Summer Reading Program

Aug 30, 2013

One of the things I love about living in Salt Lake is having the materials of two awesome library systems (the city and the county) at my constant beck and call. For a girl who grew up with a library the size of a small house, this is heaven indeed.

I milk those two systems for all they're worth: we go to story time at both (Miss Annie at the county library is fabulous, but Max thinks Scott at the city library is his best friend); if I can't find something at the city library (always my first choice since it's a little bit closer), I can almost always find it at the county library; and, I'm not ashamed to admit, I signed up my boys for the summer reading program at both libraries.

It worked out perfectly: at the city library, there were four prizes, and you earned one for every seven days of reading. Theoretically, you could knock out all four prizes in just under a month. Then at the county library, they offered three prizes--one for June, one for July, one for August. This was great for making the fun stretch the entire summer.

Participating in two summer reading programs also aided me in my undercover efforts to get Aaron reading a little more. When I read to him, he got to fill in a picture on the city library's chart. But when he read himself, he got to count it for the county library. It was great.

Honestly, the prizes were not super impressive (someday I'll tell you all about the summer reading program at my same-size-as-a-small-house library, and then you'll all be jealous), but you would have thought they were gold from my boys' delight over them.

That is, not super impressive until the August prize at the county library came along. I already knew that it was going to be a book, and I was disappointed. In my past experience, the books have always been something along the lines of bilingual Clifford or bilingual Sesame Street. Thanks, but no thanks.

So you can imagine how surprised and ecstatic I was when I saw the book carts lined up with brand new, hardcover, no-Sesame-Street-in-sight picture books. I could hardly contain myself, and I had to really restrain myself from begging the boys to pick certain books (Art and Max by David Weisner?!).

In the end, even though neither one chose Art and Max, I was perfectly content with what they did choose: Aaron selected Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy, and Maxwell went with, Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael Kaplan.

I asked the librarian to write their names in the front of their books as a sort of reminder of when and how they got the books. This was something my librarian from home always did when I was growing up.

Sadly, she inscribed the wrong name in each book, but so far, the boys haven't noticed, and it just adds a little humor to the memory!

We're definitely sad to see the summer reading program(s) come to an end.

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Aug 28, 2013

We spent last weekend with almost my entire family (we were just missing my brother who had already started classes) doing reunion-ish things: we went to the lake, played some games, stayed up way too late talking, drank 10 gallons of homemade root beer, and enjoyed two (official) book discussions.

Yes, two.

I thought it would be great fun to have a family reunion book club, but when it came time to select a book, I found myself at an impasse. I really wanted us all to read Boys Adrift (will I ever stop talking about that book?!), but it wasn't one that my younger siblings (ages 12 and 14) or my own children would enjoy. So I decided to make everyone read two books (being the eldest child does grant you a certain amount of authority): Boys Adrift and The BFG.

The BFG was a brand-new book for me and for most of my family as well (I think my two sisters-in-law and Mike were the only ones who had previously read it). It is rather unusual that none of us had read it since I know we owned a copy of it; I can distinctly remember looking at the cover and thinking that the story was about some old man whose name I had no idea how to pronounce.

I set my preconceived notions aside and enjoyed absolutely every minute of it.

Sophie is an orphan. One night, she finds herself awake in the ghostly quiet and realizes instantly that it must be the "witching hour." She peeks beyond her curtains and is quite startled to see a giant walking towards her. She ducks back inside but soon finds herself being lifted out of her bedroom window by huge, strong hands.

Naturally, she is terrified, but by some stroke of good luck, she was snatched up by the Big Friendly Giant (BFG for short), who is the only giant in the world who does not guzzle humans for dinner. Sophie soon realizes that the other nine giants are not so nice and eat dozens of humans every night. Together, she and the BFG come up with a brilliant plan (involving a perfectly crafted dream, the queen of England, and Sophie herself) to stop the evil giants and save the entire world.

Discussing this book with my family made me realize (for like the billionth time) that reading is a totally unique and individual experience . . . and that even a children's book can evoke some pretty strong emotions.

One of my very favorite parts of the story was the BFG's way of speaking. If you haven't yet read The BFG, here is a little taste, straight from the BFG's mouth: "And sometimes human beans is very overcome when they is hearing wonderous music. They is getting shivers down their spindels. Right or left?"

It is a strange mix of primitive grammar, new words, and twisted phrases. I found it to be delightful, witty, and highly creative. My brother? Hated it. He thought it was distracting, ridiculous, and over-the-top.

I sat there listening to him rant against the BFG's adorable way of speaking, and my heart broke a little. How dare he say such discriminatory things against so upstanding and noble a giant? Couldn't he have a little sympathy for someone who, in the giant's own words, "sometimes is saying things a little squiggly"? After all, "there never was any schools to teach [him] talking," so we really must be sympathetic if  "somehow or other [his words] is always getting squiff-squiddled around."

