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Archive for the ‘Read-aloud greats’ Category

January 14th is the birthday of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a gentle soul who blessed the world in countless ways, not only as a scholar and theologian, but also as a remarkable musician, organist, composer, and key organ conservationist during the 20th century. But even all of those talents would not be his greatest contribution to mankind.

The organ of Saint Suplice, where Schweitzer played along with Charles Louis Widor

He was born in Alsace, during the time that this part of France was under German domination.  Raised as a pastor’s son, he grew up in a rich theological and intellectual atmosphere.  His father taught him piano at age five; by age nine, he was replacing the organist in his father’s church.  Intently devoted to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach,  his youthful dream was to study in Paris under the most famous organist of the day–Charles Louis Widor.  At eighteen years of age, with much trepidation, he presented himself to Widor, who immediately recognized the genius of the young Alsatian lad and agreed to tutor him free of charge.  One can only imagine the magnificence of sitting in Saint Suplice Cathedral in Paris, while these two remarkable musicians played with such reverence the inspiring works of Bach.

After completing his theological studies at the Sorbonne, Schweitzer was appointed to serve as curate in Strasbourg and it was here that his life mission changed dramatically.  Always deeply burdened by the poor and suffering, Albert was struck with a deep conviction that the blessings he had received were gifts he must use in the service of others.  He made a sacred vow that he would study until he was 30 and then devote the remainder of his life to serving those most in need. An article in the Paris Missionary Society magazine captured his attention at this time, opening his eyes to the desperate plight of the people of the Congo. Then and there he vowed that he would devote his life to these people and serve them in the name of Jesus.

Forsaking all his previous successes as theologian, philosopher, author, preacher, and musician,  Schweitzer turned his back on all he loved so passionately, and headed back to the academy.  In order to effectively serve the people of the Congo, he must have a medical degree! Six more years of study and Schweitzer was ready to begin his life’s mission.

Schweitzer served the people of the Congo for  more than three decades.  His time in Africa saw him often seeing hundreds of patients a day and in his first nine months there, he ministered to over 2000 patients.  At Lambaréné, Schweitzer was doctor and surgeon in the hospital, pastor of a congregation, administrator of a village, superintendent of buildings and grounds, writer of scholarly works, commentator on contemporary history, musician, and gracious host to countless visitors.  His work there earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, and countless other honors and distinctions.  But what Schweitzer considered his most important legacy was his work on Reverence for Life.

About twenty years-ago,  I was first introduced to the life and work of Schweitzer through Hermann Hagedorn‘s wonderful biography, Prophet in the Wildernesss.  And it was here I first read his amazing perspective on the value and dignity of human life.  It isn’t surprising that against the backdrop of Hitler’s complete disregard for life, that Schweitzer was inspired to reinforce this most basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian ethic and to write so passionately about it.  Here are just a few of his thoughts:

Reverence for Life! And after twenty-five hundred years, scarcely a handful really believing it!  All the more reason to “stand and work in the world as one who aims at deepening men’s inner life and making them think.

In accordance with the responsibility of which I am conscious, I myself have to decide how much of my life, my possessions, my rights, my happiness, my time, and my rest I must devote to others, and how much of them I may keep for myself.

Christianity has need of thought in order to achieve understanding of its own real being.  For centuries  it treasured the great commandment of love and mercy as traditional truth without recognizing it as a reason for opposing slavery, witch-burning, torture, and so many other ancient and medieval atrocities.  It was only when it experienced the influence of the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment that it was stirred into entering the struggle for humanity.”

An old Landmark title, The Story of Albert Schweitzer by Anita Daniels, is a good introduction for children to one of the 20th century’s greatest heroes. Though out-of-print, it is worth searching out on used book sites. Take some time to learn about this hero of faith, this prophet of truth and goodness during a time when the death squads of Nazism held the reigns of power and authority. Schweitzer’s timeless message is as imperative in our day, as it was in his.

Square Albert Schweitzer, rue de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, Paris, France

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The following article, “How to Raise Boys Who Read” appeared in a recent Wall Street Journal and was forwarded to me by my DH. It struck so many chords with me, and touched so astutely upon topics discussed at a recent seminar I hosted that I had to send it along to all of you who are the vanguard of training up sons who are readers! Bravo! The final line in the article will confirm and affirm you in your mission. You can read the article here.

