Friday, October 31, 2014

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren

Ben and I recently finished reading Pippi Longstocking.  He enjoyed meeting this zany character, and I enjoyed re-living my love for this strong independent troublemaker.  Like most children's book heroes, Pippi doesn't have any parents - her mother died when she was a baby and her father has been lost at sea.  But, instead of being left in the care of evil aunts and uncles or shipped of to a wizarding school, Pippi just lives with her horse and her monkey and bankrolls her adventures using using gold coins from a treasure chest given to her by her father's ship crew.

For the most part, Pippi is a somewhat normal child - or what you would assume a child would be like if left to their own devices at such a young age.  She doesn't go to school, she eats pancakes for dinner, and she doesn't have any social graces.  But, the one super power that Pippi possesses is incredible physical strength.  This ability is never explained, but it does keep her from being taken advantage of by thieves and other n'er do wells.

The original Pippi Longstocking was published in 1945 in Sweden.  I don't know what other books were like back then, but this book is very different from what is commonly written now - namely that the story doesn't really teach any morals.  The whole basis is that there is this wild child who lives next door to two ostensibly properly raised siblings, Tommy and Annika.  They take breaks from their normal lives to have fun and go crazy, and then go home for supper.  No one learns any lessons, they just have fun.

Following the original book, Lindgren published two additional full-length books about Pippi: Pippi Goes Aboard and Pippi in the South Seas.  The are numerous other Pippi picture books, chapter excerpts, and of course a number of movies and animated shows to help you get your Pippi fix.  I highly recommend her for good-old fashioned fun.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Adult Fiction: Legal Thriller Round-Up

I'm a sucker for a good legal thriller.  I like detective stories and mysteries, books where the main characters are cops or lawyers, or where the book itself centers around a legal case.  Here are a few I've recently read:

Scott Turow is no stranger to the criminal justice system - not only is he an attorney, but he has written numerous well-researches fiction novels, and a could non-fiction evaluations of the death penalty.  I always find his writing entertaining, and this one was no exception.  Identical tells the story of identical twin brothers, Paul and Cass Giannis.  Cass has spent the past 25 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend, while Paul has established a successful political career.  Upon Cass's release from prison, the family of the victim launches a re-investigation into the murder in the hopes of implicating Paul in the crime and sabotaging his political aspirations.  What follows is, of course, a complex web of deception, twists, and turns - the hallmark traits of any Turow novel.

I better write the review of this John Grisham book before I get my hands on a copy of his most recent release, Gray Mountain, which came out earlier this week.  Sycamore Row is the sequel to the A Time to Kill and stars Jake Brigance who is dragged unwillingly into a wills and estates fight when he is named the executor of a wealthy man's will.  When the man commits suicide, Jake is left to work out the meaning of his second will, combat challenges to the will by the man's greedy children, and to figure out just why such a successful white man would have left all his money to his black hired help.  As far as Grisham's books go, this was pretty much par for the course.  A little slow (I mean, like The Testament, how interesting can you make a book that is about someone's will?) but generally delivered as all Grisham books do.  If you like Grisham, chances are, you'll be fine with this one.

I have read a lot of praise for Louise Erdrich over the years, but failed to ever read one of her novels.  I am so glad I started with  The Round House after I saw that it won the National Book Award back in 2012.  Set on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, The Round House begins with the brutal assault on young Joe's mother. When Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation, and the actions of his father, a tribal judge, he takes it upon himself to figure out what really happened to his mother.  In doing so, he becomes entrenched in the frustrations of justice, and life in between two worlds.  The writing in this book is simply exquisite.  I was absolutely enthralled by the story-telling, not just the plot itself but the careful language with which the story was told.  I am eager to read more of Erdich's novels very soon.

