Friday, August 11, 2017

Clara's Pick of the Week: Notebook of Doom

Clara stumbled upon this series at our library the other day:  The Notebook of Doom.  We checked out the first book in the series, Rise of the Balloon Goons.  A young boy, Alexander Bopp, has just moved to the town of Stermont.  The town seems relatively normal at first, but Alexander soon finds out that it is filled with monsters.  He finds The Notebook of Doom, which is filled with drawings and descriptions of all the various monsters around town - how to spot them and how to fight them.  Clara loved the first book - and has decided to be a "balloon goon" for Halloween.  We quickly read the second and third books in the series, and are waiting on a few more from the library.  These are easy-to-read chapter books, with fun illustrations thrown in - and the feel of a real notebook, with thoughts and pictures in the margins.  A good transition series from picture books to full-fledged no illustration chapter books!  We can't wait to see what monsters Alexander and his friends encounter next!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ben's Summer Pick: I Survived!

My six-year-old son (like a lot of people) has a fascination with natural disasters.  I'd think this was strange, but my older brother and his 10-year-old daughter share the same interest, and I grew up watching shows like Stormchasers and Extreme Weather, never quite understanding it all.  But, clearly they are not the only ones because there are all kinds of books for kids on disasters.  A couple months ago my son had an absolute blast reading a book called The Surviv-o-pedia.  It is, as the title suggests, an encyclopedia of dangerous situations that people have survived - from shark attacks to quicksand to natural disasters.  It's filled with crazy stories and factoids, and he loved telling me about all the situations I'd probably rather not hear about!  After he finished this, we went on a search for other similar books - we found a few in the non-fiction section, but then stumbled upon an interesting fiction series called I Survived!  

There are about 18 books in the series - each tells a fiction story about a boy who survived a real-life disaster.  I thought this might satisfy Ben's disaster curiosity, while also teaching him a little history.  He has enjoyed some more than others - his favorite so far is I Survived the Eruption of Mount St. Helens, 1980  and I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii.  It has been fun to hear him talk about the stories with so much excitement and a little bit of fear.  I hope he won't become a stormchaser, but I don't mind him reading about these things in the comfort of our own living room!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Clara's Pick of the Week: Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa

My four-year-old daughter, Clara, has developed a recent fascination with horses.  Her biggest dream in life at the moment is to someday ride a horse, and she has asked me to borrow as many books as possible from the library about horses - real horses, as well as story horses.  So, I anticipate a few more horse-themed posts here in the near future.  But, in the meantime, one easy-to-read chapter books series we discovered and have been in enjoying is:  Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa.  After the first book introducing us to the characters, a young girl and her silly talking horse, we read the following:

- Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa: Partners
- Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa: School Days
- Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa: Rain or Shine
- Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa: Horse in the House (my personal favorite)
- Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa: Spring Babies

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Snails & Trees

It's Earth Day weekend and the weather is beautiful.  A perfect time to think about nature and spend time enjoying some fresh air.  Yesterday, I took a trip to the library with all three kids.  Alice requested books about "how seeds grow, and plants and trees."  Clara requested, "books about snails so we can learn more about how they grow and what they eat."  We succeeded in our quest, and enjoyed the following titles yesterday evening at bedtime:

Books about seeds and trees:

- A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston
- What Kind of Seeds are These?  by Heidi Bee Roemer
- The Little Plant Doctor: A Story About George Washington Carver by Jean Marzollo
- Who Will Plant a Tree? by Jerry Pallotta
- Be a Friend to Trees by Patricia Lauber

Books about snails:

- Are You a Snail? by Judy Allen and Tudor Humphries
- The Biggest House in the World by Leo Leonini
- Snail: Fun Snail Facts and Photos by Alma Ray

Then today, the kids put their new knowledge to use and spent the afternoon observing snails and seeds, and generally enjoying being outside and celebrating the creatures and plants around us!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

A couple years ago, I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick on my own.  I remember it being a charming story of a young boy living on his own in a train station.  The boy winds all the clocks in the station, and becomes obsessed with finding/stealing mechanical parts in order to restore an automaton.  The book contains wonderful black and white illustrations that not only go along with the written story, but also tell parts of the story.  Last month, my girls' pre-school teacher started reading this book to the class.  We decided to pick it up again at home to follow along, so both my older son and I could engage in conversations with the girls about the book - and we could all enjoy the magic together!

The book has been a jumping off point for so many fun projects at school, many of which have spilled over to home.  These have included:  black and white drawings, playing with wind-up toys, and tinkering with clocks.

Clara tinkering with a clock
She wants to become an horologist!
Old movies also play a role in the book, and one day the father of one of my girls' classmates came to show the kids an old projector and they watched a film on the wall.  Magic also plays a role in the film with the main boy, Hugo, learning sleight-of-hand tricks in order to obtain the parts he needs for his automaton.  I'm excited for the kids to learn a few tricks of their own!

