Hannah Reads: The Lightening Thief


A review from Hannah, our resident 10-year-old:

Mythology, as you may know, is not made up of things that actually happened. When I think of mythology, I think it’s like fairy stories–not true but they often end with a good moral of the story. If you’re interested in Greek mythology, I think you might find The Lightning Thief enjoyable.

lightning-thief1The book is about Percy Jackson, who is used to bullies calling him names and treating him horribly. He’s also prone to crazy freak accidents. But when he visits a museum of ancient Greek history, and has a run-in with a creature from mythology, things start getting weird. It turns out that Percy is the son of Poseidon! When Zeus’s master bolt is stolen and he blames Percy, Percy has to go on a quest to find it and is in very great danger.

The Lightning Thief, as you can tell, combines everyday life with Greek mythology. That’s very unusual and interesting to think about! You might find yourself wishing you were part of the story too, except for the part about possibly dying an extremely painful death. You might find this scary depending on your personality. Some people may be afraid of the monsters in the book, although I personally do not have that problem since I know mythology isn’t real.

Hannah’s questions for kids (and adults):

  • Have you ever wanted to be part of Greek mythology stories?
  • Have you ever imagined yourself in the story of a book you were reading?
  • Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? How did you handle it?


Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. When you click through our links and make any purchase, we get a small commission at no additional cost to you. This helps to pay for website hosting and also helps to keep Hannah and her siblings supplied with more reading material to review!

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A few more read-alouds set in Asia

We are wrapping up our study of the 20th century (and I can’t decide if we should start the ancient world again after spring break, or just do lots of random literature read-alouds until August? Thoughts?) and read several more good books set in Asia.  If you’re interested in the area or are studying the Korean and/or Vietnam Wars, these might be good choices.

inside outHannah (10) and I previously decided we didn’t really like verse novels, but Sarah (7) read Inside Out and Back Again and kept telling us how fantastic it is, so finally I read it and yes, it is fantastic!  Hannah grudgingly agreed that it was all right, because she liked the author’s second book (below) better, but we all enjoyed talking about Inside Out.

The book tells the story of a girl whose family has to leave Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War. Emigrating to the US, the little girl faces all kind of challenges–language, customs, bullies–and yet bravely learns to stand up for herself.  These are such great topics for elementary school kids, both in how to treat others who are different and how to behave when you yourself are different.

Even if you think you don’t like verse novels, I highly recommend you give Inside Out and Back Again a try.

listen slowly

Naturally, we wanted to read Thanha Lai’s second book, Listen, Slowly. The book is a novel rather than a verse novel (I think it was a sound move for Lai to branch out, but also brave since her verse novel won awards and it probably would have been easy to let herself be pigeonholed in that genre) and it is set in Vietnam, so you get more details about the country.  I’m not sure which book I liked most.

Listen, Slowly follows two girls–one born in America to parents who fled Vietnam as children during the war, and one her cousin who grew up in Vietnam.  As they come to understand each other, the reader learns a lot about Vietnamese culture and also gets an outside-in view of some of the silly parts of American tween culture in the process.

The book had some great discussion topics like how we can view our own culture, how to figure out if someone is really a true friend, why we respect our elders, and the like.

One caveat for younger readers: There is an episode in Listen, Slowly when the American tween advises the Vietnamese cousins that they should convert their underwear to thongs.  I wound up having to explain to Hannah what thongs were, which is fine but I wasn’t expecting the question!  She declared the whole idea “completely ridiculous” and later in the book the American tween character does too, but I thought I’d mention it as a heads up.

seesaw girlSeesaw Girl was our read-aloud choice about Korea. Although it’s set in the 1600s, there were a lot of great cultural references that I thought helped round out our understanding.  We read other picture books and shorter chapter books set in Korea too, but really enjoyed Linda Sue Park’s story.

I loved the setting details Park included–sometimes children’s books are light there but Park did a great job of evoking both the historical and geographical settings.

The kids read several other books by Park and enjoyed them all. Jack (8) tried to teach himself Korean from some YouTube videos.  Hannah asked for a hanbok for her birthday. We briefly looked up airfare to Korea (my family lived there when I was in 7th and 8th grades and I would love to visit again) but, to paraphrase Kermit the Frog from a non-Korea-related movie quote, “that would cost as much as an Oldsmobile” so we had to settle for going out to dinner at a Korean restaurant.

water-buffalo-days-cover1To be honest, Water Buffalo Days was a kind of disappointing read-aloud. I think it was partially because the kids had already read The Land I Lost by the same author so they knew more stories and details and they thought this was “a little kid version” and were not super enthused.  As the person reading aloud, I wished the book would have had more setting details.

