critique one another's work.

I have long wanted our own copy of A Sick Day for Amos McGee, so of course I had to purchase it today (although Max would have rather had If You Want to See a Whale because it has an imprint of a whale in the clothbound cover).

When Philip Stead read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, he prefaced it by saying that it's a quiet story. And it is. And yet, quiet in this case definitely does not mean boring or distant. Amos McGee is a zookeeper who does far more than feed the animals and clean their cages. They are his friends, and when he doesn't show up to work one day due to a nasty cold, they all rally to give back to their dear friend, Amos. The illustrations are subtle (Erin said she only used eight colors), and the balance between the text and illustrations is marvelous. This is the kind of quiet story I can definitely get behind.

Max was very patient as we waited in the signing line. And when we finally made it to them, they were very gracious about letting me snap a picture of him with them. (Max, unfortunately, didn't look at the camera, but I didn't dare hold up the line while trying to get a three-year-old to cooperate. That could've taken hours.)

As we were leaving, Max said, "They were a lot nicer than I thought they would be." Not exactly sure what he was expecting, but I have to agree that they were very nice.

When I got home, I was justifying my purchase by saying that I supported a local bookstore, supported an author/illustrator team I really, really like, and got one of my favorite books. "I guess it was a win-win-win," Mike said.

A win-win-win, indeed.

Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Sep 11, 2013

Soon after it won a Newbery Honor in January, I checked out Bomb from the library. I packed it (along with a half dozen other books) on one of our infamous trips to Colorado (which, I would love to remind all of you, are now a thing of the past because Mike is DONE. I still can't get over it.).

While we were there, I pulled it out and showed it to my mom. Even though I hadn't read it yet, I had read enough reviews to know that it seemed like just the kind of book my family would like. My mom stole it from me and started to read it aloud to my dad and younger siblings. After the first chapter, they couldn't put it down.

I felt a bit smug (as I always do when someone likes a book I recommended . . . even if it is one I have no authority recommending), but then I didn't read it myself. I know! What is wrong with me? It wasn't that I didn't want to read it. Just, you know, millions of books, not enough time . . . Gah!

So, several months later, when my brother-in-law put me in charge of the family reunion book club, I immediately thought of this book. Mike has a large family (eight siblings, six in-laws, 21 grandkids . . . ), and this seemed like the perfect book for both men and women with an age range spanning almost 60 down to 9.

(Just to clarify, in case you're remembering that I already mentioned a family reunion book club, it was my family that read The BFG. Given the fact that many of them didn't like that book and had already read and loved Bomb, perhaps this would have been a better choice.)

I won't speak for the entire group (although I will say that almost everyone read it, and consequently, we were able to have a really great discussion), but I, for one, loved it. This is some amazingly good non-fiction.

It grabbed me from this very first sentence: "He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years of evidence." That's talking about Harry Gold, an American who became a spy/courier for the Soviets. And the 17 years of evidence? That's regarding the creation of the atomic bomb.

It's rather embarrassing how little I knew about the atomic bomb before reading this book. I can sum up the extent of my knowledge in a few sentences: two massive bombs (which somehow employed fission) were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the cities were destroyed; radiation poisoning followed; Los Alamos, New Mexico was involved in some way; Albert Einstein played a part, maybe?

In my mental WWII timeline, the atomic bomb always miraculously materialized right at the end, never making any sort of appearance before 1945. I guess if I'd thought about it, I would have known that you couldn't possibly just snap your fingers and have an atomic bomb. But that's just the thing: I'd never thought about it at all.

In actuality, the bomb was being considered as early as December 1938, when Otto Hahn first discovered fission. And by the end of 1939, it was more than just an idea. Behind the scenes and for the entire duration of the war, scientists were hard at work building the biggest, most deadly bomb the world had ever seen.

The narrative presented a complex history as it travelled between the research and development of American/British scientists, the Soviets' efforts to steal all plans, and the Germans' simultaneous bomb experimentation. To a small degree, I felt the panic and pressure of, what really was, a blind race. Neither side knew how far the other side had gotten, and both knew that whoever got there first would win the war. Knowing the ending did not lessen my excitement or anxiety over certain events.