I'm not holding my brother's opinion against him, but I am wondering if our completely contrasting opinions can both be right? Can this book be both "highly creative" and also "distracting"? Just something to think about. And on which side do you fall?

Mike and my mom and my dad were also not that enamored with the book. My dad thought the giant had no personality (another heart-jab), my mom thought it was a bit strange (but then, she's been prejudiced against Roald Dahl for years), and Mike thought it was too juvenile (see? I knew he should have never gone for a doctorate). Oh, well.

Just for fun, here are a few more of my favorite parts:
  • The BFG's dream catalog; I loved reading all of his little summaries of the dreams contained in the bottles ("I is inventing a car that runs on toothpaste." "I is only an eight year old little boy but I is growing a splendid bushy beard and all the other boys is jalous.") These dreams were exactly the kind of random conglomeration my kids would love. It made me wish the BFG could come to our house and blow a few of them into my little Maxwell's room--he is so scared of bad dreams but loves it when he gets a good one.
  • Concocting the queen's dream; this scene was very vivid for me. I could see the giant rummaging among his jars, muttering and mumbling to himself, and pouring a little of this dream and a little of that dream in to make the perfect nightmare for the queen. Really, it seemed like a work of art.
  • Meeting the Queen; one of my very favorite lines occurred when the BFG approached the queen and introduced himself, "Your Majester, I is your humbug servant." It just made me laugh but at the same time almost want to cry. By that time, I felt like I knew the BFG pretty well (despite my dad saying he had no personality), and I could just see that he was trying to make a good impression while being noble and kind, but once again, his words just got a little mixed up (in a rather adorable way).
In my opinion, this book was only improved by the audio. Natasha Richardson's interpretation of the BFG was endearing, and hearing a smooth delivery of all his quirky phrases made his speech seem totally natural. I would highly recommend it.

If you are looking for a fun activity to add to your family reunion agenda, a book discussion might be just the thing. However, based on this experience, it's probably best to choose a book that no one is emotionally attached to.

My crazy family

Kindergarten Initiation

Aug 26, 2013

Today was Aaron's first day of kindergarten.

I've had a fair amount of worry over whether or not Aaron should begin school this year. Having just turned five less than a month ago, he is one of the youngest kids in his class. My indecision was compounded when I read Boys Adrift, and Dr. Sax gave compelling evidence for why many boys have greater academic success when they wait until age 6 to begin school.

I think a big part of my inner conflict was due to the fact that I respected, and even agreed with, Dr. Sax, and yet, it felt so right to let Aaron go to kindergarten. Really, in many ways I felt like I was creating my own struggle because I always felt the Spirit quietly whispering, This is right. This is right. This is right, but I still kept second guessing myself, Should I really send Aaron to kindergarten this year?

In the end, I felt confident trusting those spiritual promptings because I had done my part to study, research, observe, think about, discuss, and weigh all our options, and after all of that, it felt right to send him to school this year. I used my mind and my heart to make this decision, and because of that, I have felt a great amount of peace of mind.

And today, as Aaron counted down the minutes until it was time to leave and buckled his backpack and walked ahead of me down the sidewalk, there wasn't a smidgeon of anxiety. Only excitement and happiness. In fact, when my friend asked me how I was doing and I saw a volunteer handing out packs of tissues, I realized with a jolt that I wasn't crying. I had been so sure that I would be. In fact, I felt bad that I wasn't. It almost felt like I wanted him to leave me, which was far, far, far from the case. 

This is maybe a more serious post than I was intending. It definitely didn't feel like a serious day. It felt fun and happy. But there were some serious days in the months leading up to it. I certainly don't think this is for sure the absolute, end-all, forever answer. It might be. But most likely, I will be considering these questions again and again as my children grow up.

But for now, we will soak up every precious minute of these glorious days of kindergarten.

Defended and Done

Aug 21, 2013

Some of you may recall that Mike has been working on his doctorate (in Mechanical Engineering) for . . . a good long while.

Some of you may have asked him when he was going to be finished with the aforementioned doctorate. More than likely, you would have heard his favorite non-committal answer, "In about a year . . ."

Some of you may even remember hearing about our bargain, no, agreement, that we could definitely have a third child if the doctorate would be complete before the birth. A defense for a child. Sounded easy enough. Or not. The third child will be two years old next month.

The boys and I just got back from our fourth forced separation from Mike so that he could spend some quality time with his dissertation. I hoped (and prayed) that this fourth trip would be the charm.

While we were gone, I received daily reports on his progress:

Revised chapter 3. Revised chapter 4. Had friend proof-read. Edited again. Had professor look it over. Edited again. Scheduled defense with committee. Stayed up all night finishing the final edits, formatting, and writing, in his own words, "a pretty impressive conclusion." Turned in dissertation to committee. Stressed/worried (even though he never gets stressed or worried). Prepared presentation. Practiced presentation.