We didn’t hate it, but the consensus among the kids was that you should read The Land I Lost instead of Water Buffalo Days.


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A classic mystery (and some alternatives)

rebecca1Rebecca, the classic mystery by Daphne Du Maurier, is billed as the best mystery book of the 20th century, but…eh.  It’s fine as mysteries go, but it didn’t really grab me or strike me as terribly important. The book suffers from two-dimensional characters and it was hard for me to get past that.

As I read, I was reminded of two other books: Jane Eyre and The Little Stranger.

Rebecca borrows certain imagery and plot elements from Jane Eyre, but overlooks the likeable heroine and character development that make Jane Eyre a great novel (and one of my favorites).

If you’ve read The Little Stranger you’ll notice some parallels there too. I looked it up and Sarah Waters did list Daphne Du Maurier among her influences. The Little Stranger uses some of the same setting details and narrator qualities found in Rebecca, but boasts a better story line and more complex mystery (although a similarly disappointing ending).

If your time is limited and you don’t have much of an interest in the classic status of Rebecca but you still want a good mystery, I’d recommend Kate Morton’s books instead.

Have you read Rebecca? What did you think of it?


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Hannah Reads: A Lunchmeat Book About Cats


This week’s review by our resident ten-year-old:

Not all books are good literature, but that doesn’t mean they are bad!  If you want to know what good literature is, ask yourself:

  • Does the author write really well? Does he or she use beautiful words and imaginative writing?
  • Is the story captivating?
  • Does it have important ideas that make you understand things better?

If you think about good literature as your favorite meal, like steak or spaghetti, you might want to eat that all the time. But sometimes you might want to eat lunchmeat.

warriors_into_the_wild_frontcover_large_5ApjLPT94NmCZNpInto the Wild is like lunchmeat.  Long lunchmeat.  Even though it may not be good literature, it’s very enjoyable!

The book is about Rusty, a kittypet, which is what the book calls a cat that lives with a human (the book calls humans “twolegs!”). Rusty longs to go into the forest. One day, he does, even though his friend, Smudge, warns him against it. While Rusty is in the forest, he is ambushed by Graypaw, an apprentice warrior of the Thunder Clan. There are four clans of cats who are not pets: Thunder Clan, Shadow Clan, Wind Clan, and River Clan. The clan is a group of cats who live together in the forest. It’s kind of like an Indian tribe that doesn’t move around. The leader of the Thunder Clan invites Rusty to join the Thunder Clan.

Rusty has to choose. Should be join a clan and become an apprentice? Or, will he stay warm and pampered and live a safe kittypet life?

Into the Wild may not be a steak and spaghetti book, but it’s very enjoyable! As long as you read a lot of good literature too, it’s fine to read lunchmeat books sometimes.

Hannah’s questions for kids (and adults):

  • Do you only read good literature, or do you read lunchmeat books too?
  • Do you have a pet cat? If so, do you think the cat secretly wants to join a clan and live in the wild?


Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. When you click through our links and make any purchase, we get a small commission at no additional cost to you. This helps to pay for website hosting and also helps to keep Hannah and her siblings supplied with more reading material to review!


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The Chosen

the chosenWhen I was in high school I think I read everything Chaim Potok wrote but I recently re-read The Chosen because Sheila from The Deliberate Reader was featuring it for an online book club. It was definitely worth re-reading as an adult.

The book tells the story of the friendship between two boys–one a Hasidic Jew (Danny) and one less orthodox (Reuven)–and how their different backgrounds shape who they become. As I read the book this time I was struck by how Potok examined the tension (or perceived tension) between soul and mind. The Hasidic boy’s father believes that his son is too cerebral and needs to nurture his soul instead, whereas Reuven’s father doesn’t see soul and mind as mutually exclusive.  I thought the illustration of this in the way that each boy approached studying and learning was fascinating. The description of how the boys and men study the Talmud was fascinating. Potok describes the Hasidic method as “brute memorization” and the other method as more painstaking, but both study cross references, commentaries, and versions, memorizing relevant connections and text…it was amazing.  I was impressed by the rigor they applied and how that framework translated to their studies in other subjects.  Potok’s position comes through clearly as valuing both deep religious conviction and secular study, and I appreciated how he tackled the subject of faith and science.