And that is to Steve Sheinkin's credit. I can only say good things about his writing. Somehow he turned a true story into a suspense novel. At one point, he mentioned a plot to kidnap Werner Heisenberg, the head of the German atomic bomb program. And I thought, What?! Are you kidding me?! Why have I never heard the story of Germany's top scientist being kidnapped? Well, because it ended up not happening. But you can bet the anticipation of it kept me reading.

(On a related note, after Germany surrendered, the Americans did, in fact, secret away all the important German scientists to an English estate so the Soviets wouldn't have access to them. One of my favorite lines in the book was from the first bugged conversation after their arrival: One of the physicists asked, "I wonder whether there are microphones installed here?" and Werner Heisenberg laughed, "Microphones installed? Oh no, they're not as cute as all that.")

On almost every page, I encountered a fascinating tidbit I'd never heard before. Like the three Norwegians who blew up a ferry transporting all of Germany's heavy water and then disappeared back into their regular duties as if nothing had happened; or the story about Lona Cohen, a Soviet spy who literally placed the atomic bomb papers into the hands of an FBI agent (they were hidden in a tissue box) and then got away with them because that was the one item he failed to search; or the time when the American scientists successfully carried out the first chain reaction and Enrico Fermi was grinning like a boy at Christmas. Like I said before, this was a complex story, but all of the pieces were added in just the right way and in just the right place so that it unfolded in a perfectly seamless and completely gripping way.

Part of that seamlessness was due to the perfect punch lines at the end of every section. This one was one of my favorites: "The message to Soviet leaders was clear. If the Soviets were going to get an atomic bomb any time in the near future, they were going to have to steal it." Each line was concise and emphatic while still pushing you on to read the next section . . . and the next . . . and the next. I kept expecting them to turn into cheesy cliffhangers, but they never did. As with everything else about the book, they were stellar.

As the narrative reached its climax and they got ready to drop the bomb, I was struck by the incredibility of it all. The atomic bomb actually worked. It did exactly what they thought it would do. They were able to do a test run with a plutonium bomb, but they basically only got one shot with the uranium bomb. Years and years of research, and it could have all been a waste if one little part of it didn't go exactly the way they expected it to. As horrendous and horrific as the bomb was, there was also something completely awe-inspiring about the fact that human beings could perfectly orchestrate something so powerful and destructive.

Speaking of which, I had a little inward battle with myself over whether or not an atomic bomb should have even been dropped (and if the answer is yes to the first bomb, then is it also yes to the second one?). After they dropped the test bomb, Isidor Rabi said, "Naturally, we were very jubilant over the outcome of the experiment . . . We turned to one another and offered congratulations--for the first few minutes. Then there was a chill, which was not the morning cold." Sheinkin followed with, "It was the chill of knowing they had used something they loved--the study of physics--to build the deadliest weapon in human history."

After discussing it with Mike's family at the reunion, I am convinced that the bombs were necessary in order to end the war quickly, but it is still so sad and so, so sickening.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, How can you not love history if it's told like this? Then I saw that Steve Sheinkin used to write textbooks. He jokes that now he's "making up for his previous crimes" by presenting history in an authentic but fascinating way. I hope he has many stories left in him because I think this is the way history should be told.

Oh, and Albert Einstein? The one name I actually connected to the bomb? Turns out that aside from an important letter to the president, he wasn't too much of a contributor. I had no idea.

Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson (and a Giveaway)

Sep 9, 2013

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you'll not only remember that Edenbrooke was one of my five favorite books from last year but also that I was eagerly anticipating the publication of Blackmoore this year. In fact, I even included it on my list of reading goals for 2013 (as if I was going to forget to read it otherwise).

I was so anxious to read it that I pushed past my fear of rejection and requested a review copy from the publisher. I read it within days of receiving it, and when I was done with it, the only thing I really wished was that I was still reading it.

