My younger daughter asked me what kind of books I like to read most the other day. She asked if I liked fiction, realistic fiction, or non-fiction. I had to think about that question for a while because I really had a hard time making a decision. I realized that these days, I seem to be drawn to realistic fiction. I blame the NC Battle of the Books for that and a slew of really amazing realistic fiction books both aimed at younger and more mature audiences. That said, books are still about escapism and fun, which is why I had a blast reading the new book, The World’s Greatest Adventure Machine, by Frank L. Cole.
Book Description (from publisher)
An adventure novel about four lucky kids and a mysterious, but thrilling ride for fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Jurassic Park! Continue reading →
There is something truly joyous when your children read and ENJOY books that were childhood favorites of yours. Not that we don’t adore new books (we are currently fighting over an Advance Review Copy to be shared soon), but there are times when you remember that classics are classics for a reason. The latest in a series of books J has enjoyed that I remember loving as a kid? The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
The Westing Game is a mystery reminiscent of the board game Clue (another family favorite). In this book, 16 people find themselves at the reading of a man’s will which says that a) he was murdered, b) the murderer is in the room, and c) whoever figures out who did it will win a sizeable inheritance. The group is split up into 8 pairs and they are set off on their journey to figure out who did it. At the same time, each of these characters holds a secret or two.
Turtle Wexler might be one of my all time favorite characters created and feels like the star of this particular book. Given that this was written in 1978 when you didn’t have a lot of spunky, unusual female characters, she was special. She is exceptionally bright and not as “pretty” as her older sister, Angela, but she has a very caring heart. She is a character that feels very true to life and that doesn’t seem to change with a different generation reading the book.
Another interesting thing about this book is that while there is an external focus on solving the mystery of who killed Sam Westing, there is a deeper, more internal mystery unfolding throughout the book – figuring out just who the characters are, their secrets, and how they are all related (literally and figuratively).
J, at 10 and in 4th grade, adored the book. She couldn’t put it down, kept asking me questions that I couldn’t remember the answers to, and repeatedly said “this book is awesome!” That’s pretty high praise from an avid reader. Ellen Raskin received a Newbery Medal for The Westing Game in 1979 and the award hasn’t lost its shine.
Over the years, many have told the story of Stone Soup in which hungry strangers trick a town into feeding them by making soup from a stone. As with many folk tales, the story changes with each retelling, but the backbone stays the same. A hungry stranger, or two, enters a town. When the locals refuse to help him he proceeds to make some form of stone soup. The natives are curious about how you could possibly do this and set about watching him. They are then wisely tricked into providing the actual sustenance and the town shares a meal together. It is a tale in which people are initially unwilling to help a stranger, but in the end, realize that kindness and sharing make everything better.
A very fun version of the story is Fandango Stew, by David Davis. In this telling, Luis and his grandfather are dead broke, but as they ride into the town of Skinflint, they have a plant to make Fandango stew for the town, with one tiny bean. They slowly get people to offer up ingredients, playing on the fact that the folks of Skinflint don’t want to be out done by any of the other town that Luis and his abuelo have been to. The town comes together, as all do, and make a fine fandango stew. When the sherriff asks where he can find a fandango bean, they explain that they are just simple pinto beans – “Any bean makes a fine fandango stew. Just add generosity and kindness.”
In a very similar style, Eric A. Kimmel brings forth his version in Cactus Soup. Per his author’s note, Kimmel sets his version in the time of the Mexican Revolution, somewhere between 1910 and 1922. When a group of hungry soldiers ride into San Miguel, the townspeople don’t want to share their food. They hide their tortillas, tamales, beans, and flour and put on torn clothes to look poor. But the Capitán is not fooled. He asks for a cactus thorn to make some cactus soup, and before long he has tricked the townspeople into giving him salt and chilies, vegetables, and a chicken as well! He goes a step further and tells the town that cactus soup always tastes better if you have something to go with it, and soon a full fiesta is thrown with tamales, chorizo, camotes, and several fat roasting pigs.