The best thing about loving Michael Connelly is that you never run out of books to read!  The Gods of Guilt is his most recent one in the Mickey Haller series (most popular for including The Lincoln Lawyer).  Haller is a successful but struggling defense attorney who discovers that one of his former clients has just been murdered.  In discovering that he may have been the one to put her life in danger, Haller works in his tireless fashion to uncover the truth behind her death.  This novel is standard Connelly - suspenseful, some good courtroom drama, some unnecessary drama in Haller's personal life, and generally entertaining.  I like having these sorts of books to consistently come back to - I always know what I'm going to get - not winning a Pulitzer anytime soon, but certainly never disappointing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adult Fiction: Benediction - Kent Haruf

I am a fan of Kent Haruf, having previously read his novels Plainsong, The Tie That Binds, and Where You Once Belonged.  His books are always quick reads about everyday working people in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.  This one focuses on a dying man and the lives of those in the community around him.  I think Haruf is best read in a single sitting on a lazy afternoon - treating his novels like a slightly long short story, engaging in the characters, and living life in the small town if only for awhile.  His stories remind me of simpler versions of Richard Russo's - but engender the same feelings of familiarity.  Great stories about the importance of friends and family in difficult times.  

Halloween Surprise by Corinne Demas

Halloween Surprise has been a reminder to me that you never know what books your kids will take to.  This month, I have been dropping in at the library with and without my kids a couple times a week.  Each time, I borrow a big stack of Halloween books, and return the ones that the kids didn't seem that in to (mostly because they are too scary!).  On my last trip, I picked this one up - it didn't seem remarkable in any way.

It is the story of a little girl who can't figure out what to be for Halloween.  She goes through a wide variety of costumes but each one is not quite right.  And then she finally settles on one, trick-or-treats at her own house, and gets some candy.  And, she does happen to have two kitty cats.

I don't find the artwork in this book particularly appealing - nothing wrong with it, it's just not my style.  But in a stack of twelve Halloween books, I probably would have ranked this one about number eleven or twelve if you had asked me which ones the kids would like.  And yet...Clara went right for it.  She has asked me to read it over and over the past couple days, and when I take a break to read a different book to another one of the kids, she takes this book with her and reads it to herself.  I'm not sure if it's the different costumes or the kitty cats, but Halloween Surprise is a huge hit in our house.

Like I said, a good reminder to let your kids pick out the books they want from the library, or just borrow a ton and see what strikes them!  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Musician of the Month: Billie Holiday

The Musician of the Month at the kids' school for October is Billie Holiday - the American jazz singer, songwriter, and actress.  I am not a huge jazz fan, but I am definitely a fan of any strong amazing woman who overcomes brutal adversity to become one of the most iconic figures in our history.  So, this has been a great opportunity for me to learn, along with my kids, about Lady Day, her music, and her legacy.

Billie Holiday lived a tough life of abuse and addiction, and perhaps for that reason, there don't seem to be a lot of children's books out there about her.  But we did find one called Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her which tells the story of her career alongside her best dog friend, Mister.  My son was very excited to have the opportunity to share this book with the rest of his class.

For children who are a little older and able to understand and discuss the more difficult issues of The Great Migration, I recommend God Bless the Child.  The lyrics from a Holiday song of the same title make up the text of the book.

The rest of our efforts to get to know Billie Holiday, of course, consist of listening to her music.  YouTube is always great for that.  We played this in the background this evening while working on our Billie Holiday coloring sheet.  We also found some wonderful old footage of Holiday on stage, but after reading the above children's book, my girls just kept asking to see her dog!

For the adult set, you can also watch a BBC documentary about her incredibly accomplished (but also painfully tragic) life: The Billie Holiday Story and listen to more from her in this NPR piece about her ability to convey emotion through her singing.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Our Latest Favorite: Bears on Chairs

With Thanksgiving coming up, I have been on the hunt, not just for books specifically about Thanksgiving, but for books about gratitude and giving.  For small children, I've found that many of these focus on the concept of sharing.  So, I've recently checked out a few just to see if any resonated with me, or presented the idea of sharing in a way that I thought might actually encourage my children to share - with each other and with others.  I'm not sure this book, Bears on Chairs by Shirley Parenteau, does the trick, but all three of my kids LOVED it from the very beginning and we have been reading it upwards of ten times a day since we borrowed it last week.  I think they like the colors and the cute illustrations of the bears (and it introduced them to a new descriptive word: calico).

The basic story is that there are four little bears and they each have a chair, so they don't have to share.  Then along comes a big bear.  There is no chair for him, and it doesn't work when he tries to share one chair with one other small bear.  In the end, they need to push all four chairs together and that makes enough room for all five bears to sit comfortably.