Getting ready to watch an old film
Watching a film on a sheet on the wall

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Alice & Clara's Pick of the Week: Mouse and Mole

While looking for Valentine's Day books at the library, I stumbled upon a new series featuring a pair of friends, Mouse and Mole.  The Mouse and Mole series is written by Wong Herbert Yee (I noticed that there is another Mouse and Mole series written by Joyce Dunbar that also has a television show associated with it - perhaps we should check that one out next!).  Mouse and Mole books are simple chapter books - along the lines of Frog and Toad, or Little Bear - though there is just one narrative that runs through the entire book, instead of several different stories.

The first one we read was Mouse and Mole Secret Valentine about Mouse and Mole making Valentine's for their friends, and special Valentine's for their secret Valentines.  From there we went on to the following:

        • Mouse and Mole Fine Feathered Friends
          • Mouse and Mole a Winter Wonderland
          • A Brand New Day with Mouse and Mole
          • Abracadabra! Magic with Mouse and Mole
There are a couple more in the series that we have requested from the library and are eager to read.  All of the books are very sweet with the two friends doing consistent acts of kindness toward each other and their friends.  And all the illustrations of the animals are very cute.  My 4-year-olds are simply in love with Mouse and Mole!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fiction Hodge-Podge

To say I am behind on reviewing books that I've read lately is an understatement, so my hope is to do a little round-up of fiction and non-fiction books each week so if anyone is following along here and looking for something to read, they can check out the post of the week and see if anything jumps out as potentially interesting.  For my sanity (and yours), I'll try to keep the reviews/descriptions short.  Here are a few fiction books for the week:

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier: My love of The Girl with the Pearl Earring will keep me coming back to Tracy Chevalier, and lucky for me she has a pretty well-stocked arsenal of novels to keep me reading.  Lady with the Unicorn takes place in Paris in 1490, and centers around a mysterious tapestry that appears to depict the seduction of a unicorn.  The tapestries are commissioned by a French nobleman and created by a talented womanizer who creates chaos at court by seducing everyone from the servants to the nobleman's own wife and daughter.  The book follows the development of the narrative within the tapestry, but also the various relationships and affairs that inform that tapestry.

The Ten Year Nap is the second novel I've read by Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings was the first).  In both, she writes about what I think of as the burden of privilege malaise - that is people who have it all but who are unhappy with their situations, mostly because of choices that they made, but of course also because of circumstance and expectation.  On the one hand, this has made me annoyed and groan at the self-centeredness of the characters.  On the other, the writing is fantastic and the people are basically like real life.  It doesn't necessarily mean you want to read about it, but the again, I kind of do.  The Ten Year Nap focuses on a group of female friends n New York - well educated professional women, who got married, had children, stepped out of the work force, watched their children grow, and then suddenly find themselves in a position of not knowing quite what they themselves actually wanted out of life, but knowing that what they have isn't that satisfying (kind of The Yellow Wallpaper problem all over again).  I think this book has evoked some strong reactions from female readers - we all have opinions about whether moms should work or stay at home, or when they should go back to work, or who should take care of their children if they do go back to work - it's a hot button issue and we all have regrets as well as grateful moments for the decisions we've made.  I think Wolitzer did a find job navigating all these varied perspectives, and still creating a couple characters that were funny and relate-able.  I didn't realize Wolitzer had written so many books - I'm going to try another one and see if it falls into the privilege malaise category...I can only take so much of that each year!

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See:  In the sequel to Shanghai Girls, Pearl's daughter Joy run off back to China in search of her birth father, the renowned artist, Z. G. Li.  Once there, she finds herself swept up in the New Society of Communist China.  While her father lives a life of relative comfort due to his celebrity, Joy becomes determined to be one of the people, living on a farm to provide for the masses.  Back home, Pearl is desperate to find her daughter - and finally chooses to return to China to face her past and save her daughter.  This was a captivating but very painful read - not just because of the strained relationships, filled with misunderstandings and missed opportunities, but because of the horrific treatment of the Chinese people by their government.  Of course so much of the book is about propaganda and how the government censored and shaped the information provided to the people - and certainly that made me question how accurate the depiction in this book was (though seemingly pretty accurate given other non-fiction accounts of the time that I read after this).  Lisa See is a brilliant writer and this was a wonderful story of friendships and family - just emotional and difficult to take at times.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Looking for some non-fiction?

I used to read about 99% fiction, and every once in awhile slip in a non-fiction book - like if Malcolm Gladwell came out with something new - but in past years, I'd say I've upped the non-fiction portion of my plate to about 40%, maybe even 50%.  Some of this is because I generally find news difficult to digest, but I know I need to be informed on certain topics - so a book is generally a good way for me to stay slightly educated.  I also really like memoirs, so those have increasingly become popular - both for me, and seemingly as a way for people to get published.  I also tend to read a lot of non-fiction that is relevant to the work I do professionally, so that means a lot about race and the criminal justice system.  Whatever the case, here are a few non-fiction books I've read recently:

Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor: Mr. Senghor grew up in Detroit and at a young age found himself abandoned by his family and selling drugs.  He ended up in prison, serving time for second degree murder.  Now, Mr. Senghor is a free man who speaks across the country about his transformation in prison, and works tirelessly to speak out against the evils of mass incarceration in this country.  This is a powerful and touching memoir that sheds light, not just on the incredible life on one individual, but on all of us and the criminalization of African-American youth that we've allowed to develop and persist in this country.  I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Senghor speak about his life and his book - and he is definitely a voice of change that I hope we will keep seeing more from.

Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?:  After a charged training session on implicit bias and race in the criminal justice system, a couple of us in my office decided to start a Diversity Book Club - a space for us to read books about race and to come together in a (hopefully) safe space to talk about them.  We stared with Dr. Tatum's book because it seemed to go back to the basics with respect to explaining race.  I really appreciate the basic message that we don't live in a color-blind society, and to pretend otherwise or to make comments such as, "I don't see race, I only see people" is to deny the very real reality of racism that is going on all around us.  Dr. Tatum is frank about the need to discuss issues of race early and often, and that by talking about race we aren't encouraging children to see differences, but acknowledging that they already see those differences, and helping to support an understanding around that.  This book is a great resource for starting discussions with friends and family, and includes many recommendations for further reading on the topics raised in the book.  I appreciate that Tatum also touched on multiculturalism in her discussions.

Waking up White: Debby Irving: This was another Diversity Book Club pick - a memoir by a well-intentioned white woman who has a racial "awakening" later in life and attempts through this book to stress the importance of having discussions about race, and the importance of white people reflecting on their own race and privilege.  I liked the basic premise of the book, and this author is nothing if not brave in exposing her complete ignorance about race relations.  Her willingness to put herself in awkward situations time after time and to make mistakes when it comes to talking about race is commendable - and probably the only way most people are going to make any head-way on this issue.  That being said, she also comes across as very irritating and tiresome.  She has questions at the end of each chapter for the reader to reflect on, and the general consensus at our book group was that these questions seemed to be for younger readers, and for the most part directed at white readers (perhaps her assumption being that mostly people from backgrounds similar to hers would read this book).  There is a lot to complain about with respect to this book, but at the same time, I can think of so many well-intentioned people who would really benefit from reading it.  Perfect for someone who believes in racial equality, but recognizes that they have their own biases with respect to races other than their own, and wants to figure out some way to bridge that gap and become a better ally and advocate in our ever-present fight against racism in this country.

The Girls - Emma Kline

This book is simply creepy.  I kept seeing it on all sorts of "Best of 2016" reading lists, so I thought I better read it.  The book follows the life of a 14-year old Evie (much older as the book opens), during the 1960s who gets caught up in a Charles Mason-esque cult.  We know when the book opens that a gruesome murder has occurred and that Evie is somehow knowledgeable about the murders but not directly involved.  I had a constant feeling of dread the entire time I was reading this book - obviously, I knew what was going to happen with respect to the cult (though there is a lot to be learned in terms of Evie's relationship with her family, what drew her to the group, and her interactions with the cult leader).  I would have liked to see more reflection from the older Evie on why she acted the way she did as a 14-year-old, though there is certainly context in terms of the descriptions of her parents' relationships and their treatment of Evie.  I was also curious about what more she had been doing in the intervening years.  But, overall this was a page-turner - and the fact that I still have so many questions is probably a reflection of the fact that I found Evie to be quite a fascinating character in a very strange time in even stranger circumstances.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Commonwealth - Ann Patchett

I've been a big Ann Patchett fan ever since I read Bel Canto back in 2009 - though I was surprised to just discover that it was published so recently - Patchett seems like an author I have loved for a lifetime!  So, whenever one of her new novels comes out, I am eager to find a quiet chunk of time to really delve into it.  Commonwealth is just the type of book that asks for that kind of uninterrupted time.  The story takes place over 50 years, and focuses on two separate families whose lives are intertwined as the result of an affair.  I'm a sucker in general for stories about families, told over generations, from different people's perspectives and from the present and the future looking back at the past.  Patchett is a wonderful story-teller with a real feel for people.  I can't say that I loved all the characters in this book - and one of the main ones is a young aimless woman who maintains a long-time affair with a much older writer - and I just couldn't really grasp onto the reality of their relationship.  But, that being said, I enjoyed the journey and the different relationships among the characters.  Another great one from an apparently not-that-old favorite!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Welcome to 2017

2016 was a disappointing reading year for me.  I didn't do a very good job at all keeping track of my books on this blog - though I plan to go back and re-create my list using Goodreads.  But, even when I went back over the titles I read, I found there weren't many that jumped out at me as noteworthy or ones I'd pass along as recommendations.  I hope to cure that in 2017.  I also want to set a few goals for myself.  I'd like to read - and keep track of on this blog - at least 2 books per month.  I have many other lofty goals in terms of the kinds of books I will read or the types of authors, but mostly I'm hoping to stumble upon a few page turners...we'll see how it goes.  Happy 2017 and Happy Reading!