Henry and Beezus by Beverly Cleary

Mar 31, 2014

Ever since we finished Henry Huggins, the boys and I have been anxious to read more of Henry's adventures and mishaps.

In this installment, Henry wants a bike more than he's ever wanted anything. Unfortunately, his parents tell him there just isn't enough money for them to go out and buy him a brand-new bicycle. It only adds insult to injury when cocky show-off Scooter saves the day by speeding off on his own bike to catch Ribsy, who has just made off with the neighbors' steak dinner. Henry knows he would do amazing things with his bike too, so he determines that, with or without his parents' help, he is going to acquire a bicycle . . . and he's going to do it before the annual Rose Festival parade.

But coming up with $59.95 isn't easy. He tries delivering papers, selling bubble gum, and buying a used one at the bicycle auction, but all he ends up with is a parking ticket and an embarrassed ego. He is about to give up on ever owning a shiny red bike when fate hands him a golden ticket.

We enjoyed this book just as much as the first one. I think I mentioned before that, while I read all the Ramona books, I never read any of Henry's stories when I was younger. I'm kind of amazed by how much I'm enjoying them as an adult. To be sure, much of my enjoyment comes in seeing Aaron's and Maxwell's reactions when Ribsy collects all of the morning newspapers from the neighbors' front walks or when Henry accidentally buys a girl's bike. But the boys aside, I have also been enjoying it for my own sake.

Each chapter is unpredictable in a delightful way. For example, in the last chapter, Henry goes to the grand opening of the new Colossal Market where they are giving away 25 door prizes. Of course, Aaron, Maxwell, and I conjectured that Henry was going to win his shiny red bike at the giveaway (it was the last chapter, after all). Well, Henry did indeed win a door prize, but it was not a brand-new red bicycle. It was something totally unexpected and hilarious; something that just made you want to give Henry a sympathetic pat on the back; but something that, almost miraculously, helped him get the possession he most wanted. It's really genius writing.

Also, here again, Beverly Cleary came up with story lines and subjects that were exactly the kinds of things my boys are interested in: bikes and gum and dogs and chases and general mayhem. While I know girls will like these books too, I can't deny that the interests of boys are clearly being given the spotlight, and I love it.

One of Aaron and Maxwell's favorite characters was Ramona. She could get them laughing like nothing else--from her games of "waiting at the bus stop" to her insistence that she was hungry or thirsty or bored, she was one of their prime interests. Their very favorite Ramona scene was when she, quite unintentionally, helped untrain Ribsy when he was stealing all the neighbors' newspapers. Every time she aimed her water gun at someone and yelled, "You're dead!" they both erupted into fits of laughter. I think I could have read that chapter again and again, and it would have still been funny to them. It makes me wonder if, even though we're enjoying Henry's books so much, we should maybe take a slight detour and try a Ramona book or two.

One thing that struck me again with this book, as with the first one, was the hands-off approach of Henry's parents. He wants a bike, they tell him they wish he had one but they can't afford one, and then they leave it in his hands. And Henry runs with that confidence and freedom. I'm not one to go out and buy my kids brand-new toys whenever the fancy strikes them, but I think I would at least help them think of ways to earn money or scour garage sales or the classifieds with them. But there is something so refreshing in the way Henry's parents handle it because you can almost see Henry's independence growing as he becomes responsible for his own wants.

If you have not introduced the amazing stories of Beverly Cleary to your children (or yourself), you are missing out. They are absolutely timeless, and I can't wait to read another one with my kids.

Currently . . . Overwhelmed

Mar 26, 2014

And no, I'm not talking about the house.

Or the impending baby.

I'm talking about the stack of books I'm currently reading. 

I generally try to have about three books going at the same time: a book I'm reading, a book I'm listening to, a book I'm reading to the boys.

But this? This is ridiculous.

I'm trying to remember how I even got to such a place.

A Thomas Jefferson Education Home Companion - I started this book in . . . August. As in, seven months ago August. I read half of it for my education group. Then it had to go back to the library. I ended up just buying my own copy because I wanted to be able to mark it up and reference it. But honestly, I haven't touched it since it came in the mail. So maybe I shouldn't count it as a book I'm "currently reading." Except that I have every intention of finishing it. So it's hanging over my head.