By way of commentary, I must relate a personal incident that proves the article’s thesis in a way that came home to me a few years ago. My eldest son was studying architecture for a year in Florence, Italy. His first few months there were lonely and he suffered from some culture adjustment mixed with acute homesickness. Because he had no technology to fill his empty hours, he picked up Jane Austen. Guess what? He loved her! He was impressed by how much he learned about human nature, how women think, and male/female relationships. Brilliant. Not only that, but because he’s a strapping 6’3″ male who is generally hungry and there is little inexpensive fast food in Italy–he also took up cooking! Brilliant again! Right about the same time NPR broadcast a study that showed that men who read English Literature and like to cook also have a higher libido than men who don’t. How’s that for the power of good books!? So as a fun aside to the academic and cultural importance of great literature, how about an added one–men who read great books are more manly than those who don’t!!

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Dear Friends,

As segue to a favorite children’s book, I was musing upon the theme of human character.  The notion that often very charismatic folks tend to be reckless and shallow, and that handsome young men can often be liars and fakes (ala Jane Austen), inspired a post on the topic.  Discussing this recently at a seminar made me wonder how often a particular character in literature gives us insight on someone we know in real life. I’m borrowing these themes from the following passage which appears in Kilpatrick’s and Wolfe’s Books that Build Character:

Good books make us better judges of character.  “By meeting certain character types in stories we are better prepared for the day when we will meet that type in person.  A young reader who has met Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows is less likely to be taken in by that peculiar brand of recklessness and charisma when he encounters it in a real person.  An adolescent girl who has read Jane Austen is better prepared for the fact that dashing and handsome young men often turn out to be liars and fakes.  A reader who has encountered Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities will have grasped the unpleasant but important knowledge that some people in this world are thoroughly ruthless.  A young person who reads widely gets more than the pleasure of plot and setting: he or she gets an introductory course in character studies.”

I certainly would have done well to have had these lessons through literature rather than having to learn them in the school of hard knocks.  Like many young women, I was taken in quite early by the devastatingly handsome young man (who sang and played guitar–double whammy!) and turned out to be a liar and a fake (shame on me), and I have often found myself attracted to particularly charismatic folks, little realizing how that very charisma can mask a shallowness and insincerity.  While I’ve met few people who are thoroughly ruthless, I’ve met enough that have a certain hard-nosed ruthlessness to parts of their character that can cause great pain to others.  And of course, in real life, people are seldom one way or another, but rather are a complex mix of good and bad.  The Wind in the Willows Mr. Toad is fun, energetic, entertaining, friendly, hospitable, and always on the cutting edge of new technology!  But all of this masks his inner demons (restlessness, self-absorption, recklessness, extravagance) and they get him into all kinds of trouble, bringing grief to those who know and care for him.

Of course, the beauty of what Kenneth Grahame has done in this classic novel for children, is to show the meaning of true friendship and how despite Toad’s bad behavior, his friends Mole, Mr. Badger, and Ratty continue to stand by him, rescuing, reproving, and attempting to rehabilitate him.  This is just one of many important character building themes in the story and why it remains such a classic after a century.  There is a lovely post about the centennial of this wonderful work here.

I have always particularly loved the Wind in the Willows with the original Ernest Shepherd illustrations (of A.A. Milne fame as well) and find the marriage of the two artists, Grahame being the literary artist and Shepard the visual, is a melding so perfect that it is like the expressions are one in the same.  I was delighted to discover that some 40 years after Shepard did his original pen and ink illustrations, that the publishers convinced him to revisit them and colorize them–which he did delightfully.  Other important artists that have tried their hands at Grahame’s inimitable tale have included Tasha Tudor, Aurthur Rackham, Paul Bransom and Michael Hague.  My favorite will always be Shephard’s but the other illustrators are worth a look as well.

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While summer is so stealthily slipping away, I had to do yet one more summer read to encourage you to maybe slip this one in just before the last warm days of sun, surf, and sand are gone!  This title is not as widely known as Wilson Rawls’ other beloved classic, Where the Red Fern Grows, but ranks as one of our family’s fondest read-aloud moments, which if you’ve been following this post, you’ll find are not so rare. But honestly, Summer of the Monkeys would definitely rank in the top ten (if you pressed me to list the top ten, which I hope you won’t!).