Linda Glaser takes us to the village of Chelm, known in Jewish folklore as a village of fools, in Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls. When a poor stranger arrives as Passover is about to start, even though it is a part of the Passover tradition to welcome the stranger, the village encourages him to go elsewhere. No food? No worries. He will make the most delicious matzoh ball soup from a stone. He of course tricks them into bringing the specific ingredients, but Yenta is unconvinced because there are still no matzoh balls. Oh yes! “That stone of mine makes the best matzoh balls in the world – so big and heavy they’ll sit in your belly like rocks all 8 days of Passover.” Very few people like heavy matzoh balls and most claim theirs are the lightest and fluffiest. The women of Chelm step up and say they make the best matzoh balls ever and make hundreds to add to the soup. The town must hold their seder in the synagogue for it is the only place in town that will hold everyone, and that Passover, everyone in Chelm had a fully belly and a full heart.
Jon J. Muth retells the story with three monks who are contemplating what makes one truly happy as they come upon a village that had been through many hard times. The villagers had become distrustful of strangers and even of other villagers. When the monks entered the village, all inhabitants pretended not to be there. “These people do not know happiness, but today we will show them how to make stone soup.”As with all stone soup stories, the monks trick the villagers into adding extras. “Something magical begins to happen among the villagers. As each person opened their heart to give, the next person gave even more and as this happened the soup grew richer and smelled more delicious.” The town was able to enjoy a wonderful feast together, and as the monks got ready to leave, the villagers thanked them for making them realize that “sharing makes us all richer.”
Heather Forest takes the stinginess to a different level in her rendition of Stone Soup. Two hungry travelers arrive at a village expecting to find a household that will share a bit of food, as has been the custom along their journey. They come to the first door and kindly ask the woman, “Please, we are hungry. Do you care? will you share? do you have any food?” To their surprise, villager after villager refuses to share, each one closing the door with a bang. As they sit to rest beside a well, one of the travelers observes that if the townspeople have no food to share, they must be “in greater need than we are.” With that, the travelers demonstrate their special recipe for a magical soup, using a stone as a starter. They explain that the soup would be better with a carrot or onion, but knew that they had asked before and everyone had nothing to share with them. However, before long, everyone in the town had been able to give just a little and it soon became a lot. The town was amazed that the travelers had made such a delicious soup out of a stone. But it was not just a stone, it was “out of a stone and a magical ingredient…sharing.”
In Bone Button Borscht, by Aubrey Davis, a hungry beggar comes to a poor town on a cold and snowy evening. No door is opened to him until he sees a light and enters the synagogue. The caretaker, the shamas, does not answer his greeting so the beggar takes the five buttons off his coat and asks for one more in order to make Bone Button Borscht. Bowls, cups, ladles, and a pot wouldn’t hurt either, he explains. As the shamas goes from door to door seeking the ingredients, the incredulous townspeople gather round and provide the food that will make the soup just a little more tasty. Such a miracle. Such a joyous feast. They don’t need a single button to make a soup. In times of scarcity, they need each other. And that, writes Davis, is “.. the real miracle the beggar left behind.”
No matter which version you choose, this is a timeless story that encourages children to think of the bigger society instead of just themselves. Soup, and food in general, always tastes better when it is shared with others. Now I’m off to make some more soup here before the snow hits.
Many kids are fascinated by space and space travel. Even though we are not pushing a huge amount of space exploration at the moment, NASA is busy working on the notion of sending people to Mars and other cool projects. So it is quite possible that today’s children could be the next people to man a space mission. Of all the questions astronauts are asked by kids, the most frequent one is “How do you go to the toilet in space?”
Now there is a fun and informative book all about the way space impacts bodily functions. NASA astronaut Dr. Dave Williams and children’s writer Loredana Cunti offer an entertaining and educational look at the weird, wild, and wonderful ways the human body copes with zero gravity for aspiring astronauts ages 7-10. This book not only answers that question, but many others about the effect of zero gravity on the human body: How do you brush your hair in space? What happens when you sweat? What does food taste like? The best thing is that the answers are provided by Dr. Dave Williams, a NASA astronaut who speaks from first-hand experience.
This fun book is separated into six sections
- The “Number One” question – or everything you wanted to know about going to the bathroom in space.
- Clean and Neat – all about personal grooming.
- All Dressed Up – clothing inside and out of the space-craft.
- Antigravity Appetite – how to eat, what to eat, and why burping isn’t such a good idea.
- Body Basics – how your body responds to being in space.
- Sleeping in Space – no pillows, no beds, no lying down.
Using age-appropriate language and a sense of humor, Dr. Dave explains the different phenomena that astronauts encounter during a mission. The bright, colorful pages, short blocks of text accompanied by photos and humorous illustrations make this a very attractive choice for young readers.