The Forgotten Garden - I wish I had read this book over Christmas. Instead, I started it just as we got back from all the holiday traveling, and between moving and book clubs and children, my reading of it has been laboriously painful. Really, for a book with such a great plot and so much mystery and intrigue, I should be flying through it. But I'm not. I finally checked out the audio copy because my time to listen is more plentiful than my time to sit down and read. I'm finally making some headway.

Siblings Without Rivalry - I put this book on hold in a moment of desperation. My children are fighting so much, and it's driving me crazy. There's especially a toxic connection between Maxwell (4) and Bradley (2.5). If they go ten peaceful minutes in the same room together, I consider it a small miracle. Anyway, I read the bulk of this book very quickly but couldn't finish it before it had to go back to the library. I immediately put it on hold, and it just came in again this week. So I just need to finish up the last chapter or two (and maybe review some parts since my kids are still fighting).

In Defense of Food - I checked out the audio of this one when we were moving. I thought I would listen to the entire thing while I was cleaning our old place. And then I ended up not listening to anything, which is really unusual for me. It's interesting for sure--I love Michael Pollan's style--but I switched over to The Forgotten Garden for awhile.

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth - Remember that one? Usually I can't get enough of birth stories, but hers are a little intense for me. That, and it also had to go back to the library (you can tell I'm really on top of reading the books I check out since they all have to go back before I can finish them). Now I have it again. And the clock is ticking (. . . 9 weeks to go), so I need to make this a priority.

Jane Eyre - My book club is reading this book for April. I've read it before, so this should have been an easy out for me, but I couldn't resist. I'm 100 pages in and loving it all over again.

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher - The boys and I are reading this together. I can tell it's geared for kids who are a little older, but they're totally entranced with it nonetheless.

There were two other books I wanted to read for other events (The Grace of Silence and The Rent Collector), but I just looked at the pile I already had going and thought, I'm not that crazy.

Treasure Trove

Mar 24, 2014

Perhaps you heard the news story last month about the couple who found $10 million buried in their backyard?

Mike heard the story and began to dream big.

After all, we had just closed on our first home. He had a quarter of an acre that was all his.

And what do you know? Just a few days after we moved in, we did indeed find treasure!

But we didn't have to dig down to find it. It came up to meet us.

Spring has long been my favorite season, but this year has been even more fun as we make daily discoveries around our backyard.

The boys rush in to share the latest news with me: "Mom, have you seen that there are now five red tulips in the front yard? Come see! Come see!"

Hundreds of bulbs have sprung up: daffodils, crocuses, tulips, hyacinths.

It's not $10 million, but what an amazing gift the previous owners left us.

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Mar 21, 2014

A friend of mine from my days as a newly wed (has that really been almost 9 years ago?!) recently reviewed this book on Goodreads. Her little girl has Rett syndrome, and after reading the book, she mentioned how she saw so many similarities between her own family's situation and that of the girl in the book. I had looked at this book before but was instantly more intrigued after reading my friend's reaction to it. Somehow, knowing that a mom with a daughter with special needs didn't hate it made me much more interested in reading it. So interested, in fact, that I checked it out from the library the very next week.

Melody, the girl in the story, was born with cerebral palsy. She is confined to a wheelchair, cannot speak, and has limited motor skills (she is able to use her thumbs, but that is about it). She needs help eating, dressing, and going to the bathroom. But Melody's mind is sharp, intelligent, and incredibly active. She has a photographic memory and a delightful sense of humor. But no one knows it. Not even her parents or Mrs. V, who definitely understand her more than most people, have any idea what Melody is capable of.

Melody feels like she is suffocating. Every day, she goes to school and sits through nursery songs and alphabet letters while her mind races with complex thoughts and feelings.

But happily, things begin to change at the beginning of sixth grade. For one, Melody and some of her classmates are invited to be a part of some of the regular classrooms during the day. Then one day she and her aide discover a computer that could possibly give voice to her thoughts. Suddenly, Melody's world is opening up, but she discovers that even when she gets the same opportunities as other kids, some people refuse to see past her disabilities.

The story is told in Melody's voice, which I found equal parts fascinating and annoying. Her frustrations with daily life, her desire for a friend (not just someone to be nice to her), and her delight and excitement in the world around her were real and poignant. But sometimes she came across as extremely arrogant and rude. Since I listened to it, I had a hard time knowing if this was due to Melody's words themselves or just the narrator's tone of voice (which definitely had a whiny quality about it).