And that brought us up to today, August 21st, a day that will go down in history (for this family anyway).

I hadn't let myself believe that it was actually going to happen because I didn't want to be disappointed again. So when I found myself actually sitting in the conference room watching Mike at the front and looking at his slides while he talked about his research, well, it was kind of a surreal moment. I realized that I'd spent years anticipating this moment, and then when that moment finally came, it caught me by surprise because I hadn't let myself anticipate it!

Before the defense began, Mike looked ill. He muttered incoherently and cleared his throat mercilessly. Afterwards, my dad said he'd never seen Mike so nervous, didn't even know he could be so nervous.

His defense was not unlike this Studio C skit (although, thankfully, it ended far less violently):

But when Mike burst from the conference room after talking with his committee, he was a changed man. It was a mixture of happiness and relief and, yes, I think, awe. I watched Mike shake hands with Dr. Gale and heard the words, "Congratulations." I watched the committee members sign the paper saying he passed his defense. I watched Mike's smile come back to his face. It was one of the best moments of my life, and it wasn't even really my moment.

When Mike got home a few minutes ago, he said, "Well, I guess I'll go work on my dissertation for three hours now . . . NOT!"

Yes, I think I could get used to this.

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Aug 19, 2013

Ever since finishing (and loving) Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, I've been wanting to read something else by Jessica Day George. In the midst of my indecision over which trilogy to read this year, I kept coming back to George's princess trilogy--partly because I already owned the set (thanks to my good friend, who also happens to be George's agent) and partly because I have wanted to read this series ever since falling in love with the cover of the second one, Princess of Glass. Oh, and the fact that each book is 250-300 pages, rather than 700, also made them highly tempting. 

I decided I might as well try the first one, and if I didn't love it, then I would still have plenty of time to choose a different trilogy before the end of the year. I shouldn't have worried. As soon as I finished this one, I read the next one, and I could have easily started the third one if I didn't have a couple of other books I've committed to finish in the next couple of weeks.

Queen Maude wanted a baby, and when she couldn't get pregnant, she resorted to making a bargain with the King Under Stone. He was more than generous--promising her twelve daughters instead of just one, and all she would have to do in exchange was dance for him during his midnight balls.

Maude agreed. And for awhile her plan seemed to work beautifully. Every year she gave birth to another beautiful girl. But the King Under Stone gradually began to tighten his hold, making her dance more frequently. Pretty soon, it became apparent that he had more long-term plans for her daughters: he happened to have twelve sons; it would be a perfect match.

When the story begins, Rose (at 17) is the eldest and Petunia (at 5) is the youngest (yes, they are all named after flowers). Their mother recently died and left them to carry out the terms of her curse. It should have just continued to be a quiet family problem . . . except that their father doesn't know anything about it, and he is both puzzled and worried by his daughters' ever-growing pile of worn out dancing shoes. Before long, bad things have started to happen above ground: suspicious deaths, tension between countries, and a threat to the king's title.

But I have yet to talk about the leading man, a dashing former-soldier-turned-palace-gardener named Galen. He is convinced that he can figure out the princesses' mysterious secret and help them, too. Oh, and did I mention that he knits?

I don't often give much notice to plot summaries (I tell you this after I've just given you my own lengthy one and expected you to read every word of it), but I happened to read the synopsis for this one, and I disagreed so much with one part of it that I feel compelled to bring it up here.

It says, and I quote: "But malevolent forces are working against them [Rose + Galen + 11 sisters] above ground as well, and as cruel as the King Under Stone has seemed, his wrath is mere irritation compared to the evil that awaits Galen and Rose in the brighter world above."I beg to differ! The King Under Stone's wrath is no "mere irritation" even when compared with the very serious problems that are being dealt with by the kingdom. The King Under Stone is wicked and vile and frightening, and he is as much a threat to the world above as the world below.

Luckily, I didn't read that plot summary until after I'd finished the book, so I didn't have to struggle with any misconceptions about the King Under Stone being a "mere irritation" while I waited for the real villain to show up. 

Synopsis aside, I really loved the book. I've come to realize that while I'm not a huge fantasy fan, I really do like fairy tale retellings, and this one was both an enjoyable and creative spin on the twelve dancing princesses.

I have to admit, it was hard to keep track of all twelve sisters, all named and with slightly different personalities. And I felt like I was supposed to remember each one since they all had numerous lines and took turns being prominent in a number of scenes. I understand the necessity of having twelve, and in some ways it did make the events more interesting, but I think I would have preferred the focus to be on just three or four of them with the others being important mainly for the numbers. This may have been what she was attempting with Lily and Poppy and Pansy, who did get a little more attention, but the remaining eight were still mentioned too much to forget about them but not enough to truly know them or care about them.

