Friday, December 24, 2010

Five More Caldecott Medal Books

Frog Went A-Courtin'

I can't give this book a fair review.  I have a phobia about insects and there are a lot of insects in this book.  As a result, I found myself shuddering, closing the book, scratching at imaginary crawly things.  I simply didn't want to look at another page.  I suffered through to the end but anyone who has a phobia about insects would find this book disturbing.

For Further Exploration
  • For the parent and child who don't have my phobia, study the various types of animals and (blech) insects.  
  • This is not the first Caldecott winning book that was inspired by the lyrics of a folk-song.  For the musically inclined, learn this song and sing the lyrics or, as the author invites the reader to do at the end, write some of your own lyrics.
  • Write another version of this story, with different animals.  Or change the story so that the genders are different and the female animal approaches the male animal.  
Madeline's Rescue

I get excited when I reach a book I remember from my childhood but you can imagine  my surprise when I read it and remembered, at most, five pages of the story.  I remembered clearly how it began.  I remembered Madeline falling from the bridge.  And I remember one other image.  But that's it.  Oh well.  

For Further Exploration
  • This book takes place in Paris so why not find Paris on a map, look at photographs of the city.  See if you can find photographs that look similar to the images.
  • Learn some French words and phrases.  (Why not also read one of the Babar books?  These stories also take place in France.)
  • Study French cuisine, making a traditional French breakfast (baguette with jam, a croissant, hot chocolate) or buy a couple of French cheeses and enjoy them with some fruit (brie with grapes is especially delicious, munster with pear, neufchâtel spread on a bagel with fresh berries).  
Finders Keepers

I cannot recommend this book.  The illustrations are cute and the story starts off well but the two dogs resolve their problem through violence, a message I don't think I want my grandchildren to hear.  I suppose if you are put off by the violent resolution there is a moral lesson about the importance of sharing but I would have been happier without the violence.  


Another of the books I remember lovingly from my childhood.  I enjoyed reading this version and when I compare this book with Marcia Brown's other Caldecott winners (Shadow and Once a Mouse), I am especially delighted by this book.

For Further Exploration
  • There are variations on the Cinderella story you can share with your child.  Some are even Caldecott winners as well.  Seek out other similar stories, compare them and discuss the differences.
  • Read other books by Marcia Brown and look at the different styles of illustration, discussing how each story determines how the book should be illustrated, the use of different color palettes, etc.  
  • The next time you and your child(ren) sit down to write a story, think about the content and perhaps create an illustration style that compliments the story.
  • There are almost as many cinematic versions of the Cinderella tale as there are written versions.  Watch a few (like Cinderella or Cinderella or Ever After or Cinderella or The Slipper and the Rose.)  There are even more versions out there!
The Biggest Bear

I have understandably mixed feelings about this book.  Johnny is sad because his family is the only one that doesn't have a bear skin hanging up, evidence of some man's killing a bear in the nearby woods.  So Johnny goes out to kill a bear himself but he brings a bear cub home instead.  Awwww . . .

The bear cub grows up and eventually Johnny is left no choice but to leave the now grown bear cub in the woods.  Except, the bear keeps coming back so Johnny's father tells him what he must do.  Johnny takes his gun and the bear into the forest and . . .

That's right.  His father told him to kill the bear.

Now let me explain that I've worked with people who look at hunting season with nostalgia, a tradition handed down from generation to generation.  I grew up, however, in a culture where this was not only not typical but something upon which we frowned upon.  I see no game-manship in a man holding a rifle equipped with telescopic lens and large range shooting an animal that can't even get close enough to catch wind of him.  And unless it is a "clean shot," an oxymoron if ever I heard one, the animal suffers as a consequence of one man's idea of sport.

Therein lies the problem.  This is probably a perfectly delightful book for someone who's living in a community where animal hunting is a positive.  And I know about the whole population control idea, that the animals would starve unless we thin out the herd.  And yes, I am a hypocrite because I do eat meat.  That's my choice.  Just as it is my choice not to praise this book and to say that I would rather not have my granddaughter reading it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg is a retelling of the traditional Christian story of the birth of Jesus.  It begins before Mary and Joseph are betrothed and beyond the exile in Egypt.  I won’t say how much further because that would spoil things.

