Archive for the ‘Summer Reading’ Category

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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My favorite way to pass the long hot summer afternoons of a northern California childhood was with a good book.  While the local public pool provided hours of respite there were times when you could just not take the sun anymore and needed to retreat to the shade and what better way to while away those hot hours than by transporting your imagination to another time and place?

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

This book took me far back to the cool woods and dusty villages of medieval England.  Adventures galore await the reader who jumps into the lives of a young spoiled prince and his whipping boy.  I remember being thoroughly confused that there was such a provision made for princes – the punishment for their misdeeds would be placed on another boy?  My sense of justice could not reconcile this but as the story progressed I came to see beyond the simplistic preconceptions of rich and poor, privileged and not.  There are very funny scenes in this book coupled with adventures and great life-lessons. Reading level: middle school.

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry

This well-loved classic is a must for summer reading.  The salt breezes of Chincoteague island, the wildness of its ponies, the adventures of Paul and Maureen, the elements are all there and Henry creates a beautiful story that will capture your child’s imagination.  Once your child has read one of Marguerite Henry’s books, you’ll find yourself trolling used book stores in search of others to quench your child’s new found appetite for all Henry’s “horse” stories.  Reading level: middle school.

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

When I was about 12 or 13 I went through a serious Elizabeth George Speare phase.  I could not get enough of her stories.  I must have read Calico CaptiveThe Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Sign of the Beaver, and The Bronze Bow a dozen times each and remember being so disappointed when I realized I had read everything she’d ever written – it was almost like being let down by a very good friend.  Didn’t she know I needed more of her stories? Four was not nearly enough.  Until her death in 1994, I kept hoping that she’d write more.  That was not to be the case but in the mean time, I read and re-read The Bronze Bow.  Daniel bar Jamin, the story’s main protagonist is a young Jewish boy living at the time of Christ.  Fired by zealots angry at Roman rule, Daniel is a young man full of anger and living only to avenge his father’s murder.  Set in the volatile first Century, there are so many facets to this story and there are wonderful characters; the Pharisee’s family, the kind Roman soldier, a new preacher from Nazareth.  Really a must-read along with any of Speare’s other titles. Reading level: jr. high.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Talk about transporting one’s mind to another time and place – this is such an adventure classic.  Fastidious Englishman, Phileas Fogg and his faithful manservant, Jean Passepartout, embark on the unthinkable-at-the-time task of traveling around the world in a record-breaking 80 days.  Such a world apart from our current ability to circle the globe in a matter of hours stuffed inside a sterile metal tube, Fogg’s journey is colorful, exciting, dangerous, and funny. Reading level: jr. high.

Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serraillier

Set in Warsaw, Poland in 1942 this story is based on true accounts of a young family trying to escape Nazi occupation. When the children are separated from their parents it seems impossible that they will survive.  Grit and determination coupled with great courage drive them onward as the three young children fight against all odds.  A brilliantly told story, this one isn’t your classic feel-good summer read, but it’s a great adventure story.

Well, there’s some suggestions for books that will transport your children to distant lands and times.  I would love to hear about some of your favorites!

Happy Reading,


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As we are approaching Independence Day,  I thought it would be good to feature some great American classics on our Summer Reading List.  In the midst of cookouts, fireworks, and parades, it’s good to remember exactly what we are celebrating.  While many of these books may be viewed as scholastic or things to read during the academic year, I have found that sometimes it can be a lot of fun to read these without the pressure of comprehension questions or written essays attached!

The Star Spangled Banner

What better way to celebrate the 4th of July than a reading of the classic American anthem, the Star Spangled Banner?  The D’Aulaire’s splendidly illustrated version is a must for this weekend.  Capturing the vastness of the American landscape, the variety of its people, and key events in our history, The Star Spangled Banner is Americana at its best.

George Washington by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire

And what 4th of July reading list would be complete without a biography of the Father of our Nation?  This one makes a great read-aloud and the illustrations are gorgeous.  I remember hours spent with the original hardback edition, pouring over the details of the lithographs while listening to my mom or dad read me the story.  A book like this gives a child an introduction to greatness and a love of the history of one’s country.