Also, I have to say that I didn't really care that much for Rose, the eldest sister. She was fine but very unmemorable. In other words, she just had kind of a bland personality. Consequently, I thought the romance ended up being a little bland as well (even though I quite liked Galen). (Actually, now that I think about it, my dissatisfaction with Rose is exactly how I felt about Cosette in Les Miserables--like she was created to be an important character but one who wouldn't mess up anything too terribly.)

But those little gripes were really pretty minor in comparison with how much I enjoyed the book. I loved the way knitting was used as both a weapon and a force for good and how it became a masculine activity when Galen was doing it. I loved the descriptions of the King Under Stone's realm (exotically dark and creepy). I loved the way the ending played out and that the solution involved a pair of knitting needles and a chain made of black wool. And I loved, loved, loved the character of Walter (a quirky, but very wise, gardener). It was just a fast, easy, enjoyable read. Exactly what I wanted it to be.

I read Princess of Glass immediately following this one. In many ways I liked it even more, but I have several things I can't wait to bring up in a forthcoming review.

Word Flashbacks

Aug 16, 2013

You know how certain smells can carry you back in time in an instant? I have words that are like that. Sometimes I remember where I first heard the word. Other times, something out of the ordinary or unusual happened while hearing it and seared it into my memory. Here are five just such words:

clandestine - kept or done in secret, often in order to conceal an illicit or improper purpose
This word made many appearances when I was reading The Zookeeper’s Wife. I wasn’t terribly familiar with it (maybe not at all), so I actually looked it up in an actual dictionary. I can vividly remember replacing it in my mind with “secret” anytime I came to it while reading.

angst - a feeling of persistent worry about something trivial
I first heard this word five years ago. At that time, almost all of Mike’s eight siblings were keeping blogs (not so anymore), and so we decided to play a game on our blogs (Mike’s family is nothing if not creative and competitive). Each person was given their own list of words they had to use in posts over a two-week time period. If you used one of your words, and someone guessed it, they got a point. But if they either didn’t notice or there wasn’t really an assigned word in the post, then you got a point. (It was great fun, especially since, unless you were in on the game, you couldn’t tell there was anything particularly unusual going on, except that we all suddenly had much richer vocabularies.) Anyway, neither Mike nor I knew what it was to exhibit angst (it has since become a MUCH more popular word . . . everyone is filled with angst these days), and so we decided we’d have better luck pretending it was a typo for “against.” This is how we used it to describe a game of ping pong: "okay, so maybe my meager ping pong skills are pretty useless angst him, but my competitive nature can’t handle defeat.” Sadly, most of Mike’s siblings caught it.

menagerie - a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition
This word impressed itself upon me when we read this line in The Circus Ship: "Mr. Payne looked high and low, but still he couldn’t see the fifteen circus animals of his menagerie.” I knew the word before, but I was delighted to find it in a children’s book, and I can’t hear it now without seeing the page it goes with in the book. 

snarky - rudely sarcastic or disrespectful; snide

Last year, my book club read Everneath, and we were lucky enough to have the author, Brodi Ashton, come to our meeting and talk about the book. The thing I remember most about that meeting is how often she said the word snarky. She called so many people snarky that I think she intended it as a compliment.

ineffable - too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words
This word is now forever linked in my brain with a British accent (Jim Dale’s British accent, to be exact). The word was dwelt on so much in Liesl and Po that you could almost call it a literary theme. The main character pronounced it in a very specific way--drawing it out and lingering on the f’s. Jim Dale’s interpretation was beautiful. I don’t think I’ve had an opportunity to use it out loud since I listened to that book, but when I do, you can be certain I’ll be British for the instant it takes to say it.

I have more words that maybe I’ll share at a later date, but tell me: Do you have any words with specific memories attached to them? Please share!

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

Aug 14, 2013

Goodreads and I became good friends in the spring of 2009. Before that, we were casual acquaintances; I would check in every now and again and add a book about that often. But in 2009, I suddenly caught the vision and realized that Goodreads was not only a great way to keep track of what I had read but also what I wanted to read. I started shelving books that friends told me about or that I heard about through a blog or website. Suddenly, I no longer had to rack my brain, “Now didn’t Sarah just mention a good book? What was the title again? Something about a princess? Or was it a pioneer?” I no longer said things like, “Oh, I like to read. I just never know what to read.” Now I always have dozens of options to choose from, and I can pick something that fits my current mood.

Once I decided that Goodreads would save (and also help me waste) a ton of time and frustration, one of the first books I added to my to-read list was A Girl Named Zippy (on April 5, 2009, to be exact). I can no longer remember what prompted me to save it (I definitely could be better about noting where recommendations come from), but there it has sat for years while other books last only a couple of weeks or never make it on my to-read list at all before I start reading them. It hardly seemed fair, so when this book was selected for my book club in August, it offered the perfect excuse to grant it a coveted spot among the “currently reading” books.