I have to say that of all the holiday themed books I read this year, this is my favorite.  More traditional and obviously infused with Christian ideas, the story makes iconic figures human.  Some Catholics may take offense that Mary does not remain a virgin after the birth of her son but Berg remains true to the viewpoint that Jesus was conceived supernaturally, as was John the Baptist and Mary herself.

The struggles the young couple face, the doubt Joseph has over Mary’s honesty and her own difficulty with being a submissive housewife are written in a way that makes them both believable and likeable.  The way the characters speak, however, is sometimes so formal and even elevated that they rarely sound natural.  It is a peculiar choice to have Joseph speak as though he were lecturing rather than lusting when you also read about how he has to pull away from Mary because his desire is stirring.  So if in action and thought they are human, in word and speech they are refined and constrained.  I suppose Berg was bearing her readers in mind and could only push the reality envelope so far.

All in all, I liked this book very much and anyone who is a fan of Elizabeth Berg and not put off by Christian tradition will probably find this book a perfectly pleasant one to read going into the holidays.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Rest of Our Trees

This is a picture of our trees.

The teddy bears were collected over years and when we had three small trees (one for each of the children), the bears filled in the space beneath the trees until Christmas eve when I would put out all of the gifts.  The one on the right is our official tree, a bit of a mess because there is no color coordination at all.  It's just a tree with every ornament Rob and I have acquired through the years.  And we've acquired some pretty funny ornaments, few of which belong together on the same tree.

This is a very blurry.  You see the two bears on the right?  Rob bought those this year because, clearly, we needed more bears.  We actually think they look more like New Year's Day bears because they are all dressed up in black and red velvet.  With silver trim and bows.

And this is Marc's tree.  His is the last of the small trees because he is the last to still be living at home.  And you can see the train tracks under the other tree.  Rob bought a train to go around the tree (which Bibi loves) and that is why now most of the bears are relegated to sit on the storage thing Rob bought for his legs only to discover that he was sitting lower on the couch and it wasn't as comfortable as he thought which is not unlike my realizing that this sentence is insanely long and breaking a lot of basic grammar rules so I should probably stop now.

And another blurry pictures, this one of the corner directly across from the tree.  And stockings.  We don't have a fire place so we just used the large doorway that goes from the kitchen into the great room.  Those three are Bibi's, Joe's, and Marc's.  There are three more on the other side.  Erin's and mine are the last to be hung because hers has stuff that you can recognize sticking out and mine . . . well, I'm not responsible for mine so I don't know when it will be filled.

And just for fun, here's a photo of Bibi opening a birthday present.  Her
birthday is on the 16th so it was just over a week ago.  This picture was taken before she decided that footies on her birthday simply would not do.  

That's Goobo (sp?) in the background and Erin is holding one of Bibi's gifts, a baby doll.  There are more birthday photos from our trip to Build-a-Bear.  I just have to slow down and share them.  But this photo was in the same batch as the tree ones soooo . . .

The Essential Alan Watts by Alan Watts (duh)

The Essential Alan Watts by Alan Watts is the final book of the Transformational Book Circle.  I have to backtrack and try to finish another book in the collection which I skipped because no matter how many times I try to start reading it, I simply get bored by it.

That is neither here nor there.  This book by Alan Watts is good, possibly even great, but as I have said before, the poor quality of the editing makes assessing the content difficult.  Watts’ writing style is dense, full of complex sentence structures that take up multiple lines of text.  When you have editing that either drops or changes words, it becomes all the more frustrating reaching the end of a sentence, knowing it doesn’t make sense, and wondering why.  Naturally, you go back and reread the sentence but there’s still something wrong and it takes two or more readings to realize where the problem lies and then a few moments to figure out what the problem is.  Should “is” be “it” or did someone just drop “that” altogether?

So once again, I think this is a really good book that suffers from how it is presented to the reader.  I can’t recommend this edition.

The audio cd from Bill Harris explains to the listener why he chose this book to be part of the Transformational Book Circle and Harris explains some of Watts’ teachings, commending Watts for having an innate ability to take complex ideas about Eastern philosophy and making them more accessible to the Western audience.  In a way Harris is doing the same for Watts so if Watts is “watering down” the teachings to make them easier to swallow then Harris is sort of watering down Watts to make him more comprehensible.  Unfortunately, thanks to the editing of this book’s publisher, it will take more than this cd to make some of the sentences comprehensible and every time a reader has to stop and reread a sentence, the flow of the teaching is lost.

