The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma

Nov 28, 2014

A book review about The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma. I loved this book. It really spoke to me because I treasure the time I spend reading aloud to my children /
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the Read-Aloud Revival, a podcast I have recently become addicted to. In one episode, Sarah Mackenzie talked to Alice Ozma, author of The Reading Promise (if you'd like to listen to the episode, which I highly recommend, click here). My ears perked up immediately because I recognized the title as being one that has been on my to-read list for a long time (and for the life of me, I can't remember how it got on there in the first place). After listening to the episode, it skyrocketed to the top of the list.

Basically, Alice's story is this: When she was nine years old, her father asked her if she thought they could read aloud together for 100 days straight? He and Alice had been reading together every night for years, so they didn't necessarily need a personal competition to get them to continue this tradition. However, when Alice's older sister was relatively the same age, she had asked their dad to stop reading aloud to her because she thought it was babyish and she could read on her own. Their father was worried the same thing would happen with Alice, and so he turned it into something of a game to make the tradition last just a little longer.

Well . . . 3,218 days later, The Streak (as it came to be known) finally ended. It was the day Alice's dad dropped her off at college. Through her parents' divorce, sick days, arguments, high school activities, and dates, Alice's dad read aloud to her every single night, and because of it, there developed a bond between them that lasted beyond their final day of reading aloud.

Okay, if I needed any more fuel for my passion of reading aloud, this was it.

But first, I want to get a couple of nit-picky criticisms out of the way so I can gush for the rest of the review. First, there were some little inaccuracies here and there, like this one, when Alice describes what it's like when Mary finally finds the secret garden: "The moment we'd both been waiting for since we began the book, the moment when Mary finally found the entrance and saw the garden for the first time, finally came. We turned the page and there it was, suddenly, in all its green and overgrown glory." I actually had to go find my copy of The Secret Garden and check my memory against Alice's because I didn't remember anything green about Mary's first encounter with the garden, and sure enough, Mary actually wonders if anything is actually still alive in it because it all looks so brown and dead. I don't know why that bothered me so much--maybe because it seems like something an editor should have easily caught or maybe like something Alice herself should have remembered. But the result was that I distrusted references to other books I wasn't as familiar with.

Second, Alice wrote this book when she was still in college (she talks about how it all came to be in the podcast), and I felt like her writing wasn't consistent. Sometimes I loved it (and I'll share some favorite quotes in a minute), but other times, it felt really forced--like she was trying too hard to be funny or it was a creative writing assignment and she was trying out a specific technique. It's hard to explain; maybe you'll be able to see what I mean in this example: "From Dickens to Shakespeare, we tried our best to come up with stimulating, appropriately challenging material, but Rabb still had trouble paying attention. Even when we read books involving cats, he simply could not make any personal connections with the text." For me, talking about trying to find "stimulating, appropriately challenging material" for a cat felt less like something I wanted to laugh at and more like something I wanted to roll my eyes over. (However, I want to also add that my own writing annoys me in the same way because I find myself doing the exact same things that I disliked about Alice's writing--sometimes it's just hard to describe things in an absolutely authentic way.)

Okay, minor criticisms aside, here are some things to love about this book (because love it I did):

Alice's dad is a complex character: quirky but down-to-earth; loving but not affectionate; creative but responsible. He reminded me a lot of my sister-in-law's father, who seems to share many of the same traits. And I thought Alice found really wonderful ways to showcase all sides of his personality so that by the end of the book, I really felt like I knew him.

Like, for instance, when she told about this habit her father has where he doesn't want to lie but he also doesn't want to say anything hurtful:
"My father will not lie, so he tries to say the best possible thing that is also the truth. He doesn't realize that this is often worse than just saying what he thinks as nicely as possible. I was used to it and accepted his comments with a shrug, as I did now, but he wasn't always so lucky. Once, a friend of his, made him cookies for his birthday and he accidentally started an argument by saying, when she asked what he thought of them, 'I can honestly say that every one of those cookies has chocolate chips in it.'"
Or, the more poignant moments, like when Alice, as a preteen, gets mad at him for something, but they still go ahead with their reading. She doesn't curl up beside him like normal, and suddenly, she realizes how unusual it was that he had been letting her get so close to him for so many years since he wasn't a very physical person. She said:
"Somehow, my spot had gone for years without mention. Pulling back drew sudden attention to it and made us both think, I assume, how strange it was that the tradition had even last that long. It was something neither of us had ever really considered, and now that we were thinking about it, it seemed awkward and forced, even though it never had been. It would be now."
 And that night ended the physical closeness, which sort of broke my heart.

I also loved the way her dad would edit out words or phrases or entire sections of books he deemed inappropriate or uncomfortable (he rehearsed every night before reading to Alice). The funniest one was when they were reading Dicey's Song, and he suddenly started turning pages quite rapidly, and the conversation with the grandmother became noticeably curt and vague. Just go read that chapter for yourself. You definitely won't be disappointed.

But the reason I really loved this book was just because, at the heart of it, it is all about the power reading aloud has to build relationships, teach us things, and carve out those quiet moments to just be together. I hope that I can continue to read with my boys as they grow older because, at least right now, that is my favorite part of each day.