The beauty of Summer of the Monkeys lies in the novel’s humor mixed with the tender pathos of a coming-of-age story about young Jay Berry, who is crazy nuts about horses and can think of nothing but the ability to one day buy his very own.  When a circus train collides with a railroad car near his Ozark home, a number of performing monkeys escape and resume life in the wild.  The circus owners offer a reward to capture and return them to the circus and Jay Berry has his opportunity to earn the money that will make his equine dream come true.  Jay’s raucous adventures with the irascible monkeys makes an entertaining family read-aloud and the heartwarming and inspiring ending had each of us choked up enough that we were having to keep passing the book from one to another in order to get through it!  In a day when our children suffer little from wrenching poverty, and seldom have to be truly sacrificial in their daily lives, Jay Berry’s example becomes a poignant lesson about what is truly important in life.  If you’ve read this beautifully crafted and heartfelt tale post a comment and tell us how your family responded!

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Our youngest daughter recently had a friend for a summer sleep over and before I tucked the two little ones into bed (knowing it would probably be some time before they actually slept) I read them some family favorites hoping to encourage some sleepiness.  One of my all time best loved children’s books is The Wreck of the Zephyr by Chris VanAllsburg.  While VanAllsburg is most popularly know for The Polar Express, it is my humble opinion that his previous works surpass his Christmas tale in both substance and artistic richness.  If you’ve never read this gem, check it out of the library soon, or find a used copy online.  The artwork alone is stunning, and the story is subtle and clever for the close reader.  It involves a young aspiring sailor (in a gorgeous, but simple New England seaside town) who has quite an amazing adventure which I won’t spoil for you.  The other VanAllsburg title that we’ve loved forever is Jumanji.  Both these stories have great twists at the end that will intrigue the young reader.

We also pulled out Madeline, as our little friend had never heard of the precocious French orphan who has captured the hearts of little girls for over half a century! Each book of the series begins with, “In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines . . . the smallest one was Madeline.” The author, Ludwig Bemelmans had a life as colorful as his protagonist, and incidentally, his wife’s name was Madeleine.  Madeline’s Rescue, the second book in the series won the Caldecott Medal in 1954.  For those who live near New York City or visit it regularly, one of the city’s most famous hotels, The Carlyle has a mural painted by Bemelmans in its Bemelman’s Bar.  It is the artists seasonal depiction of New York’s Central Park and includes the characters from his delightful stories.  Fortunately, when the hotel was planning to remodel and forever lose Bemelman’s work, it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that came to the rescue of this delightful work of art.

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I told you we were reading the Little Britches series with our girls for summer reading.  We are currently reading Man of the Family and last night was the chapter, “We Really Spill the Beans.”  We had just had an incident at dinner with a broken dish due to a lackadaisical attitude and then a refusal to take responsibility.  Little did we know what a good chapter our nightly reading would be to carry home a life lesson for all of us!  For those unfamiliar with the story, Ma has started a cooking business in order to support the family.  The family depends greatly on the income they can make selling Ma’s home baked apple pies, lemon meringue pies, doughnuts, bean pots and Injun pudding. Ralph (Little Britches) then delivers (on a rickety homemade handcart) his mother’s wonders to the neighbors who’ve placed orders.  During one of Colorado’s hottest summers on record Ma and Grace have spent over 48 hours straight, cooking over a hot wood stove a total of 26 lemon pies, 22 dozen doughnuts, 16 apple pies, brown bread, beans, and 4 pots of Injun pudding. Ralph, Grace, and Philip set out to deliver the valuable labor intensive goods to their neighbors (I’m remembering the time it took me four hours to make 2 lemon meringue pies!).  Unfortunately, due to a rickety wagon, not fit to carry such a load, “that load went over in such a way that it spilled every single thing on the wagon–about half of it on Grace and me.” The destruction is complete.  The beauty of the story is Ralph’s quick and noble willingness to take responsibility for the accident, “I know it’s all my fault, [he] said.  If I’d had sense enough to soak the wheels, it wouldn’t have happened.”  His humility is startling and refreshing and begins an outflow of grace that is so sweet and clear. Ralph recalls,

“I don’t know when I ever hated to do anything as badly as I hated to go home and tell Mother what had happened to the cookery.” “She must have seen my face the minute I came through the door, “What’s the matter Son? Did the wagon break down?” she said.  She wasn’t cross, and she said it as quietly as she’d have said, “Is it cloudy?”  “I don’t think I’d have cried if she’d been cross, but to have her be so gentle when I felt so bad was what did it.  I don’t remember kneeling down by her, but I do remember her brushing my hair back with her hand and saying, “Now, now Son.”

