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Monthly Archives: January 2016
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs?!? Have we been lied to for all these years? We had to know, so we added this book by Jon Scieszka to our January reading list. After reading Mr. Wolf’s full testimonial, however, we were a bit skeptical. We also think Mr. Wolf needs to understand that words mean things.
We were with Mr. Wolf through the first half of the book. We agree that his taste for cute and cuddly animals puts him at a public relations disadvantage; if cheeseburgers were considered cute, he queries, would people who eat cheeseburgers not also be considered “Big” and “Bad”? His explanation for heading out to see the three pigs seems reasonable as well: he needed to borrow a cup of sugar for granny’s cake.
However, he started to lose us when, after accidentally blowing down two perfectly good houses, he decides to eat the deceased inhabitants. While his desire not to be wasteful is admirable (hey – free ham!), how do any of us know they were really dead and just not knocked out? Eventually he is foiled by the third pig and his brick house, so he throws a tantrum and is hauled in by the cops for disturbing the peace. We did not like the tantrum – that kind of behavior is never acceptable, and it was particularly disconcerting from an individual who presents himself as calm, cool, and collected.
In the end, he claims to have been “framed” – and here is where we have our biggest quarrel with Mr. Wolf: had he been framed, someone else would have been guilty of all the transgressions he explains away in his yarn – yet he never once denies that it was him all along. We hope that Mr. Wolf will see the error of his ways, and that he will get a dictionary (and enroll in some anger management counseling for his propensity to throw tantrums). For now we are not planning to visit him to give him that elusive cup of sugar.
We found this tale identified as “laugh out loud” funny on a list of books for International Belly-Laugh Day. We didn’t think it was quite at that level, but Sciescka’s venture into fairy tale “true crime” writing, was fun to read aloud – and really fun to review.
Today’s storybook, “Sarah Morton’s Day” by Kate Waters, described a day in the life of the Pilgrim girl of the title, living in Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts in 1627. The story, told in the first person by Sarah herself, is illustrated with photographs in a style reminiscent of the “Little Animal” books from our Favorites list. The photo illustrations really seemed to capture the attention of our youngest – holding her rapt throughout the book. Given her rambunctiousness the rest of this evening, that undivided attention to the book was particularly notable. We may have to look for some more books illustrated with photos like these.
Mixed in among all the information about life as a Pilgrim in Plimoth was a recipe for “17th Century Indian Corn Bread”. It was simple enough, and we tried it out, but what we got was glorified polenta. Our eldest claimed it was tasty with some salt, but it can’t hold a candle to Bee Bim Bop.
This evening in extended read aloud, Mr. Lockwood has finally made it back to Thrushcross Grange, where he cajoles the housekeeper, Mrs. Dean, into telling him more about the childhood of his mysterious landlord. Mrs. Dean, who grew up with Heathcliff and with the Earnshaw family who adopted him, is full of stories. Heathcliff was a “gypsy boy” plucked off the streets of Liverpool by his adoptive father (the elder Mr. Earnshaw). He is inseparable from his adopted sister Catherine – who is his partner in crime. Meanwhile, he is is hated by his adopted brother Hindley; Mr. Earnshaw showers love on Heathcliff often at the expense of his own son. It’s a recipe for disaster if I ever saw one. By the time we finished the evening we could see the storm clouds gathering: upon his father’s death, Hindley takes over the estate, Heathcliff is relegated to the status of servant, and Catherine begins to form a bond with their neighbors, the Lintons. The Lintons’ status makes them more “appropriate” companions for Catherine than Heathcliff…at least as far as Hindley and the Lintons are concerned and Heathcliff is increasingly alienated and resentful.
Our book tonight, “To Market, To Market” by Nikki McClure, follows a family as they make their weekly trip to the local farmer’s market. They have their list, and as they work their way through the market checking things off, we learned about how each of the items was grown, prepared, or created. They shop for apples, kale, smoked salmon, honey, blueberry pastries, goat cheese, and batik indigo-dyed napkins. The artwork really drew us in – dark ink drawings accented with a splash of accent color (a different color for each item on the list). The book conveys a sense of community and gave us an appreciation for the craftsmanship that went into each of the items on the list.