Alice said, "The Streak could be embarrassing in the right (or wrong) context, but more than anything, it was hard to explain." This book is the explanation, and it is wonderful.

Australia Top 10, Part 1

Nov 25, 2014

Within 24 hours of being here in Australia, we'd already gotten our money's worth. I mean that. In that short amount of time, we'd already seen enough to make this trip worth it. The days following have just been icing on the cake (and there's been a lot of icing).

Here are our top ten (through Monday morning):

1. Watching the sunrise over Manly Beach

We are staying with Mike's sister, Anne, and her family. They literally live across the street from Manly Beach. It's unreal. The morning after we flew in, jet lag woke us up at 4:30am. We took advantage of the extra hours to go on a walk around the beach.

2. Finding a water dragon

Every time we facetime with the boys, they want to know what animals we have seen. They were pretty excited about this water dragon we found on our first morning.

3. This view of Sydney

Pinch me.

4. Going from Manly to Sydney by way of ferry

Salty sea breezes, incredible views--what more could you want?

5. This tree in the Botanical Gardens

I believe it's a fig tree. I want it in my backyard.

6. Walking on this path through Hyde Park

The entire length of the path was shaded by a canopy of trees. So picturesque.

7. Paddy's Market

Perfect for satisfying our need to purchase souvenirs. 

8. Frozen yogurt in Chinatown

Following Anne's suggestion, we chose taro frozen yogurt, and we are still talking about it three days later (and popping in to check every other frozen yogurt shop we come across to see if they have the same flavor). It just hit the perfect sweet spot.

9. Hiking Palm Beach

A picture can't capture the beauty of this place.

10. Snorkeling at Shelly Beach

The water was the perfect temperature. We saw lots of fish. And no sharks. Win-win-win.

The more we see, the more we realize we could stay for a year and still not be able to see it all.

The Third Time's NOT the Charm

Nov 21, 2014

Mike's and my excitement over our Australia trip has been laced with anxiety over how to do it with a baby. Traveling internationally is intimidating enough just as an adult, but add in a six-month old, and it raises the stakes . . . by a lot.

We've been doing what we could to prepare. I tried out a number of baby carriers to find one that was comfortable for me and for Clark (I ended up going with the Ergo Baby because my friend let me borrow hers, but I also really, really loved the Boba). I refrained from sleep training Clark (haha) because who wants to take a baby on a 14-hour flight if that baby refuses to sleep anywhere but his crib? Not me. And a few weeks ago, I decided the fate of this trip might come down to whether or not Clark would take a binky.

Now let me give you a little history:

With each of my children, I have diligently tried to get them to like a binky (or pacifier, dummy, soother, or whatever you call them in your neck of the woods). Their reactions have varied from absolute disgust to grudging tolerance, but by five months old, each one was officially done with it.

Clark has followed the exact same pattern as his older brothers. He only ever liked the ugly green one they gave us in the hospital, and when we lost that in September (and the replacement didn't suit him), we just let it go entirely.

But earlier this month, as nightmares of trying to calm a fussy baby in a crowded jet filled my mind, I had the sudden inspiration, I'll just get him to like a binky! That will solve all of our problems.

And so I went to Target and bought every style of binky they had. (Mike was quick to point out that when you buy one package of binkies, it's nothing, but when you buy five . . . well, it can add up rather quickly.)

To (hopefully) save money, I only opened one package at a time. I hoped I would find the style he liked early on and be able to return the rest and recoup some of my investment.

With unwarranted optimism, I sterilized the first set and put one in Clark's mouth. I don't know what I expected but certainly not the tongue-thrusting revulsion I got. I mean, he didn't even try! Chomp--thrust! Chomp--thrust! (And a scrunched up grimace for added effect.) He gave me very clear signals, but I persisted.

Two days later, I sterilized the next style.

Same reaction.

Three days after that, I sterilized package #3.

It was at this point that Mike (who, I have to say, was skeptical (and rather unsupportive) from the very beginning) said, "It's not going to work, Amy. You might as well give up."

And it was true. Clark was flat out rejecting every. single. one. He wasn't even attempting to suck on any of them. It didn't matter if he was happy and calm or distraught and crying. There was absolutely no way I could interpret the forceful expulsion from his mouth as a mild dislike for the style: "Sorry, Mom, if only the nipple were a little firmer or I had some air holes on the side or there was a little dinosaur on the front . . . then I would like it." No, I'm afraid there was never even a hint to encourage me.

So my plan didn't work. But I still think about it longingly every day. There are so many times when it would be so nice to just pop it in and have him suck on it contentedly.

For now, I'll just look enviously at your binky-loving baby, and in a couple of years, when you're desperately trying to wean your toddler from his binky, then it will be my turn to gloat. Just a little.

P.S. The happy ending to this story is that Clark was awesome on our flight to Sydney. I think I only wished for a binky once for all of two minutes during the entire 14-hour flight.

Review x 2: The Trouble With Chickens and Fortunately, the Milk

Nov 19, 2014

Both of the books below were short, quick read-alouds, so I thought I'd review them together.