It has been said that the inability to believe in the greatness of other’s character reveals a smallness of one’s own.  By providing children with examples of great leadership, as seen in George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and many others, you open worlds to them that are inspiring and optimistic.  Worlds apart from our everyday experience.  Yes, each of these people were flawed and had struggles and made poor decisions at times but that is what makes them so inspiring.  In the face of their own fallenness, they rose to make the world a bit more friendly, a bit kinder, and a bit more beautiful.

A More Perfect Union by Betsy and Giulio Maestro

Telling the stories of the long, hot summers in Philadelphia when the Continental Congresses met and crafted our Constitution, this book has wonderful illustrations and tells the story of the Great American Experiment. Accessible to all ages it’s a great primer on the story of why America separated from Britain and formed a unique government, the likes of which the world had never seen.

What are your favorite 4th of July themed reads?  Any books you remember fondly from childhood or have recently discovered?  Please share!

May you and your family have a wonderful 4th of July,


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We can’t leave Robert McCloskey until we’ve mentioned his most popular book and one that impacted the children’s book world in profound ways–Make Way for Ducklings.  While I was getting my graduate degree in children’s literature, I was fortunate to sit under Anita Silvey who actually spoke with McCloskey about his work on this book.  While working on the drawings of the mallards, McCloskey purchased a number of ducks and brought them home to his apartment where he kept them in his bathtub.  The fidgety ducks were not cooperating too well with the artist’s efforts to sketch them, so he actually gave them some wine to slow them down a bit.  As you can see from his very realistic results, it must have worked!

Make Way for Ducklings has been translated into just about every known language and is beloved by children around the world.  Bronze models of Mrs. Mallard and her eight little ducklings are a key attraction at the Boston Public Gardens, and a visit there is like a trip to the United Nations–children from all over the world clamor to sit atop the ducklings made so dear by McCloskey’s tender and delightful tale. The choice to do the drawings in the sepia brown was not McCloskey’s (he had actually done the original drawings in full watercolors), but was dictated by the publisher because of war-time shortages–the book came out at the beginning of World War II.  And if you notice carefully, the tale is actually a metaphor for the many families separated during the war–Mr. Mallard leaves for a time–but happily the family is reunited in the end.  “When they reached the pond and swam across to the little island, there was Mr. Mallard waiting for them, just as he had promised.”

When we adopted our youngest daughter Katie from Ukraine, for some reason Make Way for Ducklings became her favorite book and even before she could speak or understand any English, she would pull it down from the shelf daily to have it read.  She never deviated in this choice.  If I remember correctly, the first words she actually spoke in English were “all of a dither!”–McCloskey’s description of Mrs. Mallard’s flustered state when she is nearly run over by a careless bicyclist in the Boston Common. When reading the book aloud to her, we would pause at the end of a sentence and Katie would finish it–even before she knew any other words!  Imagine the fun when we took Katie to the Public Gardens where she got to  ride a swan boat and see where this tale that had so captured her imagination, actually took place.  Imagine our embarrassment when Katie–reluctant to leave this magical place–had a full-blown melt-down, kicking and screaming temper tantrum collapsing in the middle of the forever immortalized, romantic and picturesque bridge (pictured here)!  Our constrained laughter made picking her up and carrying her off the bridge a challenge!

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Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

Some of my favorite summer reading memories involve Carol Ryrie Brink’s classic Caddie Woodlawn.  I loved this book so much I remember being really sad when the publishers redesigned it and eliminated the classic Trina Schart Hyman cover, seen here:

Hyman captured the personality of the vivacious, strong-willed, brave, and just a bit reckless, Caddie.  With her flowing hair and one strap slipping off her shoulder – Hyman’s Caddie is the one I think of when I remember these stories.  Thankfully the publishers have retained the pen and ink sketches within the text so you won’t have to settle for the image of Caddie as portrayed on the current cover.  Anyway, I passed countless summer hours reading and rereading the adventures of Caddie and her brothers.  The Woodlawns lived on the edge of the American frontier and this provided ample opportunity for Caddie to exercise her free spirit.  A tom-boy at heart she resists the domestic realm in favor of the wide open spaces of the prairie, the dangers of rushing rivers, even the unfamiliarity of an Indian camp.  Brink based these stories on the recollections of her grandmother, the original Caddie Woodlawn, and captures the spirit of an age of adventure, hardship, and courage.  When I finished Caddie Woodlawn the first time, I promptly reread it, I really hated for the stories to end.  I remember being thrilled to discover the sequel, Caddie Woodlawn’s Family, at the library and proceeded to devour it.