Read another edition of this book.  The chapter on God is worth the time and effort.  Too bad the publishers didn’t think the book was worth a good editing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Satia Chocolates | Peter West

Satia Chocolates | Peter West

I want one of these. Click the link. Read the sexy description. Oh my . . .

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha: An Indian Tale by Hermann Hesse is one of those books many people drop onto their “to be read” list because they hear it praised often but then few get around to reading.  I read a translation of this book ten years ago and, because it is a part of the Transformational Book Circle, I reread it in this new translation.

This novel is about a man’s search for spiritual meaning in his life and the different paths he takes to get to where he needs to be.  I can see why this book has been such an inspiration since its publication.  I can also see why so much depends on the quality of the translation because I don’t think that the edition I read is a particularly good translation.  It could, of course, simply be that the book is so poorly edited that the translation inevitably pales by comparison, dulling what would otherwise be a stellar text.  To be honest, I don’t think that’s the case.  Having read the book before but translated by a different author, I just don’t think that this translation has the same poetry or power.

The cd that comes along with this particular edition is a guided meditation, led by Gay Hendricks.  He asks a series of “wonder questions” with some odd music played in between, leaving the listener time to meditate upon each question.  The music made me want to move, as there was a gentle but clear beat.  I like to dance; what can I say?  Needless to say, I would have preferred silence.  I know some people are afraid of silence.  However, I can’t help thinking it would be nice to have more guided meditations that allow for silence as well as meditation.

The questions themselves are interesting and I think they would make wonderful journaling prompts, especially for anyone who is either at a personal crossroads or at a time of renewal.  With the New Year around the corner, I think that they would make an excellent beginning for exploring the changes I want to see in my life in 2011 but they would be just as effective as one approaches a birthday or something similar.

I have a feeling, however, that you do not have to buy the Transformational Book Circle edition with the bonus cd to find this guided meditation or something similar in some of his other writings and recordings.  He has been publishing books and cds for a long a while and I’d be surprised if these same questions aren’t available in some other format, especially given that this edition is (deservedly) out of print.

So in summary: good book in a bad translation with a cd that has an interesting guided meditation equals a rather mixed review over all.  Sorry I could be more decisive about how I felt over all.  Maybe next time.

(I would suggest, before buying a particular copy of this book, reading a few sample pages from different translations to see which you like the best.)

Five More Caldecott Medal Books

Song of the Swallows

A simple story about the migration of the swallows that come to San Juan Capistrano. The illustrations didn't blow me away and the story didn't either.

For Further Exploration
  • Study the migratory flight patterns of the swallows of Capistrano (or any other bird) and follow the migration on a map.
  • Learn the sounds of different bird songs, especially focusing on those types you can find in your own neighborhood.  See if you can't become familiar enough with the various bird songs that you recognize a bird by how it sounds.
  • Find an online bird-cam and watch a bird's nest, checking in occasionally to see how the nestlings are doing.
  • If you are musically inclined, learn the song included in the book and sing it for your family the next time there's a big family get together or record yourselves singing it.

The Big Snow 

Sweet book full of beautiful illustrations about how different animals respond to the oncoming of winter.  While some migrate, others hibernate.  Just a simple story.

For Further Exploration
  • Count the animals on the different pages, from geese to deer to rabbits.  Each page has a number of different animals on the page and early learners will have fun counting them. 
  • Write a story about what your family does whenever there is snow.  (If you live in a climate that rarely or never has snow, write about what your family does when it rains.)
  • Choose several animals (from the book or other wildlife) and study about their habits and whether or not they hibernate or live through the winter weather.
  • The Disney film, Bambi, has a lovely snowy day scene in it that children might enjoy watching.  For older children, read the novel Bambi aloud.  
  • For the older older child, if this was a favorite book when younger, why not read Watership Down or some of James Herriot’s books?  
  • Make a pine cone bird feeder by spreading natural peanut butter on the pine cone and then rolling it in bird seeds.  Hang these outside to help feed the animals during the colder months when food is harder to find.

White Snow, Bright Snow

I don't know if it's because of the story in the previous book or the lovely illustrations but this one was a disappointment.