As mentioned, kids are fascinated by the notion of how you go to the bathroom in space. Dr. Dave gives them all of the necessary information. From needing a special vacuum to suction the waste away from the body, foot restraints to hold you in place and how constipation is a real issue in space, you learn everything you want to know, and probably some thing you didn’t want to know, about human waste in space.
There are also other issues that most of us have never thought about. You can’t take a shower in space. Cutting your hair can be a challenge as the hair would just float away. Even brushing your teeth requires special techniques! If your curious child hasn’t already thought about these things, this book will really make them consider how life without gravity is completely different than life on earth.
Of course, the book is called To Burp or Not to Burp and the would be remiss if that wasn’t something that was fully covered. I learned things about why you burp and how that I never would have thought of without this book.
For any aspiring astronaut, or just kids who are curious about how things work, this is a great addition to any library!
This is part of my attempt to stay engaged with the non-fiction picture book challenge hosted by Alyson Beecher of Kid Lit Frenzy. This is a weekly link-up of amazing non-fiction picture books for kids. I’ve learned about a ton of great books by checking out these great posts. Click here for this week’s selection.
One of the best experiences as a book loving mom is to watch your child go absolutely crazy for a new book. There have been many books that J has devoured in the past – Harry Potter, Land of Stories, and The School for Good and Evil to name just a few. But we have typically stayed in the same general genres. When we first got the Battle of the Books list for the upcoming year, we decided to purchase a few of the titles that sounded exceptionally good. One of books was The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz.
This book is the start of a Science-Fiction trilogy set in an alternate 1875 American reality. As the summary explains, “electricity is forbidden, Native Americans and Yankees are united, and eldritch evil lurks in the shadows. Young Archie Dent knows there really are monsters in the world. His parents are members of the Septemberist Society, whose job it is to protect humanity from hideous giants called the Mangleborn. Trapped in underground prisons for a thousand years, the giant monsters have been all but forgotten―but now they are rising again as the steam-driven America of 1875 rediscovers electricity, the lifeblood of the Mangleborn. When his parents and the rest of the Septemberists are brainwashed by one of the evil creatures, Archie must assemble a team of seven young heroes to save the world.”
I read the book first when we were on vacation at the end of March. I enjoyed it, didn’t swoon over it, and was actually a tad concerned how J was going to respond to it. I shouldn’t have worried. She inhaled it! I think this was her first real taste of science-fiction and she fully enjoyed it. The book takes real characters like Thomas Edison and makes him into the evil genius who is trying to restore electricity to the world in order to bring back the Mangleborn. I think what truly enticed her were three young heroes with various strengths and weaknesses coming together to save the world. She was especially drawn to the main character of Archie Dent and went crazy when he disappeared for two chapters. While I was good only reading one book, she immediately wanted us to purchase book 2.
There were lots of pieces that went over her head, but that made it even more appealing for the grownups reading along. I especially laughed at the whole scene of people physically hacking the pneumatic mail tubes (p-mail) and talking about the fact that people seemed to really respond to silly requests for money from made up princes in foreign lands. It was also great to see how the three saviors grew into their roles and learned large amounts by finally having friends and a purpose that was bigger than themselves.
The Battle of the Books competition has some issues in terms of the types of questions they ask and how schools choose to approach the process, but the fact that it gives a list of books that challenge young readers to test out different styles of writing is outstanding. This is a book I highly doubt J would have ever picked up, and now she has been shown a whole new genre that she can consider.
Kids sometimes have a hard time dealing with the notion that not everything works out perfectly. Whether it is getting 100% on a test or when you make a mistake while drawing a picture, life has it’s ups and downs.
A Perfectly Messed-Up Story is a sweet gem about dealing with the fact that life sometimes gets a little messy. The book is Louie’s story and as he goes about his day, someone starts spilling food on the pages of his book.
He is outraged that his story is being messed up. As we teach our kids, he starts over again, but this time he gets scribbled on.
Feeling dejected, he can’t go on, but the narrator does. When he hears that “everything was just…fine” he realizes that it is. “I’m still here. You’re still reading. And it is a pretty good story, messes and all.”
This is a really fun read aloud with a great message that our kids truly need to understand.
Last summer when the Battle of the Books list came out, I printed out a copy hoping to encourage J to read some of the books over the summer to expand her reading options even though she knew should wouldn’t be allowed to be on the team this year. It was a nice thought on my part, but even though she thought a bunch of the titles sounded good, she really did not care to read them. I actually started reading a number of them on my own, but completely dropped the subject with her. Over winter break, she decided on her own that she was ready to tackle the list.