Also, I felt like the author went a little overboard making Melody into the brightest, smartest kid on the planet. Then, it was as if she realized Melody was a little too smart, so she gave Melody a slight weakness in math. I felt like the exceptional, extraordinary intelligence made Melody not as easy to relate to and not as likeable as a person (not saying that we all have to be of average intelligence, it just felt overdone).

However, I really loved the relationships between Melody and her little sister, Penny (who does not have cerebral palsy), her parents (who are very supportive and loving), Mrs. V (her neighbor who goes to great lengths to let the real Melody out), Rose (a hesitant friend who is willing to give Melody a chance), Melody's aide (enthusiastic and positive), and the teachers and students (who represent a wide range--from mean to speculative to encouraging).

But the thing I loved most about this book was just the way it opened my eyes to the adults and kids around me. For example, every morning when I drop Aaron off at school, I see the bus unloading the special needs kids. I wonder what their experience at school has been and if some of them are feeling trapped and misunderstood?

As far as the quality of the writing, this book did not leap to the top of my favorites list. But in the way of content, I think this story is invaluable and should be required reading for 4th-6th graders. I would love to discuss it with a book club someday.

Lucky Charms in All Its Glory

Mar 17, 2014

When I was a little girl, my mom never bought sugary cereal. She did this for at least three reasons: 1) Why would you want to start your day with a sugar crash? 2) It's expensive 3) It's never special if you have it every day.

The wisdom in that third reason revealed itself every time we went to visit my Gramazetta in Nebraska. Between visits, she stocked up on our favorite cereals (mine: Golden Grahams), and it was so exciting to see all the delectable choices lined up on top of her fridge when we arrived. One of my favorite discoveries was how yummy the milk tasted after Golden Grahams had sat in it for a few minutes.

(As an aside, I always joke that the only thing I did to rebel when I left home for the first time was to buy a box of Trix for breakfast. It was a big disappointment. All those years I'd been craving the stuff only to realize I actually hate fruity cereals.)

Anyway, I've tried to follow in my mom's footsteps, although I can tell I'm not as dedicated or strict as she was. For one thing, we eat cold cereal for breakfast almost every morning, so I know I'm not saving the kind of money she did. However, I do limit our choices to Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Chex, Grape Nuts, and some of the other more healthy choices.

So when we come to a day like today,  a minor holiday where we want to do something to celebrate but don't have the time to go all out, I can pull out the Lucky Charms, and voila!, I'm an awesome mom (at least to my kids).

(The picture isn't lying . . . it really was pitch dark outside when we were eating breakfast. That's how we roll, even when we don't have the excitement of Lucky Charms to wake us up.)

Review x 2: By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Mar 14, 2014

As we were packing up all of our belongings to move into our new home, I felt a little envious of the Ingalls family. Their moving (whether across the country or just into town for the winter) consisted of folding up the quilts, packing away the little china doll, and giving the home a good sweeping out. Our packing and unpacking has felt endless, and it's because we have way too much stuff (i.e., junk). As I filled up the boxes, I felt overwhelming irritation at the closets and shelves and cupboards that kept popping up out of nowhere and were literally brimming with things.

While I am grateful to be blessed with so much, reading these two books made me appreciate, and long for, the peace and contentment that comes by keeping your life simple and uncluttered.

In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls and her family move to Dakota Territory. Pa works as a bookkeeper while the railroad is being built, and once the railroad has moved farther west, he files on a claim and the town of De Smet is settled.

The Long Winter begins in the early fall when the weather in De Smet, South Dakota is warm and beautiful. However, an early blizzard in October is a warning of what is to come. Laura and her family wisely move out of their claim shanty and into the sturdy walls of the store Pa built in town. The winter is endless: one blizzard after another. By early spring, the family is close to starvation. Thankfully, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland risk their lives to bring in wheat from a farm twenty miles away.

I decided to combine the reviews of these two books since they are both set in the same place and involve the same characters and spend a lot of time describing the harsh winters in Dakota Territory. After I finished By the Shores of Silver Lake, I immediately picked up The Long Winter because there was no way I was going to wait until warm and sunny June to read a book about dark and cold.

As it happened, we have had such a mild winter here in Utah (we've seen more rain in the last two months than snow) that I felt a little guilty while reading about the Ingalls family being shut up in their house for six months, filling their days with twisting hay into sticks and grinding wheat into flour in order to stay on top of survival.