Kate Worthington's home life is almost unbearable: her mother is controlling and manipulative; her sisters are dramatic and ridiculous; and every summer, her best friends, Sylvia and Henry, abandon her to spend the summer at the mysteriously Gothic Blackmoore. Kate has always longed to go with them, but Henry's mother is dead set against it. She has plans for Henry, and they don't involve Kate Worthington in any way.

But Henry made a childhood promise to Kate that one day she would see Blackmoore. He uses both his authority (as future heir of the estate) and a little deceit (which Kate doesn't know about) to get Kate there. But once she's there, Kate finds her problems are far from over: she isn't welcomed by Henry's family; she has to watch Henry court the impeccable Miss St. Claire; and then there's the difficult business of trying to procure three proposals of marriage (so that she can be released from her mother's hold and go to India), all while trying not to fall madly in love with the one man she's always loved.

If you want to know the kind of book I want to read for pure pleasure, Blackmoore is a perfect example: from the setting and time period right down to the all-too-perfect, definitely-created-by-a-woman, must-be-a-figment-of-my-imagination leading man. It was an effortless read, and I mean that as the sincerest of compliments. I have nothing against books that make me think or that involve a certain amount of brain power to understand, but sometimes I'd rather not dissect sentences or break out the dictionary.

In that vein, although it is set in the Regency time period, it doesn't necessarily feel like you're reading a Jane Austen novel. The dialogue is proper and dignified, but it is also very straightforward and accessible, which is one of the reasons why it was such an effortless read. I have to say that I loved the conversations between Henry and Kate; so much of what they said was emotionally charged while still being intentionally vague. My very favorite line (besides the ones at the end which I won't go quoting for fear of spoiling them for you) was this (from Henry): "Don't go rubbing your nose. Please. I have such a weakness for that." It shows that Henry knows Kate's little mannerisms and what they mean and that he is affected by them. It makes my pulse quicken just a little every time I read it. (Too dramatic? Sorry. It's the mood I'm in.)

(Let me insert here that it is extremely difficult to write a review when every time I look up something in the book, I get sucked back into the story for another ten minutes. I'm just sayin' . . .)

One of the things I loved the most about this book was the setting. So many regency romances are set in the picturesque English countryside. As much as I love luscious green lawns and well-manicured gardens, I have to say that seeing Kate and Henry's clandestine and tempestuous romance play out against the windy and wild moors was absolutely perfect.

I'll admit, with all the talk about propriety and reputation, I wondered at Kate and Henry's audacity to sneak off to an abandoned abbey in the middle of the night or to accidentally meet at the ocean's edge. Part of me rather disbelieved that Henry would risk compromising Kate just to steal a kiss (but thankfully only a kiss . . . this was a "proper romance"). But somehow, with the biting wind whipping around them and the stark and austere landscape stretching out on all sides, their actions didn't seem all that unbelievable after all.This was a case where the setting complemented the characters so perfectly, I'm not sure that one could have gotten on without the other.

The one character I really didn't like was Sylvia. I disliked her even more than Kate's mother or Mrs. Delafield. Because, you see, I knew I was supposed to dislike them. There was nothing redeemable or kind in their personalities. But Sylvia? I didn't know if I should love her or hate her. She was Kate's best friend after all, so I kind of thought I was supposed to like her or at least hope they would be able to resolve their differences and renew their friendship. But even when there were flashbacks to the past, I thought she was a tiresome and selfish friend. And then, in the present, I thought her actions were terribly unfeeling. I just didn't like her.

I usually only mention the cover if I have a strong opinion about it. And this time, I happen to have a strong opinion. I don't love it. And I think it's because I wish it was reversed, and Blackmoore was more prominent, and Kate was in the background, preferably with her skirts and hair being blown around her. This cover just doesn't fit the tone of the book for me.

But the story inside the cover? So, so good. It was a treat to read, and I wish I could have spent a few more days engrossed in it. It will be a book that I come back to again and again, anytime I just need to fall into a good story.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I am so happy to be one of the participating blogs in the Blackmoore blog tour. If I've piqued your interest, you might want to click over and read a few more reviews. Or you just might want to get your own copy of the book and read the entire thing immediately. Yes, I think that's what I would do.

