Saturday, April 30, 2011

Letting a Young Man Take the Helm of His Education

This week I made a promise to my son.  He doesn't know about it yet-maybe I just won't even tell him.  Aspen is fifteen years old and has hit a point in his education which I think most, if not all, young men eventually hit.  Hit is a particularly good word to use, because we are not talking about a bump in the road here.  We are talking about a brick wall.  Somewhere along the road to scholarship my wonderful young man has lost his footing.  

More than any other goal for my homeschool, my desire is to have my children walk into their adult lives with a love of books, not just any books, but the truly great books.  As well, I want them to love non-fiction, because it is through this broad genre that they will become well-rounded lifelong learners.  To my great distress I am failing, in this my primary goal, with regards to my once avid, eldest student.  Furthermore, the most disheartening aspect of failing him is how magnified that feeling becomes when I look into the faces of all his younger siblings.  

Our curriculum is whole book, as opposed to text book or anthology, based.  For certain subjects, such as science and math, we use a more structured approach, but history and literature are not taught in dry paragraphs and excerpts.  How does one feel the power of an event presented as dates, places, and names?  The power of history to move students is born in the realization that people-with families, faith, dreams, and talents-are the fundamental components in the story of our universe.  How do readers grasp the glorious complexity of a well crafted novel if all they read are snippets, taken out of context?  A great work of literature is an aggregate of too many elements to be adequately rendered in a fragmented state.  I remain convicted that this approach is a good one; so why am I loosing my son?  And what can I do to not only get him back on the path to learnedness, through a balanced program of study, but also help open up once again the tap of discernment and wisdom which will flow from a lifetime of self-motivated reading?

Every so often my well, as a mother and a homeschool teacher, verges upon empty.  Invariably in these moments of exhaustion, my gracious Heavenly Father sends me my very own balm of Gilead.  Enter Adam Hailstone, Andrew Pudewa, and Brian Wasko-compliments of our local homeschool conference.  Adam Hailstone is a teacher with the classically based online school, Williamsburg Academy.  Andrew Pudewa is the founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, a commonly used curriculum among home schoolers.  Brian Wasko is the founder of Write At Home, an online writing program.  These three men, over the course of two days, mentored me; each of them taught me specific, individual lessons and collectively they reinforced in me one overriding precept.

The workshop which afforded me the biggest eureka moment was without a doubt one taught by Adam Hailstone entitled "The 15-Year-Old Challenge".  Two Powerpoint slides were all it took.  For the past several years I have expected my son to meet a bi-weekly accountability schedule.  Every couple of weeks (or so) he is expected to turn in all of his assignments, completed in compliance with the detailed lesson plans which I provided him two weeks previously.  Mr. Hailstone presented a table of realistic expectations for accountability; I discovered that my expectations for my son have been grossly unreasonable.  During many of these years that I have presumed my son to be responsible enough for bi-weekly liability, I should have been requiring it of him on a daily basis.  Even now, at fifteen, he is barely on the verge between daily and weekly answerability.  In short, I have set my son up to fail as a direct result of expecting more than a student of his age should realistically be challenged to deliver.

Another concept presented by Mr. Hailstone, while not new to me, has never been laid out in such step-by-step fashion.  That concept is a system of goals and commitments.  Like most home schoolers, we set annual goals for those things which we hope to accomplish in a given year.  Mr. Hailstone maintains that this is not nearly enough and advocates every student having a weekly appointment with a "Running Partner" during which the student writes out what he or she commits to do in each aspect of their education for the coming week.  In addition, the student outlines a few "above and beyond" type of goals for which they would like to strive.  Aspen, in other words, writes out his lesson plans-not Mom, and they are based upon his own motivations.  The key is that the student must choose a Running Partner who knows that student's capabilities and insures that they stretch them-self.