Ma's attitude during the long months is truly remarkable. Every morning, she wakes up cheerfully and calls the girls to work. Even on days when the house is shaking because of the blizzard whipping around it, she encourages Laura to make her bed and clean up after breakfast so that they won't have to worry about those things later in the day. I'm afraid if there was a blizzard raging outside, I would probably stay curled up in bed for most of the morning. But I honestly think it was their consistent routine that saved them mentally and physically.

There are only a couple of moments where Ma cracks, and it is just enough to show what tremendous stress she is under and that it is taking all of her willpower to keep it all together. Even as they are on the brink of starving and Laura says, "I am so tired of brown bread with nothing on it," Ma is quick to say, "Don't complain, Laura. Never complain of what you have. Always remember you are fortunate to have it." I know these books are considered historical fiction rather than strictly autobiographical because Laura did take some artistic liberties while writing them, but I have to believe that her portrayal of Ma as a stalwart presence is representative of the way she truly was.

Laura's writing is stunning in its simple, but vivid, descriptions. I was especially impressed with The Long Winter because the story is about an endless blizzard, and how do you make an endless blizzard interesting? There is a fair amount of repetition to be sure (every time a new blizzard strikes, she describes the nails as being white with frost and talks about the neighbors' lights that surely must be burning but that they can't see), but I found this repetition to be a powerful literary tool; it captured the relentless, hopeless, monotonous feel of winter. Also, it is amazing how subtly she changes the tone of the story so that the whole situation gradually feels more dire and desperate.

I have been enjoying this series so much as an adult. As I've mentioned before, my mom read Little House in the Big Woods to me when I was a little girl, and then we never read any more of the books. We were recently talking about how strange it was that we never read more of them since she read so much to my siblings and me. But looking back, I think I know the reason why: Little House in the Big Woods is so boring. You can hate me for saying it, but I'll make no apology. That book is scaring people away from the series. Even as an adult, I had a hard time listening to the audio (although I see, looking back at my brief thoughts from 2009 on Goodreads, that I said I loved it . . . I think I had just set my expectations very low, and also, I had no idea how much better subsequent books would be). 

I can certainly appreciate that Little House in the Big Woods is about a four-year-old girl, and so of course the descriptions are going to be more basic and stark than when she is thirteen and describing the scenes for her blind sister, Mary. I can even admire that Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about her experiences so many years later, is able to change the writing style to reflect the various ages of Laura as she grows up. But the fact remains, Little House in the Big Woods is boring.

I'm telling you all of this not to bash Little House in the Big Woods but just to encourage any hesitant Little House on the Prairie readers to maybe begin with a different book (Farmer Boy would be an excellent choice). I'm generally a stickler for reading a series in order, but in this case, I think it really hurts the reader's chance of wanting to read any more in the series.

Home/Life Status Update

Mar 9, 2014

I am so hopeful I will be back to writing book reviews this week (fingers crossed our internet gets set up tomorrow, and I can come out of isolation).

This week brought:
  • my first official, full-blown home meltdown (as in crying, wailing, screaming, the works--I went from "I love this home!" to "Why did we do this to ourselves?!?!" in just a few minutes.
  • deciding on a paint color and then taping, priming, and painting the living room (good-bye, obnoxious ugly gold; hello, cool inviting gray)
  • going couch shopping with three children (about as unrelaxing as it sounds). The next night, when we got a babysitter and went with Mike's sister and husband, was much nicer and resulted in us actually making a purchase.
  • shopping trips to Home Depot, Ikea, Home Goods, Overstock, etc.
  • meeting new neighbors
  • enjoying the glorious sunshine
  • not enough unpacking
  • very little reading
Here's to life getting more and more normal.

Last Week . . .

Mar 2, 2014

. . . we walked to school for the last time (sob).

. . . I packed more boxes than I could count.

. . . I realized I've never cleaned under my bed in the 18 months I've lived in my house.

. . . I discovered how wonderful it is to have helping friends and family.

. . . I found out how amazing it feels to walk into my very own, newly purchased HOME for the very first time!

With our amazing realtor in front of our new (1950's) home on closing day

I've been absent on this blog all week (and I probably will be gone next week, too), but I'm loving my distraction!
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