And that long, pretty-much-pointless introduction probably knocked off all but my die-hard readers. Sorry about that.

Haven Kimmel grew up in a small town (pop. 300) in Indiana. She was nicknamed Zippy after her dad saw a “zippy” monkey on television. The book is a collection of memories and stories, mishaps and adventures from her childhood.

I know that summary sounds bland and boring, but let me assure you that Haven Kimmel’s writing is anything but. It is sassy and spunky and saucy with a good deal of irreverence thrown in (just read the chapter “Haunted Houses” if you don’t believe me). It was one of those books where I kept thinking, The small-town adventures of a seven-year-old girl shouldn’t be this captivating, but they are! Haven’s own sister, Melinda, thought that the only person who would choose to read such a book would be “a person lying in a hospital bed with no television and no roommate. Just lying there. Maybe waiting for a physical therapist. And then here comes a candy striper with a squeaky library cart and on that cart there is only one book--or maybe two books: yours, and Cooking with Pork. I can see how a person would be grateful for Mooreland then.”

When people say that their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about, I can no longer believe them. Their lives are probably plenty interesting; it’s just the way they present it that could use some work. As humans, I think we all have this innate desire to eavesdrop and spy on the lives of other people. If this were not the case, facebook would never have taken off and gossiping wouldn’t be such a difficult habit to break. In the case of A Girl Named Zippy, I loved it because of the parts I could relate to (growing up in a small town) and also because of the parts I couldn’t relate to (the 70’s, her home life, etc.).

I somewhat suspect that many of her stories were heavily embellished: there were so many details and so much dialogue that unless she was keeping a daily journal from the time she turned two, a completely accurate portrayal of such an early time in her life would probably have been impossible.

But did I really want a perfectly honest accounting? No. If she had only allowed herself to include details that she was certain of, I can almost guarantee this memoir would have been as dry as dust. Instead, I think she was trying to capture what it felt like to be herself in the 1970’s, and I think she was 100% successful with this. For example, one of the chapters recounts details from her family’s standard summer vacation: camping in their trailer. She said her father was always very meticulous with getting the trailer fitted and stocked and in good working order before they left. One of their pre-camping rituals was to make sure all of the lights on the camper worked as they were supposed to. While describing one particular trip, she said, “It took us longer than usual to get to Tall Trees, because twice I fell out of the top bunk with such a crash that Dad pulled over on the side of the road to make sure I wasn’t broken, and then before we could pull back on the the highway we had to test the lights.”

Now did they really test the lights every time they made a stop? Maybe. Maybe not. But do you think that’s how little Zippy felt when all she wanted to do was get to their destination while her father seemed totally bent on not getting there? Most definitely. That’s what made this writing so entertaining but also so accessible.

But speaking of perceptions and the strength of memories, this book made me wonder what my boys will remember from their childhoods in 30 years? Specifically, what will they remember about me? Zippy talks about her mother in an affectionate but also condescending way. In almost every story, her mother is reading on the couch while the house falls to ruin and she is unaware of her children’s whereabouts. Whether this is entirely true or not, this is what got logged away in Zippy’s memory. And my boys are forming their own memories every day (which I can only hope will someday not be published in a memoir!).

I’ve been trying to figure out why I loved Haven Kimmel’s writing so much, and I think it boils down to this: it was simple without being unimaginative and clever without being glaring. She captured the small-town, little-girl language and made it sound like an intelligent adult was writing it. I loved how she could end a chapter with a sentence as simple as “It would be another warm night,” but because of what came before, that one sentence suddenly sounded nostalgic and profound.  I also loved all of the truly insightful metaphors she used, such as this one: “Dana turned to see the shot fall, then looked back at me. She issued a sound I’d heard dogs make at each other when they really wanted to fight but also had to finish their dinner.”  Her metaphors always seemed to be appropriate to the setting while adding to my overall impression and picture of her childhood.

This book ends when Zippy is still in grade school. The last story is great (Christmas, Santa, dreams coming true and all that), but it felt very unfinished. What happens when Zippy reaches high school and begins to mature and grow up? Luckily, I found out there’s a sequel: She Got Up Off the Couch. You can bet I’m going to be reading it (I already put it on my to-read list!).

My one regret about this book is that I didn’t get to go to book club and discuss it with everyone. So sad! If anyone wants to have a mini-book discussion, feel free to start one in the comments!

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Aug 9, 2013

I was thrilled when I first heard that Clare Vanderpool was going to have another middle-grade novel published this year. Thrilled, but also anxious. You see, I absolutely loved Moon Over Manifest (Vanderpool’s first book and the winner of the Newbery Medal in 2011), and anytime I love something, I hold onto it protectively, daring anything or anyone to try to change my devotion. I was worried that Navigating Early wouldn’t be as good (Moon Over Manifest would be a hard one to match), and I didn’t want my esteem to falter simply because of an average second novel.