1. The Trouble With Chickens by Doreen Cronin

The thing that convinced me to read this book was not the title or the cover or the plot summary. It was the author. Doreen Cronin wrote one of our favorite picture books (Click, Clack, Moo), and when I discovered this chapter book, I knew we'd have to give it a try.

J.J. Tully is a retired search and rescue dog. After seven years on the job, he now lives the quiet life on a farm. But J.J. is not a fan of the quiet life, and so when Millicent comes to him for help, he tries to overlook the fact that she is a chicken and throws all his energy (and well-groomed skill) into rescuing two of her baby chicks. The only problem is, do they really need rescuing? Or is J.J. about to walk into a well-laid trap?

Okay, so I only had two issues with this book. First, the insults. Oh the insults! Why do authors feel compelled to have their characters be so rude to each other? Is it supposed to be funny? Because I am seriously disenchanted.

Second, the story is actually told from two perspectives: J.J. and another dog named Vince. But Vince's first turn isn't until chapter 10, and it really confused the boys and me. By that time, the story was already well established, and we'd already had so many chapters from J.J.'s point of view that we just assumed that would continue for the rest of the book. Then all of a sudden, he was sounding mean (not just rude, but downright mean) and vengeful and dangerous. After a page of that, I backed up and realized that we were now getting Vince's thoughts, not J.J.'s. I really feel like Vince's voice needed to be introduced much sooner (like chapter 2, perhaps?) so that we had some notice that this story was going to be told from two perspectives.

But the boys really liked it, and, aside from the things mentioned above, I did too. I've already checked out the second book, although I'll probably let Aaron read it on his own--not because I wouldn't enjoy it but just because there are so many good books I'm dying to read aloud to them.

2. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, illus. Skottie Young

I picked up this book for Aaron to read on his own, but then he liked it so much and it looked so good to me that I decided to read it aloud. He didn't complain. Not one bit.

There was no milk in the fridge on that fateful morning. The kids' mother was out of town, so the father did what any good father would do: he left for a few minutes to pick up a jug of milk. Only . . . it seemed longer than a few minutes. And when he finally got back and the kids demanded, "Where have you been all this time?" he had the craziest story to tell. But fortunately for them, while facing aliens, wumpires, and pirates and dealing with a collision between past, present, and future, he always kept tight hold of the milk. Well actually, not always. But he at least kept it in his sights.

This book is completely unbelievable. And that's what makes it so awesome. Seriously, about a third of the way through (after the father had been abducted by aliens, escaped, only to be threatened by a band of pirates, saved from walking the plank by Dr. Steg (a stegosaurus) in a hot air balloon (which actually turned out to be a time machine), and then almost sacrificed to the Eye of Splod), I thought, How much crazier could this story get? A lot, actually.

The time travel element was completely unexpected and really took the story from just being fun and crazy to wildly creative. I think it ended up being a good thing for Aaron to hear it again right after reading it himself because it gave him a second chance to really get a grasp on all the time travel details and sort them out.

We read it over three sittings, but it's one of those books you could easily read in an hour if you had an empty hour just laying around. It's filled to the brim with illustrations, and in fact is not divided into chapters at all, so it's more like a long picture book. In fact, now that I'm thinking more about it, reading the whole thing at one time probably makes more sense, but don't let that discourage you if you need to split it up like we did.

The whole thing was just so delightfully ridiculous. I'm still laughing over some of the lines, like these ones: "'How does a volcano know so much about transtemporal metascience?' asked one of the pale green aliens. 'Being a geological formation gives you a lot of time to think,' said Splod. 'Also, I subscribe to a number of learned journals.' I coughed, in what I hoped was an ominous sort of way."

After we finished it, I checked out the audio, and Aaron and Max have been listening to it over and over and over again.

Off to See a Few More of the World's Pages

Nov 17, 2014

A couple of months ago I reviewed the book, Notes From a Blue Bike. Tsh Oxenreider devoted an entire section to the subject of travel. You might remember that when I talked about that particular section in my review, I mentioned an upcoming personal trip. My exact words were these:

"Mike and I are not terribly ambitious when it comes to traveling (although we do have a big trip coming up in a couple of months that I'm excited to tell you about soon)."

Well, the time has come to tell you about it.

Mike and I are going to Australia.

Yes, Australia.

In two days.

If I were telling you this in person, this is the point where I'd be squealing or doing a little happy dance or at the very least grinning rather obnoxiously.

Yes, we're pretty excited.

The first question people ask when they hear about our upcoming trip is, "Why Australia?"

So I'll tell you: Last July, Mike's brother-in-law (along with Mike's sister and three kids) got transferred to Sydney for eight months. When they first announced their big move, Mike and I joked, "Maybe we'll come visit you." (It seemed like a long stretch since Clark was a brand new baby at the time, plus those three other hooligans we call our own, plus we needed a new roof.)

But the more we thought about it, the more we gave it serious consideration. One by one, we resolved those deterrents. The baby? We could take him with us. The other boys? My mom said she would come stay with them. The roof? We decided we could hold off until next summer (still crossing our fingers on that one).