I had the pleasure of attending, as my first event of the conference, Andrew Pudewa's marvelous keynote address.  With charm, wit, and common sense, Mr. Pudewa eased my burden by reminding me that my kids are normal and a sense of humor will take me a long way.  He presented a fascinating view of motivation within a home school, based upon the relevancy which students attach to given activities, and gave some concrete tips for achieving the results we all hope for.  In a later workshop he expressed an opinion which, for some reason, came as a surprise to me.  While he agrees that students need to learn to write literary analysis essays as part of a comprehensive writing curriculum, he hates them personally, believes students hate them, and feels that students would get more benefit out of their literature if they did not spend so much time dreading the looming expectation of their teacher for them to expound upon it ad-nauseum in essay format.  What an odd thing for a writing guru to say, I thought.  And then I attended Brian Wasko's "Great Books for Regular Students" workshop.

Prior to beginning an online writing program, Mr. Wasko was a high school literature teacher.  His enthusiasm for fine literature is thoroughly contagious.  I felt myself to be in the presence of a kindred soul and loved every second of his inspiring class.  Even my seven year old remarked upon how much fun Mr. Wasko had talking about books.  God was certainly using the technique, often used in the scriptures, of more than adequate repetition of those salient points which He felt I needed to learn.  In solidarity with Mr. Pudewa, Mr. Wasko stressed the importance of letting students read!  No essays, no worksheets, no pressure.  Discuss their reading by playing off what the student loved about a given work.  If they thought the plot was insipid, but loved the characters, then discuss the characters.  In all likelihood they will read a book later with weak characters and a masterfully crafted plot.  I have been feeling nudged in that direction by the Spirit, but the confirmation of my impulse to cover more novels by spending less time writing about them was very liberating.

One prominent motif floated through all three of these gentlemen's presentations: the advantage of letting the students manage their educational pathway on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Hailstone contends that the students will learn to be more accountable because they are their goals, not Mom's.  The assertion that a student's natural industriousness and creativity will flow if they are allowed to follow a path of their choosing is a central tenant of Mr. Pudewa's philosophy.  Applying the same idea to literature, Mr. Wasko believes that it is more important for students to love what they read, so they are inspired to read more great books, than to drill every aspect of every novel into disinterested minds.

My spirit has gone through a renovation thanks to these fine educators.  Concepts that have flirted on the periphery of my educational philosophy have now become axioms which I feel empowered to embrace.  I pledge to finally change those aspects of our home school which are, and have been for some time, irretrievably broken.  What Aspen studies will now be up to him, and he will be responsible for setting his weekly commitments and goals.  In exchange I pledge to faithfully meet with him every week to hold him accountable and be his cheerleader when he succeeds.  Rather than working solely off my opinions about what is relevant, I will honor his need to feel included in the decision making process with regards to what he studies.  Finally, I set him free to read for the sheer experience of it-to let him join the Great Conversation on his own terms, to learn what he may from the great thinkers and writers, unhindered by narrow composition requirements.  

And so we return to the promise I made to my son.  Just as every teenage boy hits a brick wall in his educational progression, every mother reaches a scary point when she realizes that it is time to let her son begin to become his own man.  I promise to let him go, to let him grow, to let him take the helm of his ship of learning, according to reasonable expectations of his abilities.  I commit to being there to help navigate when he needs me and to redirect his course when he flounders.  Above all else, I thank my Heavenly Father for the opportunity to be there to celebrate with him as he begins to take ownership of the life journey which his Father has granted him.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SPIRAL by Paul McEuen ✰✰✰✰✰

