My son is a reader–Thank you Warriors!

Yesterday after Duncan got home from school he was quiet for a long, long time. Long periods of quiet from Duncan are unusual and also disturbing (messy and involved craft projects are a possible cause). I went looking and quickly found him. This is what I saw:


He didn’t move or change expression at all when I photographed him. He was engrossed. Until yesterday, he has been reading mainly Seuss and beginning reader type stuff (and we considered that highly exciting) so this was a stunning development. He read to himself for at least 90 minutes until he had finished the book. May I say I am thankful? I am SO thankful! It has been a long road to reading for this boy. He is only 7, but we are a reading-centric household and although he has loved to be read to since he was tiny, until this year his progress towards reading to himself seemed plodding. Judging from his handwriting, I think the letters may be backwards in his mind–many of them certainly are on his papers!

His school teacher has worked wonders this year. Thank you Melinda!

A lot of credit must also go to the Warriors Series by Erin Hunter. We have spent countless hours reading the Warriors books to him. The one he is reading in the picture is #4. We were halfway through reading it aloud to him before a) our need to work on the tax return and b) his need to know what happened next, coincided to produce the above result. Warriors is about four clans of warrior cats who live in the forest and interact amidst clan warfare, villainy, and environmental disaster. When my mother-in-law gave Amelia the first book in the series many years ago, I was deeply skeptical. It didn’t look good; it didn’t sound good. It sat on the shelf in our house for a long time. But readers always run out of material, so we eventually had to give it a try. I love these books as much as Amelia and Duncan–we all love them. (Though as Pdad says, by book #4, the series becomes predictable). Highly recommended!

Patricia Polacco

One of the greatest pleasures I have found in motherhood is in sharing good books with my children.  I love to read books with these small people and to discover that they take the same joy in them that I do.  Let me recommend one source of this joy to you in case you haven’t discovered her already, author Patricia Polacco. 

Polacco’s books are wonderful for reading with elementary school children and on one’s own.  Polacco is prolific and both writes and illustrates her books.  She is one of the rare authors who are able to do both extremely well.  Her stories (many based on her own childhood) are oh-so-human, so engaging, so interesting, so ready to transport you to a different place and time.  As for her illustrations–well, facial expressions have never been so well captured.  (Intriguingly, Polacco earned a PhD in art history and is an expert on Russian iconography–but her pictures are earthy and achingly real, her texts down to earth and accessible).  Some of my favorite titles are Thank you, Mr. Falker,  Just Plain Fancy , Chicken Sunday, and The Keeping Quilt

Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare--Patricia Polacco

After forgetting about Polacco for a while, just last week my love of her work was renewed by a title I’d never seen before: Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare, a partly (mostly?) true story of a conflict with her brother and how it all ended happily ever after.  Since sibling contention is an ongoing issue in our home, and I’m always hoping and looking forward to the day that my children can write their own happily ever after endings, I just adored this book.  Check it out!

P.S., Already familiar with Polacco?  What are your favorite titles?

Books for Girls and their Moms

I haven’t blogged because I’ve been busy planning a mother-daughter book club.  I was hung up on the guest list–not wanting to exclude anyone who wanted to be included, but worrying that it would get too big, worrying about different girls’ different reading levels, little sisters, etc.  My new plan: I’ve simply invited every girl (and her mom) from Amelia’s fifth grade class and not any others.  This way, they are all the same age, they all read on an advanced level, and no one is included or excluded on the basis of popularity.  

I've been feeling like the library's best customer recently . . .

I've been feeling like the library's best customer recently . . .

I assume that not all 12 girls and their mothers will want to participate, but a group with 12 mother-daughter pairs would be too large anyway.  I think just 4 mother daughter pairs would be enough to make it a success, so I hope we will get that many. 

If we were a well-established book group, I think it would be best to have the girls help choose the books.  But since this group is just meeting for the summer at this point, and we need a jumpstart, I decided to just pick the six books (we will meet twice a month this summer) and let the girls and moms sign up if they were interested in reading those books.   

I was surprised how difficult it was to pick the books! Each book needed:

1) to be relatively short, because we are meeting every two weeks

2) to provide good material for discussion

3) to be interesting and well-written

4) to be in print and available at both our local library and as a cheap paperback at Amazon

5) to include only material that was appropriate for 11 year olds to read and discuss. 

(A further stumbling block was that my 11 yr old didn’t want me to plan any books she had already read–and she has read a lot.  I ended up planning to read The Giver despite her wishes for new material).

The mix of books I came up with is heavily weighted toward realistic fiction; I struggled to find fantasy and science fiction books that met all of my criteria.  These books have some challenging (yet appropriate) topics, but they won’t be a challenge in terms of reading skill.  I figure it is better to err on the side of too easy rather than too difficult.  These books are also a little on the heavy side–you can’t escape the “life is full of adversity” message in these books–I’m not sure if that comes along with the “good material for discussion” criterion or if the list turned out that way by chance.  

Anyway, drumroll please!  Here are the books I selected:

Listening for Lions                    Gloria Whelan (National Book Award winner), 2005

Rachel has lived in British East Africa her entire life, but when the flu epidemic of 1919 leaves her an orphan, she is forced to leave the only home she knows.  Scheming neighbors coerce her into  pretending to be their deceased daughter and send her to England.  Can she undo their web of lies without hurting others?  Will she ever be able to return to Africa?  Will the mission hospital her parents worked so hard to build ever reopen?


