Monday, April 28, 2008

Reading Round-Up: Spring Edition

I've had a post about my reading from the first quarter of 2008 sitting in draft for ages. Well past time to actually post it!

I didn't mean to wait so long to post a reading list. I've actually been better about tracking my reading this calendar year, primarily through the website Shelfari. Although I've not been as good at keeping track of what I read month by month, and I haven't tracked everything, I've still got a better list than usual to pull from as I reflect here on some of the books I've read. And it certainly beats relying on my pre-40th birthday method!

I'll try to categorize a bit. Here's a not-quite comprehensive list of my reading from the first quarter of 2008. Links are to my Epinions reviews:


America, 1908: The Dawn of Flight, The Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nation by Jim Rasenberger

I'm getting more interested in reading good non-fiction with each passing year, and this book did not disappoint. Among other things, having read yet another excellent non-fiction book on American history has inspired me to consider the possibility of trying my hand at this kind of writing. My husband has been encouraging me to consider writing a story about my paternal grandparents' lives and work, and I'm finding myself quite drawn to the idea.

Middle-Grade/YA Fiction:

I've read some very rich books in this category in recent months, partly because I've been trying to catch up on Newbery winners from this year and last, and partly because I visit blogs that make excellent recommendations. All of these books are good, and some of them are extraordinary. At least three of them (Penderwicks, Wednesday Wars, and Crooked Kind of Perfect) are books that I think will find a permanent place on my shelves of "books to go back to" and books that I will not hesitate to give to the sweet girl several years down the road.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Looking forward to doing this as a read-aloud with S. a couple of years or so from now. And very much looking forward to reading the sequel, which has just been published...I've got a hold on the next available copy in the library system, but it's in high demand and may take a while!

Into the Wild by Sarah Beth Durst

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
An absolutely marvelous read: poignant and funny. It's a coming of age novel set in the late 1960s, and it took all sorts of odd and wonderful turns I wasn't expecting.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
I loved this so much that I read it aloud to Dana once I'd finished reading it through myself. Always a mark of a book that finds its way to my heart: my desire to read it aloud so I can "hear" the characters anew. I hope Urban's hard at work on a second novel.

The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

General Fiction (for "Adults"):

The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble

Inklings (The Oxford Chronicles) by Melanie M. Jeschke

Both of these had lots of potential and some good moments, but ultimately disappointed.

Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
Beautiful, tragic tale of the elder days. Christopher Tolkien has done us all a great service in pulling together this manuscript from his father's papers, with a minimum of editorial interference. A must-read for any Tolkien fan.

Crossing Delancey by Susan Sandler

I hadn't read a play in ages, so this was fun for that reason alone! But it was delightful. If you know the terrific film based on the play, you'll enjoy this even more.

I'm in the midst of reading several other books right now, including a few I am really enjoying and getting a lot out of...but I'll save my current reading list for another time!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Poetry Month: William Butler Yeats

I'm amazed that I've managed to retain my love and regard for Yeats' poetry. That's mostly because I was force-fed a steady diet of Yeats for about a year in college. I had a professor who obsessed with Yeats' work. We were required (yes, I did say required) to write our senior literary theses around Yeats. Every senior student of literature who wanted that B.A. had to write something about Yeats. Now to be fair, we had to compare or contrast or in some way relate Yeats to some other writer or movement that we had studied (I chose William Wordsworth). But we still had no choice but to incorporate Yeats in some way.

You might think that such devotion to one writer might have felt inspiring, but in many ways it felt stifling to me, at least at the time. As much as I did enjoy reading and even studying Yeats, I balked for a while about reading him on my own once I no longer "had" to. I guess this is an instance where someone who has a deep passion for something can come close to killing off potential passion in you just by virtue of their intensity.

But in recent years I have gone back to Yeats, or rather I've found him coming back to me. Certain poems (although not usually the ones we studied and analyzed to death) come sneaking back into my consciousness, and I do keep his work on my shelf for just those moments, the moments when I find myself longing for his music.