Short Version
An enthralling debut thriller whose plot spans almost seventy years, two continents, and the life of a bioterrorism threat.
Long Version
I really hate over-hyped books.  They invariably disappoint.  As soon as I read a friend’s review of this one, I knew that this was one of those drop-everything-else-on-my-reading-list-and-read-this-now kind of books.  It just had me written all over it.
My favorite thrillers are generally those involving international politics and relations.  This one combined those aspects with biology and nanotechnology and produces as a result an intellectual adrenaline rush.  Crafting a plot for a thriller requires that tricky balance of pacing and credibility-and credibility is often stretched to keep up the pace.  Many times a thriller has left me flat because the plot was simply not believable.  Not so here.  Due to the excellent descriptions of the biological and technological elements involved, this one is downright unsettling.  I had no trouble envisioning the events unfolding on today’s world stage.
It has been a long time since a book has drawn me in so completely.  I started this one in a waiting room yesterday afternoon, read in fits and starts (think drive-through line and dance class), and until NyQuil had me nodding off at bedtime.  Today I read between assisting on math problems, cursive, and reading picture books (we homeschool), finishing during our lunch break.  Generally, I do not read during the day, but this book was unputdownable.
This book should appeal to a very large audience.  The plot was not at all bogged down despite the hefty dose of science, the characters were well developed and evolved as the plot moved forward, and even the settings were easily visualized.  I hope that Paul McEuen’s day job as a physics professor and researcher at Cornell University do not impede the publication of his next novel.  He will, I have no doubt, have a number of readers watching his web page in anticipation.   

QUEEN EMMA AND THE VIKINGS by Harriet O’Brien ✰✰✰✰

Quick Version
A history of Emma, Norman wife of two kings of England (one Anglo-Saxon and one Dane), mother of two kings of England, and great-aunt of William the Conqueror.
Long Version
Emma is every historian’s dream subject.  Born into a position destined to make her a pawn in the power plays of the highest nobility, Emma had the intelligence and the cunning to rise to eminence in a world where women were undereducated and disregarded.
Despite a length of less than three hundred pages, this book does an excellent job telling not only Emma’s story, but the tale of the time in which she lived.  This is a period of English history full of shifting politics and cultures.  Alfred the Great had ruled shortly before, the apex of Anglo-Saxon England.  Emma’s first husband, the inept Aethelred led to its ruin.  Cnut the Dane conquered England and in a stunning move married the popular and recently widowed Queen Emma.  Following his demise, Emma held on long enough to put not just one, but two sons, one by Aethelred and one by Cnut, on to England’s throne.
In addition to the machinations of politics, Harriet O’Brien paints a vivid picture of life at all levels of society during Emma’s lifespan, interspersing her portrait with useful tidbits such as which food items would not have been seen and when they were first cultivated in England.  I finally learned the difference between mead and ale!
I highly recommend this history to readers of Helen Hollick’s historical fiction, [B]The Forever Queen[/B] and its recently released sequel [B]I am the Chosen King[/B].  It also stands on its own as a wonderfully readable account of the life and times of a woman too often overlooked in the annals of history.

Friday, April 22, 2011

WORLDS APART by Swanee Hunt (✰✰✰✰)

Quick Version:
Swanee Hunt, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, was a participant in the international effort to assist in the resolution of the Bosnian Conflict.  She gives sketches of the war and discusses what lessons can be learned from this and other conflicts.
Long Version:

Author Swanee Hunt takes an interesting approach in this look at the war in Bosnia.  Rather than writing a straight narrative account of its history from start to finish, she has chosen to present a series of vignettes, alternating between “Insider” and “Outsider” perspectives.  Initially, I found the book’s structure a bit unsettling, especially since the first events do not seem to move in chronological order.  Let me point out, however, that my copy is a galley, and therefore might be rearranged in the editing process prior to final publication.  After the first few stories, this problem resolved itself and many pieces actually seemed to set up the next.  I loved the formatting once I had settled in to the flow of the book.  No, this book is not an exhaustive recitation of the conflict from start to finish, but Ms. Hunt offers so much more.
While she does not attempt to write the whole history of the war, she does begin the book with an excellent section entitled “Context”, in which she gives a brief glimpse of enough history of the area to help her reader understand the causes of the conflict and then a very brief outline of the war itself.  This section is also used to lay the groundwork for a major premise of the book-that the conflict in Bosnia was not a religious war.
In employing her alternating sections format, Ms. Hunt is able to bring in a large number of voices.  The “Outsider” sections feature diplomats and state department personnel from a number of countries outside of Bosnia.  Conversely, the “Insider” accounts are those of people living through the conflict inside the country.  Had she used a straight narration I would likely have said that the cast of players was too large, but within this structure it absolutely works.  It also enables her to portray in very stark fashion the dichotomy between events such as an embassy dinner and a meeting with a group of women in Bosnia. 
During the conflict Swanee Hunt was the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, the closest diplomatic mission to Bosnia geographically.  In addition to taking a very active part in the U.S. Department of State’s role in attempting to broker peace, the author spent a good deal of time trying to understand the conflict from the viewpoint of everyday Bosnians.  She is a strong believer in the role that women can and should fill in unsettled areas of the world, and she invested much of her time providing support for the women of Bosnia as they gathered after the conflict to work together, across ethnic lines, for stability and unity within their country.  As Ambassador Hunt points out, women make up more than half of a given country’s post-war citizens and can and should be part of the peace process.  Bosnia also had the interesting extra benefit of having, at that time, more female PhDs per capita than any other European country.  Since Bosnia, Swanee Hunt has gone on to found an organization dedicated to empowering women around the world in the political process and in business.
To wrap up her book, the author closes with six lessons, well supported with examples from not only Bosnia but countries from virtually every continent, which can be learned from past wars and applied to how the international community addresses unrest in the future. 
Star Rating: Four stars
Target Audience: Bosnia is not an area I knew a whole lot about, but I had no trouble following the book.  I think most readers will find Ambassador Hunt’s newest offering to be a very engrossing experience.  It would be an excellent book to use with students, although I would suggest those not younger than sixteen, as war atrocities and genocide are discussed in some detail.

(Expected date of release: 6 September 2011)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stylish Blogger Award!

My lovely fellow blogger, Jennifer O. of Literary Endeavors, has given me an award!  I know Jennifer from the Shelfari group Who Doesn't Love a Classic and always enjoy her thoughtful reviews and comments.  If you haven't been there already, stop by and visit her blog.

In accepting this award I am asked to do two things: pass the award on to 10-15 other bloggers and tell you seven things about myself.

My scope of bloggers is very small, so I have set myself a challenge to expand my horizons.  The ten blogs I have listed below are blogs that are completely new to me, or ones which I have stumbled across once or twice and thought about since.  A couple I have found as a result of books that I have reviewed.

So, if you are a recipient of the award I would ask that you help spread the word about my blog by posting the award on your blog and let people know who presented it to you.  Then, pass it along-either to followers or to a complete stranger (be sure to leave a comment on their blog, or email them, so they know what you have done).  Then tell us all seven things that we might not know about you.

My recipients:

Books, Personally A fun blog with lots of bookish items besides reviews.  She has also only been blogging a few months, but her blog is wonderful and looks like it has been around for years.

Save the Picture Book Recently I reviewed a newly released picture book What to Expect When You're Expecting Larvae.  Author Bridget Heos has this blog dedicated to wonderful picture books.  Her reviews are excellent.

Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords This is another blog for an author whose book I recently reviewed.  Robert Rummel-Hudson, the author of Schuyler's Monster, uses his blog space to chronicle, in his humorous and forthright way, their life journey.

Weblog of Life on Our Last Frontier  I found this gem of a blog by Bob Kaufman while searching out other Alaskan bloggers.  He also has a website connected to his company, Alaska Channel, with some of the most amazing photos you will ever see of our stunning state.  After browsing Alaska Photos you will be adding the Last Frontier to your Bucket List.

Jill Outside  This young lady, Jill Homer, lives a life full of adventure cycling, and her blog is an armchair traveler's dream!  She wrote a book in 2009, Ghost Rider, which I have not yet read.

Living in Alaska-Life in the Last Frontier  Susan Stevenson is a military wife (her husband is now retired), mother, and wonderful photographer.  I am so pleased to have found her site.  Do not miss her "Length of Visible Light" post!  Gorgeous pictures of the aurora borealis! 