Also, once Anne and Nate had actually settled in Sydney, we realized we'd be crazy not to go. They live in Manly and are a mere walk away from one of the nicest beaches outside of Sydney. They started exploring and sight seeing from the moment they stepped off the plane and happily volunteered to be our tour guides. They also offered to watch Clark for anything Mike and I wanted to do on our own. It was kind of too perfect, don't you think?

And so in September, we bought tickets . . . and then stared at each other in disbelief.

As the time has drawn closer, I've been obsessively checking the weather. In the last week or so, the temperature around here has plummeted (as I'm writing this, it's 12 degrees), and we've even had some snow. I am not a fan of winter, so Sydney's 79 degrees is looking pretty awesome.

I used to think travel wasn't worth the steep financial and logistics price tag. After all, you have an awesome fling for a week, and then what? Back to the daily grind with nothing to show for all that time and money you just spent. But then in 2008 Mike and I went to Chile while Mike's parents were living there for a year. And I discovered what many of you already know: the memories are the keepsakes and worth every penny. There's just something about experiencing another part of the world for yourself, and especially doing it with people you love, that is absolutely priceless.

In Notes From a Blue Bike, Tsh quoted Saint Augustine, who said, "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." Starting on Wednesday, Mike and I are going to read a few more pages.

P.S. If any of you have visited (or lived) in Australia (particularly Sydney), I'd love to know about your must-sees. (Many thanks to my blogging friend, Melissa, who recently returned from her own trip to the land down under and shared her itinerary with us.)

P.P.S. And since this is a book blog, here are several books I quite liked, all set in Australia:

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Steadman

Sweet Irony

Nov 14, 2014

Last month I came up with a brilliant idea to help Mike and me go on more dates.

It's called Planning Ahead.

Don't laugh. I'm being totally serious.

The plan looks like this: Mike and I sit down with our calendar at the end of the month and plan out the next month's dates (all four of them) right then and there. We buy tickets or find babysitters or schedule with friends in advance so that when Friday night rolls around, everything is all set up and ready to go. (Rocket science, folks. I think we've about earned our almost 10 years of marriage.)

To help us in our planning (and this is the brilliant part), we give each week a category and base our date around that. For example, one week might be reserved for going out to eat. So when we plan for that week, we immediately narrow down the options because all we have to decide is which restaurant to go to (which is not an easy task, I admit, but it still somewhat narrows our focus).

November is our first official month of Dating 101. So the last Sunday in October, we sat down with our calendar. The kids were in bed. We began to plan. It was all just as I imagined it.

Our first category was "go on a date with another couple." We decided we wanted to see a play at our favorite community theater. We looked at seats for Friday, November 7th, and since we were planning ahead, there were still plenty available. Great! All we had to do was find another couple to go with.

Our enthusiasm started to fizzle after several friends declined our invitation. We didn't buy the tickets, and all week long "Hale Center Theater" mocked me from where we'd written it on the calendar. There's nothing for boosting your morale like failing on the first week.

Thursday evening, I was wasting time on facebook, and I saw that Hale Center Theater was having a drawing for some free tickets. Since we hadn't bought any tickets yet, I decided to enter, figuring that if we actually did win, then we'd have to go.

On Friday, the calender still said "Hale Center Theater," and I was feeling a little glum about it all when Mike stepped up to the task and said, "Who cares if no one wants to go with us? We're going!" Within a couple hours, he bought the tickets, arranged a babysitter, and we were out the door.

We saw Catch Me If You Can, and it was fabulous. Seriously, we love this little theater so much. Everything they put out is top notch. We've seen other productions at bigger, supposedly better, theaters, and we always come back to Hale. In this case, they had about a million costume changes as well as some really spectacular dance numbers.

At intermission, I suddenly remembered the facebook contest and said something like, "Since we're here tonight, I bet I'm going to win those tickets."

You know where this is going, don't you?

On the drive home, I pulled out my phone and checked my email . . . just because I could (the wonders of a smartphone have not worn off yet). This subject line immediately caught my eye, "Congratulations From Hale Center Theater!"

I paused. I thought, You are kidding me. I opened the email.

"Congratulations on winning two tickets to see Catch Me If You Can."

Mike and I just laughed and laughed.

I guess you know what we're doing for our date tonight.

(Just kidding. We gave them away.)

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Nov 12, 2014

Five years ago, I read The Wednesday Wars. I read it because Janssen highly recommended it, and I like almost everything she recommends. But it was a bit of a disappointment--maybe because I had too high of expectations or maybe because the characters and/or plot just didn't excite me. I don't know, but basically, I didn't love it. It was fine. Yes, it was definitely fine, but I didn't find anything in it to say, "This is the best middle-grade book ever." I returned it to the library and went on my merry way.

It was one of those books that seemed like it would fade quickly from memory so that, three months later, when someone asked, "Have you read The Wednesday Wars?" I would say, "Um . . . yes. I think so? I can't remember a thing about it though."

But even though this was no more than an average book for me, it wouldn't let go, mainly because it kept popping up with more rave reviews, and each one irked me more and more because I would think, "Why does everyone love this book but me?"

So for the last five years, I've had this annoying little fly of a book that wouldn't leave me alone. And finally this year, after seeing yet another trusted friend gush about it, I said to myself, "Fine! Fine! I'll read it again!"

