Favorite Books for Spring

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Springtime brings so much with it from a bounce in your step to a breeze in your hair to a song in your heart. There’s a feeling that can only be described as spring, or perhaps the longing for a true spring on sunny February days before the cold has completely gone like we are having now. What can we do when we want spring so badly but we can’t have it quite yet?

We read, of course! If you’re itching for the perfect book to read this spring, a book that will sing of the season as you do, try the ones below.

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The Iridescence of Birds: A Picture Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan – This picture book about Matise is full of delicate springtime colors that make me want to sing like the birds. The entire book is only two sentences long, but it is lovely in its simplicity and delightful in its message. Parents and educators will also appreciate the educational component as the book explores the life and works of Matisse in the most poetic way imaginable.

1328751On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole – I’m not sure this book is too well known, but I think it should be someone’s life goal to change that. This picture book follows a young girl who grows tired of the grassy green lawn at her house that looks just like the grassy green lawns of all her neighbors. Nothing much happens in her lawn, and it isn’t very interesting. All that changes when she convinces her father to leave part of the yard to grown the next time he mows. From there she decides to plant a tree and even put in a pond. The family’s boring old yard quickly becomes a beautiful park, as well as the envy of all the neighbors – who begin to plant trees of their own. Again, the educational element of this book makes it a great pair for learning about ecosystems or permaculture.

140212The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis – Nevermind the snowfall on the cover, this is my number one book for springtime. Why? “Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight. At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death. When he shakes his mane, spring shall come again.”

 

 

272752Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman – I think I have mentioned this book on the blog before, but I just love it so much! This tiny book tells the big story of how a community garden is begun and cultivated in a vacant city lot. Each chapter follows a different character and the book truly shows the value of our connection with the earth and with each other.

 

 

402032The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgeson Burnett – A list of springtime books would be incomplete without this classic. I love my copy of Mary Lenox’s story like an old friend, as I remember the wonder with which I read it for the first time. That first desire for a bit of earth in the spring which is the rain falling on the sunshine is etched in the memory of many children, for in no season more than spring are we aware of the Magic all around us. This beloved book tells the story of the awakening earth and the awakening heart.

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I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – This book makes my spirits soar in the same way the spring does, which means I’ve probably talked about this one on the blog before, too. Everyone should read this charming story, but especially writers. To read Cassandra’s diary is to meet a friend and have long, late night conversations with her, finding that you are alike in all of your fears and aspirations.

 

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Good Childrens’ Nonfiction?

Another round up of mini-reviews, but this time focusing solely on nonfiction for kids! Nonfiction usually isn’t followed by a “!”. It’s usually thought of as dull, dry writing full of boring facts – and a lot of the time that’s what it is. But it doesn’t have to be! Good nonfiction can be just as engaging for any age as good fiction, with the added bonus that when you finish reading, you might just go out into the world and change it for the better.

This blog has been neglected recently as I’m in the throes of work on my critical thesis for my MFA from Spalding University. I’ve been looking at environmentalism in both fiction and nonfiction books for children of all ages, and the sad truth is that there just isn’t much out there that is informative, engaging, and entertaining for kids. I think there are probably a lot of parents and teachers out there who have realized this, too, so I thought I would share a quick list of the books I’ve found that DO seem to do a great job of communicating facts to the age group they are marketed for.

The Eye of the WhaleThe Eye of the Whale: A Rescue Story by Jennifer O’Connell is a great, really short picture book telling the story of a whale that was caught in some fishing line/crab netting. Divers cut the whale loose, and it appeared to thank each of them for their help. Great for really young kids because it is narrative nonfiction – true story.

A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart would be great for lower grade kids. Each page talks about a different type of turtle in the US and how humans have damaged their habitat – but also how humans can help the turtles survive. This one is mostly facts, but they are told with simple language and great illustrations (which show diversity in humans, too!), so I think it would engage young children. It could also be a good way to teach children that turtles are not pets and they shouldn’t bring them home. (This book is just one in Stewart’s A Place For… series – check them out!)

a chicken followed me homeA Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers About a Familiar Foul by Robin Page is just a great book! It’s a picture book with a question about chickens on each page, and the answers are clear and conversational. The pictures are lovely and the book would be great to teach kids of any age about backyard chickens.

case-of-the-vanishing-honeybeesThe Case of the Vanishing Honey Bees by Sanda Markle is a toss up for me on this list. It’s in picture book format and full of great, macro photographs of honey bees, but it is heavy on text and long on new vocabulary words. However, the information is very clear in explaining the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, some of the probably causes for it, and best of all why honey bees are so important and we need them so much. Suggested for older elementary and middle grades. (This is one in a series of Scientific Mysteries.)

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman is a great resource for teens (and adults too!) that digs deeper into the environmental topics of the day to show how the problem started and what is keeping it from getting fixed in a way that incorporates politics, psychology, and history. Recommended for anyone.