The first book that she read after making this decision was Tuck Everlasting. She had already read The Lemonade War and Because of Winn-Dixie, and I think she picked Tuck because it had been brought up at our last kids’ book club as an option of a book that has a movie. The main theme of Tuck Everlasting is the notion of immortality and whether it is a blessing or a curse. The Goodreads synopsis says:
“Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.”
I was actually hoping to read it before she got a chance, but I wasn’t fast enough. I did wind up reading a chunk of the middle with her, but only because she still enjoys our reading time together before bed. J really enjoyed it and is now thrilled by the notion that there is a Broadway musical coming out. She understood that eternal life isn’t something that we would necessarily want to have, to watch those you love die before you. I think the other reason that she liked the book was because the characters were so well developed and real, even with their ability to never die.
The second book that she read, which got me thinking about the theme of perspective, is “A Dog’s Life – The Autobiography of a Stray.” In Tuck Everlasting you are considering the notion of eternal life. From the outside, it might sound rather appealing, but when you go through the experience yourself, there are many challenges that come up and make living forever not such an enticing goal. The book A Dog’s Life does a really exceptional job of considering the world from a dog’s perspective from birth through to old age. This dog happens to also be a stray whose life gets impacted tremendously by the other people, both human and animal, that are in her life.
The Goodreads synopsis of A Dog’s Life says: “Squirrel and her brother Bone begin their lives in a toolshed behind someone’s summer house. Their mother nurtures them and teaches them the many skills they will need to survive as stray dogs. But when their mother is taken from them suddenly and too soon, the puppies are forced to make their own way in the world, facing humans both gentle and brutal, busy highways, other animals, and the changing seasons. When Bone and Squirrel become separated, Squirrel must fend for herself, and in the process makes two friends who in very different ways define her fate.”
A Dog’s Life is incredibly far away from the books that J would typically tend to read, yet she absolutely loved it. Author Ann Martin writes with simplicity and clarity and makes even non-dog lovers feel for her characters. When a family treats Squirrel with cruelty, J and I had a conversation on how people could be that way and how important it is to care for others. There were so many moments in this book that resonated with us and brought out strong feelings.
When I asked J what she liked the most with A Dog’s Life, she really enjoyed that it was from the dog’s perspective and written in her voice. She had done work in her third grade class on perspective before winter break, but this seemed to impact her on a stronger level then writing a short piece. I’m just glad that she’s understanding things on a variety of levels and enjoying stories that stray from the predictable.
I am lucky that J loves to read as much as she does. We are looking forward to the time when she can officially be on the Battle of the Books team. She struggles with the fact that her classmates read books so that they can take reading counts tests on them. She loves books and doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body when it comes to them, she just wants to share her love of books with anyone who will listen to her, but she doesn’t want to quantify what she is reading. I think that she will thrive being allowed onto the Battle of the Books team next year so that she will have a group of people reading the same books and feeling them with the same sense of passion that she does and she could use a little drive of competition as well. For now, because she is reading things that many of her friends are not, if she wants to have a conversation about a book she either has one with me or else she finishes a book and tries to figure out which of her friends might read next.
It has been great to see her gain a different type of perspective on life by reading things that challenge her notions. The Battle of the Books will continue to allow her to get additional perspective and be surrounded by those who appreciate books the way that she does.
J has been on a great kick of reading a slightly wider variety of books these days. Not that she doesn’t still love her fairy tale themed stories, but we are definitely taking a look at other options. Since she is truly a mini-me, she has the annoying habit of constantly adding to her to-read list, so it can be hard to keep track of everything. Such a horrible problem to have – just kidding! You simply can’t argue with a child who has a deep and profound love of books. So deep is her love that at a recent fund raiser for her school, we were more than thrilled to win J getting to be “Librarian for the Day.”
One of her recent favorites is “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” by Chris Grabenstein. I read it when it first came out and enjoyed it, but reading it through the eyes of a book loving child made it that much better. What is so fabulous about this book is that it tackles a wide variety of topics through the guise of a treasure hunt in one of the most amazing libraries of all time – if only it was real!