I also enjoyed the comparison of how the two families viewed purpose. The Hasidic father finds his purpose in leading his small, insular community, and has his son pegged as his successor, whereas Reuven’s father thinks it’s a pity that the Hasidic father and son are not going to have more impact. In the aftermath of World War II, Reuven’s father becomes a Zionist, and he pulls away from his son in service of that cause. We’re left with the problem of how to balance pouring into your loved ones and local community versus serving a broader community or global issue.  Potok seems to want to think there can be a balance, but the fathers don’t find it. The book leaves a chance that perhaps the sons will find a way to navigate a middle road.

I’d recommend The Chosen as a great story with broadly applicable themes, and an interesting and informative setting. I’m tempted to go back and read the rest of Potok’s books now to see what I think of them from this vantage point!

I’m linking this post up at The Deliberate Reader–be sure to check out Sheila’s take!


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History vs. Current Events

the German WarNicolas Stargardt’s compelling history of World War II from the perspective of Germans, The German War, is well researched and well written. It’s fascinating to me how much understanding and clarification continues to emerge about World War II. This book, like Stargardt’s work on how children experienced the war, includes an exploration of what people knew and when and how mindsets changed during the course of the conflict and its aftermath.

One thing that particularly stood out for me in reading The German War was how driven people were to justify or recast their roles and positions on the war. I was struck by how everyone took the role of victim after the war, with hardly anyone accepting responsibility as a perpetrator. This is a complex legal, moral, and ethical question certainly, but really we all want to think of ourselves as basically good people, don’t we?

Along that same train of thought, my husband and I were talking about modern history and how the line between history and current events blurs and shifts over time. It seems like maybe the fact that most of the people who were old enough to have played an active role in World War II have died now clears the field for more unbiased scholarship. Maybe World War II is now firmly in the past in a way it wasn’t even when I was growing up.

Our conversation ranged into later events too–we are wrapping up our modern history over the next couple of weeks so I have been looking at resources–because we have knowledge and opinions about the events of the 1960s-2000s but we may not have enough perspective and distance to really know how those events will eventually fit into the larger historical narrative.

On the other hand, we’re probably never finished understanding historical events, so that line between history and current events probably blurry for a lot longer than we might initially suspect.

In any case, if you’re interested in World War II, I would recommendThe German War and Witnesses of War as engaging works on different perspectives for understanding that era.


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On reading with other people

parent's guideI recently had a chance to be part of a SENG parents group in my area. We read A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children and discussed one chapter per week.

Initially, I signed up because I thought it might be helpful to meet other parents who might be having similar issues to what we’re dealing with (and it was).  I’ve read a lot of books on giftedness (check this, this, and this for lists), so I figured the book part would be stuff I already knew.

As it turned out, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children was one of the most helpful books on the topic that I’ve read. Primarily, I’d link that to the fact that it covers so many parenting issues (versus a heavy classroom management focus) but I also think I got so much more out of it because I was discussing each chapter with a group.

In the book clubs I’ve been part of, we’ve always discussed one book per month. That’s great for overall themes and usually seems like a good approach, especially for fiction, but I found that meeting more frequently and discussing individual chapters was a fantastic way to read a non-fiction book. It gave us time to dig deeply into each topic, share strategies, and talk through issues in a way that would not have been possible had we attempted to discuss the entire book in one fell swoop.

This got me started thinking about how or if I could do more book discussions this way.  Of course, living in the suburbs as I do, the immediate objection will be that no one has the time to meet once a week to discuss a book (sigh), but maybe I should ask around anyway.

Back to the book for a second: If you have gifted kids, I’d highly recommend A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, whether you read it alone or in a group.

Have you ever done a book discussion chapter-by-chapter?


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I’m a Stranger Here Myself

I'm a stranger here myselfAfter enjoying Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s memoir/travelogue set in Britain, I decided to read his book about what happened when his family moved back to America after 20 years in England.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of short chapters taken from a column Bryson wrote, and you can tell. It reads much like the current trend of books-cobbled-from-blog-posts.

That is to say, the book is funny, but it becomes really tiresome to read it all together. I kept spacing the chapters out, letting days go by before I picked it back up, and all the while feeling like I would have enjoyed the pieces more in a different format (and a different decade–sadly a lot of the jokes fell flat because they were so old and outdated). I wonder if British readers feel the same way about Notes From a Small Island? Maybe I enjoyed that one so much more because I’m not from the UK and didn’t notice outdated observations?

I don’t mean to pan I’m a Stranger Here Myself completely. Bryson is an excellent humorist, and you may enjoy the book more than I did, particularly if you’re looking for an episodic read that doesn’t require long amounts of reading time to take in.

If you’ve read both books, how would you compare them? Do you think my reaction is based on my having more experience with America than the UK?


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Hannah Reads: Star Wars

2Welcome to Hannah Reads, wherein our resident 10-year-old talks about books and the literary life.