In that case, you might be interested in knowing that the launch party for Blackmoore is being held at my very favorite bookstore, The King's English, on Tuesday, September 10th, at 7:00 pm. Additionally, check out Julianne Donaldson's website or facebook page for more information on upcoming signings. Also, Amazon is doing a special promotion during the month of September: you can purchase Blackmoore for $7.99 and Edenbrooke for only $1.99 (not affiliate links).

Or, you could try to win a copy because guess what? The publisher sent me an extra advance reader's edition, so I have one to give away! All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this post! And please, make sure you include your email address so I will be able to contact you if you win. You have until Saturday, September 14th at approximately midnight. The winner will be selected at random and announced on Monday, September 16th. U.S. residents only, please.

Update: By random selection, "the family" won. Congratulations! And thanks so much everyone for your comments!

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was provided. All thoughts and opinions are clearly and decidedly my own.

Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

Sep 6, 2013

This sequel to Princess of the Midnight Ball was both satisfying and disappointing (with the scale tipping in favor of satisfying).

The story picks up three years after Rose and her sisters broke the curse of the King Under Stone. Many of the countries are still suffering from the chaos and tragedy created from those events, and relations between nations are civil at best. So when Poppy (one of the middle sisters) is offered the chance to spend some time in Breton (in a kind of foreign exchange program), she agrees, although with some reluctance. Being a foreign guest means there will be lots of balls, and Poppy has sworn off dancing for the rest of her life.

Soon after her arrival, Prince Christian from the Danelaw also arrives, and the king of Breton has high hopes of marrying him off to a Bretoner, thereby forming an advantageous alliance. But unbeknownst to anyone else, the Corley (a grandmotherly witch) also has plans, and she has her sights set on a match between Prince Christian and Ellen, a young woman who used to be a noble but, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, now works as a maid. Soon the Corley has almost the entire kingdom locked in her spell, but Poppy has learned a thing or two about magic, and she is not about to have her prince stolen out from under her.

Right from the start, I liked this book better than Princess of the Midnight Ball because Poppy is, far and away, a much more exciting and personable main character than Rose. She stands up for herself. She has a no-nonsense kind of attitude. And she is full of plans, ideas, and solutions . . . and the courage to go along with them.

Unfortunately, she is paired with Prince Christian, who, in my opinion, is almost no better than a sack of potatoes (a handsome sack of potatoes, yes, but still . . . ). I guess I could cut him a little slack since he was put under a spell and all, but really, spell or no spell, there wasn't anything very interesting there. In contrast, Roger  (a nobleman and friend of the family Poppy is staying with) was spot on magnificent. Cool and heroic and brilliant. I kept hoping he and Poppy would just leave the rest of the kingdom under the Corley's spell and run off together (okay, not really). Don't misunderstand, there was never any hint that this was a possibility. It was just hard to see Poppy falling for Prince Christian when he was so all-around boring.

My favorite aspect of the book was the way the Cinderella story was retold. It took the traditional tale and turned it completely on its head. With Poppy as the main character and Ellen (i.e., Cinderella) in a more secondary, and not all that likeable, role, it revived and made the story exciting again. I loved the way the glass slippers and magical coach and the clock striking twelve all made their way into the story without seeming obvious or contrived. Towards the end of the book, Poppy slips into the Cinderella role for a few hours, which seemed fitting but was also totally unexpected. And then, of course, casting the fairy godmother as the villain was a genius idea.

If it hadn't been for the ending, I would definitely have liked this one more than Princess of the Midnight Ball. But then, the ending! I still don't know what happened. All of a sudden there was crashing glass, and then it was over, and they were all talking about it. I seriously wondered if somehow, even with my slow reading pace, I had inadvertently skimmed over something.

In summary, all of the things I didn't like about Princess of the Midnight Ball, I liked in Princess of Glass. And all of the things I didn't like in Princess of Glass, I liked in Princess of the Midnight Ball. Maybe if the two had been combined, they would have formed the perfect novel.

Then again, probably not.

Raising Readers: Favorite Easy Readers

Sep 4, 2013

A few weeks ago, I promised to share some of our favorite easy readers.