Anna of Alaska  Anna is a rural Alaskan who loves to write.  She has some delightful posts about rural life, and I look forward to following her musings.

Kate's Book Blog  Kate's blog is subtitled "Books that make me think".  Her reviews are lengthy and substantive, and, as the blog subtitle no doubt gives away, the books she reviews are definitely quality material.

Bookfoolery and Babble  This is a fun, eclectic blog whose writer is an active poster and voracious reader.  She also reviews advanced reader copies, so hers is a good place to get opinions of up and coming releases.

Booking Mama  Julie's blog is fresh and breezy in style.  She too reviews advanced reader copies and also has author interviews.

Seven things about me...

  1. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Jesus is my teacher and inspiration.
  2. One of my children is named after President Reagan, because I think he was the finest politician ever and a very choice human being.
  3. My youngest brother is five months younger than my eldest son!
  4. I would like to learn Arabic and Persian Farsi.
  5. Someday I hope to learn to play the cello.
  6. Last winter I attended an astronomy lecture series with some of my children and found a new hobby.
  7. Books bring me a world of knowledge, in addition to entertainment.  History and books about other cultures are my favorites, because no matter how much I learn, I will never reach the bottom of the endless font of knowledge.  What an exciting thought!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (✰✰✰)

Generally, I do not gravitate towards either young adult books (unless I am considering using them with my children) nor fantasy books. I did give this one a try for two reasons: a discussion on Play Book Tag (a Shelfari group) about authors who read their own work for the audio version and the fact that the tag for the month on PBT was magical realism.
I will agree that Neil Gaiman does a good job narrating, but I still think that authors should stick to writing. The fact that this audio followed a fabulous George Guidall narration in my audio lineup was probably not in Mr. Gaiman's best interest.
The story line itself I found simple but charming. Once one has been absorbed into the Middle Earth of Tolkien, all other fantasy just seems trite and surface. I actually enjoyed the scenes where the main character, a young orphan being raised by ghosts in a graveyard, is in the graveyard or town, as opposed to the ghoul's underground land.
My eldest son also listened to this audio. Although he is a Neil Gaiman fan, he was not so impressed with this one and told me not to judge all his books up against it.

THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED by Wally Lamb (✰✰✰✰)

The first thought that comes to mind when I ponder this book is that just when I think that nothing else could possibly go wrong for this couple, it does. The story follows Caelum and Maureen Quirk, both staff at Columbine High School, through the tragedy of the shooting and the ensuing years as they struggle to come to terms with their emotional aftermath.
I am really torn between listening to the other Wally Lamb book on my TBR or reading it in print, because I think that a good portion of what drew me into the story was the flawless narration of George Guidall, who also does Lamb's I Know This Much Is True. Every character gained such personality and presence through his skillful recitation, and I wonder if the writing would, on its own, be quite as powerful.
At times the story line seemed on the verge of going just that little bit beyond the realm of credibility, yet because I felt invested in the characters, I followed along out of curiosity.
As with several books that I have reviewed, I feel the need to post a language warning for this one: some might find the profanity a tad excessive. The author even apologized to his grandma in the endnote for his language, explaining to her that he felt it was necessary for character portrayal. Despite my dislike of this type of vocabulary, I would have to say that I agree with him in this case.

TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES by Thomas Hardy (✰✰✰✰✰)

