A few more World War II books for kids (chapter books and read-alouds)

It has been a while since I did a post on read-alouds, so I thought it might be easier to break them up into topics.  As usual, the criteria for these reviews is books that are over 100 pages and not picture books, that I either read aloud to the kids or read in order to discuss them with one or more kids who read the book independently. We also still read shorter books together, and the kids read a veritable plethora of other chapter books about World War II, but documenting all of those would take a long time!

You may have noticed that we’ve been reading a lot about World War II.  I think these books bring up the tail end, and our school reading has turned to Korea and the Civil Rights Movement, so I figured a wrap-up was in order.

sixty fathersThe House of Sixty Fathers makes a fantastic read-aloud for both boys and girls.  The story of a young Chinese boy during the Japanese invasion in World War II is based on a true story Meindert DeJong (who also wrote The Wheel on the School–another favorite) observed when he was serving in China at that time.  Apparently DeJong tried to adopt the real life boy but wasn’t able to make it happen during the war and then he never was able to find him after the Communists took over.  Fortunately, the book has a happier ending!  We all enjoyed the adventure and the determination of the little boy.

war saved lifeIn The War that Saved My Life, a little girl from London’s East End finds hope and a loving community when she’s evacuated to the country during the Blitz.  The story was good, but I thought it suffered somewhat from unbelievable elements–namely a mother who was too entirely villainous. I think it might have been a stronger book had her behavior been more to do with ignorance or superstition or even just being poor and tired, rather than being straight evil. I thought maybe this was just my adult perspective, but Hannah picked up on it too, so maybe not.  In spite of that caveat, the story is interesting and might be a good pick if you have a tweenish person studying World War II.

thecayThe Cay  will probably only work as a read-aloud if you’re able to read ahead a bit and modify text while you’re reading it.  We did this one as a family read-aloud and I could not BEAR the spelled out accent of one of the main characters.  I like doing voices when I read, but it was like trying to imitate Sebastian the Crab from Disney’s Little Mermaid and that was just so annoying that I had to stop, announce to the kids that I’d be reading in a regular accent, and change some of the pronunciation and diction.  I also changed a few words and mentions that I felt were racist or at least not the way I want my kids to think about people.  Having done so, the story was great–kind of a less far-fetched version of The Swiss Family Robinson, but with a kid in the Caribbean during World War II.

war peace jazzI’m not a huge fan of textbooks for kids–they are usually dry, dumbed down, and much better replaced with living books. However, I have found a few that worked well, and A History of US: War, Peace, and All That Jazz: 1918-1945 is one. The book has short chapters and takes a story-telling approach, using good photography and art, to form a spine for the covered years.  Since so much was going on from 1918 to 1945 around the world, I felt like we needed a spine to hold it all together as we read widely from other living books too.  We read this one out loud together and I thought it worked well for that. We’ve also listened to The Story of the World for this timeframe, but I wanted something with a bit more detail and that I could read out loud versus only listening to (since we’ve got the audio version) in the car. I wouldn’t say that this one was better than the SOTW, but I think they complement each other.

You can read about other chapter books on World War II for kids here and here.


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Productivity vs. Retention: An Experiment

joan of arcI read somewhere that it’s a good productivity exercise to listen to audio books and podcasts on 2x speed. This, the theory goes, will allow you to consume information twice as fast and therefore be twice as effective. Naturally, an experiment was in order.

Results? Mixed.

I do think podcasts are better twice as fast.  I prefer to read information and am very fast at that, so podcasts often feel  like they take too long for the information they deliver.  I don’t mind in some cases, but in others I feel I’m plodding along.  The only time 2x speed failed me was when a podcast guest had an ex-ter-em-ely thick Southern country accent and was also a fast talker.  I felt I was going to suffer a heart attack if I kept on at that speed so I dropped to 1.5x and that was fine.

Audio books were tougher.  I already have to really focus to follow the arguments in audio books since I’m not an auditory learner.  This is a good exercise for my brain, though, so I press on.  I have gotten better at doing history in this fashion, as long as I don’t mind missing bits here and there.  At 2x speed, I think I started to lose too much. I listened to Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc as my first experiment, and while I enjoyed it and thought I was following along, I can’t really point to any new information I gleaned from the book.  I’ve read about Joan before, and we studied her in our homeschool, so maybe I just had enough exposure already, but I can’t help feeling that I might have gained more from reading the book than listening–at least on double speed.