I needn’t have worried.

Navigating Early was stunning.

It didn’t just match Moon Over Manifest in greatness. [Cue dramatic music, please.] It surpassed it. (Of course, it has now been two years since I read Moon Over Manifest, so that might be an unfair assessment. I wouldn’t mind reading Moon Over Manifest again to find out.)

When the story begins, World War II has just ended. Jack Baker has long been anticipating the return of his father, a naval captain, but the unexpected death of Jack’s mother makes the reunion more bitter than sweet. Unable to handle his own grief, let alone his son’s, Jack’s father ships him off to a boarding school in Maine--a far cry from his native, comfortable, well-known Kansas. Jack is soon befriended by Early Auden, that “strangest of boys,” who sorts jelly beans when he is upset, listens to Billie Holiday when it’s raining, and is obsessed with the number pi. During a week-long school break, the two boys leave the empty school and set out on a quest. Using pi as a guide, they discover that things are not always as they seem and that there is always more than one way to look at a problem.

After I finished Navigating Early, I told Mike, “You have got to listen to this book!” I wasn’t sure if he’d like it since he doesn’t love children’s lit the same way I do, but I figured since it involved the number pi, it wouldn’t be completely unbearable for his mathematical brain. One of first things he mentioned after finishing it (and he did like it, btw) was that it reminded him a lot of Holes by Louis Sachar (not the subject matter or plot, but the pacing and structure). Interestingly, I made the same comparison about Moon Over Manifest back when I reviewed it in 2011. In these examples, both Sachar and Vanderpool weave two contrasting plot lines together, and I think it was this similarity that Mike and I both noticed.

In Navigating Early, the story flips back and forth between Jack and Early’s adventures and a tale Early has created to go along with the numbers that make up pi. Early's tale bears an eerie resemblance to what is actually happening to the two boys, and Early uses the story to help guide them through the woods. I thought it was extremely clever the way the Story of Pi influenced and manifested itself in the real plot.

It would be difficult to describe just how much I loved Early Auden, that “strangest of boys” (a term of endearment if ever there was one). He has some kind of high functioning autism spectrum disorder, and he is absolutely brilliant. I’d be interested to hear what other people who spend a lot of time around autistic kids think about this book. For me, and from my very limited exposure, it hit the nail directly on the head. (Early would probably take that phrase literally.) Early was so real to me. Now that I’m done, I keep catching myself wanting to talk about him to other he’s an actual boy in my neighborhood or family. Listening to him talk (and narrator Robbie Daymond really brought him to life), I felt like I was talking to the people I really do know who have Asperger’s. I loved the definitive way he argued and how everything was so stark and organized. I loved his little obsessions (pi, his brother Fischer, the great black bear, and music). In short, Early made the book for me.

Speaking of Early, I think the title is so clever because it can be interpreted so many ways, and all of them are correct: much of the book focuses on Jackie navigating his relationship with Early, which is a bit rocky at times; the two boys are also physically navigating wild and dangerous territory; Jack’s father is a captain of a ship, so he’s had first-hand experience with an actual navigator. Both words are just great metaphors and descriptors for what the novel is about. And that cover? Gorgeous, don’t you think?

I try not to read reviews before I finish a book and have written my own review of it. But after I’m done, I sometimes like to read a few, and I always read the negative ones with great interest. But this time, I am terrified to read anything bad or uncomplimentary about it. Within the last few weeks, I have developed such a strong attachment toward this novel that I shudder to think of anyone not liking it. I honestly haven’t heard it getting much Newbery attention at all (but maybe I’m just not reading the right things?), and that baffles me because it seems like a perfect candidate for the Newbery. I remember how much I loved Wonder last year, and then I started reading about why people thought it didn’t deserve the Newbery, and once they’d been pointed out, I could recognize and acknowledge its flaws for sure, but I still loved it. I guess I’m worried that something similar will happen in this case, and I don’t want to have to defend it . . .  not because it’s not worthy of being defended, but because it was so well done, it shouldn’t have to be defended. But now I’m really going off on a tangent . . .

I think this quote from Jackie's mom perfectly sums up what the book is about and why I liked it so much: "You have to look for the things that connect us all--find the ways our paths cross, our lives intersect, and our hearts collide.” That’s what Early and Jackie did in the book, and that’s what I want to do in my own life.

Graphic Novels x 2: Rapunzel's Revenge & Calamity Jack

Aug 7, 2013

I did it! I took a deep breath and plunged into my first-ever graphic novel. And then, I liked it so much that I decided to read the sequel. Who'd have thought?