The main premise of the book is that twelve children get to experience a lock-in at their brand-new, local library. The next morning, they are also challenged to find a way out. The main character, Kyle, is an an ardent fan of all games: board games, word games, and particularly video games. He isn’t much of a student and definitely is not a fan of reading. However, he desperately wants a chance to participate in the lock-in when he discovers that the library was built by his idol, game-maker extraordinaire, Luigi Lemoncello.
At the same time that these kids are learning about classic literature, the dewey decimal system, and utilizing logic skills to solve clues, there is also a great deal being taught about friendship, fair play, and teamwork. There of course is the “bad guy” character who will stop at nothing to win. There are kids who have reasons that they want to win the challenge that have nothing to do with a love of books or games. We also watch as some of the kids decide to join into alliances understanding that collective strengths can work better than relying on individual knowledge at times. In addition to dealing with different characters, the reader also gets the opportunity to help solve some of the clues and encourages new looks at logic puzzles.
I think that this book has a little bit of something for everyone. J specifically felt a kinship with Sierra Russell. Sierra lives for reading and spends the early parts of the book as a loner, but she grows as a person by participating on a team and forging friendships. Reluctant readers will probably identify with Kyle. Through his adventures in the library, Kyle realizes that there are all kinds of books and that the stories in some can be quite exciting and even pose challenges just like his games. As he proceeds through the challenge, he keeps finding books that he should add to his own brand new to-read list. Each of the characters has strengths and weaknesses that make them seem like people you might actually meet in a school.
One of the assignments in J’s class this year is that every week they have to write a letter to a classmate about a book that they are reading. She not only wrote about this book, but has started loaning out the book to her classmates. That’s the power of a good book!
There are a ton of intermediate reader series out there these days, but finding one that holds your child’s attention and is at the right level can be truly daunting. That was actually the reason that I started this blog a few years ago. It becomes complicated to write about chapter books, but I am making it a mission to focus on that more, especially since we are finished with the full Harry Potter series and expanding our own horizons.
A few years ago a good friend suggested that we read the series The World According to Humphrey. For whatever reason, at the time J wanted nothing to do with it. Perhaps it was that she has always been more interested in books with princesses and fairies, and then when she moved from those, books had to have a strong female lead. A book with a hamster on the front cover did nothing for her. Fast forward to Christmas of this past year when her beloved second grade teacher gave her a copy of Winter According to Humphrey. I was shocked when I went into her room one night to find her eating it up.
Humphrey is a hamster. In the initial book of the series he is purchased as a class pet by a teacher. That teacher winds up moving to Brazil and leaving Humphrey behind with a new teacher who is not so thrilled by his existence. Ms. Mac, the first teacher, brings Humphrey in because “You can learn a lot about life by observing another species,” as well as by taking care of another species. Now most would think that this is a statement for the the children to learn by taking care of Humphrey, but Humphrey also learns a great deal about the children and adults who take care of him.
The fun thing about the Humphrey books is that they are told from Humphrey’s perspective. Since the new teacher, Ms. Brisbane, does not initially like Humphrey, he gets sent home with a different student each weekend (although his first weekend is with the Principal, Mr. Morales). The students are able to learn by taking care of this amazing hamster, but he also learns a great deal about them by observing them in their natural habitats.
A great example from the book has to do with a little girl named Sayeh. Ms. Brisbane has been trying to get her to participate in class more often. They make a deal that if Sayeh raises her hand at least one time during a given week, Ms. Brisbane won’t send a note home about her lack of participation. Sayeh does raise her hand to volunteer to take Humphrey home. When he goes home with her, he learns that English is not spoken in her home and that she is afraid that the other kids will make fun of her accent. While Humphrey is home with her, Sayeh gets the courage to tell her family that since he only understands English, they have to speak English that weekend. Humphrey gets a better understanding of who Sayeh is as a person and Sayeh believes in herself a bit more.
The series continues in a marvelous fashion and the books don’t need to be read in any specific order. Some of the themes that are covered are friendship, doing the right thing, racism, and cultural differences. J likes to read the books and says “Even though all the humans hear is Squeak-Squeak-Squeak, Humphrey helps them solve their problems. He’s everyone’s favorite classroom pet!”
The Humphrey books tend to have a Lexile level somewhere in the 600s or 700s. Typically that is the 3-6th grade level. That said, I believe that these books are more age appropriate for 6-9 year olds. At 8, they are sort of perfect for J even if they are super easy reads for her. A great read aloud for a 1st grader and perhaps something to encourage them to read more on their own.