Caddie Woodlawn’s Family

These are summer classics – books that transport you to another time and place and make you wish you could stay. Wonderful to have on hand to give to a bored child who needs a bit of an escape.

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Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder ranks in my mind as one of the best children’s picture books ever.  Granted that my “one of the best” is somewhat limitless, I cannot make it through this book without marveling at the artist/author’s marriage of truly extraordinary art with lyrical and evocative language.  Those who have been fortunate to live or vacation somewhere on the New England coast in summer will find that the author manages to put to words the feelings associated with many elements that make summer unique and magical.  Whether it is a  sudden shower over the water, “porpoises puffing and playing around your boat” or the wonder of “where hummingbirds go in a hurricane”, McCloskey captures the very essence of this time of year. Having never visited the Eastern shore in summer before actually reading this book to my children, I subsequently visited there one June as an adult. Riding bicycles through the quaint town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, my husband and I arrived at a very long teak bridge that took us to an outlying sand spit.  Stopping on the bridge to take in the marvelous scene of sand, sea and shore, we noticed a small black cloud moving our direction.  Suddenly we were in the opening scene of this marvelous book!  For those who cannot manage a trip to the Eastern shore in summer, let McCloskey take you there in a Time of Wonder.

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Rebecca’s recent post reminded me of summer classics that have become beloved staples in our home.  When I think of some of the very best children’s books about summer themes the works of Robert McCloskey have to rank in the very top:  One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Time of Wonder, and Make Way for Ducklings. I just finished reading One Morning in Maine to my youngest and the sweetness of the tale, the charming scenes of New England, and the intuitive insight into the mind of a child all evoke the very sweetest memories.  The protagonist is little Sal, who has just lost her first tooth and the wonder and delight of this experience causes her to view the world around her through the lens of this childhood rite of passage.

Indeed I have to admit that McCloskey’s work started a romantic love affair with New England for me over 25 years ago, when I began to read these  works to my little ones.  Sitting in far away California reading tales so quintessentially Atlantic seaboard drew me unconsciously to that coast when our children were between 3-8 years old. We took an Early American history “field trip” there and fell even deeper in love with the history, architecture, and essence of New England.  A love affair that began between the pages of these books resulted in our family relocating to Cape Cod 15 years ago and living in the village of Sandwich for eleven wonderful years.  Admittedly, it wasn’t all lovely summer scenes the entire sojourn there, but the charm that these books portray does really exist there in a unique way, and I feel blessed to have lived there for those years.  What I don’t miss as much–the long winters–seems to fade once again reading the adventures of little Sal in One Morning in Maine.  Read it with your little one today, and you’ll see what I mean!

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Yesterday my husband and I travelled from Edinburgh to upstate New York to spend a week with his family.  Upon picking up our rental car and driving the hour and a half to our final destination I managed to navigate the vast expanses of satellite radio to find the Diane Rehm show was doing a 50 year anniversary special on one of my all-time favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  If interested, you can listen to the program on their website, here.  It has been about six months since I’ve been in the States and there could have been no better or more fitting program to listen to as I made the slow adjustment back.  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest works of American fiction and has sold over 30 million copies since its publication in 1960.  Its themes are both distinctly American and universal making it a book that strikes at the very core of who we are as human beings.  Scout’s precocious nature and questioning of the injustice she cannot comprehend as a child have caused countless readers to examine their own prejudices and assumptions.  Atticus Fitch, the great literary embodiment of integrity, makes us all want to be more just and courageous and kind.  Although I’ve read this book multiple times before it is on my list of must-reads this summer – it is its 50th birthday afterall!  A wonderful read-aloud, this is a book that must be shared and discussed.  Follow up your reading with a viewing of the classic movie adaptation starring Gregory Peck, playing what, in my opinion, was his greatest role.  What do you like best about To Kill a Mockingbird?

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