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.
As the New Year approaches, we are often encouraged to make resolutions and usher in the coming year with thoughts of new beginnings, introspection, and the plan to be the best you in the coming year. For my column in OutreachNC, I was encouraged to write about books that touched on this subject. Most young children cannot fully comprehend the notion of resolutions, and they shouldn’t need to, but as kids start getting into the middle of elementary school, the notion of looking forward and making changes to make yourself a better person can start to make sense.
In author Grace Lin’s debut novel, “The Year of the Dog,” readers on the third to fifth grade level get a gem of a story about finding yourself in the New Year – the Chinese New Year. Pacy “Grace” Lin, the protagonist of the story, is a young Taiwanese-American girl who lives in an upstate-New York community where there are not a lot of other Chinese children. The beginning of the book finds her family celebrating the Chinese New Year and all of it’s customs with special foods, colors and activities. They are ringing in the year of the Dog, which her mother tells her is a “good year to find yourself…deciding what your values are, what you want to do – that kind of thing.” Grace vows that this year she will discover new talents and decide what she wants to be when she grows up.
What is special about this book is that it is truly told from Grace’s voice and is true to what a child would experience. As Grace moves through the year, she is trying to figure out her place in the larger world. She tries to balance Chinese culture with American culture. She makes new friends and starts paying more attention to which boys might like them. She works on a science fair experiment and auditions for the school play. She is confronted by bullies.
Grace faces struggles that any kid can relate to. While her focus is on the fact that she is Chinese-American in a world where everyone else is white, it comes down to a feeling of fitting in, something we have all considered from time to time. Grace struggles because she cannot see her role in the larger world because of her culture, but this is a feeling most children go through. For Grace it is highlighted when she was going to audition for Dorothy in a school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Rather than saying that of course she should try out, one of her friends comments that she “can’t be Dorothy. Dorothy’s not Chinese.” This feeling is only compounded by the fact that she seems to not find any characters in books or film that are like her, which in turn makes her feel less important.
The biggest turning point for Grace comes when she is working on a project for a national contest called “Written and Illustrated by…” All of the kids in her class get the assignment that they not only have to write a story, but illustrate it as well. Her friends all come up with stories, but she has a major case of writer’s block. Her teacher encourages her to “write what you know” in order to have a book with a unique and original idea. She winds up writing a story that is auto-biographical about the time her mother grew “ugly” vegetables that were turned into an absolutely delicious soup.
J and I really enjoyed reading this book. I think that she could relate to what Grace was going through. We also really enjoyed the family stories that were interwoven throughout the book. Whenever there was an experience that Grace was going through, a family member would tell them a story from their past. For example, when she is so tired after celebrating Chinese New Year that she doesn’t want to go to school, her mother tells her of the story when “Mom Sleeps in School.” Or when she struggles with coming up with a topic for her writing assignment, her mother tells her about “The Paper Piano” to encourage Pacy to work on it a little every day, just like practicing and instrument. These stories kept the whole thing light-hearted and give the story additional depth.
“The Year of the Dog” is a lighthearted coming-of-age novel with a cultural twist. A real page-turner that will delight readers.
Maybe a year ago a good friend started a kid’s book club for our, at the time, first graders. Most of this had actually started because a few of them had gotten into Harry Potter and they had a lot of fun watching the movie together and then discussing the differences. So when deciding to start a book club for such young readers, and given the fact that they needed more than just a book to read and discuss, we went with books that also had movie counterparts. The group fizzled out due to a variety of reasons, but a few weeks ago I decided to give it new life.
Over the holidays I purchased some soundtracks for my Broadway loving 8 year old. One of the picks was Matilda: The Musical. I wasn’t initially enamored with the soundtrack, but it has definitely grown on me, especially since I listen to it EVERY DAY. That said, it can be hard for a kid to fully understand what is going on just by listening to songs. So when we were driving with another friend one day, I tried to explain some of the story to them. Then I said, “You know, we should read this for our book club and then we can watch the movie.” Needless to say, the girls loved the idea.