Well, I got quite choked up reading this and once again, my kids were puzzled by my tears.  “Mom, it’s just food!  For heaven’s sake!”  Well, you and I know it’s much bigger than that, but some understandings only come with time and maturity.

The story convicts me on a number of levels.  Ma’s gracious reaction is humbling, convicting and inspiring.  How much I long to be more like her that way!  Especially when it comes to broken dishes!  How unimportant the dish, how fragile the little psyche that we damage by our anger!  The other part I find convicting is the way in which Ma and Pa parented to inspire such honesty and quick willingness to take responsibility for their actions.  It reminds me of a time my very young nephew Greg broke a riding toy, ran into our house immediately and proclaimed, “Mom, I broke the buggy (remember those riding toys that looked like little VWs?), it’s all my fault.” How sweet the grace that follows the quick willingness to take ownership of our own brokenness and propensity to error.  We all need it, and so we all need to learn to give it freely and without hesitation. “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”–Anne Lamott

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For those of you who love the D’Aulaire biographies I think you’ll be interested to read the following article which concerns the New York Public Librarian who first established the children’s library in America–Anne Carroll Moore. While she was the inspiration for Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire to first write and illustrate children’s books, her relationship with another beloved author–E.B. White was less than amiable. After having urged him for years to write a children’s book, she became his most stalwart critic and literally banned Stuart Little from the NY Public Library. Interesting and distressing, but true. E.B. White’s ability to stand in the face of her unremitting resistance to his work is a lesson for all of us in staying true to your mission and vision. If he hadn’t, one of the world’s most priceless and beloved children’s tales–Charlotte’s Web, would never have been written. Here is the link:
The Lion and the Mouse (more…)

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I’ve just returned from CHEA–which for those readers outside of California is the California Home Educators annual conference held in Pasadena.  I spoke there a number of times and had the delightful opportunity to connect with many of you and I hope you’ll subscribe to the blog so we can continue to keep in touch!  We talked and talked and talked some more about good books and it was wonderful to hear your stories about how good books have changed your lives!  One beautiful young mother came up and shared how hearing me talk about the power of good books a few years ago had totally changed the direction of her family’s home schooling journey and delightfully so.  They decided to scrap the textbooks and entered on the wonderful journey of literature!  Thank you, Monica for sharing!  Loretta persevered in her commitment to the power of literature over a traditional academic approach despite the often disparaging comments of friends–you know, the “What do you actually do for school?” “Well, we read great literature.”  “Oh . . . really–is that all?”  Loretta’s disparaging friends were quite surprised to find her literature rich son accepted to West Point where he is currently in his third year.  Many testimonials like this encouraged us to continue to press on sharing our passion and commitment to the canon of literature for its own sake.

So here’s another all-time favorite for summer reading, family read-aloud, character building books.  This one is particularly dear to my heart because it offers fathers a sure bet for a read-aloud experience they will look forward to each night!  Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers is the powerful true story of young Ralph Moody, who in 1906 moves from New Hampshire to Colorado with his family.  Through young Ralph’s eyes we experience the hair-raising adventures of a passionate, impetuous young boy as he and his father attempt to carve out a ranching life amidst the perils of tornadoes, water wars, flash floods, and grinding poverty.  Ralph’s perspective offers a lens into the character of a father committed to raising Ralph to be honest at his core. The tender pathos of their conversations, the father’s profound strength when faced with overwhelming difficulties and his devotion to his son all offer lessons rare in our day.

The sequel to Little Britches is Man of the Family.  Following this there are 5 more titles in the series.  Every family should experience the wonder of these books at some time in the life of their family.  We are currently reading Man of the Family to our daughters aged 10 and 15.  They love them and beg for more most nights (excepting the ones where we don’t get to read-aloud time till after 9 or 10 pm!  Well, it is summer after all!).  For our family, this is probably the third time over the years reading this series and repeated readings only increases our devotion. If you’ve enjoyed these books with your family, please let us know your thoughts and how these books impacted you.

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