Your mileage may vary, but I think I will stick to speeding up in smaller increments, or just tough out the longer time investment of audio books in order not to sacrifice the details.

What do you think? Have you experimented with speeding up your listening? How did it work for you?


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Slade House

slade houseAt the risk of sounding crotchety, I have to follow my post on being disappointed with follow-on books with yet another admission of underwhelm.

I loved David Mitchell’s excellent Booker-Prize-long-listed novel The Bone Clocks. I even read it a second time, which is rare for me. Mitchell wove the book’s bizarre world-building with exploration of major themes and geopolitical situations and a dash of dystopian future. It’s excellent–well written, thought-provoking, gripping–and I highly recommend it.

So naturally I jumped at Mitchell’s next work, Slade House, which is a series of vignettes related to the world of The Bone Clocks, and includes some character and event overlap.

I can but sigh. Unlike its predecessor, Slade House is mostly about the macabre elements of the world Mitchell invented, with none of the existential struggle or other points of interest. Reading the first book, I let the grosser aspects slide because they were used to highlight the struggle between good and evil in individual characters and overall.  There really isn’t any of that here. The characters don’t change much, and have none of the startling or conflicted nature that marked The Bone Clocks with such excellence.

Slade House isn’t a total loss–Mitchell is a gifted writer and the story moves quickly. However, especially when compared to his other work, I can’t really recommend it. Even if you were a fan of The Bone Clocks, you could skip Slade House without missing anything.

Although I was disappointed this time around, I’ll still keep David Mitchell on my list and hope for better things next time around!


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When you don’t love the next one

Sometimes books suffer in comparison to the first one you read by the same author, don’t you think?

istanbul passageI probably would have liked Istanbul Passage a lot more had I not read it so close on the heels of the author’s more recent book, Leaving Berlin.  While this book had the same evocative setting descriptions (and I do think Kanon does a great job of putting the reader in the city he describes), solid historical details, and strong plotting, Istanbul Passage didn’t grab me as much as did Leaving Berlin. And, because of reading them so close together, I also felt like I could pick up on Kanon’s formula.  A lot of writers have one, and I think mystery writers do in particular, but I prefer to forget about it in between reading books from one author. So I think I’ll continue to put Kanon on my list, but will probably want to add a couple of months between his books.

TRUTH-COVER_FinalI enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, so I looked forward to the author’s latest work The Truth According to Us. The book got a lot of press–at least in the places that I check for book reviews–and so I had high hopes.

The book was good, and I enjoyed it, but it wrapped up really neatly in some ways that made the ending unsatisfying for me, and I thought the whole thing was entirely too long for what it was. It wasn’t bad, and I still think it’s a good read, but I might have liked it more had I not gone in with high expectations.

Do you run into this problem when you read multiple books by the same author? How do you get around it? Do you give a set time to take a break between books by one author?


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Big Magic

Big-Magic-CoverI will warn you in advance that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is a good book that gets off to a weird start. So when you start reading and find a bunch of flouffy whatnot about how ideas are sentient beings floating around in the ether and getting transferred from person to person or gushing through people’s ears (I know. I know), just skim and bear with it because she IS getting to a good part.

And the good part is worth getting to.

Gilbert talks about what stands in the way of our being creative, and reading all of the excuses I give myself for not taking action on my ideas had a funny way of making them seem ridiculous that, in itself, was pretty motivating. I liked her exhortation to stop being so precious about your creativity and how important it is and how you need to wait until you have more time to put your plans into effect, and just DO SOMETHING.

We don’t need to be big and famous and awesome and save the world with our creativity.  We just need to be creative because it’s who we are and it brings us (and others) joy.

Gilbert comes at this from a different perspective than I do, but I agreed with her assessment. She points out that in modern times, when we divorced the concept of the divine from creativity, we put a lot of undue pressure on the creative person.  Instead of being a person GIVEN a creative gift, he or she now IS creative.  It makes the person responsible, rather than a receiver, and it makes the whole thing into a very fraught enormous deal.

Instead, if we can view our creativity and our ideas as gifts (I would say gifts from God, Gilbert has a vaguer viewpoint) we are released from a lot of that pressure, and we can just create.