J had already read two Roald Dahl books in the past, one being The BFG with our book club, but she didn’t seem all that interested in reading others. Perhaps because they both had male leads and she has a thing about strong female protagonists. Regardless, her love of Roald Dahl has done a complete turnaround.
The story of Matilda is about a little girl who loves to read but is completely misunderstood by her parents who are completely self-absorbed and think the television should be the center of their universe. Mom plays bingo all day (leaving Matilda on her own) and Dad is a crooked used car salesman. Matilda sticks out like a sore thumb having learned to read by age 3 and her parents generally think of her as a nuisance or a scab. When she finally convinces her parents to sign her up for school she winds up at a horrible place run by Miss. Trunchbull, who happens to also hate children. Luckily, she does have a wonderful teacher and she discovers that she has some remarkable powers of her own to deal with grown-ups who are so awful to children.
J immediately took to reading Matilda. We started reading it together because that is fun, but she quickly left me in the dust and read it on her own. When she finished, I asked her what she thought and this was her response: “It was a really good book. It told all about this girl that had a family who didn’t love her and how she escaped them. It also tells how girls can be strong. Matilda has a family that thinks she is weird so they send her off to school with a mean principal who is evil. Matilda has special powers to make things move with her mind and she escapes.”
The magical powers was a theme that the kids really loved. When we got 4 girls together yesterday to talk about the book and watch the movie her superpowers and the chalk writing scene came up. J also later talked about how it was cool that she used her powers to get Ms. Honey’s doll out of Ms. Trunchbull’s house without going back on her promise of not actually going into the house.
Matilda is also a great story to encourage kids to think about writing themselves. One of our book club members talked about how she liked that there were unexpected twists and turns in the book, similar to the much loved Harry Potter. She added that among the books that she has been reading, a lot of them don’t have that aspect. That led us to a conversation about what makes good writing and thinking about books that we look forward to reading.
Hosting a children’s book club is an awesome way to get kids engaged in what they are reading and to help make it that much more fun. It is great to see how these young minds thing about the books that they read and it is always wonderful to broaden their horizons about the books that they are reading.
We stopped off at the library today before the roads got their first snow of the year. You must understand, we live in North Carolina and school was cancelled today when they thought that snow would be hitting us around noon or 1pm and they wouldn’t be able to get the high schoolers home in time. The snow didn’t actually get here until 6pm. Anyway, I digress. While combing the bookshelves, I happened upon a “new” book that looked interesting. J actually decided that I could read her three picture books at bedtime tonight and selected Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln as one of them. I was so impressed with the book that I needed to write about it right away.
Michael and Derek are off on vacation with their Grandmother. They get on the train and she tells them “No electronics on this trip – no music, no texting, no tweeting, no e-mailing.” The boys don’t know what to do, but they have no choice but to go along with it. The next morning, they get off the train at Harpers Ferry and meet Mr. Portufoy, a “true expert” on the Civil War. “The boys looked at each other, bored,” but their adventure is just about to begin. Mr. Portufoy takes them into his museum and the boys are bored until they see the weapons. Michael explaims that “It must have been cool to fight in that war!” Mr. Portufoy asks if they would like to play a real game, better than a video game. The boys agree and soon find themselves in 1862 right after the battle of Antietam.
As Goodreads says: “Patricia Polacco’s time-travel premise is fascinating – who knew that history museums could literally be doorways into the past? She makes history exciting for young readers, drawing them into a pivotal part of our nation’s development.”
While this book had some weak moments – the older brother knew random bits of Civil War history yet was only interested in the weapons in Mr. Portufoy’s collection, being allowed to try on “authentic” civil war uniforms, getting into a lengthy conversation with Lincoln and telling him a little about the future including that a black man will become president – overall I thought it was a great read. My daughter has never been very interested in Civil War history and I felt that this book made it a bit more real than other books. The full page spreads of the death and destruction that war brings were especially powerful.War is hard for children to comprehend. These kids thought that the weapons were “cool” and fighting must have been fun. With all of the games and movies that treat violence with such nonchalance, it is especially important for them to understand that war is not something that any government should go into lightly. While Patricia Polacco definitely took liberties, having Lincoln muse about whether the death of so many young men was worth it makes a strong statement. Lincoln of course wants to know that it is worth the price – “that slavery will be abolished and the Union restored.”
