Book Review: Tattered Sails

Posted on November 27, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

There aren’t a huge number of Thanksgiving books truly accessible to a preschool and early elementary audience. This one doesn’t specifically mention Thanksgiving, but it can do the job.  It follows the story of three children who leave England to make a new life with their parents in Massachusetts.  It ends with the family kneeling to pray next to a harvest meal.

The story line is minimal — a few choice details on every page — delivered in rhythmic, rhyming verse, with very nice illustrations.  If the verse isn’t of the highest poetic quality, its rhythm is pleasant and it gets the story across. This is a good addition to the Thanksgiving reading list, especially if you have younger listeners.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Birthday Monsters

Posted on November 26, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Sandra Boynton brings us yet another snappy, silly book of hilarity for preschoolers. This is a fantasy about waking up on your birthday and finding that a group of cheerful monsters have arrived to give a party. They do all the things that bad party guests do: Arrive too early, give self-serving gifts, cheat at games, eat up the cake, and make a big mess. But it’s all in fun: they return to tidy the mess and replace the gifts and cake.

Preschoolers will love the rhythmic, crisp way this story is told, and will really enjoy the over-the-top bad example of these  birthday monsters. And it’s actually funny enough that you might not be tempted to hide it on a high shelf after a few dozen readings.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 00-04
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Book Review: Cranberries

Posted on November 24, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★☆☆

We’re all used to seeing cranberries turn up in the produce at Thanksgiving and Christmas, in juice on the shelf, and Craisins in the bakery department. Where do all these cranberries come from? Jaspersohn provides an elementary-level introduction to the history and cultivation of this native fruit. Photos of cranberries at various stages of growth are explained with easy-flowing descriptive text, from the first ripening to the different modes of harvest (Did you know crates of cranberries are removed by helicopter to protect the next year’s already-ripening crop?)

This book is a good tie-in to storybooks that feature cranberries, such as Wendy Devlin’s Cranberryport series, a holiday reading basket, or a state geography study (the berry is cultivated in much of New England, and is the Massachusetts state berry). I probably wouldn’t buy it, since most kids will learn what they need from it with one read, but it’s a great library checkout.

Category: 3 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Cranberry Thanksgiving

Posted on November 23, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Maggie and her grandmother live at the edge of a New England cranberry bog, and every year they each choose a guest to join them for a Thanksgiving feast. This year Grandmother invites the lavender-pomaded Mr. Horace. Maggie invites her gruff, scruffy friend Mr. Whiskers, and Grandmother is horrified because not only does he smell bad, but she is sure he’s after her secret cranberry bread recipe!  After a beautiful meal, her fears are vindicated: one of the guests tries to steal the recipe, but the outcome of the scuffle that ensues is a big surprise.

This is an old-fashioned, lighthearted story which shows a friendship blooming across dividing lines of culture.  We’re gently reminded that we can’t always judge people by appearances. It’s a fun, wholesome read, and Grandmother’s secret cranberry bread recipe is included.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Sarah Gives Thanks

Posted on November 22, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

How did the American tradition of Thanksgiving come to be established? In the 1820s, 200 years after the Pilgrims’ celebration, different states observed the holiday on different days, and most southern states didn’t observe it at all. That was when Sarah Josepha Hale turned her considerable talent and persistence toward establishing a national holiday. She wrote about it in her magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, she wrote to governors and other leaders, and she wrote an annual letter to the President asking him to establish a day of giving thanks. She ended up writing to five Presidents: Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and finally Lincoln.  In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln finally agreed with Mrs. Hale, and on October 3, 1863, Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

This excellent picture book tells us more about Sarah Hale, showing how this remarkable woman badgered her brother into passing on his college education to her during his breaks.  She continued her independent education in the company of her beloved husband, who encouraged her to publish her writing. Then when he died, she gave thanks to God for having known him – and courageously worked to support her family. Being left alone with five children in a time when women didn’t work outside the home was a desperate crisis. But through hard work and persistence she became a successful “editress,” as she insisted on being called, and then went on to establish a tradition that has shaped our culture for 150 years.

This story stands out among juvenile biographies for its interest and accessibility.  Appealingly and skillfully illustrated, it’s visually appealing, and the pictures carry a large part of the story.  The writing is smooth and evocative, and really highlights the humanity of the person in focus. It’s an excellent read.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Red Kayak

Posted on November 21, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★★

Thirteen-year-old Brady Parks, the son of a Maryland waterman, is secure in his small community. One day he babysits for Ben, the young son of a new neighbor. The next thing he knows he is being pulled out of school to help look for Ben, who went missing with his mother while kayaking.  He becomes the town hero by bringing Ben home alive, but the boy dies soon afterward. Following this incident he discovers the kayak was tampered with, and he struggles to know what to do with the information.

It’s not easy to create a character ordinary enough for readers to identify with, yet admirable enough to be worth emulating. Brady is an average kid — eager to be accepted by his peer group, moderately ambitious about becoming a waterman, secure in his family. But in extreme circumstances, his character shines. Though not perfect, he is courageous, compassionate, and generous.  He suffers with the guilt, isolation and uncertainty brought on by the choices of others, and takes some time to make up his mind what to do.  Throughout his trouble he is supported by a stable, loving family, who express gracious love toward him despite his erratic behavior.