Gilbert quotes Rebecca Solnit:

“So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

I read an article just this afternoon in which I was exhorted to be working on my creative goal three to four hours per day if I was really serious about it.  I’m signed up for an email series on creativity (and it’s great, don’t get me wrong) that lays down a challenge to be working on my project two hours per day lest I be labeled someone who isn’t really all in.  This sort of thing can be discouraging when I track my time, don’t watch TV, only check Facebook twice a week (New Years resolution for 2016–surprisingly easy and effective so far), and have what amounts to two jobs. So I guess I shouldn’t write fiction or essays at this stage of my life, right?

Well, no, Gilbert would say. I should do my creative writing when I can and that’s ok. It’s not less serious or less enjoyable or less potentially good if I can’t sling 20 hours a week at it.

Somehow, I needed that permission. So last Sunday, on my Screen Free Sabbath (another new resolution, surprisingly restorative) I spent about an hour writing a scene for one of my novel ideas long hand into a notebook.  I loved it.  Who knows if I will finish this novel at some point, or if it will just be a good piece of avocational writing that makes me happy.  Either way, it’s worth it.

If you self-identify as a creative, like to be creative, feel like you’d like to be more creative, or have a secret creative side bubbling up in you somewhere, I think you’d get something out of Big Magic.  Maybe you won’t agree with all of Gilbert’s philosophies (I didn’t), but I think you’d find something to inspire you to create.


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Breaking Busy

Breaking+Busy+CoverI know being “soooo busy” is ubiquitous in our culture, and that many people equate being busy with being important or needed or significant. That said, I also know that many of us deliberately choose to be counter-cultural in regards to the whole busy phenomenon. We don’t run our kids around to zillions of lessons, we don’t pack our calendars, we don’t overschedule, we know sleep and reltionships and down time are important.

But, do you ever look around and find yourself…still busy? I think some seasons of life just ARE busy. What do you do when, in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself dealing with a parenting crisis, a health crisis, a work crisis, a financial crisis…or several of those all at once?

The fact is, in modern life it behooves us to have some strategies to combat frenzy, because you have to live deliberately if you want to avoid the busy trap.  That’s why I loved Alli Worthington’s book Breaking Busy: How to Find Peace and Purpose in a World of Crazy.

Several aspects of the book were real stand-outs for me:

  • Diagnosing busy. If you’re not the sort who does the super busy thing as a rule, you might still at times fall into a busy life stage.  Alli gives great diagnostic questions to help you figure out if you are too busy. A lot of it has to do with tuning in to how you feel and identifying those feelings as symptoms so you can work out a different story. This is an area of life I am trying to improve: just because I’m feeling a certain way doesn’t necessarily indicate an immutable fact–it might just be a clue to a problem I can solve or a situation I can change.
  • Evaluating the why. I’m a questioner, so I have to know the why for what I’m doing, but I don’t always think of that until it’s too late.  Alli gives helpful advice for figuring out why you are doing something, and whether it’s something God wants YOU to do, or if it’s just something a lot of other people around you do but God isn’t asking from you right now.
  • Being honest about relationships. We all know that some people drain us and others encourage us.  But if you’re like me, maybe you feel an obligation to “be nice” that turns into a major source of negativity in your life and winds up marginalizing your family or other important relationships. Alli’s discussion of this problem helped me so much. Choosing to pour into relationships that are your priorities and that fill your soul is ok, and sometimes it’s ok to pray for people but not let them have a major chunk of your time.
  • How editing your life makes it more fruitful. I hadn’t thought of it in these terms, but as I read I realized that God does often have to break me down to get me to listen. Pruning and rearranging are often necessary to help us see the work God has for us. But it’s not an easy process, and that’s ok to admit. I was so encouraged by Alli’s insight into what that life edit process looks and feels like.

I could easily go on, because I took five single spaced pages of notes from the book, but instead I’ll just recommend that you read this book yourself.  I think you’ll appreciate the insight, encouragement, and practical help the book offers, no matter where you fall on the busy spectrum.

Breaking Busy goes on sale January 26. If you order it in advance, you can get a free Breaking Busy Guide that features a lot of other writers you are probably familiar with.  I haven’t previewed the guide myself, but the lineup of contributors looks solid, so it might be worth a pre-order if you were thinking of getting the book anyway.