J and I enjoyed reading this book tonight and I would highly recommend it for kids 1st grade and up.
Children are creatures of habit. They find something that they like and they stick with it. When J was really little, it was Dora everything. When she first found the Magic Treehouse and Rainbow Magic series, we went through them as if there were no other books out there. E, my 3 year old, is currently in love with Disney princesses, but she has less of the obsessive personality that J does. Each time either girl moves on to something else, I’m so excited. Lately, J has 2 big loves – Harry Potter and The Land of Stories.
I’ve mentioned HP before, but she keeps begging me to write more about it. In her words, “Harry Potter is so extremely magical that I felt that I could hold my breath for a million years.” She is part way through book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban, but I think they are getting a bit darker so we do seem to be slowing down and she has been enjoying the lighter side of The Land of Stories.
Harry Potter is a great series. I held off having her read it for a long time because even though her reading level is high, I always have to keep in mind that she is only 6. Like a child her age, she finds herself falling into books. When I asked her why she liked HP so much she said that “I really did feel that I was a part of the story. The magic that they were using excited me and sometimes in the books there are clues” about things coming up. Even though she initially didn’t like Hermione and didn’t believe me that she was an awesome character, she now loves her and felt like “she was me and I was her.” There are already plans for her to be Hermione for Halloween, but who knows.
Then the other day she heard a little bit of the audiobook I was listening to – The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns. She must have heard one of the princesses names and started asking me questions. I filled her in a bit on what the story was about, explaining more about book 1, The Wishing Spell. That piqued her interest and she started begging me to check the audiobook or digital book from the library. Of course, nothing was available. A friend had recently been telling me about how she and her daughter were reading it together, but her daughter is in 3rd grade. Still, I had a feeling that this would be one of those books that she would really enjoy and one she would probably want to read over and over. I was right and I’m really glad that I decided to buy her the book so she can read it over and over again. Even though she found the beginning slow (it is), she is loving it and wanting to read it all the time.
The basic synopsis is as follows: The story itself is of two twins, Alex and Connor, who find themselves inside “the land of stories.” In order to get out, they attempt to find 8 objects necessary to complete the wishing spell. Those objects include things like a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s glass slipper and a piece of Red Riding Hood’s original basket. While going through the land of fairy tales, they meet a wide cast of characters and see how their stories have played out. All didn’t turn out perfectly for Sleeping Beauty when her kingdom awoke from it’s 100 year sleep; the Wolves from Red Riding Hood are out for revenge; and the evil queen from Snow White has escaped from prison. The evil queen plays a large role in the story and by the end gets to tell her side of what happened. The point made with her story is that “a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”
We still read picture books (look for a review of Greek mythology coming up), but she wants to spend all day reading The Land of Stories even going as far as taking it to the park the other day. Encouraging new picture books was always easy, getting her to be entranced by longer chapter books is definitely more of a challenge, but the response is well worth it.
I haven’t been posting much recently because J has gotten sucked into the world of Harry Potter. I encouraged her to start reading book 1 with me just after Halloween to try something outside of her normal style and she just finished book 2 tonight. What started as me doing most of the reading, and her re-reading parts because she is just that way, has turned into her doing most of the reading on her own. That reminded me that some time ago I wrote a post on chapter books about princesses, fairies and other magical beings with the plan of writing other lists of chapter-style books. I’m back on it with a list of great classics that younger readers can really enjoy.
The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum) – Who doesn’t love this story? When J first read this, it was a classic illustrated version that was a wordy picture book. Then she saw the movie and we moved on to the Great Illustrated Classics version. After reading that at least 5 times, she moved on to the complete Oz series and has read the first 5 books. This is a great book for stepping it up to the next level since the story is so familiar.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl) – This was one of our earlier “advanced” books that J got truly excited about. Dahl speaks to young children and the story simply moves along keeping them engaged and excited. The characters are more caricatures and yet somehow relatable.
Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White) – I can’t believe I haven’t written about this yet! We absolutely loved reading this book. Charlotte’s Web actually might have been our first classic chapter book that we read and was J’s favorite book for months at the beginning of kindergarten. This is beyond a doubt one of the best books written. I’m not sure how deeply J understood this book, but deep down this is a story about friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice. I think that she gets that even if she doesn’t understand that she gets it. It will be interesting when she reads it again at a slightly older age. Regardless, this is a good book for growing readers.
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) – I encouraged J to read this book because she was in the play, so it is hard for me to truly say what the best age for this is, but if you get your hands on an illustrated classics version (B&N sells some great ones), then it is an awesome way to read a classic. The book is about kids navigating difficult situations, so while kids won’t necessarily understand all of the deeper meaning, they will get the story.
The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis) – J only just started reading The Magician’s Nephew and we didn’t start it together, but a close friend read this with her 1st grade son and they loved it. I think the Narnia books are a great series for young readers because, again, the main characters are their age, are full of curiosity, and they make mistakes based on their limited knowledge and naivety. If I can get J to put the Harry Potter books down for a moment, perhaps we can read this one together too.
The Littles (John Lawrence Patterson) – This is a much forgotten book that I am singlehandedly trying to get back into the hands of young readers and which apparently has other books in the series. One of our Hanukkah books made me remember this story and J has really enjoyed reading it. The concept is that the Littles family lives within the walls of the Bigg family and in return for providing them with everything they need, they make sure that everything in the Bigg house runs smoothly. Almost like elves, but with tails. When the Biggs go away for the summer, another family moves in and brings a cat along with them – “how will this little family get out of big trouble?” Another great book that moves away from fairies and princesses, but still encourages the young imagination.
James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl) – I remember loving this book as a child. While J hasn’t read it yet, it is on our list of books that we want to read and a classic story that I think younger readers will enjoy. Once you get past the ludicrous and cruel start of this book – a child’s parents are killed by a rhinoceros and he goes to live with two horrible aunts who beat him and don’t feed him properly – the magic takes hold as James goes on the adventure of his life. A classic tale for the independent spirit.
Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery) – I just purchased a classic starts version of this book as I believe we are about ready to read it. The story is of Anne–a talkative, dreamy, red-haired, freckle-faced 11-year-old orphaned little girl who transforms her adoptive family’s life forever and fills it with love and joy. If we do well with this, Amazon was recently selling the complete series on the kindle (the original version, not the classic starts) for free so I downloaded that just in case.
Harry Potter – I realize this isn’t officially a classic, but it is going to be considered one and it fit well on this list for me. J has absolutely loved this series so far. I’ve had to explain some things to her, but all in all, she is comprehending the story. During the first book, the thing she had the most difficulty with was the fact that Draco Malfoy was a bully and no one stopped him. As we move into book 3, I am starting to have concerns about her age and the content, so we are proceeding with caution. It makes a book loving mom’s heart sing to see the excitement she gets from this book. At the moment, she is planning to have a Harry Potter birthday and dress up as Hermione for Halloween next year. This of course changes on a daily basis, but it shows the love she feels. She is also already heart-broken by the fact that there are only 7 books. It is awesome to see her get sucked in to this series that I myself love so much.
There are of course tons of other great books, but this is our current starting point.
Classics are marvelous because they have withstood the test of time. Not every book can manage to resonate as the years go by, but those that do are often pretty darn amazing. Of course there are many beloved classic picture books, but my heart swells when J and I are able to enjoy a more grown-up classic together. One way that we have been able to do this is through outstanding adaptations like Great Illustrated Classics and Great Classics For Children, among others. We enjoyed a version of The Wizard of Oz many times this way before J moved on to the complete works as written by L. Frank Baum and recently, we fell in love with The Secret Garden.
A few weeks ago, J was in a local production of The Secret Garden, put on by the absolutely awesome Missoula Children’s Theater. I had seen the movie years ago, but honestly I couldn’t remember much of the story myself except that it was somewhat dark. I knew that J was going to be excited to be in a play, let alone a musical, but I also wanted her to be excited by the story. I was thrilled to find a great adaptation of the story at our library and the two of us dug right in during our bedtime reading.