I even keep one Yeats poem on my wall. In fact, even during the years when I took an extended hiatus from reading anything else by Yeats, this poem stayed up. I've always loved it, for its lovely images and its musicality. In fact, when the sweet girl was a baby, I often would read the poem over and over while I nursed and rocked her, letting its sense of peace permeate my heart. Eventually, I created a tune for it so I could sing it to my little one. I still love to sing this poem.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

William Butler Yeats (1892)

There is something indescribably beautiful about this poem. The opening stanza makes me think of Celtic monks in their clay and wattle huts. The last two stanzas just seem soaked with peace and joy. Isn't it true that sometimes "peace comes dropping slow"? I love how Yeats incorporates both sight and sound to invoke that sense of peace and contentment, a sense that the poet carries with him, even when he is no longer physically present in that lovely "bee-loud glade." He carries it with him in his heart, and can call upon it even while he travels, even when he's in places filled with the dreariness of "pavements gray."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Golden Anecdotes

I've been reading the book Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way. So far it's provided some enjoyable glimpses into children's book publishing in the early-mid 20th century. When I put it on hold at the library, I had no idea what a huge book it was: coffee-table sized, with lots of photographs and full-color art (including covers and other illustrations from Golden Books down through the years).

My fascination with children's literature extends to a fascination with children's publishing, and I trust Leonard Marcus to get the story right and tell it compellingly. (Among many other things, Marcus was the compiler of the fascinating Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, the famous children's book editor at Harper's.)

In addition to detailing the rise of Golden Books themselves, Marcus spends time discussing other publishers, like Harper's and Simon and Schuster, who were beginning to tap into the market for affordable juvenile literature. One of my favorite anecdotes so far concerns one of the earliest Simon and Schuster juvenile titles, in 1940: a rather "unconvential square 'tactile' book for preschoolers that called for bits of real cloth, sandpaper, and other embellishments to be affixed to its pages, the better for youngsters to have the kind of firsthand sensory experiences then being touted by progressive educators." That book, of course, was Dorothy Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny. And while it makes one smile to think of Pat the Bunny as innovative and ground-breaking...of course it was! I doubt anyone then could possibly imagine the plethora of "touch and feel" books or other interactive type books for toddlers. And the hey-day of board books (those small, square, sturdy cardboard books we all take for granted and let our kids chew on) wouldn't be reached for another few decades.

But my favorite part of the Pat the Bunny success story comes at the end, when Marcus writes about the marketing campaign used to sell this very unusual little book. He writes: "With some effort, the Bevanses found the eleven suppliers needed for the special effects and managed to get Pat the Bunny into stores in time for the 1940 holiday season. When it came time to advertise Kunhardt's fanciful creation, the witty young men and women at Essandess had a field day preparing a widely circulated ad in which they favorably compared the new book for preschoolers with two current adult best-sellers: 'Oliver Wiswell (an historical novel of the American Revolution by Kenneth Roberts) is a wonderful book -- but it won't squeak if you press it. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway's latest) is magnificent -- but it hasn't any bunny in it.'" And then Marcus adds, "In the five weeks before Christmas 1940, Pat the Bunny became the year's bestselling children's book."

And that, as they say, is history.

And can you imagine Hemingway writing about bunnies? The parody possibilities here are endless!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Loose Tooth

I was helping the sweet girl brush her lower teeth tonight when I noticed again that the gap between her left lower front tooth and the tooth next to it seemed wider than usual. That had come to my attention yesterday, but I figured I was tired enough to think I was imagining things. Tonight it really grabbed my attention so I gently poked my finger in her mouth, suddenly alarmed because it looked as though one of her teeth was slightly misplaced, pushing into the tooth next to it.

She's been so incredibly active lately, with a major burst of physical energy and a sudden desire to run and climb all over everything. I wondered, could she maybe have bumped her tooth hard enough to push it closer to the one next to it? But I don't think so. I think my little girl just has a plain old loose tooth. Her first.