Have you ever been hit with busy seasons that weren’t due to deliberate overcommitment? How did you handle it?


Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I received a review copy of the book from the publisher, but the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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Teaching From Rest

teaching from restI have had Sarah Mackenzie’s Teaching From Rest on my wish list ever since it came out, and this Christmas I received a copy.  Y’all, I read a lot of books.  I don’t want to own most of them.  But I am so, so glad to own a copy of this one.

Teaching From Rest is ostensibly about how to homeschool with peace, but it’s also about how to do life with peace.  Homeschooling is a major part of my life, but it’s not the sum total, and I found so many pieces of this book helpful to me as a parent and as a person too.

I tend to do a lot of things, and get caught up in analyzing all the things, and often wind up getting overwhelmed.  The past several months have been even more overwhelming than usual.  But something Sarah wrote in this book stopped me in my overwhelmed tracks and completely changed my viewpoint about my days.

“Bring your basket.”

Sarah points out that often in homeschooling (and parenting, and life) we feel overwhelmed like the disciples faced with 5,000 people who needed feeding and only a few loaves and fish to get the job done.  We feel like we can’t possibly do this with the resources we have.  And we’re right as were they.  We aren’t making it up, life is hard. But whatever we are facing, we can bring our basket–whatever skills, abilities, and time we have–and trust God for the rest.

This visual helps me so much.  I have the phrase written on my desk and in my goal sheets. I remind myself to bring my basket several times a day.  It really changes my perspective and reminds me to pray over more things.

Teaching From Rest is full of things like that.  I had several tabs to make a note on almost every page.  I can see re-reading this book again and again.  If you read Sarah’s blog, some of it will feel familiar to you, but it’s more than enough new and expanded content to be well worth it.

If you homeschool, I think you really, truly, and immediately ought to read this book.  If you don’t homeschool but tend towards bustle and overwhelm as a parent in general, I think you’d get a lot out of it too.  It’s an excellent read for any time of year, but particularly helpful in the New Year/fresh start season.

As a side note, I have the hard copy version of the book, which is revised and expanded from the original e-book. 


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Year in Books 2015


We are ringing in the new year with an epic bout of stomach flu, so my plans to take down the Christmas decorations, make Hannah’s birthday cake, and start my new goals with a bang have been scrapped.  Instead, I’m washing bedding, cleaning carpet, snuggling a sad toddler, and delivering cups of ginger ale in between nibbling Saltines myself.  The change of plans is fitting enough, since my word for 2016 is “hush.”  Hush the hustle, hush the online noise (contributing and consuming), hush the need to be doing big things all the time.  I think 2016 is going to be a year of more small things, and of bringing my best to the people, callings, and work I have before me rather than always assuming I should be doing something bigger.

As regular readers doubtless notice, it’s a pendulum swing from last year, when I chose the words “double down” as my theme. I actually wrote, “I think I may be ready for a push year.”  Ha!  Good thing I fancied myself ready for that, since 2015 was, in fact, a push year in every single respect.

In part because of the aforementioned doubling down, I didn’t read as many books in 2015 as I have in years previous–I wound up the year at 115 of my books and an additional 63 long books read aloud to the kids or in order to discuss with the kids.  But I read a lot of excellent, worthy books in all categories so I feel good about it overall.

I went back through my reviews to identify the ten books that had the most impact on my life or were incredible standouts.  These are the ones I am still thinking about, the ideas that I acted on with greatest results, and the books that I’d recommend most highly. The links below are to my longer reviews.

Best Fiction

  • Station Eleven – This masterfully composed story combines a compelling plot and great writing with nuanced exploration of themes like truth, beauty, and deep connections.  Perfect for a book club discussion (although, sadly, I missed mine).
  • The Tsar of Love and Techno – I don’t usually love short stories, but this collection interweaves characters and perspectives into a whole that nearly forms a novel. The author’s rich settings, skillful characterization, and depiction of how destruction and redemption can coexist in families make this book amazing.

Best Read-Aloud

  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – When it comes to read-alouds, the very best not only contain great stories and excellent writing, but also lead to incredible discussions.  This book did just that, and added considerable depth to our understanding of prejudice in general, but especially in the interwar American South.

