March Read-Alouds

It’s that time again! Below are the chapter books I read aloud to the kids, or read because the kids like me to discuss what they read on their own sometimes. To refresh, my criteria for counting these books is that they be longer (about 100 pages or more) and not strictly picture books. We read aloud tons of picture books and shorter volumes in the course of our school days and for fun, but these review roundups are just for the longer ones.

We absolutely LOVED Tuesdays at the Castle, Jessica Day George’s inventive and captivating book about a plucky princess and her mysteriously metamorphosing castle.  The story includes much adventure, bravery, siblings who get along and help each other, a villain who is bad but not sinister, and of course the great idea of a castle that has a personality and can change itself and its architecture at will.  We found this book enormously entertaining and well written, and were delighted to find out that the author has written a series of which this is the first.  If you’re looking for a book to give to an elementary schooler who is an independent reader, or for a chapter book to read aloud to that age group, I’d highly recommend Tuesdays at the Castle.

The Sign of the Beaver is a FANTASTIC book about a young boy in the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary War Maine who befriends an Indian boy and learns about how to take care of himself and how to judge people by their character rather than their heritage.  I would highly recommend it for boys or girls of elementary age, and maybe even older–I enjoyed it tremendously myself and Hannah read it three times before reluctantly agreeing to return it to the library.  The story is great, the characters are well done, and the action and themes are well matched.  This is a great story that also has historical and literary merit.

Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos is a really fun version of the life of Ben Franklin.  The story is told through the eyes of Franklin’s pet mouse, so while many familiar tales of the biography are included, they are all told as though the mouse was more involved.  So it’s not quite a history book, but if you’ve read about Ben Franklin in other sources you’d probably enjoy this tale.  The text is quite simple and the book is punctuated with fabulous line drawings by Robert Lawson, so it’s well suited for a reader who is just beginning to be comfortable with chapter books, or for a read aloud to younger children.

I collect compilations of Mother Goose, folk tales, and fairy tales, because I think they are so foundational to to understanding literature.  We try to read some of these every day.  It’s always interesting to read how different collections retell the same or similar stories and be reminded of ways that these have influenced other books.  This month we finished reading The Random House Book of Fairy Tales, a collection of 19 tales including some common ones and a few less common.  It makes a great read-aloud because while the stories are pretty long (the whole book is about 200 pages long) they are sprinkled with great illustrations by Diane Goode, who illustrated several of our favorite picture books like Alligator Boy, Christmas In The Country, and When I Was Young in the Mountains.  If you’re looking for a fairy tale read aloud that is a little more involved than a picture book but a little more accessible than the Andrew Lang fairy books, The Random House Book of Fairy Tales would be a good choice.

The Saturdays is a funny story about four siblings who decide to pool their allowances so they can each do something big and memorable in turn.  Because it’s set in the late 1940s/early 1950s timeframe, the kids are allowed out alone in New York City to visit art exhibits, the circus, and so forth.  They have adventures and get into scrapes and set fires and whatnot, all while being a good example of how siblings can also be friends.  We all enjoyed this story, and laughed out loud quite a bit.  We’re happy that it’s the first in a series, and we’re looking forward to reading the other stories in the quartet.

Hannah and I (separately) read Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison in the course of learning about the French and Indian Wars, and we had a really great discussion about the different ways that colonial captives reacted to their time in Native American tribes.  Unlike the main character in Calico Captive (reviewed last month), the little girl in Indian Captive chose to stay with the tribe that adopted her, and she never returned to life as a colonist.  Both books were based on true stories of real women, so we talked about the factors that made each girl choose differently.

When we studied Phillis Wheatley, Hannah and I read Freedom’s Pen: A Story Based on the Life of Freed Slave and Author Phillis Wheatley.  The book conveyed historical information well, and gave a good sense of Wheatley’s faith and the awkwardness of her position as a slave yet being treated sort of as part of her owners’ family.  It was an interesting time as far as consciousness about slavery was concerned–with many white people at that time not believing that African slaves could be taught to read or even had souls–and the book was sensitive to the contradictions facing slaveholders who were also people of faith.  I was astounded to think of Wheatley’s gifts.  Brought to America as a seven-year-old, Wheatley learned English, learned to read and write, read extensively in difficult classics, and then wrote her own poetry by the age of 12.  More amazing was the way that God used her gifts to change people’s minds about slavery.  I’d recommend this book for elementary readers who are studying the Revolutionary War time period, because it gives a different perspective than most history books but is also engaging as a story.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate tells the story of a funny eleven year old girl living in rural Texas at the turn of the twentieth century.  As the only girl in a family with seven children, Calpurnia is pretty scrappy, and when her grandfather, a Civil War veteran and amateur naturalist, gets her interested in science, the ladylike activities of making lace and planning to be a debutante become even less appealing.  The rapid changes of the time period (telephones, automobiles, etc) parallel the questions of how Calpurnia will find her way in the world.  Hannah and I had a good talk about how girls can be scientists and go to college but still need to know how to cook and do laundry (and boys do too!) and how sharpening skills of observation can be helpful for several occupations Hannah is considering, namely being a scientist, detective, and writer.