 

 

As another part of my research for this paper, I’m conducting an anonymous survey of kids ages 4-18. If you fall into that age group or you know or have kids who do, please take quick minute to fill out this very brief questionnaire. It would really help me out!

For more books that deal with environmental topics in both fiction and nonfiction, I suggest looking at the list of Green Earth Book Award winners chosen each year by the Nature Generation. What is your favorite book about the environment? Tell me in the comments!

Review: Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo

 

I first heard about Echo when Pam Muñoz Ryan came to speak at my fall residency last November. Our focus for that residency was on writing for children – more specifically on the fairy tale – and our book in common was Ryan’s Esperanza Rising. During her visit, Ryan shared with us a bit about her upcoming book, Echo. My interest was piqued immediately, and I’ve been anticipating the book ever since.

First, although the cover and appearance of a book is something the author has little to no control over, it’s been proven that the cover of a book really does affect the way potential readers perceive the contents. That won’t be a problem for Echo. The dust jacket is  beautiful in reds, blues, and purples, with black and white accents. The board cover is enchanting, a pale wood that closes over bright red end papers. (I love good end papers.)

Second, there are many stories within Echo, but if the book is about one thing the most obvious answer is an enchanted harmonica. Who doesn’t love harmonicas? It’s even a pretty word.

Third, is what I mentioned above: Echo is one book, but it contains many stories. There’s Otto, a young German boy who finds himself inside a fairy tale in the woods; Friedrich, who must try to get himself and his family out of 1933 Germany due to a birthmark that covers his face; Mike, who tries to get himself and his orphaned brother adopted from the orphanage together during the Great Depression in 1935; and Ivy, whose family moves to a new farm in southern California to take care of it while the Japanese owners are held in a 1942 war camp. Each child is connected by the love of music, and each story by the thread of a single, enchanted harmonica.

With so much story, this middle-grade novel comes in at nearly 600 pages – but don’t let that hold you or your child back. The stories provide convenient breaks in the action, and the new characters will keep readers engaged. The pages are not crowded, and I found them turning swiftly. This book is a wonderful entry into conversations about Nazism, orphans, and segregation, but it can also be enjoyed simply for the stories it provides. I would recommend Echo to anyone who loves music – there is much love of music here, for everything from the cello to the piano to the harmonica.

I really love Echo – and I think you will too! If you’d like to read more about it, click here to read an interview Pam Muñoz Ryan did with Horn Book.

What I’ve Been Reading…

Since I switched my genre of study to Writing for Children and Young Adults last November, I’ve been enjoying the reading that comes with that category. Children’s books have a sweetness and a truth about them that isn’t usually there in fiction written for adults. So I love sharing them with other readers!

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a YA novel about a girl with a horrible secret and no friends. Recommended for teenagers who feel misunderstood or who want to understand their friends better.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Shmidt is an older, upper middle-grade book that brought me to tears. The Vietnam War, Shakespeare, and 8th grade can never again come together with so much beauty. Recommended for mature middle-grade readers who want a poignant story.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate tells the story of Ivan the silverback gorilla who was once on display in a shopping mall in Washington state. The story of how he was rescued from the mall and integrated into a zoo is a contributor to the larger story of the animal protections we have in place today. Recommended for animal lovers and activists.

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani is the amazing epistolary story of two children who become pen palls and then best friends. One of them is an immigrant from India who lives in New York, and the other is a Kentuckian who is watching his beloved mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal mining. Recommended for everyone.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is the classic tale of Francie Nolan’s childhood in Brooklyn, New York. It is a v e r y long book… but it is full of beauty. Recommended for anyone who wants a long read that is guaranteed to move them, some time or another (especially writers).

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt is about a heard of bighorn sheep who are crowded out of their mountain’s winter valley by a human settlement. Tuk and his bandmates set out to find the legendary blue mountain where the herd will graze in peace, and they meet, defeat, and are helped by many other animals along the way. Recommended for animal lovers and preservationists.

In addition to what I read for my MFA studies, I also read a lot of the children’s books that I order for the library where I work. Here are some of my favorites:

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Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton is a super cute book. The story is pretty short, but young children will adore it.

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers is not a short book, but it is lovely. Each letter of the alphabet gets it’s own mini story, just a few pages long. The fun is in finding out which stories are linked.

Home by Cason Ellis is a beautifully illustrated celebration of what a home can be in many different parts of the world, different time periods, and a few places that aren’t on earth at all.

Flare by Kallie George is an easy reader book about a young phoenix learning to be the best phoenix he can be. Companion to Spark, which is about a young dragon who is learning to control his fiery breath.

A Rock Can Be… by Laura Salas is a wonderful successor to Water Can Be… which I loved. Spectacular illustrations help children think outside the box by showing examples of the many, many things in our lives that a rock can be.