And so I did.

I changed format this time and went with the audio instead of the paper copy. And whether it was the change in format or the span of five years or that I knew bits and pieces of the story going in or just that I was determined to like it more, it was a completely different experience. And when I say different, I mean it was truly fantastic.

When the story begins, Holling Hoodhood is beginning seventh grade.  Besides the normal seventh grade worries (i.e., eighth graders), Holling has other problems, such as that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates his guts. Every Wednesday afternoon, all the kids in his class leave for religious instruction, except for him because he's the only Presbyterian in the bunch. That means that he and Mrs. Baker spend that time alone.

At first, she fills the time by having him do odd jobs around the classroom, but after a month of that, she decides they could make better use of the time by studying Shakespeare's plays. At first, Holling balks at the idea, but midway through The Tempest, he decides that anyone who can curse as impressively as Caliban is worth reading more of.

And so through everything that follows (baseball games, news from the Vietnam War, family tension (his father is obsessed with his architecture business, his sister runs away to life as a hippie, his mother doesn't care about anything), missing pet rats, trouble with bullies, running cross country, and going on a class campout), Holling discovers that Shakespeare actually knows a lot about life. (He also discovers that Mrs. Baker doesn't hate his guts.)

Since it's been five years since I read it for the first time, I can't say for certain that listening to it made me like it more . . . but it seems very probable that this is the case. Joel Johnstone made this bunch of 7th graders come alive for me: his voice cracked in all the right places, and when Holling talked about cream puffs, he sounded as ecstatic as only a thirteen-year-old boy could sound.

From my first reading, I remembered the rats (hard to forget those clacking yellow teeth), Mrs. Baker, and, of course, Shakespeare. But other than that, the story was like new for me. I had completely forgotten about Holling's father, who is probably one of the lamest fathers in all of literature. His overriding interest in his business borders on abuse for his family: he doesn't go to Holling's play or take him to see a famous baseball player afterward (and in that case, it was the evening news with Walter Cronkite, and not even his business, who took precedence--double lame); he doesn't take Holling to the opening baseball game of the season and leaves him stranded at school (I thought my heart would break); and when Holling's sister decides to come back after running away, he won't go pick her up at the train station. (And during all these things, Holling's mother just hovers in the background, a barely noticeable character--definitely some undisclosed problems there.)

But this story never became about the parental neglect (or the bullying--seriously, where were the teachers when Danny got shoved down by the eighth graders during the race?!), and I really loved that even though the issues were there (and they definitely made the whole story feel more authentic), they never became the focus (which sometimes happens in middle grade novels). This story wasn't about abuse or bullies or first-love: it was just about Holling. All of those things just played a part in telling a more complete story.

Aside from Holling, Mrs. Baker was definitely my favorite character (as I think she was intended to be). I spent a good chunk of the book just trying to figure her out. She was austere and strict but also so incredibly kind (especially when it really counted). She was also very wise. I spent the entire time trying to figure out what her age might be. At the beginning, I was pretty sure she was in her fifties. She just seemed to have lost all sense of youthful energy and fun. But by the end, I realized that was due in large part to the stress of having her husband away at war, and so I became convinced she was in her late twenties, or at the very oldest, her early thirties.

I also enjoyed Gary Schmidt's writing style a great deal more this time around. The first time, it was average. This time, it was stellar. This may have been my favorite paragraph in the entire book: "Think of the gladdest sounds you know: the sound of dawn on the first day of spring; the sound of a bottle of coke opening; the sound of a crowd cheering in your ears because you're coming down to the last part of a race and you're ahead; think of the sound of water over stones in a cold stream and the sound of wind through green trees on a late May afternoon in Central Park; think of the sound of a bus coming into the station carrying someone you love. Then, put all those together, and they would be nothing compared to . . ." And I don't want to finish the sentence for fear of spoiling the best part of the book for anyone, but just know that something really wonderful was happening right then.

As I read this book, I couldn't help but compare it to what is possibly my favorite middle-grade novel, Navigating Early. For some reason, that book clicked instantly for me. And even with as much as I loved The Wednesday Wars this time, it still can't even compare with how much I love Navigating Early. Recognizing my feelings for that book is helping me understand people's adoration for this one. It's not that one is better than the other. It's that readers are different, and we connect with different books in different ways. That's the magic of reading right there. You might feel that connection with The Wednesday Wars or with Navigating Early or with another book entirely. But I guarantee you that there's a perfect book out there for you--one that will make you want to sweep the characters into a big gigantic hug and say, "I'm so glad I found you."

Tell me, what's that book for you?

An Event in Black (with Shannon and Dean Hale)

Nov 11, 2014

As I've mentioned before (here, here, here, and here), I love going to author events. But even more than that, I love taking my kids to author events. Seeing the real faces of the men and women who wrote and illustrated our favorite stories adds a whole new dimension to the reading we do in the comfort of our home. So when I saw that Shannon and Dean Hale would be at The King's English promoting their new transitional book, The Princess in Black, I knew we had to go.