What great books have you been reading aloud or with your kids?  I’m always looking for recommendations!


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Time Warrior

Time Warrior is similar in tone to War of Art, and like that book it has some good thoughts and motivational messages mixed in with some hyperbole and silly stuff.

Time Warrior has less of a “do your project” focus and more of a “think differently about time” focus.  I got some valuable points from the book, including:

  • You don’t have to believe your feelings about a circumstance; you can change your thoughts and have a better attitude to be more productive no matter what is going on.  [Charlotte Mason ideas crop up in the oddest spots, right?]
  • Don’t scurry around letting anxiety run your life.  Defend times of focus, and don’t misuse your imagination by worrying.
  • Motivation is overrated.  Just do what you need to do and let the motivation follow the action.
  • “What gets measured gets done.”
  • Feeling “behind” is an optional concept.
Although it’s not anywhere close to the most helpful book on time management I’ve read, I did get some good ideas and reminders from Time Warrior.  It’s structure lends itself to snippet reading, so if you like to have a book around for reading in short spurts this would be a reasonable choice, especially if you enjoy books on time and getting things done.
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A Long Way Down

Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down is a very different book than In the Midst of Life, but I found it interesting that both books tackle the subject of death and how we navigate life in light of it in a way that can be uncomfortable but also forces the reader to think about the issues.

In A Long Way Down, four characters wind up on a rooftop on New Years Eve intending to end their lives by jumping.  One is a washed up talk show host whose slew of bad life choices finally caught up with him and destroyed his reputation, one is a mousy single mother of a profoundly disabled adult child, one is a wild college student who can’t handle her sister’s disappearance, and the last is a 30 year old musician who has at last had to confront the fact that he’s never going to be famous.  Having interrupted each other’s plans, this unlikely group makes a pact not to go through with their intentions at present, and over time give each other the hope and connection they were missing individually.

That sounds heavy, and it is, but to offset the subject matter the book is extremely funny.  I laughed out loud pretty much the entire time I was reading it.  The humor is dark, but in some ways I think it’s easier to deal with questions about life and death when you’re laughing.  I should also mention, for those who can’t stand bad language in books, that this one is really, really full of bad language.  I think it was used in a funny, character-appropriate way in most cases (versus the sort of bad language that is used for shock value or to make an insecure writer feel Profound) but I know that some people can’t stand it in any way.

I read this book for a book club, and I thought the discussion was really interesting.  One of the central themes of the book is that feeling suicidal is subjective–it’s not helpful or germane to ask if the person is really justified in feeling so awful–and it was helpful to talk that through with a group.  We got into topics like how to help people who are missing connections, have no hope and nothing to look forward to, and so on, especially when society would probably say that their problems aren’t that bad.  Hornby points out in the book that the divide between a person who is doing ok and a person who is suicidal is often not that broad.  On the one hand, that’s a little bit scary, but on the other hand, it’s really hopeful.

I enjoyed reading A Long Way Down for the humor, but also found that I got more out of it the more time I thought about it.  Although it tackles the subject of life and death in a completely different way than In the Midst of Life did, both books raised interesting questions of what makes life worth living, how our views of life impact the way we think about death, and how we can help those who are still living, as well as those near the end of their lives.

I’d recommend A Long Way Down for a certain type of reader (one who likes British and/or dark humor, and who can gloss over language issues).  As a side note, the film version is being released this month but the trailer looked disappointing, as though the story was gutted and replaced with a silly rom com plot.  If you have read the book and do see the movie, let me know what you think though!


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I Capture the Castle

If you’re looking for a well written, well plotted, interesting but not tawdry love story, I recommend you pick up I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  Set in 1930s England, the book is narrated as though part of the journal of a teenage girl living with her father, stepmother, younger brother, and older sister in a castle that is sort of falling down around them.  When an American family moves into the neighborhood, the lives of the English family get upended, mostly in good ways, with various fallings in and out of love to varying degrees, figuring out what to do with possibilities, and carrying on of intrigues.

The narrator is endearing and likeable without being treacly or unbelievable (a rare feat with teenaged protagonists, in my opinion) and the action is well-paced and satisfying without being trite.  Naturally I could not fail to enjoy the descriptions of English country houses and castles.