For extended read-aloud tonight, we began “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë, a classic tale of lost love (as I remembered it) and revenge. Thus far this evening we were introduced to our narrator, Mr. Lockwood, and the ill tempered denizens of Wuthering Heights. Mr. Lockwood is staying at Thrushcross Grange on the estate of Mr. Heathcliff, and has walked to his landlord’s home to introduce himself. Aside from the housekeeper, there does not seem to be an agreeable, well-adjusted character in the house. A snow storm makes Mr. Lockwood a prisoner at Wuthering Heights overnight, where he dreams (or meets?) the ghost of Catherine Linton at an open window in his bedroom. His curiosity about his brooding host is piqued during his stay, not the least due to the strained relationships between Heathcliff and the other family members in his house.
I think this is going to be a fun read, and I expect our oldest in particular will be captivated. For myself, the accents were also a nice change from our tour of the antebellum South over the last several weeks. We did have to stop at one point this evening and draw out on our chalkboard the relationship between the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights (complete with a very angry-looking stick-figure-Heathcliff).
This evening we read the first of what we hope to be many holiday themed books this year. Today, our first holiday “theme” was Martin Luther King Day – and we picked out a couple books (one of which we read aloud ourselves and one of which was read to us).
Our first book was read to us by LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow – via YouTube : “A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by David Adler. To watch the video, we pulled the computer monitor up to the dinner table and heard about how Martin Luther King, Jr. became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. We followed up the YouTube video with our own book: “What Was Your Dream, Dr King?” by Mary Kay Carson, which asked and answered questions about Martin Luther King’s life, his philosophy, and his accomplishments. Both books provided not only a great opportunity to learn more about MLK, but the background discussion of the legacy of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s provided a nice bookend to our first two extended read-aloud books: “Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
For extended read-aloud, we began “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller – a “great American novel” that I really enjoyed reading when I was in high-school with a title that has become part of the English language in its own right – that’s some catch, that Catch-22. Unfortunately, I think it was not to be…at least for now. We had some trouble getting everyone’s attention this evening – whether it was the book or not, I think we will look for something different tomorrow and save this one for later. It’s still a great book, but maybe not the right book for the time being.
We had a special treat today – not only did we see the sun for the first time in several days but we had a chance to “meet” author Jonathan Bean through a “LIVE Event” at Read-Aloud Revival. As you may recall, we reach a couple of Mr. Bean’s books earlier this month – in preparation for this WebCast – and they were both great.
On the Webcast, Mr. Bean talked about growing up as a homeschooler, and let us in on some of the “secrets” and stories happening in the background of the pictures in “This is My Home, This is My School”. We really enjoyed his letting us inside his studio (and inside his head). My favorite insight was how he went about the amount of work, the number of iterations, and the differences in approach and media depending up on the subject matter in the book. For example, in “This is My Home…”, he talked about standing up, drawing his pictures at a greater distance from his desk, and going liberally outside the lines with his watercolors in order to better capture the disorganization, level of activity, and general clutter that came with being homeschooled. He also took the time to show us all how many times he draws, re-draws, and pieces together final artwork from pieces of different drawings (he even uses – gasp! – tracing paper all the time).
In honor of Mr. Bean, we decided to add another of his books to our reading list for tonight: “Big Snow”, a book he discussed on the WebCast but which we could not find readily available at the local library or Barnes & Noble…so we bought it on Kindle! Mr. Bean talked about how in making “Big Snow” he opted to use a Prismacolor pencil for his drawings – as opposed to more traditional ink – so that he could better capture the blurring of lines that happen to the outlines of the houses in town as they become covered in snow. I thought that was a pretty neat insight. The story introduces us to David, a young boy who is “helping” his mom clean up around the house while waiting anxiously for the arrival of a big snow storm. While he begins every task with the best intentions, something about his work always seems to him of the impending storm and he keeps lapsing into daydreams and play time as the town around them slowly transforms from the “Big Snow”. It’s probably better for read-aloud in book form – but we made do and had fun with the electronic version.
We did not get to extended read-aloud tonight. We did do a little research for potential titles – so many great books we could read! Sometimes I get hung up on the “opportunity cost” of all the great books we don’t get to read right away because we have to pick one.