The story is rather deep for a 6 year old to fully comprehend, but even on our first go round, she enjoyed the story immensely. The thing about these adaptations is that they understand their audience and abridge the stories in such a way that kids can understand the plot without getting weighed down by too many details. It is important to cut down a bit on the length to make the books more accessible to younger readers – 178 large print pages with illustrations versus nearly 300. The only downside to the version that we read was that Martha, Dickon and Ben spoke with many thou’s and thy’s, but by her second reading, J didn’t even mind those.
The story itself, in case you have forgotten as well, is that young Mary Lennox is orphaned in India when her parents die of Cholera. No one even realized that she survived the horrible sickness that spread through their home. She is sent to England to live with her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven. Mary goes from being fully dependent on servants to do everything for her, including getting her dressed and keeping her entertained, to being expected to take care of herself and keep herself occupied without messing up the house. Her maid-servant, Martha, tells her of a garden that had once belonged to Mrs. Craven who had died ten years earlier. Mary strolls the grounds trying to find this hidden space. With the help of a robin, Mary discovers the garden. The garden is like her, abandoned and unloved, and she takes it upon herself to bring it back to life. She goes from being a sullen, sickly little girl to one teeming with life.
At the same time, she discovers another secret to the Craven household – sickly young Colin Craven. She hears his moans throughout the house and wonders what could be making those sounds. Colin suffers from some un-named ailment and everyone tells him that he might be humpbacked. He is confined to his bed and never gets to see the light of day or have any visitors. When Mary finds him, they are able to see similarities in each other and wind up enjoying each other’s company. Mary doesn’t put up with his princely ways and instead starts to tell him of the outside world encouraging him to leave his room. When he finally does, the fresh air and friendship help heal him the same way that they have healed Mary. Colin, Mary, Martha, and Dickon conspire to keep Colin’s improving health from the house staff until his father returns and can see it himself. All Colin really wants is the love of his father and his father has been convinced that Colin is sickly that he fears allowing himself to love and lose another. The garden and Mary manage to heal father and son.
The book is marvelous. Reading it definitely helped J for the play, even as simplified as the play was. Reading classics like these with multitudes of layers of meaning is important for growing minds. It’s great that J can read books with a voracious appetite, but fairies and princesses only get you so far. Even the awesome Magic Treehouse books she loves don’t manage to carry the meaty lessons these classics do. I will definitely be on the lookout for other great illustrated classics.
And just because I’m also a proud momma, here is a short clip from the performance. J is one of the plants in the secret garden and is the plant on the left. The garden appeared multiple times in the performance urging Mary to come take care of them.
The Boy Who Loved Math is an unusual biography of Paul Erdos, an eccentric mathematician who grew up in Budapest during WWI. His mother was a math teacher and he was extraordinarily comfortable with numbers. As a child, he wasn’t comfortable with much of anything else, but math made sense to him and helped put order in his life. He didn’t start making friends until he went to high school and there were others like him who enjoyed math and liked to question the world around them. Erdos never fit into the world where people stay in one place and learn to do things for themselves, but he made a world for himself and spread his love of math far and wide.
I loved that the book played with numbers as a part of the illustrations and included facts that even young children could grasp on to, like how can a number be less than zero. The facts themselves got harder as his math knowledge increased, but the illustrations are charming enough that children should still be able to enjoy it.
The final message that you are left with is about being true to your own nature, as crazy as that nature might be. Rather than trying to conform to the boxes that society puts on us, when you have a true passion for something, as Erdos did, there are ways to follow your heart and make something of yourself. The book is a great lesson about Erdos, about the wonders of mathematics and about loving something completely.
I happen to be a big fan of math. I was never someone who was exceptionally comfortable with creative acts like painting or even story telling, but logic problems, puzzles and math itself was something I always loved. This book spoke to that part of me that knows the love of numbers and black and white answers. I am also a big proponent of nurturing the love of math and numbers in children, so this was a win to me. The beginning speaks well to children of all ages, while the second half of the book seems more appropriate for older children.