Is this early? She's still 2 and 1/2 months from her sixth birthday, and I can't remember when I lost my first tooth, though I think I was probably around six. (I recall it came out when I bit down on a twinkie!)

Ironically, we'd just been talking about loose teeth a couple of days ago. We were reading the second chapter of Betsy-Tacy (yes, we're reading it again...S. doesn't remember it very well from last summer) and a little boy named Tom was described as speaking with a lisp because of a missing tooth. The sweet girl wanted to know what a lisp was, and we had an interesting discussion. Good timing apparently!

But may I confess something? I'm just not feeling quite ready for this. It's not the wiggly little tooth itself, but the milestone aspect of it. She's my one and only kiddo, and it seems like just yesterday she was cutting teeth, and we were proudly counting up how many teeth she had.

I love having an almost six year old, I really do. But tonight (already struggling as I am with some discouragement and sadness over some completely unrelated things) just for a little while, I need to let myself be sad that baby days in our household are truly over.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Sometimes warm
Sometimes chilly
Always wonderfully

(EMP, 4/14/08)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Poetry Month: Wendell Berry

It's funny that I found and posted the "poem in your pocket" idea, as I've been contemplating trying to do some other posts here in honor of National Poetry Month.

What I've decided to do is to share a few of my very favorite poems -- the ones that I've read and go back to reading time and again, because they touch me deeply.

I thought I'd start today with Wendell Berry's The Peace of Wild Things. You can find this poem many places online, including at the Poetry Foundation.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things" from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998.

I love this poem. I keep a copy of it on the side of my refrigerator, near enough so I can look up and read it while I'm chopping vegetables or stirring up batter.

Almost every spare line of this poem speaks to me. I think because it starts with an emotion that is so familiar to all of us, no matter how comfortable and joy-filled our lives are on so many levels. We all know the taste of despair: despair over our own ongoing daily brokenness and failures, even when we've been grasped and saved by grace, and despair over the large-scale fallenness and sufferings of the world. And we've all certainly had nights we can't sleep, when anxiety seems to well up out of the void and keeps us wide-eyed and fully awake.

I remember being moved by the line in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be even before I had children, but how much more achingly real that felt after becoming a mother. Especially in that first year or two of your child's life, when on the wakeful nights you still creep to their rooms in awe and gratitude over the magnitude of the gift you've been given, and yet realize how fragile (as well as amazing) that little life still feels. The nights you watch them breathe (partly to assure yourself they're still breathing) and see the way they fling their limbs in complete abandon. They look so vulnerable with their cheeks creased by sleep and their touseled, sweaty hair, and sometimes you can't help but wonder about the future -- your's but especially their's.

As beautiful as this poem is in its opening lines, I think it turns smoothly, like a bird settling into an air current after take-off, and strokes powerfully forward with the movement of the speaker from inside to outside. He goes to lie down outdoors, to move into the peace of wild things/who do not tax their lives with forethought/of grief. What's powerful here, what settles with weight into my throat as I read it, is that implicit contrast. The speaker is awake, is alive with worry, with hope, with wonderings and fears and questions, projecting into an unknown future, while all around him are parts of creation that can't do that, that don't do that, that simply are. They exist, they live fully in the present, they do what birds and water and stars are supposed to do by flying and lapping and shining, and that is their life and their praise. They have no forethought of grief. But we do. And that's painful, a hugely painful part of being human...and yet, even as I settle with the speaker into the temporary and welcome relief of the peace of wild things, I don't think I would give up the forethought of grief permanently if I could. If we have forethought of grief, we also have anticipation, forethought of joy. And the sweet, blessed relief of seeing grief abate or suffering averted, or -- maybe even more deeply -- knowing the moments of grace and peace right in the midst of suffering, as we share in it and as God shares in it with us.