What can I say-I love Hardy. Why do I love an author whose books seem to move from one heartbreak to another? He is definitely not one you read for a light pick-me-up, that is for certain. But his writing is so nuanced that it feels as if I am floating down a quiescent rural stream; I know turbulent water lies ahead-I can feel the increasing pull beneath me-yet there seems to be no urgency to try to pull away in opposition. Going there just seems to be the natural flow of life. So why do I love this man whose plots I willingly follow into the very depths of despondency? Because the prose...oh, the prose!
Thomas Hardy is a master of every literary element. For him, setting, especially, takes on such presence that it becomes an amalgamation of every place you have ever been. All of your senses become engaged. You hear the church bells peal across the meadow. The flank of the cow against Tess' cheek feels warm and fluid beneath your own. As she toils in the field you feel the grit of harvested grain in the sweaty crease of your neck and taste its dryness in your mouth. You feel refreshed by the wind and gladdened by the birds in flight.
When it comes to character, Hardy is the consummate teacher. We don't just know that Tess' mother is hard at work on wash day. Her weariness is palpable. We aren't told that Tess is a good daughter. She pitches in just where she is needed, time and time again. Each character, major and minor, is presented so completely through their speech and actions that the narrator need fill in very little. For me they each even acquire a distinctive voice in my head.
So if you have shied away from Hardy for lack of interest in his wrenching plots, I urge you to give one of his novels a try and experience the power of his incomparable prose.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Words, Not Swords by Farzaneh Milani ✰✰✰✰

Quick Version:
A brief survey of women in the arts, writing in particular, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and how their political climate affects their portrayal and their voice.
Long Version:
I was drawn to review this book for two reasons.  First among them, political Islam is an area I studied, and second, women in Islamic societies intrigue me.  Initially I thought that the book would discuss the works of Iranian female writers and the restrictions which their government places upon their work.  This book was quite a bit more complex.
Ms. Milani lays out some background information for her book in a rather repetitive introduction.  It does not state on the galley I read whether or not it has been edited as of yet, so perhaps a final, tighter copy will emerge.  Even as is, her points are interesting  enough to keep me moving through the text.  A good deal of background information is given regarding the history of veiling, not just in the Muslim world, but in other cultures and faiths as well; she also discusses issues of men and the turban.  In the author’s opinion, the veil is not the issue so much as the confinement of women, their inability to move freely through their society, and not just physically.  It is their voice, as much as their body, which is suppressed.
Iranian tales are discussed in the first section of the book.  It is fascinating to see these tales through the lens of a Persian woman and understand how a people’s stories can reflect the minutia of a culture.  Ms. Milani does not expect her reader to be up on their Middle Eastern folk literature and gives enough background of each for you to follow her points illustrating the immobilization of women.  She moves forward chronologically to show the reader what has changed, and what has not, in more modern works.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book, for me, was the section on Iranian cinema.  The ways in which directors navigate the sticky issue of portraying female characters on screen range from clever to outright ludicrous (to my western eyes).  She also discusses the politics of women in the audience.
In the second section of the book four women and their works were specifically examined.  Their stories are told with such passion and admiration that I was saddened, not for the first time, by how little of the Middle Eastern canon has been translated into English.  
The concluding section of the book addresses the author’s frustration with the “hostage auto-biography” which forms most western readers’ opinions of Middle Eastern women as invisible, timid, and voiceless.  There are two sides to every story, and Ms. Milani wants us to celebrate the valiant women who spread their wings to expand their physical and vocal space.
Star Ranking: 
Four Stars  This is not an easy read, but I believe it to be an important one.
Target Audience: 
Those interested in international women’s issues or who study Persian literature and cinema.

(Adult non-fiction-Release date of 1 May 2011)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Care's Fun Adventures in Galley Land

Things will be changing a bit around here in the near future.  I am excited to announce that I have begun reviewing pre-publication galleys on behalf of some pretty major publishing houses.  It is very likely that my already very eclectic reading habits will become even more so.  

Currently, I have non-fiction titles aimed at all three age brackets: adult, young adult, and children.  One of the things that I find exceptionally fun about reviewing galleys is that there are books on the list which I would likely never have come across any other place, and nowhere is this more true than in the realm of non-fiction.  Long a lover of history, I have kept up fairly well with new releases in that specific genre, but one look at the list of galleys available for perusal showed me how narrow my focus really is.  I have books on everything from sidewalk chalk art to plastic to kindness to covered bridges.  As I post the reviews, I hope that you will feel inspired to extend your reading horizons and order some of these titles for yourself, either from your favorite bookseller or your library.