I will say that I thought I Capture the Castle got off to a bit of a slow start–possibly because it took a bit for me to get used to the diary format and to see past it to the story–so if you decide to read it, push through for a bit because it does get to be a really excellent book.


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Two Short Reviews of Two Short Books

Do the Work is more useful than Steven Pressfield’s similar book The War of Art.  Both books are sort of motivational/kickstart collections designed to help you break out of your inertia and actually get your Big Tasks done.  Do the Work is geared towards writing, and would be more helpful if your Big Task is to write a book or something, but the ideas could be helpful for other sorts of work.  I found the book itself mildly helpful, but the discussion with my book club was, as always, extremely helpful.  I feel like sometimes even so-so books can be great if you discuss them with the right people.

If you have already read The Fred Factor, I can’t for the life of me think of a reason you’d need to read Fred 2.0: New Ideas on How to Keep Delivering Extraordinary Results.  Subtitle notwithstanding, I didn’t really glean any new ideas.  In fact, although I liked the first book, this one didn’t sit as well with me.  The tone seemed a little self-congratulatory and the points and ideas seemed stale–you’ve read this stuff before in other books.  If you haven’t read the first book, I’d still recommend skipping this one.


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In the Midst of Life

In her last book, In the Midst of Life, Jennifer Worth tackles the subject of palliative care.  After her work in the East End (remember her previous books Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End), Worth became a nurse on a cancer ward, so her thoughts on the end of life are full of her observations and experiences with changing perspectives on and standards of care for those who are dying.

As you’d expect, the stories in this book are not as lighthearted as some in her previous work, but Worth’s thoughtful and nuanced exploration of how we think about and prepare for death, and how we care for those who are dying are moving and insightful.  I have had several conversations with people about these issues since reading the book, and am still thinking on some of the topics.

Mostly the book helped me to understand realities of issues that before I had not considered or had only seen in movies.  What is it like when someone dies at home?  What does resuscitation actually do and how effective is it?  What does hospice care mean and what is the reasoning behind it?  What happens when people die of old age or of cancer or of a heart attack?  What are the philosophical and moral and spiritual ideas behind different methods of caring for people in the last stages of life?

What the author presented her experiences and opinions, I thought she did a good job of handling the issues with grace and balance.  Worth did not hide the fact that her faith influenced her thinking on death and palliative care, but her discussion of the issues highlighted the way faith and philosophy inform the decisions rather than seeming prescriptive (in fact, I did not agree with some of her conclusions, shared faith notwithstanding, but I didn’t feel bashed).  Many subjects surrounding death are taboo or just things healthy people never think about, and in some cases the public’s lack of understanding or forethought leads to bad policy or standards.  This is the sort of book that might be helpful if you’re navigating end of life issues for a family member, but really it would be much better to read it well before you have to grapple with these things, so that you can have had time to think about them.

In the Midst of Life was an excellent finale to Worth’s memoirs about nursing.  Well written, compassionate, and packed with food for thought, In the Midst of Life is a book I’d recommend to anyone.


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Slim for Life

In Slim for Life fitness personality Jillian Michaels compiles a lot of diet, exercise and lifestyle tips without bogging the reader down in all of the science or reasoning behind them.  That could be good or bad depending on your perspective.  If you have read much of anything on diet or exercise nothing in this book will come as a surprise, but if you’re new to the topics this is a good overview.

Michaels organized the book as a series of ranked tips, and advises the reader to select which ones to implement, then analyzes your potential for success based on how many high, medium, or low priority tips you selected.  Again, if you don’t have a healthy lifestyle, this could be very helpful.

If you already know a lot about fitness and health, I’d recommend reading Michaels’ book Making the Cut instead.

As a fitness aside, I’m struggling to fit exercise in to my life these days.  On paper it should work–somewhere between the working and homeschooling and everything there should be an hour for exercise–but in reality my extra time doesn’t seem to coincide with times of day when I feel any energy.  It’s a problem, and I keep tweaking to try to figure out the best time to fit in a workout.  When I do manage it, I’m using Kickbox FastFix(very short, but super-targeted, alternating an arms, legs, and abs focus in three workouts), Hard Body (longer workouts, crazy hard), and 6 Week Six-Pack (baby weight is off but my abs missed the memo).

What workouts or other health resources are you loving (or maybe not loving, but using) now?


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Bernard Cornwell’s Latest

Bernard Cornwell never disappoints, and his latest historical fiction, The Pagan Lord, is no exception.  Part of his excellent Saxon Tales series, the book covers the lead up and importance of the battle of Tettenhall in 910.  The Saxon Tales series is set during a very interesting time in British history when the Saxons and Danes were struggling to achieve dominance over the island and Christianity was making inroads against pagan beliefs on both sides.  I find it fascinating to read about how cultures clash and change, and how those changes are usually layered and iterative rather than something that happens all at once.