And speaking of unbelievabilities, would you believe that two years ago, if you'd said the words graphic novel, my brain would have conjured up something closer to a racy romance novel than a comic book? I honestly had no idea what a graphic novel was, and the first time I realized kids were reading them, I was more than a little shocked. (This is when it would have been a good idea to employ Google and find out that a graphic novel is, in fact, "a book made up of comics content.") (And also, don't think just because they're not racy romance novels that their content is always innocent and child-friendly. It isn't.)

Since this was my first foray into the heretofore unknown territory of graphic novels, this review will be as much about the genre itself as the actual books I read. So first, a few general thoughts:

Graphic novels take a lot of mental energy to read. Of course, I'm speaking of a different mental energy than you would use for, say, Dickens or a physics textbook. In this case, you are dissecting at least 50% of the story from the pictures, and it was obvious from the beginning that my brain just doesn’t work as well with pictures as it does with words. Sometimes I felt a little lost. In many ways, it felt slower than a normal book because I often spent a ridiculous amount of time on one group of pictures trying to figure out what on earth was going on.

However, at the same time, the pictures provide a unique kind of detail, excitement, and humor, unattainable with just words. It is more than just the pictures; it is the number of units per page and how they are arranged and their sizing and the placement of the text and the inclusion (or exclusion) of words. Take a look at these two pages from Rapunzel’s Revenge:

Notice how some of the pictures are squares, some are tall and vertical, while others are long and horizontal. I’m sure this is nothing unique to the graphic novel genre, but as a newbie, I was definitely intrigued with the originality of every page. If it were me drawing the pictures, I’m pretty sure I would succumb to a familiar pattern of three squares per row (or something equally boring), which is unfortunate since much of my enjoyment in reading this novel was derived by noticing how the white space was used. (The above pages, by the way, were taken from one of my very favorite scenes in Rapunzel’s Revenge. I especially love how Rapunzel’s toes are pointed so gracefully as she lassos that gigantic snake underwater.)

Perspective is also important: the picture might be zoomed in or out or taken from above or down below. With each change, the story gains depth and breadth and fleshes out the characters and the plot. Here’s another example from Rapunzel’s Revenge:

I love the close-up shot of Rapunzel’s braid, and the picture of her swinging on her hair, and the dizzying height of the tree. This is what made the novels so much fun to read.

And now, a few thoughts on the stories themselves.

Rapunzel’s Revenge takes the traditional story of Rapunzel and sets it in the Wild, Wild West. In this retelling, Rapunzel’s long hair isn’t a burden; it’s a weapon. She uses it to rope bad guys, snatch away objects, and whip sense into naysayers. After escaping from her tower, she meets an outlaw named Jack, and together they make a plan to defeat Mother Gothel and bring beauty and life back to the land.

Setting this story in the West was pure genius. It breathed new life into this well-known tale. Rapunzel became much more than a spineless heroine locked away waiting for a prince to come and save her. She was spunky and feisty and sassy, and she took firm control of her own destiny.

The illustrations were done by Nathan Hale, and the text was written by Shannon Hale and her husband, Dean. I wondered if I would like Shannon Hale’s style in this genre or if I would even be able to tell it was her with the text broken up between pictures and consisting mainly of dialogue set in conversation bubbles. But I could tell, and her style definitely worked in this setting. The vivid metaphors and similes I’ve come to expect from her were present but toned down, and I thought the pictures and words fit together beautifully.

After finishing Rapunzel’s Revenge, I was anxious to get a copy of Calamity Jack. In this one, Jack takes center stage and Rapunzel retreats to sidekick (although, with skills like hers, cohort is probably a better word). The events in Rapunzel’s Revenge actually happened right in the middle of Jack’s story, which began with a huge beanstalk and a power-hungry giant named Blunderboar and ended with Jack and his friends outsmarting the giants.

This one showcased the same kind of humor and action and clever plot twists as the first one, but I didn’t like it as much. I think the setting (industrial city) wasn’t as charming to me as the wide open country. That, and I really didn’t like the giants. (Um, yeah? Maybe that’s because they were the villains.) They were just so ugly, and with a book that is centered around the illustrations, well, really ugly giants can be a little hard on the eyes. Oh, and there were a bunch of made-up creatures, and you know how I feel about that...

I was slightly confused by Jack’s pixie-friend, Prudence. She just showed up at the beginning of the story with no introduction or explanation. The whole rest of the story, even after she had been a part of many scenes and adventures, I still felt like I had missed something important (but, judging from the number of times I went back to the beginning of the story and studied those darn pictures again, I didn’t).

Honestly, my favorite part of this story was probably when Freddie (a newspaperman/inventor-turned-accomplice) offers his backpack launcher to Jack. (The backpack launcher launches people.) Jack thinks Freddie’s crazy, but then later, at a critical moment in the story, the backpack launcher turns out to be exactly what Jack needs to save Rapunzel. (I was sad though that there was no picture depicting the actual launch.)