Our first Bill Peet book of the year arrived today! As you will know from our Favorites page, we are big fans of Bill Peet – a long-time writer and illustrator for Walt Disney (at least, until a reputed break over “The Jungle Book” in 1967). “The Spooky Tail of Prewitt Peacock” tells a “tale about a tail” with a familiar theme: an outsider with a physical trait that makes him a second-class citizen becomes a hero when he realizes that what he thought was a shortcoming is actually a great strength. Prewitt’s apparent flaw is the spooky face/design that has appeared over time on his tail feathers (hence the play on words in the title). The face scares and alienates the other peacocks, until it also scares off the tiger who is constantly stalking them. “Prewitt” is a fun book, with wonderful illustrations that look – not coincidentally – like a Disney movie from the 50s or 60s. However, if you want to introduce your kids (or yourself) to Peet, I recommend starting with one of his rhyming books, all of which will eventually show up on this blog (Kermit the Hermit, Zella Zach and Zodiac, Smokey, etc).
Tonight we also finished Huck Finn! The final stanza of the book presented us with a several major twists, the first of which was that the farmer who bought Jim from the King is Tom Sawyer’s uncle (!) Huck plays himself off as Tom, which seems just “bully” until Tom himself shows up (!!). Together, Tom (aka, “Sid”) and Huck (aka, “Tom”) launch the most convoluted, confusing, and difficult plan to free Jim that could possibly be conceived. To be fair to Huck, his original plan is straightforward and even Tom allows that it is likely to succeed. Unfortunately, as Huck predicts, the simple but effective plan just doesn’t have enough “style” for Tom’s taste – a concept which, while frustrating in this context, has really stuck with us after reading two stories with Tom as a central character. I expect that in future we shall as a family seek to have the requisite amount of “style” in everything we do.
Tom then proceeds to work in all kinds of complicated wrinkles, each of which is borrowed from some story or history that Tom has read, and each of which seems destined to derail their plans (Jim can’t escape out the open window of the rickety one-room shack where he is held – he must be dug out, preferably with pocket knives; Jim must have a rope ladder snuck to him in a pie; the family must we warned with anonymous that something is afoot, etc., etc.). All of the various permutations that Tom invents, and scolds Huck for questioning, eventually become rather tiresome. The funniest parts are when Jim expresses his incredulity regarding each new requirement (such as when he learns that he “must” have pet snakes and rats and spiders in the shack with him). We couldn’t help but be frustrated for Jim, who seems so close to freedom but continues to be put through the ringer by Tom’s antics.
At long last…well, I’m not going to give everything away…but it all ends well after one more major twist – perhaps the biggest twist of all! We thoroughly enjoyed both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn but are ready to move on to another literary universe…and to try some read-aloud voices that aren’t all slight variations on the same Southern accent.
This evening we read “Escape from Pompeii” by Christina Balit, which tells the story of two young Pompeii-ans, Tranio and his friend Livia, who flee the doomed city when Vesuvius begins her legendary eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD (or CE…whatever your preference). Balit introduces us to these two youngsters for long enough to give us a window into their daily life, before sending them running to the harbor to watch their hometown consumed by ash from the deck of a Greek ship. The illustrations are intricate and colorful, and reminiscent of ancient Greek or Roman art. Despite the fact that our main characters escape, and the fact that they are raised by the kind Greek captain on whose boat they stow away, the mood on the final page of the story is sorrowful…as Tranio and Livia visit the site where Pompeii used to stand and wonder if its story will ever be told. For a more hopeful ending, I recommend that you go on and read the Epilogue together to find out how Pompeii was later discovered by archaeologists, and how much we have learned from the people and things that were so uniquely preserved in Vesuvius’ ash.
In Huck Finn this evening, the Duke and King finally got around to doing what we had been afraid they would ever since arriving on the raft: they sold out Jim as a runaway slave in order to collect a reward that they themselves had manufactured out of thin air with a counterfeit “wanted” poster. The Duke and King use some misdirection to outmaneuver Huck – who must now figure out how to free Jim from Silas Phelps, the farmer who “bought” Jim off of the King for $40. When we finished reading, Huck was on his way to the Phelps farm trusting in “Providence” to give him the words he needs when the time comes. Meanwhile the Duke and King are preparing to reprise one of their favorite scams (the “Royal Nonesuch”) because the King has already spent his ill-gotten gains on alcohol and is now broke again.