(Side note: it was not in my original plan to take all four of my kids, but I'll tell you more about that another day . . .  )

First, let me tell you a little about this book. While I am an avid Shannon Hale fan, my kids are not familiar with any of her other books because they are not old enough yet to enjoy them (although, I have to say that when I read Rapunzel's Revenge last year, Aaron was totally sucked in by the pictures and asked me dozens of questions about what was going on at this point or that point). But the Princess in Black is just the right level for the three older ones (ages 6, 4, and 3) to enjoy.

It's about Princess Magnolia--she's pretty and frilly and just, oh, so perfect. The Duchess Wigtower is determined to find something to put a mark in the princess's pristine reputation.While they are conversing over tea, Princess Magnolia gets an urgent call on her ring phone--a monster has escaped from Monster Land. Making a hurried excuse, Princess Magnolia transforms into . . . the Princess in Black! She dons a black mask and rides her unicorn-turned-horse to the entrance to Monster Land and puts a quick end to his hungry plans. She makes it back to tea but not without making the duchess a little suspicious.

Those who have compared it to Mercy Watson are exactly right--the full-color pictures on every page, the short chapters, the funny action reminded me of our beloved Mercy in all the right ways. And there are several more books to come! That makes me pretty happy.

Now that you know all about Princess Magnolia, you might wonder how my boys reacted to her. Because, as some of you know, they pretty much balk at anything with ribbons or lace. But I'm happy to tell you that even though this book is about a princess, it is one that girls and boys will enjoy. They eyed it warily but were immediately pulled into the story: there's action and danger, a noble horse, and an awesome goat boy . . . and also, the princess in black, who is pretty awesome herself.

Anyway, back to the author event.

The boys wore masks and tied black scarves around their heads to get into the appropriate mood.

Don't let the empty chairs fool you. We were the first ones to arrive (since I was juggling all four kids by myself, I wanted to make sure we had plenty of wiggle room).

The Hales made a dramatic entrance:


And then they talked about and read from their new book. (When they started, everyone was wearing masks, and they said something like, "We were hoping there would be some people we knew here, but we don't recognize anyone!" At which cue, Bradley whipped off his. They both acted appropriately surprised and said, "Oh, it's you! You could have been anyone under there: a monkey, a man, anyone!" Bradley reveled in the attention.) They kept it all fast-paced and entertaining so that even Bradley stayed interested the entire time (unfortunately, not Clark, but I'll reserve those details for the aforementioned post for another day).

Afterwards we waited in line to have our book signed. The Hales were personable and friendly. I was so impressed with how truly interested they were in every child in attendance, taking their questions seriously and acting thrilled to have them there.

A few days later, I saw a picture like the one below in this article from Publishers Weekly. I think I recognize three of those ninjas.

P.S. If you'd like to read more about what Shannon Hale herself thinks about this latest book, see "Like every superhero, every book has an origin story."

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Nov 7, 2014

Last December as I was making my reading goals for 2014, I knew I wanted to include a Dickens novel on the list. I had just finished The Man Who Invented Christmas and felt like my experience with Dickens was woefully lacking. At that point, I had only read A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth, and A Tale of Two Cities.

So I made the goal and found that the most difficult part of it was just deciding which Dickens novel to read next. Everyone has a favorite, and almost everything he wrote is so well-known and well-loved. But I finally decided on Oliver Twist because, come on, it's Oliver Twist. How could I even call myself a reader if I hadn't read this classic?

There are enough adaptations out there, I’m sure the story is familiar to most everyone. However, just to set the stage for the rest of the review, here’s a brief recap:

Oliver Twist is an orphan. He spent the first 11 years of his life in a workhouse where life was hard and food was scarce (leading him to beg the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more”). In spite of his harsh upbringing, Oliver is a kind and thoughtful child. He tries his best to please his higher-ups but also has a strong moral code he holds tightly to. After a couple of failed apprenticeships, he ends up in company with the Artful Dodger who works under Fagin (a truly despicable man who makes his living at the hands of children). Oliver is saved from these circumstances, first by Mr. Brownlow and then by Mrs. Maylie, both of whom, rather remarkably, see the inherent goodness in Oliver.

In classic Dickens’ style (as if my vast experience of now four books gives me the right to make such assumptions), there is more to all the characters than originally meets the eye, and their lives end up being intertwined and connected in ways no one could have suspected.

For myself, I prefer listening to Dickens rather than reading him. Because of my rather obsessive tendency to try to perfectly understand everything when I read (a habit I'm trying really hard to break), I tend to get bogged down in all the details and descriptions. But when I listen, those difficult passages slip by easily, and I actually think I get a better understanding of the whole story instead of when I nitpick this or that paragraph (although I confess to listening to a certain five minutes (when Monks is telling about his father's will and his mother's selfish plans) at least four times because it just wasn't making sense.

But besides that, I also like to listen to Dickens because a good narrator really makes the dialogue come alive. The version I listened to was narrated by Martin Jarvis, and, oh my goodness, he was so good. I especially loved his voice for Fagin because he perfectly captured his wily and deceptively sweet nature.