The poet knows the peace of wild things is temporary too. He feels the day-blind stars waiting with their light above him...stars that constantly shine but whose light is hidden to us during daylight. But he takes comfort, I think, that the stars are there, and comfort too in anticipating that though his perspective means he will lose them with morning light, he also knows (with human forethought) that he will find them again with the coming of night. And that there are some sorts of light you can only fully appreciate and experience as they're set out against the dark.

So he rests in the grace of the world....for a time...knowing it's a temporary respite, and knowing that the sense of freedom it brings is also temporary. Yet necessary. We all need these moments of stillness and beauty and grace, where we move beyond ourselves and feel the blessings of God on the whole, beautiful earth. The grace of the world, glimpsed in pockets, in moments, is wonderful and refreshing. It can strengthen us for the journey. But it's just a tiny taste of the fountain of grace, and of the longer, more lasting rest into which we're going to be called one day, when our forethought of grief, and even grief itself, at last slips away, death swallowed up in life.

Wendell Berry has written so many beautiful poems, including others I go back to, but this one is the one I return to most. Its theme here reminds me a good bit of some of the poems by Mary Oliver in her book House of Light.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

"Poem in Your Pocket" Day is April 17!

How wonderful is this? April is national poetry month, and April 17th has been designated the first ever Poem in Your Pocket Day. Check out the website and see what you think! I've already found myself brainstorming about fun ways to celebrate...

Monday, April 07, 2008

Handwriting With Laughter

One reason I can't quite wrap my mind around the fact that it's April already (though thankfully temperatures outside are starting to provide evidence that it's really so!) is that it means we're rounding the corner and heading down the homestretch of our first homeschool year.

Having gotten almost an entire year under our belts, I'm letting myself chuckle a bit as I peruse catalogs and begin to place orders for books and supplies for next year. I still love reading over curriculum suggestions and planning what to use, but I feel much more realistic (in a good way) about what we might need and what might work for us and our particular learning/teaching styles.

I spent a lot of time poring over books and catalogs in the years before we officially started homeschooling. I read The Well-Trained Mind (at least major portions of it) long before the sweet girl was even born. I've put thought into educational philosophies and approaches and why we felt called to do this. That's all good, but after a while, one begins to realize that "ideals" (whether in books, curriculum catalogs, or fellow homeschoolers' blogs) are always going to look a bit different "on the ground" when you begin to try to work them out in actual practice with your actual five year old and in your actual family's home and life situation.

I had one of those humbling, practical moments last week that just made me laugh. We've been concentrating a lot on handwriting this year. I knew going into the K year that it would be a challenge for the sweet girl, whose fine motor skills have always lagged a bit. And I confess I was nervous about teaching the mechanics of handwriting. I could barely remember learning to write myself, and I was pretty sure I was clueless about how to teach someone else to do it.

We've been using Handwriting Without Tears, a program I highly recommend. We seemed to be the ideal candidates for it. I still remember the day we started the program -- and S. cried, because she found learning to hold a pencil the correct way so hard. How long ago that seems! I'm pretty sure those were the first and last tears connected with handwriting though. She loves it now; in fact, we do handwriting first thing each morning.

In the fall and early winter, we worked on writing numerals and learning correct formation of capital letters. In later winter and now into spring, we're working on formation of lowercase letters (we've done about 10-12 letters so far, and are learning about 2 new ones per week).

One thing I began realizing about three weeks ago is how much more enthusiastic the sweet girl's response to writing practice is when I give her something "real" to write. Sitting her down with a line of lowercase "t"s and "r"s isn't very exciting, but getting her to write HAPPY BIRTHDAY on her grandmother's card is. She kept showing how hard and happily she could work when given actual words or phrases to copy. We will still practice rows of letters, but for the past three weeks or so, I've been writing a phrase or a short sentence each day on her lined tablet, and she copies it. Most of the time, we're still writing everything in caps, but the rest will come when she's more confident of those lowercase letters.