While it is always fun to discover new treasures, there is a certain feeling of joy when we open the day’s envelope and realize that we will be reading one of our all-time favorites; that a book that we have grown to love is going to be part of our 365 adventure! Tonight was one of those nights, as we pulled the title “Harry and the Lady Next Door” by Gene Zion – which tells the story of Harry’s repeated attempts to give himself relief from the ear-splitting arias of the lady next door. Harry tries to override her with mooing cows or the sounds of the firemen’s brass band, and even tries running off with her sheet music. Eventually, however, Harry finds relief when his machinations contribute to her winning a local singing competition…and sailing away to Europe to attend music school. Our youngest was held rapt throughout the story – we were all impressed at how much she seemed to be hanging on every page.
In extended read-aloud tonight, The “Duke” and the “King” happen upon an opportunity to bilk three recently orphaned girls from their entire fortune by posing as brothers of their recently-deceased father. Despite some bumps in the road (mostly due to the King’s clumsy attempts to pose as an English preacher from Sheffield), the two rapscallions appear well on their way to succeeding in their quest – until the real brothers arrive in town! Huck has begun to feel “powerful” sorry for the orphaned girls, and launches a plan to foil the faux royals and to rid himself of them entirely, but with the arrival of the real brothers things quickly get out of control. Eventually Huck escapes – but so do the Duke and King, who are now entirely broke and desperate – and potentially more dangerous to Huck and Jim than ever.
Our Day 13 book was “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey. This is one of several McCloskey books on our Favorites list – so I won’t spend too much time with a review here. It’s a beautiful book, a 1941 Caldecott Medal winner, and always fun to read.
We were unable to get in any extended reading time tonight, looking forward to making up for it tomorrow.
It only took twelve days to hit our first Beatrix Potter book – and it definitely won’t be our last. “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny” finds Peter Rabbit and his cousin Benjamin sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden to steal Peter’s clothes back from Mr. McGregor’s scarecrow. Along the way the two adventurers become trapped under a basket by the McGregor’s cat but are freed by Benjamin’s father and eventually make it home safe and sound. We love these little books, and were reminded just how fun it is to hold and read them when we purchased a copy of this particular story at a toy store today. We read it together over dinner – as a replacement for our original Day 12 book (the book list and Excel file for January have been updated) – and are now thinking that we might need to purchase or borrow the entire Beatrix Potter collection; we have the stories in a compilation, but there is something special about reading these stories from the individual books.
We made quite a bit of progress in Huck Finn today as well. First Huck and Jim get lost in the fog and pass Cairo, Illinois (their intended turn-off for the Ohio River). Then they are separated as a steam boat plows through their raft. Huck thinks Jim is dead and goes ashore where he is adopted by the Grangerford family. The family, although slave owners, seem nice enough and life with them is pleasant…until Huck learns about their feud with the Shepherdson family. Huck’s pal Buck Grangerford can’t explain the reason for the feud, but he seems comfortable with the idea that at any time a Shepherdson or a Grangerford may choose to shoot the other and it is entirely understandable and within the “rules”. Huck finally discovers that Jim is alive and that the slaves on the Grangerford plantation have been getting him food and keeping him apprised of Huck’s whereabouts. Eventually, young Sophia Grangerford runs off with Harney Shepherdson, which leads to a gunfight in which Buck and his cousin are killed while Huck hides in a tree just above them. Horrified, Huck finds Jim and they take off down the river again.
Later, we were introduced to a couple of very colorful characters who join Huck and Jim on their journey. “The Duke” and “The King” are two scam artists who like to pretend that they are descended from European royalty – and like to be treated as such by Huck and Jim. Our heroes picked up these two grifters as they were on the run and are playing along with their charade. They provide for some entertaining dialogue and escapades, but we are concerned that at any minute these self-styled aristocrats will see an opportunity to better their situation by betraying Huck and Jim.