But even if Jarvis hadn't found the perfect voice for him, Fagin would have still intrigued me. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I asked Mike, "Who do you think is more evil? Fagin or Bill Sikes?" What followed was an interesting little discussion, and one that I'd love for other readers to chime in on. Growing up on Oliver and Company, I feel like my original opinion was tainted because Disney casts Fagin in a sympathetic light (and to be honest, every adaptation seems to have their own interpretation of these two characters).

However, it didn't take me long in Dickens' own words before I was thoroughly creeped out by Fagin. And by the two-thirds point when I asked Mike that question, I had come to decide that the true villain of Oliver's story was, without question, Fagin.

On the surface, Bill Sikes is terrifying. He is passionate, prone to wrath and violence, and deals with all his emotions physically (as evidenced by Nancy's death). Would I want to meet him in a dark alley? Never. Even Fagin has a healthy fear of him and goes to great lengths to keep him placated.

Fagin, on the other hand, usually stays much more calm and even-tempered, but he is governed by really diabolical motives. He won't do the dirty work, but he has no qualms about hiring it out. He is selfish and duplicitous, and he lures in his victims with all his soothing "my dear"s. He is the mastermind behind everything, and if anyone ever tries to cross him, he sees that they're (quietly and quickly) taken care of. Although Sikes' wickedness is more noticeable, Fagin's penetrates quietly and doesn't let go. Doesn't that just give you the creeps?

Because it's loaded with danger and suspense, I would have loved to read Oliver Twist in its original serial format. For example, when Oliver leaves to return a book for Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Grimwig is convinced he won't come back. The two friends make a sort of bet about it and wait for Oliver's return. The chapter ends with this: "The gas lamps were lighted. Mrs. Bedwin was waiting anxiously at the open door. The servant had run up the street twenty times to see if there were any traces of Oliver. And still, the two old gentleman sat perseveringly in the dark parlor with the watch between them."

It would have been agony to wait the entire week to see what became of Oliver and how Mr. Brownlow reacted to his disappearance, but it would have been the fun kind of agony, full of speculation and anticipation. We live in an age of binge reading (or watching), but I think there's something to be said for letting a story unfold gradually with plenty of time to relish and absorb it.

For me, it would have been a perfect book, if not for the ending. And I'm not talking about the way everything wrapped up with Oliver finding a real family and such. Are you kidding me? That's pretty all-around wonderful. No, I'm referring to the very last paragraph, which says, "But if the spirits of the Dead ever come back to earth to visit spots hallowed by the love--the love beyond the grave--of those whom they knew in life, I do believe that the shade of that poor girl hovers about that solemn nook--ay, though it is a church, and she was weak and erring."

Dickens is famous for many of his lines, but this is not one of them. In fact, since I was listening to it, I actually thought something had been accidentally cut off of the last track. I went and checked out the paper copy of the book just so I could see what I'd missed . . . only to discover that I hadn't missed anything. He bypasses all the notable and worthy characters (Oliver, Mrs. Maylie, Rose, Mr. Brownlow) and gives the last line to Oliver's mother? Sorry Dickens, but that's a major fail. Of course I'm sympathetic to her but not so much as to give her the last line.

So yes, without the last paragraph, it would have been a perfect book, but even with it, it's definitely near-perfect.

KidPages: God Bless Us, Every One! The Story Behind A Christmas Carol

Nov 5, 2014

Last December, I read a book called The Man Who Invented Christmas. It was a short biography of Charles Dickens and focused on the events that led to the writing of A Christmas Carol. (I highly recommend it if you'd like some good nonfiction reading for the holidays. After finishing it, I decided I definitely needed more Dickens in my life, and it's what motivated me to read Oliver Twist this year.)

As I read the first few pages of God Bless Us, Every One, I thought, This is the same book but in picture book format. Awesome.

It begins in 1843, at a time when Charles Dickens is facing severe financial difficulties: his most recent work isn't selling well, his wife is expecting another baby, and the debts accumulated from helping family members are piling up. In these desperate circumstances, he has the sudden inspiration to write a short Christmas story, one that will capture the essence of the Season. As he writes, he is unprepared for how this little tale effects him personally, leading him to say, "It took hold of my heart and taught me what I did not know . . . "

That's how the book begins, but unlike The Man Who Invented Christmas, it then launches into an imaginary dream where Dickens has his own Scrooge-like experience. Most of the book stays in this place, with Father Christmas showing Dickens how even the lowliest people (adults and children alike) keep the spirit of Christmas in their hearts.

I think it helps to know that the text of this book is based on The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Christmas concert from last year. Actor John Rhy-Davies narrated (and played the part of Father Christmas), and the whole story was enacted on the Conference Center's vast stage with Dickens and Father Christmas watching everything from the air. A DVD of this portion of the concert is included with the book.

I really think this story worked as part of a large-scale performance, but I'm not sure I loved it in picture book format for the simple reason that I couldn't tell who its target audience was. If it was written with adults in mind, I would have preferred far more fact and far less fiction. But if it was written for kids, then it seemed quite a bit too long.