Review: Greenglass House

Greenglass House

I know I bombarded last week’s post with mini-reviews… so here’s a longer one! Kate Milford’s Greenglass House is a wonderful read for curling up by the fire or Christmas tree with a mug of hot cocoa. There’s no better time of year to read it! For one thing, it’s snowing throughout the entire book. For another, it takes place during Milo’s Christmas vacation. For another, it’s set in a huge, mysterious house full of both people with secrets and secrets of it’s own.

Themes of the book include treasure hunts, roleplaying, making friends, and figuring out who is trustworthy and who is not. Milo is a somewhat compulsive child who likes everything to be just how it is supposed to be, down to the placement of pencils and notepads on his desk. This is a trait he both accepts about himself over the course of the book and is able to overcome when necessary.

Greenglass House reminded me of the Mysterious Benedict Society ( highly intelligent, quirky children, a house full of secrets, unique and funny grown up characters who do not treat the children as if they are stupid) and, weirdly, of Murder on the Orient Express (lots of people confined to a small place, a mystery that must be solved before they are able to leave). Both of these similarities are big check marks in my book. Plus – just take a second and appreciate that awesome cover!

Cleverly written and with a bit of a twist ending, readers of any age (advanced lower grade and up) would enjoy snuggling up with this story over their own Christmas vacations.

Happy winter reading!

What I’ve Been Reading

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One of the great advantages of the MFA program I’m in is that I get to read whatever I want. It’s approved by my mentor, of course, and he sometimes makes suggestions based on what I need to work on, but mostly I read what I want. Right now, I am more than halfway through the reading for this semester, and I’m having some trouble choosing what to read next. Have a look at what I’ve read, and what my options are for my next four books. Suggestions on which to choose are welcome!

1. Best American Essays of 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed. There were many good essays in this collection, and very few that didn’t keep my interest. I chose to write about Megan Stielstra’s poignant “Channel B.”

2. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard. Dillard might be my favorite when it comes to CNF. Like her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which I wrote about here), this essay collection is full of her marvels at creation, observations of the natural world, and realizations that we as humans are a part of it. My paper focused on the short essay “Living With Weasels.”

3. A Pearl in the Storm by Tori McClure. The first book I read this semester that was a memoir rather than a collection of essays, Pearl is full of both personal triumph and the recognition of physical inability.

4. The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate. I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually read this entire brick of a book yet. I am still working on it, and I have finished the contributions of the American essayists. For my paper I chose to write about Edward Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles,” which is a sad reflection on loss of childhood wilderness and wilderness in general.

5. The Essays of E. B. White. White’s casual honesty and ability to criticize in a happy voice made this book my most pleasurable read so far. I’d recommend it to anyone who writes or reads. One theme I notice in my own writing is a nostalgia for things that are going away in the world, and a desire to preserve those that are heading that way but are not gone yet. There is a strong sense of both these things in White’s essays.

6. The Books that Mattered by Frye Gaillard. Another memoir, this time focusing more heavily on research than on experience, this book was useful to me not necessarily for it’s content but for it’s example. Although I was familiar with some of the books Gaillard mentions, it was his ability to weave the contexts of many books together to make a real-life story that impressed me.

Up next, these are approved books I have on the shelf (or in the stack) and ready to read, but can’t quite decide among them which to write essays about. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit, I very much want to read next. It might even be decided. That leaves me with three more slots to fill, and here are my choices: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, The Gods of Noonday by Elaine Orr, You Have Given Me a Country by Neela Vaswani, and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

Anyone care to share an opinion?

Book Review: A Stillness of Chimes

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Meg Moseley’s newest novel, A Stillness of Chimes, is a southern story in every sense – with all of the heartache and hidden secrets that implies. Rather than providing readers with a simple romance between a freckled, barefoot tomboy and a farm boy with a southern drawl, Moseley’s characters face real issues and emotional struggles that ring true with readers no matter where they are from.

Born and raised in north Georgia, Laura Gantt has run away from the conflict between her parents that possibly led to her father’s disappearance and from her childhood friend and high school sweetheart Sean Halloran by going off to college in Denver Colorado. Years later, Laura returns to her hometown in order to settle the affairs of her late mother, but she ends up finding more questions than answers, and Sean is there at every turn to keep her safe and help put the pieces of the puzzle together. A Stillness of Chimes deals with all kinds of problems that many readers today might face, including child abuse, alcoholism, adultery, and PTSD.

I thought Moseley’s writing flowed naturally and had an easy to read quality that made the story move quickly. The story itself was intriguing at the very least – the mysteries are introduced early on, but Moseley does a great job of leaving nuggets here and there to keep the reader turning pages to find out more. Character development, on the other hand, is not Moseley’s strongest point. Laura and Sean are constantly at odds with each other, but as their relationship progresses it seems to come out of no where and there is little evidence given to support Laura’s feelings or explain her behavior.

For a quick read, this book was entertaining and pleasant, with a satisfying ending. The setting seemed real, too, but maybe that’s just me wishing I could trade this never-ending Michigan winter for some pleasant flowers and a Georgia breeze!

To find out more about Meg Moseley and her books, visit her website.