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised with how enjoyable it was to read a graphic novel. I don’t think it’s going to become my new favorite genre or anything because I’ll still choose words over pictures, but it was not a bad way to spend a few afternoons.

One of the best parts about reading these books was seeing Aaron’s reaction to them. The first afternoon I picked up Rapunzel’s Revenge, he incredulously asked, “You’re going to read that?” When I told him that indeed I was, he got sort of an admiring look about him, like he didn’t know I had it in me to actually pick up something that looked so awesome. Between the two books, he spent many a time looking over my shoulder while badgering me with questions about who certain characters were and what they were doing. There were other times when I looked for the book only to find it stolen and Aaron poring over it. Even if I hadn’t liked the books at all, I still would have been grateful I read them simply because they opened up Aaron’s love of and excitement over books that much more. Until that moment, I don’t think he realized adults were allowed to read “fun” books.

Raising Readers: Early Reading Tips

Aug 5, 2013

Did I say I was going to put up the first post in this series last week? I meant this week, of course. (Last week, if you couldn’t already tell by the lack of posting, was sabotaged by a host of other activities.)

As I narrowed down all of the possibilities for this first post, I couldn’t stop thinking about Aaron and the stage of reading he is at right now.

As you know, I started teaching Aaron how to read a year and a half ago, using the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. We’ll save the discussion of whether or not it is a good idea to teach a 3.5-year-old how to read for a later post.

The point it, while we were using the book, it was easy to know what to do next: as long as lesson 55 followed lesson 54, and lesson 56 followed lesson 55, I was pretty confident we were moving in the right direction.

But then, we closed the book after lesson 100, and I thought, Now what? We had come so far, and so I wanted to continue with daily reading, but I had very few ideas for what I should have him read. The book gave a few suggestions for additional books, but I still felt pretty lost.

It was time to employ some good ol’ trial and error (lucky first-borns!).

Now, every child is different, and so what worked for Aaron may or may not work for your child. Like I said in the introductory post, my experience is limited to my own flesh and blood. Aaron did not initiate reading on his own, but he was a quick (and usually willing) student. The more he reads, the more I see him reading on his own, without any encouragement from me.

Here are a few of the things I’ve done that, so far, I’ve found most helpful:

Set aside a specific time to read each day. Aaron is not a self-motivated reader, but he is a big fan of structure and schedules. When we read sporadically, on-again-off-again, he fights it. But if we read at 7:30 every morning, he doesn’t even question it, and it is a much more enjoyable experience for both of us.

Choose books that are just above reading level. I look for books that will have about 3-6 words per page that he doesn’t know (or roughly 5-10%). That way, he is always encountering new vocabulary, as well as new reading skills, but he doesn’t feel bogged down with new words.

Don’t make a big deal about new words. Sometimes I have him sound out a new word. Sometimes I give him a little prompt (what does “c-h” say?). But most of the time, I just tell him the word. So much of good reading comes from comprehension and maintaining a reasonable pace (or so I’ve concluded), so unless I feel it’s really important or a word he really should be able to figure out, I just tell him what it is, and we go merrily on our way with full comprehension still intact. This cuts back on a lot of frustration, and amazingly, he usually knows the word the next time we come to it.

Read the story to him first. I have found that if I read the book to Aaron once first, his attempt is much smoother and fluid with far fewer frustrating episodes. There’s no way he can memorize the words by hearing it just one time, but having the story in his head helps him make more reasonable deductions with words he doesn’t know and helps him read more seamlessly.

Let him read something easy. This has been a huge confidence booster for Aaron. Recently, I let him read Sam and the Firefly. It was quite a bit easier than the other things he’s been reading lately. He was able to read it so quickly with almost no hesitations are breaks. It made him feel like such a good and experienced reader, and it also showed me how far he has come.

Demonstrate inflection and delivery. Part of reading is being able to interpret the tone and style of the words. “'Oh, wow...'” she said as she gazed up at the Eiffel Tower” would be spoken differently than “’Oh wow,’” he moaned when he saw his little sister’s mess.” Sometimes early reading can become so stilted and monotone, so I find it helpful to occasionally stop him and demonstrate what it’s supposed to sound like, and then he tries it again with a little more emotion. He has already improved significantly in this area. (Of course, spending lots of time reading to your child is really the best and most effective way to teach good delivery.)

Give lots of praise and encouragement. A few days ago, we were at the library, and the librarian gave the boys pins that read, “Super reader!” Aaron looked at it, read it, and said, “Mom, I really am a super reader.” I don’t want him to get cocky, but I do want him to be filled with that innocent confidence that will encourage him to try new things.

Now that I’ve shared a few of my tips, I hope you’ll add to this list by commenting with some of your own suggestions for encouraging and guiding early readers. Next week (or let’s be realistic, the week after), I’ll share a few of our favorite easy readers/early chapter books!
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground