What We’re Reading: Mailing May (and more!)

We are welcoming November with a fresh crop of book reviews for you from the Simple Kids Book Review Team:

Preschool

from Trisha at okieOLIO

Leo the LopThe short, meaningful stories in the Serendipity Series by Stephen Cosgrove have long been some of my most cherished books. For three decades the whimsical characters have shown children how to find positive solutions for difficult problems with gentle moral lessons. Cosgrove’s simple but clever writing is easy to understand and engaging.

My personal favorite is Leo the Lop, the tale of a floppy-eared rabbit who is teased because his ears don’t stand up straight like the other rabbits. Leo is sad because he looks different and makes several attempts to change his appearance to blend in and be “normal.” Through the help of a possum with a different perspective, he and the other rabbits eventually learn that “normal is whatever you are.”

The story is truly enhanced by the endearing drawings by illustrator Robin James. The soft and natural color palate and large expressive eyes on each character convey the story perfectly. In the style of the series, we are treated to a new picture on each spread, with the left page displaying the text and the right side filled with an illustration.

If you haven’t already serendipitously (wink, wink) discovered these lovely and valuable books, I promise you won’t regret inviting them into your library.

Early Elementary

from Emily at The Pilot’s Wife

mailingmayEven as a child, I loved reading about history.  There was just something about the resurrecting of other times and places that riveted me.  The rational part of me knows that the lack of running water and infrequent bathing would really put a damper on the fun of living in the past, but it still holds a strong appeal for me.

I spent many a happy hour delving into the worlds of Laura Ingalls, Anne of Green Gables, and the American Girls.  So when I stumbled upon Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell, I immediately fell in love.

This lovely picture book is the tale of May, a little girl who wants to visit her grandmother who lives far away, but her family can’t afford the train fare.

With a little creative thought and coercion, May’s Pa finds a solution and “mails” May to her grandmother.  The book chronicles her adventure riding the rails and the illustrations are a beautiful accompaniment that give children a glimpse into life in the early 1900s.

This short story is a great way to get children interested in learning about the past.  There is just enough information to initiate conversations about differences in how people lived, without feeling like a text book. There would also be many opportunities to talk about the vocabulary words specific to that time period.

If you’re wanting to pique your child’s interest in things of the past or perhaps fuel a budding historian, Mailing May is perfect way to do it.

Upper Elementary

from Katie at This Natural Life

viewfromsaturdayWhile browsing at my local bookstore recently, I ran across the book The View From Saturday, and was instantly intrigued.  I recognized the author’s name, E.L. Konigsburg, from her 1968 Newbery Medal-winning book From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I couldn’t recall ever hearing about The View From Saturday.  It turns out that there is a good reason for that: it was published in 1996, long after I left grade school.  I snatched up a copy and eagerly devoured it this past weekend.

The View From Saturday tells the story of four sixth-grade students and their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, as they compete in their state Academic Bowl.  The students are Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, and they call themselves “The Souls.”  None of them are what you would call “popular”; they are smart kids, and each has their own set of challenges.   As the reader, we watch the friendship between these students as it unfolds from its inception, when they first regard each other with the initial wariness and hesitation that is typical of many sixth-graders.  As circumstances continue to draw the students together, they eventually form a very unique and tightly bonded friendship.  Their relationship with Mrs. Olinski, and the challenging circumstances of her own life as a paraplegic, also plays a significant role in the lives of each student.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the shifting point of view.  The author begins the book from Mrs. Olinski’s perspective, but then shifts to Noah’s first-person experience.  The second chapter returns to Mrs. Olinski’s point of view, but then it changes again, this time to Nadia’s story.  This pattern continues throughout the book.  The chronology of the story is not linear, either.  The book begins in the present, which is the spring semester of their sixth-grade year, but it often flashes back and forth between the present, the summer before sixth grade began, and the fall semester, as we learn how The Souls first met and how they are intertwined.

While I personally feel that these elements add a lot of interest to the story, some students could potentially find it confusing, especially if they don’t read very often and/or haven’t had much exposure to these kinds of literary elements.  In fact, many of the negative reviews on Amazon are from young students who had a hard time with the point of view and chronology.  These students would greatly benefit from a parent’s willingness to read the book alongside of them and help them navigate through these turns and twists.

In addition, one young reviewer pointed out that as the reader, we know what’s going to happen from the beginning of the book, and therefore he/she didn’t feel much motivation to read to the end.  But of course, the story has really very little to do with who wins the Academic Bowl, and everything to do with the journey along the way – the questions, the relationships, the moments of grace and personal triumph.  The View From Saturday is a rich, complex story of value, worth reading and re-reading.  I hope it finds its way into your child’s personal library, as it has into mine – it is worthy of a permanent place for many years to come.

What We’re Reading Wednesday: September 30th

It’s What We’re Reading Wednesday again, and each of our selections this week have a wonderful connection to our Free-Range Kids Week theme.

mooseinmaineI’m going to steal the microphone for a moment to introduce you to a new book from Simple Kids’ newest sponsor – Shankman and O’Neil children’s books. Just over a week ago, we added Ed Shankman and Dave O’Neil’s I Met a Moose in Maine One Day to our home library, and I can honestly say I nearly have it memorized because the girls have requested that I read it so much!

This funny tale that just bursts with incredible rhyme and meter begins when the narrator tells us

“I met a moose in Maine One Day.  Just how it happened, I can’t say.  I brushed my teeth, I combed my hair and all at once, the moose was there!”