That said, I loved the illustrations--all warm and dusky and cozy. They convey the time period and the season and the holiday spirit really well. And I love the idea of introducing the story of A Christmas Carol to my children through events from Charles Dickens' own life. I haven't shown them the DVD yet, but I know that they will love seeing the story in that medium, and I think it will really help them grasp the book itself when we read it together next month as part of our Book Countdown to Christmas.

It has become a tradition for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to turn the narrated portion of their Christmas concert into a picture book and release it the following year. I am completely on board with this tradition and hope it continues for many, many more years. It's great to see these wonderful Christmas stories (the candy bomber or "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," for example) retold in picture book format. Plus, I love having a copy of the actual performance so that I can relive it (if I was there) or experience it second-hand (if I wasn't).

Many thanks to Shadow Mountain for a hardback copy of this book. All opinions are entirely my own.

Raising Readers: 9 Simple Books for the Emerging Reader

Nov 3, 2014

A few months ago, Erica @ What Do We Do All Day posted a list of easy readers that are actually easy. It came at the perfect time for us because Maxwell is just at the stage in his reading where he is ready for actual books, but so many of the "easy readers" are actually quite challenging . . . to the point of being discouraging (not what you want with a new reader!).

Over the last couple of months, we have been on our own personal quest to find enjoyable stories that are told in simple words and sentences. Some of these overlap with Erica's list (since I used that list to guide my original search), but we also have discovered many other favorites on our own (or by asking the children's librarian for suggestions--always a great resource!!!).

Here are nine of our current favorites (and if your emerging reader is a little beyond these, you might check out our lists of Early Chapter Books and Nonfiction Early Readers):

1. See Me Run and See Me Dig by Paul Meisel
I wrote about See Me Run a couple of months ago because it was Maxwell's first real book to read all by himself. Since then, he has also read See Me Dig and loved it too. Simple words but fun story.

2. Clara and Clem by Ethan Long
Last month’s Raising Readers post was about the benefits of taking turns with your new reader. I told you about how Maxwell and I love to do this with the Elephant & Piggie books. In the month since that post ran, I discovered the Clara and Clem series by Ethan Long.  Like Elephant & Piggie, these books also involve two characters and are told entirely through speech bubbles, but they are significantly simpler with the dialogue confined to 1-3 word sentences and words that are easy to sound out or are first sight words. So if Elephant & Piggie still seems a little daunting, Clara and Clem would be a great alternative.

3. Cat the Cat books by Mo Willem
And speaking of Mo Willems, the Cat the Cat books are fabulously simple, even more so than Elephant and Piggie. They’re quite a bit shorter and don’t follow much of a storyline, but they contain lots of repetition and have a catchy rhythm like, "Cat the Cat, who is that? It's Duck the Duck!"

4. Any book by Jan Thomas
I've written about Jan Thomas' books before (here and here) but not from an early reader standpoint (which just goes to show how versatile her books are—they can be enjoyed by toddlers, preschoolers, new readers, and even adults). I don’t think that they’re traditionally thought of as easy readers (since, along with simple words like “cat,” they include harder words like “vacuum cleaner”), but the text is short and big, which makes it less daunting for new readers. Plus, I actually appreciate the inclusion of harder words because it increases Max’s reading vocabulary without making it frustrating.     

5. Swing, Otto, Swing! and other Otto books by David Milgrim
One of our librarians pointed out these books to me, and we've fallen in love with them. Otto is a robot. His friends are always running into some sort of trouble, and he comes up with an ingenious way of fixing it. Because of this, the story always ends with a bit of a twist when his invention is revealed. It uses a combination of familiar text and cute illustrations to tell the story.

6. Puppy Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant
We love Cynthia Rylant’s books for slightly older readers (Henry and Mudge and Mr. Putter and Tabby), but I didn’t know she had some for younger readers. Puppy Mudge involves the same characters as Henry and Mudge, but they are significantly shorter with only one short sentence per page. (Cynthia Rylant has another easy series, Brownie and Pearl. We’ve read one of them, and I quite liked it, but Max insisted that it was “too girly” for his attention. I tried though.)

7. Big Brown Bear by David McPhail
You probably are already familiar with David McPhail as a children's book author, but did you know he has also written and illustrated several easy readers as part of the Green Light Reader series? They are at the perfect level for Max right now. Big Brown Bear is definitely our favorite so far, and you can't go wrong with McPhail's sweet illustrations.

8. Bark, George by Jules Feiffer
When looking for easy readers, sometimes the best place to look is not in the easy reader section. This is one such example. We have long been fans of this silly book about a dog named George who is lacking an acceptable bark. His mom takes him to the vet who "gets to the bottom" of the problem. The story is built around repetition, which is perfect for emerging readers--it means that even if they don't get "reached" on the first shot, they'll have another (and another) (and another) chance at it.

9. I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry
This is another non-traditional early reader, but it has enough repetition and picture clues to make it very accessible. The story is funny and unexpected. If you like this one, then you'll also want to give I'm the Best Artist in the Ocean a go. Maxwell loved both of them. There is something so empowering with reading a book that is "not boring." (The font and placement of the text might deter a few of you, but I would still give it a try: most new readers don't need to be coddled as much as you might think.)

What are some of YOUR favorite books for the emerging reader?

(For more Raising Readers posts, click here.)
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