From Hannah:

star warsDo you like Star Wars? If so, you simply must read Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need To Know. It’s fantastic! I learned so much!

For example, did you know:

  • Yarael Poof has TWO brains–one in his head and the other in his chest!
  • “Koh-to-yah” means “greetings” in Keldor, which is the language of Plo Koon’s people!
  • The sound you hear when Princess Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are inside the space slug in Empire Strikes Back was made with melted cheese!

Until I read this book, I had no idea! The book also has cool peek behind the scenes sections, which tell you about the making of the movies–including the new movie, The Force Awakens.

At first, my brother thought this was a book for boys only, but it’s not! Girls will find a lot to like about it too. Usually movies with lots of fighting are considered “boy movies,” but the Star Wars movies also have resourceful girl characters and have adventures both boys and girls find interesting. Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need To Know focuses on each character and gives details about the spacecraft and stories that boys and girls will like.

Even if you are not a Star Wars fan, you can still read Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need To Know, although I suggest you watch the movies first. The quality of the illustrations is excellent, the details about technology are awesome, and knowing about the characters on both sides may give more insight into the movies so you could learn to enjoy the movies more.

Hannah’s questions for kids (and adults!): What’s your favorite book about Star Wars? Which Star Wars movie is your favorite?


Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. When you click through our links and make any purchase, we get a small commission at no additional cost to you. This helps to pay for website hosting and also helps to keep Hannah and her siblings supplied with more reading material to review!

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Read-aloud Hodge Podge – Feb 2016 edition

And now a hodge podge of longer read-alouds and chapter books I read to discuss with the kids. I’m trying to break these up into topical posts when I can, but these defied my organization for the past couple of months. However, not all odds-and-ends are rewarmed leftovers–these are a proper literary smorgasbord. Let us know if you enjoy them!

moorchildEloise McGraw’s The Moorchild is a fairy story (in the old fashioned sense of the word, not the Disney sort) that weaves in themes modern kids can relate to, such as being different, being made fun of, and not fitting in. This is a great book for discussion. It can be tough to figure out how to talk through scenarios with sensitive kids without them feeling defensive, and I often find that books help. This one gives lots of ways to talk about different strategies, what works and what doesn’t, and helps reassure kids that they are not the only person who has ever felt left out or different. Plus, it’s a great story!


Book-BigWoodsOf course everyone has read Little House in the Big Woods, but Sarah, our first grader, just finished reading it for her out loud reading practice with me (I have the kids read aloud to me for a while after they are independent readers so that I can catch any errors in pronunciation and to help them read with good expression).  It was so fun to have little discussions with her along the way, and to see how her ability to read smoothly and expressively improved over the course of the book.  The Laura Ingalls series was one of my favorites growing up, and it’s a delight to share them with my own kids!


homeless birdHomeless Bird is a fascinating story about a 13 year old widowed girl in India who finds a way to happiness in spite of many hardships and extremely limiting social conventions. I thought the author did a good job of presenting the reality of a different culture calmly, but without glossing over what makes it terrible for young girls in the protagonist’s position.  The author also handled the ending well–without too much Western sensibility but also without fatalism or outright rejection of the culture.  Note that there are a couple of oblique references to dangerous situations you might want to be prepared to discuss with younger readers, although those might go over their heads.


My Side of the Mountain is one of my all-time favorite children’s books. I have no idea how many times I read it when I was a kid, and it was really fun to be able to read it with the children. We chose this as an evening family read-aloud. Even though the older two kids had both read it on their own, it was still great to experience it together. The story–about a self-sufficient boy who leaves his home in New York City to live off the land in the Catskills–will appeal to any kid who loves adventure. It’s amazing that this sort of thing even seemed possible in the 1950s, when the book was written.  But I like the way the book shows how children can make good decisions and be responsible, and if you ever have to flee to the hills you’ll definitely want this book along as a reference for what to eat! Highly recommended for boys and girls of all ages!

all of a kind

All-of-a-Kind Family is a FANTASTIC read-aloud about a big family from turn-of-the-century New York. Even Jack, who normally looks askance at books about gobs of girls, enjoyed the adventures of this family (and he was pleased at the surprise in the last chapter). The book doesn’t underplay the fact that poor immigrant families faced hardships, but focuses more on the family’s hard work, loyalty, and determination to maintain old traditions with new ways of life. Because the family is Jewish, we learned a lot about Jewish holidays and the kids really, really want to build a succah in the backyard.  Maybe when it gets warmer.  We are excited that this is only the first in a series of books, and we plan to read them all.

What was on your read-aloud list this month?


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