I did notice last night that my kids were eager to all sit together on the same couch - something that doesn't often happen.  Even though the couch is clearly big enough for all three, there is always some disagreement about who gets more space, who can't fit, etc.  So, while they are learning only the most concrete lesson from Bears on Chairs right now, perhaps in the future we can expand it to other things.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Getting Ready for Halloween!

There is no shortage of wonderful Halloween books to read this month.  Our local library has a special shelf dedicated to Halloween books (they rotate the books for each season/holiday) - so I've taken to borrowing a big stack a couple times a week to look through more carefully at home - and to keep and return as needed.  We've been rotating through quite a few since the beginning of the month!

Our Halloween-themed reading basket
Most of your favorite characters are bound to have a Halloween book about them.  Some of our favorites include:
Maisy's Halloween - Lucy Cousins
Clifford's First Halloween - Normal Bridwell
Fancy Nancy: Halloween or Bust - Jane O'Connor
Duck and Goose Find a Pumpkin - Tad Hills

And after these characters introduced us to Halloween, here are a few of the not-so-scary books we've been reading:
Where's My Mummy - Carolyn Crimi
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson (thanks to my sister-in-law for the recommendation!)
I Spy Spooky Night - Jean Marzollo (we LOVE all the I Spy books!)
Can You See What I See: On a Scary Scary Night - Walter Wick
Monster Needs a Costume - Paul Czajak
10 Trick-or-Treaters - Janet Schulman

And a few just about pumpkins and the autumn season:
How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin - Margaret McNamara
Apples and Pumpkins - Anne Rockwell
Fletcher and the Falling Leaves - Julia Rawlinson

For kids who are a little older (maybe in the 5-8 range), my favorite series growing up was Dorrie the Little Witch by Patricia Coombs.  These books are not all about Halloween, she just happens to be a witch.  But, she does have a Halloween installment:  Dorrie and the Halloween Plot.  For young teens, I recommend: Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.  And for adults who want to get into the creepy Halloween spirit, check out: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield,  Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, and of course anything by Edgar Allan Poe.

With costumes and candy, there isn't much for my kids not to love about Halloween, and with all the reading inspiration, I almost wish it could last all year!!  Happy Reading!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Back to the Basics: ABCs

What kid doesn't like singing and learning about their ABCs?   There seem to be an endless number of books out there that focus on the alphabet - from the basic to the truly entertaining.  Below are a few of our family favorites.

A is for Activitst - we recently received this book as a gift from our politically active friends at Homeless Action Center in Berkeley.  Each letter is accompanied by social commentary on standing up for the rights of the oppressed.  The very important messages also include a touch of good humor.  I really enjoyed going through this one and look forward to making it a staple in our household for empowering and brainwashing my children!

My Foodie ABC - This one was a gift from a couple of our friends in San Francisco.  It has introduced the kids to foods like quinoa and concepts like a locavore.  Not sure how serious this author is, but at a time when poking fun at foodies and hipsters is all the rage, this is a perfect ABC book to add to any collection.

A few of our other favorites include:

A to Z Picture Book by Gyo Fujikawa
The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg
Dr. Seuss's ABCs: An Amazing Alphabet Book!
Curious George's ABCs - H.A. Rey
ABC Transport Friends

Happy Reading!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Our Latest Favorite: The Most Magnificent Thing!

Whenever I go to the library, I let my kids pick out a few books of their own, and then I rummage through the childrens' shelves and bring home a stack to try out.  We then go through each one a home - some stories just don't make sense (and make me think, why don't I get it together and write a children's book?!?), others are fun and we read a couple times, and then once in awhile we hit on a book that one of the kids just takes to right away - and that book becomes the favorite, carried around from room to room, and taken to bed because they just can't bear to let go of it for a minute.  For the past couple weeks, Alice has been in love with The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires.