Cousins                                              Virginia Hamilton (Newbery Medal winner), 1990

Cammy loves her  brother,  mom and  grandma—but has a father she doesn’t know and a cousin who is an enemy rather than a friend.  She makes a terrible wish that she doesn’t intend to come true, but when it does, her family must help her learn how to heal. 


The Breadwinner                            Deborah Ellis, 2000

Parvana lives under the harsh restrictions of Taliban rule with her family in AfghanistanWhen her father disappears, Parvana is the only one able to get food for the family, but she must transform herself into a boy and risk her own safety to do it.     


The Bomb                                          Theodore Taylor (author of The Cay) , 1995

Sorry Rinamu lives on Bikini Atoll at the end of World War II.  The Americans liberate Bikini from the Japanese, and life is good until the Americans select Bikini as the best place to conduct atomic tests.  Sorry and his fellow Islanders are asked to relocate.  Will they? Can the tests be stopped?


Out of the Dust                                  (1998 Newbery Medal                       Karen Hesse, 1997

This novel is written in free verse.  Billie Jo lives in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great DepressionHer father’s crops fail again and again, dust seeps into their food, their truck, and their piano, and it seems like things can’t get any worse.  But then an accident takes her mother and baby brother and Billie Jo’s hands are left burnt and useless.  How will she and her father find hope when life seems hopeless?


The Giver                                           (1994 Newbery Medal)                            Lois Lowry, 1993

In a world with no poverty, no crime, no sickness and no unemployment, and where every family is happy, 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the community’s Receiver of Memories. Under the tutelage of the Elders and an old man known as the Giver, he discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world. (Summary from

Book Review: The Perfect Mile

Back in February, when Christian F and I were debating the merits of competition on this blog (see The Spelling Bee, Competition: Success and Struggle, and In Defense of Competition as well as the lengthy comments on these posts),  Sharon recommended a great book, The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb.

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb

I finally managed to both a) be at the library AND b) remember that I wanted this book while I was there last week.  I listened to the first half of the book on CD.  Unfortunately, I don’t spend enough time in the car to get through 12 CD’s.  I kept having to sit and listen in the garage when I got home because of the suspense.  It seemed unhealthful.  So when the book itself finally became available yesterday, I was excited to finish the latter half of it by reading the hardcopy.

I enjoyed this book tremendously.  (I did like it better in hardcopy than on CD because I could read the story much faster than I could listen to the CDs and that made the story seem to move faster).  It is the story of the 4 minute mile.  For many years, it was believed that it was impossible for humans to run a mile in less than 4 minutes.  At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, three athletes, Roger Bannister, John Landy, and Wes Santee each suffered great disappointment.  Each returned home committed to showing that their Olympic results didn’t tell the full story of their athletic abilities.  The next two years saw the three in a frantic seesaw battle to see who would be the first to break the barrier.

It is a neat story because each athlete is different.  They live on different continents, they come from different backgrounds, they have different racing philosophies, different ways of training, different challenges and different personalities.  But they share things as well: each embarrassed himself through failure to live up to expectations at the Olympics.  Each is eager to beat the barrier.  Each has great natural athletic gifts and each has an even greater natural determination to improve and excel.  Each of the athletes readies himself to run the race of his life and then comes up short, again and again.  The book is a fascinating look at their lives, how they handle failure, and how they pick themselves up and go back at it.  Although the 4 minute barrier fell over 50 years ago, Bascomb was able to interview all three runners and many of their contemporaries, so the book is rich in the detail and has the credibility that make this sort of account great.

You will like this book even if you don’t know anything about running and don’t enjoy running yourself. Both are true of me.  I did learn a lot of new things about running by reading this book: strategies for running a very fast mile, the importance of a pacesetter, the difference between racing a clock and racing competitors.  I also learned not only about the cinder tracks of 50 years ago and how track shoes have changed, but how the world of elite-level athletics itself has changed.  This was interesting.  Even more interesting was the story of Bannister, Landy, and Santee’s drive towards excellence, their thirst for remarkable achievement, their desire to run faster than anyone had ever run.  I especially liked the theme of redemption.  Of how one can embarrass oneself, disappoint others, and then pick up, work harder, and do things that almost everyone else on the planet only dreams about. These men didn’t dream it, they did it.

Finally, I appreciated being able to observe the truth that played out in the background: while running a world record mile is a stunning individual achievement, this book showed that none of them could have done what they did without support.  Sometimes it was friends or family, sometimes it was a coach or fellow competitor, but none of the men got where he did completely on his own.

“My doll is a boy!”

This past Sunday some friends invited us over to dinner. While the adults were still talking, the children tired of eating and began to disperse to go play. Duncan wanted to go play in 4 yr old Annie’s room, but she was marooned at the table waiting for her vegetables to magically disappear. Annie’s dad explained that the only thing to play with in Annie’s room was dress-ups.

“What would you like to play with?” he said. “A sword, a football, trucks, maybe some blocks?” Duncan paused, and then answered, with a huge smile: “You know what I like to play with?” “A doll. But my doll is a boy! His name is Da-da [daw daw]!” He then ran off to play, and later we observed him pushing a big tractor around with undisguised pleasure.

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