He goes on to tell about the adventures he and the moose undertake together.  Set against the backdrop of the state of Maine, this unlikely duo takes us from sampling maple syrup in the village general store to river rafting and log rolling in Bangor and all sorts of places in between.

Ed Shankman’s way with words make reading this story out loud a stimulating adventure in itself.  My favorite passage is when

“In Camden a lot of us got on a yacht, and we docked before dark in a beautiful spot.  We saw fish having fun.  We watched seals eating meals.  We met lobsters and otters and eagles and eels.”

Dave O’Neil’s illustrations masterfully match the whimsical text.  I think our four year old could study the pictures for hours!  The big old loveable moose brilliantly captures what every child must imagine to be the perfect animal companion – silly, adventurous, imaginative, and great manners, too!

The adventures of the boy and his friend the moose are sure to spark a desire for adventure in your children.  I can only imagine that families who love the state of Maine would be delighted by the details which honor that fair state, but I can also say that this charming story has been fully appreciated by my little family in the southern plains of the USA!

(Get to know Ed Shankman and Dave O’Neil by following them on twitter and becoming a fan on Facebook!)

And now I’ll step aside to make way for the wonderful selections from our book review team:

Preschooler

from Trisha (okioOLIO)

apple pieIn the spirit of free-range parenting, thinking outside the house, and embracing childhood independence, I’d like to offer a review of How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman, which celebrates early freedoms in an often uncharted territory: the kitchen.

In the same way parents may initially feel nervous about releasing their child into the city or even the neighborhood , some parents may balk at introducing their kids to “dangerous” things, like knives, stoves, and ovens. But even in the home, exposing kids to potentially hazardous situations rather than sheltering them actually serves to protect the young’uns: if they are prepared to act with caution, and familiar enough to understand the dangers, they are less likely to accidentally discover something that could hurt them.

In the “cool-inary” kids classes that I help teach with a local chef, we begin teaching knife skills as early as age six, and make sure the kiddos learn a healthy respect for the sharpness of kitchen tools, the power of electric appliances, and the heat of cooking appliances.* This book is a delightful tribute to encouraging resourceful and creative thinking in children, and a philosophy that allows you as a parent to comfortably let out the reigns on your child’s independent ambitions.

In Priceman’s picture book, a young girl instructs the reader how to bake and apple pie – which is “really very easy” – as long as the market is open. When she finds the store closed, this ambitious little baker embarks on a world-wide shopping journey to collect the necessary ingredients. After retrieving wheat in Italy, cinnamon in Sri Lanka, sugar cane in Jamaica, and apples in Vermont, she returns home to make her pie.

While the rosy-cheeked girl in a green pinafore certainly displays free range independence as she travels by boat, train, bus, bike, and parachute, the solo globe-trotting and subsequent cow milking, butter-churning, wheat-milling activity is not something preschool or grade school kids will likely try to imitate. But the adventurous and purposeful attitude that is conveyed is refreshing and inspiring, and a realistic application can be found as she makes her grocery list, confidently strolls down the street to the market, and later slices apples, boils water, and shows skilled use of the oven.

The fanciful, brightly-colored watercolor illustrations feature cheerful, hard-working people all over the globe, and the front and back of the book offer facts and activities as well as world maps and a recipe for apple pie. This lighthearted tale contains great potential to lead to enriching lessons on the world, culture, adventure, goals, the origin of grocery items, and of course, cooking!

*If you decide to introduce your child to the wonders of the kitchen, you’ll of course want to set precautions and rules The children in our classes always understand that they must never try to cook in the kitchen without telling a parent – who can determine the level of supervision needed depending on experience and age. For helpful resources on pint-sized cooking utensils and more, visit www.cookingwithkids.com

Upper Elementary

from Katie (This Natural Life)

seven-wonders-of-SassafrasThe Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney is most perfectly summarized as “sweet,” in the best sense of the word.  I decided to read this book after seeing that it was recommended by a reader in the Simple Kids post about “Children’s Literature We Love.” I had no preconceived ideas and wasn’t sure what to expect, since I had never heard of the book before I checked it out from the library.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover the small-town adventure that awaited me.

The book is set in 1923, in a tiny town in Missouri called Sassafras Springs.  Eben, our chief explorer, is eleven years old and has just read a book about the Seven Wonders of the World.  He is captivated, and longs for adventure and travel and excitement.  Sassafras Springs begins to seem incredibly mundane and boring by comparison, and one evening as he is moping and complaining, his dad offers him a challenge: he has seven days to discover seven wonders, right there in his own town.  If he succeeds, his dad will send him on a train, all by himself, to stay with relatives in Colorado.  And so the journey begins!

What follows is an interesting and delightful story about Eben’s various encounters with his friends and neighbors while on his quest for wonders.  He learns to listen, to think, to draw his own conclusions, and to see with new eyes.  He discovers that beneath the seemingly mundane, there is often beauty and mystery waiting to be revealed.  And in the end, he realizes that there is wonder all around, every day, if we only have eyes to see.

This book is written in a charming, folksy voice, and is accompanied by endearing black and white illustrations, skillfully drawn by Matt Phelan.  While the officially recommended age level inside the book is 8-12 years, it could easily be enjoyed by younger children, especially as a read-aloud.  Although it took me a couple of chapters to really be drawn in, I eventually found myself turning pages quickly, intrigued and inspired.  The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs is, indeed, a sweet book that invites each of us to seek adventure, but reminds us that sometimes the best adventures are right before our eyes.