For a while, we had no shortage of things to write: HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S DAY! or TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING. Sometimes I write something quite mundane, like TODAY IS FRIDAY or THE SUN IS SHINING. But she's been wanting to branch out and learn to write other things, and she's been particularly taken with the idea of writing out some of the things she sees written in books, especially those books she's learning to read.

Great! I thought. We're beginning copy work! We're on our way to practicing the kinds of copy work I read about in homeschooling books, all those months and years ago. Copy work where you provide students with excellent writing examples, beautiful prose from stories, inspiring quotes, encouraging words from Scripture. I had borrowed the idea when I'd had her practice her capital G's at Christmas time, by writing "GLORY TO GOD!" and illustrating the page with angels.

There are books that actually provide lists of the kinds of things you can have your students write. Of course, most of those lists are for children at higher ages and skill levels. So...I knew I might need to get creative.

On Friday, S. brought out one of her favorite readers, which she has been enjoying for the past couple of weeks: P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? We decided that we would choose a sentence from that book for her to copy. Ah, our first copy work involving literature she loves to read, I thought, feeling a bit emotional as I thought of the inspiring beauty of this moment. "What sentence shall we choose?" I asked.

And guessed it. What she most wanted to write were the immortal words of baby bird: "YOU ARE A SNORT."

So that's what we did. Taking care, of course, to have a good discussion about quotation marks and what they mean and how to write them. With Mom taking care to have a good, hearty laugh (inwardly) about the way the practical and the ideal sometimes mesh in real life!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"If You Give a Mom A Muffin..."

I was on a homeschooling blog this morning and saw a link to a discussion board with this poem/parody. I think I'm still laughing. If you've ever been a Mom, known a Mom, or if know the series of Laura Numeroff books on which the poem is based, you'll laugh too.

Here it is:

If You Give A Mom A Muffin

(Based on "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" by Laura Numeroff)

If you give a Mom a muffin,
She'll want a cup of coffee to go with it.
She'll pour herself some.
The coffee will get spilled by her three year old.
She'll wipe it up.

Wiping the floor, she will find some dirty socks.
She'll remember she has to do some laundry.
When she puts the laundry in the washer,
She'll trip over some snow boots and bump into the freezer.
Bumping into the freezer will remind her she has to plan dinner for tonight.

She will get out a pound of hamburger.
She will look for her cookbook (101 Things to Make With a Pound of Hamburger).
The cookbook is sitting under a pile of mail.
She will see the phone bill which is due tomorrow.
She will look for her checkbook.

The checkbook is in her purse that is being dumped out by her two year old.
She'll smell something funny.
She'll change the two year old.
While she is changing the two year old the phone will ring.
Her four year old will answer it and hang up.

She remembers that she wants to phone a friend to come for coffee on Friday.
Thinking of coffee will remind her that she was going to have a cup.
She will pour herself some.

And chances are......
If she has a cup of coffee......
Her kids will have eaten the muffin that went with it

Author: Kathy Fictorie

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Five Blocks, Five Nests

April! The sweet girl and I are spring detectives again, on the lookout for "clues to spring" whenever we take a walk.

It can sometimes be hard to spot clues in early spring, especially in the concrete and pavement environment we usually traverse. But yesterday provided us the wonderful discovery of five birds' nests within the five city blocks we walked to the post office. True, two or three of them at least were in the small gazebo park next to the post office (one of the few spots in town where we have a good clump of trees together) but it was exciting, nonetheless.

In fact, birds have suddenly appeared in great numbers, even in our little city. When I woke up yesterday, I could hear one (hear, not see) trilling a good morning song over and over. If I stood in one particular place in my kitchen, right under the skylight, it was like having front row seats concert seats. Later in the morning, during our school-time, a bird flew right up to our apartment windowsill and boldly peered in at us for a few seconds.

I'm excited because our small box from the Rainbow Resource Center arrived late yesterday. I had ordered a couple of craft projects and a math game from them, and while I was at it, I also ordered a good pair of child-sized binoculars. With the birds returning in great numbers and busily getting their spring building projects underway, I want to make sure we're good and ready to watch.