In The Most Magnificent Thing, a little girl (accompanied by her adorable dog) is determined to build the MOST magnificent thing.  She has all the plans in her head and knows exactly what she is going to build.  She runs around town collecting everything she needs, and then she builds it.  But it's not quite magnificent.  So she builds it again.  And again.  And again.  Until she gets so frustrated that she gives up.  Then her dog takes her for a walk, and the time away gives her a fresh perspective on her creations, and she is able to see that while each one is not quite what she wanted, each one has a great useful part or idea that she can use toward the next really truly magnificent thing she builds.  I love this book for the lessons about creativity, perseverance, and big ideas.  I also love the detailed language about all the tinkering and building that the little girl does.

Alice, of course, loves the expressions of the dog, and the wagon filled with junk that the girl carts around everywhere.  But, I think she is slowly starting to get the idea of tinkering and building and that "things" can be put together and made into creations.  It's been fun to watch her mind working as she "reads" the book to herself (she won't let me read the story to her anymore) and explains what the girls is doing and how she is trying again and again.  It is a wonderfully empowering story with inspiring illustrations.

Along the same lines of girls who build, we have also been enjoying the ubiquitous Rosie Revere, Engineer and Violet the Pilot.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Adult Fiction Round-up

In trying to keep up with blog posts about the books I'm reading with my kids, I've been neglecting update about the books I read on my own - perhaps because there hasn't been anything too exciting to write about lately. Here are a few I've read relatively recently:

The Three Day Affair - Michael Kardos:  Jake passed this one off to me after getting the recommendation, I believe, from Esquire magazine (which has actually been pretty good on he recommendation front, I have to admit).  It's a mystery of sorts about three old friends from Princeton who come together for a boys' weekend.  A stop at a convenience store goes wrong when one of the guy holds up the store and kidnaps the clerk. What follows is the three-day affair during which the friends quarrel over how to deal with the incident, and evaluate and re-evaluate their friendships.  A quick interesting read - I definitely wanted to see how this would turn out, what secrets of the past would reveal about the motivations of each character, and how split decisions perhaps done without thinking can often have such crucial impact on the rest of our lives.

The Interestings - Meg WolitzerThis book seems to have been the book club book of choice over the past year - and for good reason.  It is well written and filled with characters who each make choices that can be guessed and second-guessed throughout the novel.  The book follows six friends who met at summer camp.  As the years pass, they experience varying degrees of success, fall in and out of love with each other, and explore what it means to be in friendships and relationships with each other and with those outside of their magical circle.  While I found this book "interesting" on many levels, I have described it to other people as "basically about white people with middle class problems"  The characters reminded me of people out of a Jonathan Franzen novel, or that movie "American Beauty."  I found myself irritated by their malaise, but still compelled to find out more about them.

 We are Water - Wally Lamb:  This book was a huge disappointment.  I have truly loved Lamb's previous novels, She's Come Undone, I Know This Much is True, and The Hour I First Believed.  I appreciate Lamb's willingness to take on female characters and write them realistically.  So, I had high hopes for this one - about an artist and mother who leaves her husband after nearly thirty years of marriage to explore a relationship with another woman.  The topic is ripe for all kinds of twists and turns, and Lamb goes down many roads, but ultimately, it all fell flat.  Perhaps because there was just too much going on.  I found the characters two-dimensional and their dialogue boring and unrealistic.  I didn't care where the story was going, and all the skeletons in the closet just seemed stereotypical.  Nothing inspired about this book.  I hope Lamb will take some time off and return to the well-written and engaging novels for which he has come to be known and loved.

Adventures with Flat Stanley

I first learned of Flat Stanley when my friend, Ashley, posted photos of herself in Whistler with her friend's niece's little paper Flat Stanley along side her.  I was immediately smitten with the little guy, and quickly learned via Wikipedia that Flat Stanley is a character from a book who is flattened one day by his bulletin board.  In his new flattened state he finds he is capable of all kinds of things, including traveling all over the world just by slipping himself into an envelope.

In 1995, a teacher started The Flat Stanley Project.  As part of the project, kids read the book, create their own paper Flat Stanleys, and keep a journal of his travels.  They then can send the journal to children in other states or countries and learn more about other places and cultures.  Shortly after learning about Flat Stanley from Ashley, I came across this moving article about one of Flat Stanley's adventures.