For Further Exploration
  • Research some of the things mentioned that are no longer part of our common experience (mustard plaster, dunce cap, etc.).  
  • Cut out paper snowflakes.  I know I've suggested this before but I really love cutting out paper snowflakes.

The Little Island

I liked this book although I think that poor autumn and winter are not given their due.  I didn't love it, however.  I thought the insertion of the kitten was just weird.  I'd have rather read about all four seasons on the island.

For Further Exploration
  • Research the various species mentioned throughout the book.
  • Study the different types of animals and why a lobster sheds its shell, perhaps comparing this with how a kingfisher molts, etc.
  • Study the different types of land masses (island, ithmus, continent, plateau, etc.)
  • Why not write more about the island, making up what it is like in autumn and winter?  
  • Make a model or map of the little island.  On one of the pages, the island is described as having 7 trees and 17 bushes.  Use paper-mâché or modeling clay to make your own little island.  
  • Or make models of the different types of animals.
  • Why not also make a map of your neighborhood?  
The Egg Tree

This is a cute book but for parents who are avoiding the whole "Easter Rabbit" thing, you may not be thrilled with some of this book.  However, this is not an Easter bunny book.  This is a book about creating hollowed out eggs, decorating them, and using these to decorate a tree.

For Further Exploration

  • They make these pumps that make hollowing out an egg far easier than pricking holes and trying to blow the eggs clean.  Buy one of these and try dying some hollowed out eggs for yourself.  Then paint them.  
  • Learn about Pysanky, another traditional form of egg decoration.
  • Study the Easter and Spring traditions of different cultures--from Passover to May Day, etc.  
  • Write a story about your own family's holiday traditions.  Don't forget to illustrate your story!
  • I was unable to find a recipe for the rabbit shaped cookie with the egg cooked in it.  If you find one, please share it in the comments.  
  • If you have the space and the inclination, why not have a year-round holiday tree and change the decorations with the different holidays.  Preferably, decorate with homemade ornaments the child(ren) can make on rainy days.

Monday, December 20, 2010


What should a woman never wear after the age of 30?

Rob was flipping channels and stopped on some talk show with Diane Von Furstenberg and Amy Sedaris.  The two were asked the same question and I simply loved Sedaris' response:  diapers.  Furstenberg said that there was nothing that a woman couldn't wear at any age as long as it looked attractive.  Both answers are good but I guffawed when I heard "diapers."

I have to say, I agree.

The Christmas Shoes by Donna VanLiere

The Christmas Shoes by Donna VanLiere is exactly what I expect a Christmas book to be.  Sentimental and emotional, full of Christian references, with just enough schmaltz to bring a tear to the eye.

Am I saying that this is a good book?  Well, it's not bad.  Would I recommend it?  Probably not.  The story shifts between a first person and third person point-of-view, which was mostly effective.  But there is one first person part where the narrator leaves his family behind and yet the reader hears all about what happens while the narrator is not there.  I lambasted another writer for doing this and I won't forgive VanLiere for doing the same thing.  It's careless and lazy.  I can understand something like this in a rough draft or even through a phase or two of revision but an editor or a really good writer should have caught this rather glaring impossibility and corrected it.

So if you really can't get enough of Christmas, have watched all of the holiday movies and need something to fill the holiday void, you might find this little book a good choice.  It isn't as bad as some but it could have been better.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Gift by Cecelia Ahern

The Gift by Cecelia Ahern is another of the holiday novels I’ve decided to give a try this year.  This one, thankfully, is not a romance novel.  Rather, this is the story of a man who is choosing his career over his family.  His narcissism is shattered when he reaches out to a homeless man who spirals the single act of altruism into a potential life change.

The main story is told within a story frame and I could have lived without the frame story.  It is unnecessary.  In my mind, it give the author a platform from which to pontificate.  If you don’t trust the moral theme of your story to shine through then revise it, don’t shove a lesson down the reader’s throat.

To be honest, the story is predictable and anyone who can’t guess how this is going to end is choosing to pretend it isn’t obvious.  Obvious can still be well handled and I have to concede that Ahern does manage to tell a decent story adequately.  Not a brilliant story but if you want a bit of holiday fluff that isn’t completely tedious to read, this might be a good choice.