I felt drawn to many more non-fiction titles than fiction, but I do have some wonderful looking reads lined up in that area as well.  Selections run the gamut from a boarding school in British India to a spy thriller to short stories set in a small Israeli town.

One of the things that came as a complete surprise to me was the extensive selection of children's and young adult books available.  The kids and I are having a lot of fun reading through a wide variety of picture books, both non-fiction and fiction.  In addition, I have a couple of read-alouds which we are going to begin this week.  I also accepted several young adult books, both novels and non-fiction, which I am hoping my fifteen year old son will read as well and join me in co-reviewing.  Knowing that most of us who read ourselves also read to our children, grandchildren, or other little people in our lives, I am happy to add these reviews to my blog so that all of you can discover new titles to pass along.

Aside from free e-galleys, which will disappear off my Nook in 55 days or less, I am not compensated by the publisher for my reviews.  So, you can be certain that any reviews which you read here will be my honest, uninfluenced opinion.

I hope the widely divergent titles which will be making their debut here will catch your fancy and enrich your reading life!

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING LARVAE by Author: Bridget Heos and Illustrator: Stéphane Jorisch ✰✰✰✰✰

Quick Version
An excellent look at bugs and their larvae, written as if to the expectant bug parents.  Fantastic illustrations and text, and it is even fun for the grown-up reading it out loud!
Long Version
This is one of the best non-fiction children’s books that I have read to my children in a very long time!  I anticipated that my fourth graders would be bored with the book, as they are pretty bug savvy fellows, and that they would not appreciate being addressed as prospective parents of bug larvae.  By the second page the humorous tone and visual impact of this beautiful picture book drew them in right along with their first grade and pre-school sisters.
We all noticed, somewhat surprised, the fact that the text contained information about bugs and their babies which we had not ever come across before in a picture book.  There was even a tidbit that was new info for my Bugmeister in Residence.
The illustrations are a couple of my children's (and my) favorite part.  Illustrator Stéphane Jorisch employs marvelous, vivid colors and infuses every page with the kind of detail that will keep even non-readers browsing through the book.  Each critter seems to possess its own personality thanks to Jorisch’s endless store of expressive animal faces.
Moreover, this book, due to the style of narration, makes it very easy for the reader to have fun with the text.  To me, that is the best way to draw children in to the information.  They will remember things that made them laugh, even facts about bug larvae, for a very long time.
Star Ranking: Five stars, absolutely!
Target Audience: Ages 4-12 (although this mom found it pretty fun too!).  It would make a great gift for a kiddo.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

GRENDEL by John Gardner ✰✰✰

I had trouble getting through this one, for reasons that I can not quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the busy time frame in which I tried to read it, or perhaps it was that I was not in the right frame of mind. Several years ago my son and I read Beowulf aloud, and we really enjoyed that classic epic. I was very excited to read this revisionist version, written from the viewpoint of the monster, Grendel.
In some respects, Grendel is depicted in a fashion that brings the creature in Frankenstein to mind. He is drawn as a being that wants to love man and God, but who, through the violence of those with whom he is so fascinated, descends into murder and chaos. I thoroughly enjoyed the characterization of most of the main characters in the novel; it was definitely the best aspect.
I have heard this book lauded as a realistic rendering of life in Anglo-Saxon England, but I have read other books, such as Helen Hollick's The Forever Queen, which paints a far more vivid portrait.
Perhaps the aspect of the book which caused me the most annoyance was the philosophical nature of Grendel. My expectation was a plot based book, revolving around a man-vs-creature battle of wits. Instead, I got a philosophical comparison of men and monsters, in which my sympathies were oddly drawn to the monster. As I stated earlier, had I been in the mood for a study of this type, my opinion of the book would likely have been much different.
In addition to the great character sketches, what kept me reading was the wonderful ability of John Gardner to craft such lovely, simple prose, such that even though the emotions are those of a monster, I felt connection and empathy. I would guess that if a person likes philosophical musings, or is at least in the mood for them, they would very much enjoy this original twist on one of the oldest known tales.