A couple months ago, Ben and I were talking about the idea of "fame," how people become famous, and what it means to be famous.  After I tried to provide a definition of famous, he said, "Oh, kind of like Flat Stanley?"  Apparently, his teacher had introduced him to Flat Stanley, and he seemed to like the idea but didn't say much more about it.  Then this past week we were at the library and as we walked past a tower of paperbacks, he exclaimed, "Ooohhhh....I LOVE this book!!  Let's get this book!"  And lo and behold, it was Flat Stanley.  So, we borrowed it and I really enjoyed reading the story with Ben and learning all about Flat Stanley and his shenanigans.

Jeff Brown, the original author of Flat Stanley also wrote several other books in the series:
  • Stanley and the Magic Lamp (1983)
  • Stanley In Space (1985)
  • Stanley's Christmas Adventure (1993)
  • Invisible Stanley (1995)
  • Stanley, Flat Again! (2003)
Following Brown's death, several other authors took over and have published additional books featuring Stanley, including:
  • The Mount Rushmore Calamity (2009) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery (2009) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Japanese Ninja Surprise (2009) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Intrepid Canadian Expedition (2010) - author Sara Pennypacker
  • The Amazing Mexican Secret (2010) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The African Safari Discovery (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The Flying Chinese Wonders (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The Australian Boomerang Bonanza (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • The US Capital Commotion (2011) - author Josh Greenhut
  • Showdown at the Alamo (2014) - author Josh Greenhut
  • Framed in France (2014) - TBA
  • Escape to California (2014) - TBA

I love finding a new series and can't wait to follow Stanley on his adventures around the world!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Introducing the Yellow Brick Road

Ben and I have continued to read chapter books at bedtime.  During the day we stick to regular children's picture books - he still prefers ones about cars, planes, and trains - and I think it's important for him to have the simpler shorter stories, and to sort-of follow along as I'm reading (though I have started reading "I Can Read" books to him - more on that in another post!).  But at night we have really enjoyed our foray into chapter books.  We usually read for about twenty minutes - what we are able to get through definitely varies.  I spend about a minute each night recapping where we are in the story, asking him if he remembers what the characters are doing, and what he thinks might happen next.  Then we dive in.  Some nights he just listens to the story.  Other nights he asks A LOT of questions.  Sometimes the questions make me wonder if he is comprehending anything about the story, and other times he makes it quite clear that he has been thinking about what the characters are doing.  On some really great nights he will make a comment like, "Hey, mom, that's just like in that other book we read, remember?" and we'll have a good conversation about actual themes and ideas in the book.

Right now we are reading L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Ben has a recent fascination with natural disasters, so the fact that the book starts out with a cyclone hooked him right away. For the most part, the story has been really easy for Ben to follow, and he has been assisted by the pictures in the illustrated version that we borrowed from the library.

In about the fifth/sixth grade I spent a couple months reading through all fourteen books in the Oz Series.  But, I have to admit that most of my recollections about the story come from the movie.  I remember it being pretty scary, so I have been happy so far to see that the book itself is relatively tame.  While we probably won't read all the books in the series one after another, I think it will be fun to have so many books about a familiar land to turn to whenever we want something new.

Ben also really likes maps.  Not just regular maps where we look at countries or states - he likes those, but he seems to really enjoy maps that look like they are hand-drawn, and have detail about where certain characters live, and that we can look at periodically to see where the characters are at a certain point in the story.  The Land of Oz is perfect for this - the book we have does not include a map, but I found this on-line and Ben likes to refer to it at the beginning of each new chapter.

What I also love about introducing Ben to The Wizard of Oz is that I feel like references to the book are EVERYWHERE.  He is certain to see a few Dorothys at Halloween.  One year, we had the most adorable girl come to our door dressed as Dorothy.  Her little brother was the Lion, her dad the Tin Man, and her mother a Scarecrow.  And after she took her candy, she opened her little wicker basket and her real-life tiny black terrier - actually named Toto - popped his head out!

Of course by now most people have seen the musical Wicked (if not, please go if you can, it is so absolutely wonderful!!), but I am also a huge fan of the book it was based on (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire), as well as the sequels, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz.

If you're looking for some chapter book inspiration, I came across this list of 101 Best Chapter Books last night.  There are some oldies but goodies on here, as well as some I've never heard of but am excited to check out!