Because it’s part of an ongoing series, readers will be familiar with the main characters in the book, and setting those familiar faces in the context of an otherwise little remembered battle helps to give a sense of perspective and a flavor for how war and politics affected real people in those days.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction (especially if you like battle scenes, because Cornwell is a master of those) I’d highly recommend this book, but start at the beginning of the series if you haven’t read those first.


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I Thought It Was Just Me

In I Thought It Was Just Me, sociology researcher Brene Brown examines the concept of shame–both how it impacts us and how we can develop resilience to it.

Shame, as Brown defines it, is different from guilt or indignation.  When you hold up something you did against your values and you think, “that was wrong, I need to work on that or change that” you have guilt.  When someone else says, “you are wrong!” and you think, “that’s a false accusation, I didn’t do that” you have indignation.  But when you or someone else accuse you of being wrong and you think, “yes, I’m a bad person, I’m a person who always does ____” and it defines you, that’s shame.

Shame causes feelings of confusion, fear and disconnection, like you want to hide or escape.  Reactions to shame are lashing out in anger, being silent and hiding your real self, or seeking to appease and please the person who shamed you. Understanding how to recognize shame was helpful for me both personally and in thinking of how to relate to other people and to my children.

Most people have certain shame triggers, and it was interesting to me to read about the common reactions to shame so I could identify what some of those are for me.  I found it helpful to think of shame as the concept of someone (either someone else or me) giving me an unwanted identity.

For example, in reading this book I realized that the first time I can remember having this shame reaction was on my 4th birthday.  I had gotten a new outfit and told my preschool teacher, “This is my birthday suit!”  She laughed and explained what birthday suit meant.  I’m sure she wasn’t unkind, but what I heard was, “You think you’re smart but really you’re clueless and a fool.”  I wanted to crawl into a hole.  This is still a shame trigger for me three decades later.  It was really helpful to me to identify a few major triggers–things that cause me to lash out or have that feeling of wanting to hide–because once you identify the feeling you can start getting through it in a rational and healthy way.

Another helpful distinction Brown draws is between empathy and sympathy.  When someone is experiencing shame, it’s most helpful to offer empathy.  Shame is a shared experience, even if our triggers are different.  In contrast, sympathy makes the person feel even more isolated.  As Brown puts it, sympathy says, “I’m over here and you’re over there.  I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you, but let’s be clear: I’m over here.”  I definitely know people who give sympathy rather than empathy, and I avoid them when I’m having a problem.  It’s awful to go to someone with a problem and hear the equivalent of “wow, you really ARE a weird and bad person.  I’m nothing like that.”  Thinking through this distinction helped me to think about the ways that I respond to people who are hurting or dealing with problems, and also helped me to identify people in my life who offer more support and empathy.

In the course of her research, Brown noticed trends of how some people can successfully cope with shame and are resilient to it.  She compiled these strategies and writes about them in the book.  Some of these include having the belief that you can always change or improve, being grounded in who you are and what you believe, not pinning self-worth to things you can’t control, and building a support network of people who offer you empathy.

I thought the concepts in I Thought It Was Just Me  were interesting and offered excellent insight into relationships.  It was not only helpful to me in thinking through how I respond to certain triggers, but also influenced my perspective on how I relate and respond to other people.  If you’re interested in these sorts of issues, I’d recommend the book.


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Surprised by Oxford

I was deluged with recommendations for Surprised by Oxford, which is a memoir and conversion story written by a Canadian academic.  I loved the book’s descriptions of life at Oxford, and was again amazed at how God reaches people precisely in the mode and under the terms that they need.

The book was well-paced for a memoir, although there were a few points that dragged out a little or where I wondered if the novelistic tension was present in the real events or played up for the sake of the book.  That’s sort of always a thing with memoirs though–how to pace them and tell the story without getting bogged down.  Overall, I think Weber did a great job, and I found the memoir highly readable and compelling.

I enjoyed seeing how Weber wove in quotations and passages from literature that spurred her on in her thinking.  I remember once telling someone that I had been reading Marcus Aurelius and had found it a source of conviction on a couple of points.  The person was aghast at the idea that I could have found any conviction in a source other than the Bible.  That’s not to say that the Bible isn’t our foundational source, but there is truth in lots of places, and I think God can use what we’re studying to spur our thinking to spiritual things.  Anyway, it was interesting to see how God had used literature that way in Weber’s life as well.

Surprised by Oxford is a thought-provoking and highly interesting memoir, and I’d especially recommend it if you’re interested in different conversion stories.


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