Although Cummings’ excellent writing makes for enjoyable reading, this is a serious book, and sensitive readers will rightfully be troubled by it.  Brady has something to lose no matter what he does, and although his choices do eventually lead to a satisfying conclusion, the whole story is tinged with sadness. Even this is an opportunity for good, though: this ordinary boy looks senseless death in the face, and rather than retreating he takes action to help.  In this action he discovers the kind of person he really is.

The writing level is accessible to 8-12-year-olds, but the themes of death and grief may be too mature for that age range.  I’d recommend this book for middle school and up.

Category: 5 Stars, Age 12-16
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Book Review: This is Not My Hat

Posted on November 20, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Here’s another hat-stealing yarn from Jon Klassen, a follow-up to I Want My Hat Back. This time we hear the perspective of the thief, who boasts that he has stolen his hat from a big fish who was sleeping. He goes on to claim the fish won’t wake up soon, as we see the hatless Big Fish waking up, annoyed.  With each statement the thief’s proclaims his expectation of getting away with it, and Big Fish shows us just how wrong he is.  In the climax, the thief rationalizes his action: “I know it’s wrong to steal a hat…. But I am going to keep it. It was too small for him anyway. It fits me just right.” He reaches his hiding place, with Big Fish in close pursuit. They both go in. Only Big Fish comes out… wearing the hat. The end.  It’s up to the reader to determine whether the thief was eaten or merely intimidated by Big Fish.

If you reeeally stretch it, you can get a moral message out of it: “Crime Doesn’t Pay.”  Or maybe, “Don’t Pick on Big Fish.” But a moral lesson isn’t the point. This another well-crafted, highly accessible object lesson in ironic humor: The thief repeatedly makes claims the reader knows are false, and our ability to be “in the know” makes the final confrontation utterly satisfying.

It’s best suited to an elementary audience, although all ages will probably find it funny. The text is simple enough that early readers can probably handle it.


Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Easy Readers
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Book Review: I Want My Hat Back

Posted on November 19, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

A bear realizes his hat is missing and goes to look for it. He meets a fox, frog, rabbit, turtle, beaver, deer and snake in his search, and asks each of them if they have seen it. None of them has. Then he realizes that the rabbit (who answered defensively that he would not steal a hat) was actually wearing it. He confronts the rabbit and recovers his hat. A squirrel happens by and asks if he’s seen a rabbit with a red hat.  He answers defensively that he would not eat a rabbit. The end.

Okay, some parents may have concerns with this book. Not only does one animal eat another animal, but the bear’s revenge is far disproportional to the rabbit’s offense. It makes a lousy moral story. But it’s not a moral story – it’s a joke, and a more complex one than you usually find at this reading level. The irony of both characters defensively lying in a way that betrays their own guilt is screamingly hilarious to elementary-aged children (at least once they understand the joke). The illustrations aren’t spectacular, but the well-crafted, meticulously timed humor is really worth reading. It’s even told in simple enough words that early readers can handle it alone.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Easy Readers
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Book Review: Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember

Posted on November 18, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

In this book Barbara Rainey has provided Christian families with a unique rendition of the Thanksgiving story. Written for the whole family, the core of the story is given in large text for reading aloud, with more details for adults and teens added in smaller font and sidebars. At both reading levels, Rainey integrates many historic details and specific events, weaving them together in a readable story which progresses from the events leading up to the original Pilgrim feast to today’s modern observance of the day.

Written from a particularly Christian perspective, this book does a great job drawing us into a spiritual meditation of God’s gracious generosity, which we easily lose sight of in the midst of holiday hassles. Illustrated beautifully enough to be a coffee table book, it works as a long read-aloud for an upper-elementary audience, and its research is detailed enough to interest both teens and adults. There’s a sizeable end section for recording family gratitude-lists, an instrumental cd to play during the holiday time, and (if you don’t have time to read it aloud yourself) the entire book also comes in audio version. This is a great resource for Christian families who wish to be purposeful about their holiday observance.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 08-12
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Book Review: Thanksgiving Day

Posted on November 17, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Here is a retelling of the traditional Thanksgiving story for an elementary audience, with an explanation of modern observances of the holiday. It’s illustrated in Gibbons’ usual style — simple drawings that get the point of the text across.  It’s not as compelling or engaging as some books of the same kind, and since half the book is devoted to modern observances, it’s surprising that she leaves out the fact that Thanksgiving was only instituted as a national holiday 200 years after the Pilgrims’ original feast. Like many Thanksgiving books, this one claims the Pilgrims ate the now-traditional turkey and cranberries — which may not be true. (The primary sources attesting to the Pilgrim feast doesn’t specifically mention either.)

There are more engaging Thanksgiving books available, but most of them are lengthy enough to preclude cramming into an already-busy holiday season. The main thing going for the book is its brevity. If you have only 5-10 minutes to give your elementary kids a basic understanding of why we have a turkey holiday in November, this provides an accessible succinct explanation, and it reads pretty well aloud. If you have half an hour or more, you might prefer a more in-depth treatment.

Category: 3 Stars, Age 04-08
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