But as I considered what to include on my list, "easy readers" seemed like too broad of a term; I found myself overwhelmed as I thought about including everything from the Bob Books all the way up through Mercy Watson.

So I decided to just focus on the level Aaron is at right now (which seems to be about late first grade/early second grade). I'll have to save the easier books for another time and list.

I'm going to call these "early chapter books," but someone please tell me if I'm using this label incorrectly. I'm a little confused by "early readers," "easy readers," "early chapter books," "transition books," etc. In general, the books I'm featuring in this post have a word count that ranges anywhere from 500 to 2000. The books are divided into several chapters and include a picture on almost every page.

Mr. Putter & Tabby by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard
This series highlights the adventures of Mr. Putter (an elderly man), his faithful companion Tabby (a cat), his neighbor Mrs. Teaberry (an elderly woman), and her trusty friend Zeke (a dog). You wouldn't think two old people and their pets could have very exciting adventures, but you might be surprised. One of our favorites is Mr. Putter & Tabby Paint the Porch, but we still have many in this fantastic series that we haven't read yet.

Mercy Watson by Kate DiCamillo, illus. Chris Van Dusen
We fell in love with this series long before Aaron could read them on his own. Mercy is the beloved child of Mr. and Mrs. Watson. She's also a pig. (Er, I mean, a "porcine wonder.") She loves toast with a great deal of butter on it and a good chase. Somehow her adventures always seem to involve the fire department, as well as Eugenia and Baby Lincoln (next door neighbors), and one or two others. I've commented to Mike before about how I am amazed at what memorable characters Kate DiCamillo created with relatively few words. (And Chris Van Dusen's illustrations definitely don't hurt.)

Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold
These are probably the simplest and shortest books on this list, but oh, how all three of my boys love them. Bradley has taken to calling every fly he sees Fly Guy. And several times I have found Aaron reading them to his brothers without any prompting from me. I feel like they are definitely boy books since all of Fly Guy's adventures seem to include rotting food or violent attacks or being ingested. However, unlike a lot of boy books, I haven't found these ones to be filled with potty jokes, so I'm definitely a fan.

Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes
These ones are short and simple, too, but geared more toward girls, but so far, my boys have made no complaints about them. In fact, they'd forgotten what Penny and Her Song was about (we read it quite awhile ago), so they were thrilled to come upon it in the library the other day. Penny is a sweet little mouse who looks at life quietly and thoughtfully. The language is simple but sophisticated. So far there are three in this series (Penny and Her Marble just came out this year and is my personal favorite), but I'm hopeful more will follow.

Henry and Mudge by Cynthia Rylant
I remember my brother loving these books when he was a kid, and it's so fun now to see my own child reading and enjoying them. There's obviously something enduring about a boy and his big, slobbery dog. They're written in such a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth way. Kids can instantly relate (even if you don't (and probably never will) own a big, slobbery dog).

Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Another much beloved series of my brother, this one features Nate, a kid detective with super mystery-solving skills. We've only read two so far, but Aaron loves trying to figure out the end before Nate does.

Frog and Friends by Eve Bunting
We only discovered this series last week, but I'm already adding it to our list of favorites. So far, I have found Frog's stories to be interesting and unique without being formulaic in the slightest. In the first book, Frog and his friends find an orange balloon and hypothesize (incorrectly) that perhaps it is a hippopotamus' egg. The balloon pops before they figure out what it is. They give it a proper burial, but then in Chapter 3, Frog meets a hippo and wonders with fear if the hippo is looking for his egg. It just struck me as funny, and I wasn't expecting that connection between the chapters. Really delightful.

What are your favorite early chapter books? We definitely need more ideas!

P.S. Are you wondering where Frog and Toad is on this list? Well, in spite of being featured in the above photo, the truth is, Aaron hasn't actually read Frog and Toad yet (yes, the photo was staged). I have nothing against Arnold Lobel (in fact, Aaron just read Grasshopper on the Road and loved it--definitely should have included it on this list, so just consider it mentioned). We'll get to it sometime in the future.

I shared this post at Mom's Library
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