Best Parenting Tool

  • Nurture by Nature – This book helps parents figure out their child’s personality type, then gives practical tips for how to effectively parent and interact with that child in light of his or her temperament.  It’s exceptionally useful to know these things, whether you have one child or several.

Best Life Management

  • Make It Happen – If you’re looking for a tool to dig deeply into the roots of your life–who you are, what your purpose is, what brings you joy–this is the book for you. I was seriously impressed and am using the author’s goal setting framework (PowerSheets) in 2016. They work well with the concepts found in the book, but the book alone could easily revolutionize how you approach your year.
  • Contentment – It didn’t knock me upside the head when I first read it, but one of the concepts I got out of this book wound up having a profound impact on my year. The reminder that online interaction is often false community radically changed my attitude toward my real life and shifted how I think about and use social media.

Best Work-Life Balance

  • Overwhelmed – You might think with a title like Overwhelmed this would be a book long on whining and short on solutions. You’d be wrong. I’m still thinking about the concepts in this book months after reading it, and found the author’s frameworks and challenges shifted the way I think about my life and priorities.

Best Organizing

  • The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – I know it’s so overplayed that it’s become a cliche, but this book really did radically change how I think about and store my stuff. I tend to veer toward minimalism anyway at this stage of my life, but even so I found inspiration and paradigm shifts that made a big difference in my life.

Best Spiritual Life

  • Prayer – Striking a near-perfect balance between rigorous scholarship and practical application, this book revolutionized the way I approach my devotional life–both in prayer and reading/studying the Bible.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • A Path Through Suffering – This book hit me at the perfect time (I read it while I was recuperating from a medical situation) but it’s so forthright and applicable to any circumstances that I don’t hesitate to recommend it highly to everyone.  This is an excellent book for how to deal with your messy, far-from-ideal, actual real life in a God-honoring way.

What were the best books you read in 2015? What titles are you most anticipating in the new year? I’m looking forward to reading with you in 2016!

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Notes From a Small Island

notes from a small islandIf you enjoy travelogues and/or have a deep and abiding love for Britain, I highly, highly recommend that you read Bill Bryson’s excellent Notes from a Small Island.

Bryson, an American who went to live in England just after college, married an English girl, and raised a family there for twenty years, undertook a weeks long trek around the island prior to moving back to the US.  His documentation of the trip is funny, interesting, and clearly the work of a committed Anglophile.

I enjoyed reading of Bryson’s adventures and determined that I’ll have to re-read the book if I ever get the chance to make a lengthy trip to England myself.  While I wouldn’t want to follow the exact same itinerary or see the same things necessarily, I think the book would give some good ideas for a long trip.

My favorite part of the book came at the end, when Bryson’s wife picks him up from the train station and they drive home.  He sees his stone house, which was built before American independence, and the church in his town, which was built before Columbus set foot in the new world, and reckons how lovely it is to return home after a journey and how much he loves this part of the world.

Notes from a Small Island is a fun, touching, and delightful read, and I highly recommend it.


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Short Stories

Coming on the heels of The Tsar of Love and Techno, which I loved and thought was masterfully conceived and well-written, I read two other short story collections. One was good and the other was a massive disappointment.

a-good-man-is-hard-to-find1I had previously read many of the stories from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories but hadn’t ever read the full collection.  I liked it, but wasn’t bowled over or anything.  I do admire O’Connor’s style, although I find it a bit heavy-handed at times.

If you’re looking for some Flannery O’Connor, I would actually recommend her book of essays Mystery and Manners instead–it gets at a lot of her philosophy of writing and creativity, and would also shed some light on the stories if you do wind up reading them.

thatcherMy extreme disappointment with Hilary Mantel’s short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories, most likely stems from the fact that Mantel is an exceptional novelist. Her books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are among my all time favorites, primarily because of her penetrating style and ability to write unbelievably layered prose and plots in an effortless way that balances being gorgeous with readability.  But I think the reason I love her style so much is her ability to pull off those skills in a long-form story.  In short stories, it felt thinner, more brittle, less insightful.  The stories were fine.  At the end of each one I found myself saying, “OK” rather than “that was incredible.”  So if you haven’t read any of Mantel’s previous work I would not recommend Assassination be your first foray, lest you wonder what all the fuss is about and skip Wolf Hall or Bring Up.  If you loved those books, you likely will read Assassination no matter what, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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