Choosing Worthwhile Children’s Books

kids-readingIf you’ve been to the library or a bookstore recently, then you know that there are so many children’s books released each year that it is nigh impossible to sift through the twaddle to find something worthwhile. Of course, there is also the issue of your children perusing the shelves and pulling off any and everything that has colorful pictures they find interesting. So how do we decide and choose books for our kids that expand their minds rather than contract them?

As much as I’d like to pretend I haven’t checked out or bought books that can only be characterized as twaddle, I have. Sometimes to appease my kids, and other times because I failed to exercise due diligence when faced with an overwhelming number of choices. Over the past 2 or 3 years however, I have actually devised a mental checklist that guides me when I am choosing which books they will read and how much twaddle they will be allowed to read for their own amusement. What I have found is that a good plan does wonders when it comes to ensuring that my kids read lots of good books. So here’s my usual plan for choosing books, starting with picture books for younger children all the way up through middle school:

  • Start with classics: The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Curious George (earliest editions), Good Night Moon, Caps for Sale, Madeleine, Babar, Make Way for Ducklings or Blueberries for Sal, and other award winning books are almost always the best way to go when seeking out picture books for younger readers. Even though Peter Rabbit’s tale was fist introduced in 1902, it is as captivating to younger readers as it ever was. This is but one sign of a good book, but an important one. Good writing is timeless.
  • Explore specific authors: Every author represented in the list of classic picture books I listed above has at least one other equally excellent title, and most have several. When in doubt, I would search for books by Beatrix Potter, Margaret Wise Brown, H.A. Rey, Esphyr Slobodkina, Robert McCloskey, etc. This always led to other excellent books.
  • Check the Newberry and Caldecott award lists: This is a pretty good reference for lists of worthy books written before about 15 years ago. You can almost never go wrong. As post-modern literary standards and cultural mores have declined, I approach recent winners with a much more wary eye, but rarely have I chosen a book that was a winner even in recent years that wasn’t at least a half way decent book, and certainly not harmful.
  • Read the books yourself: As you start getting into longer, less illustrated books, there really is no way around reading through the books for yourself. You’ll note that on my Pinterest book board, there are almost as many children’s books as there are adult books. This is because our 4th grader is moving into a new stage of her reading journey and I have to read unfamiliar titles before she does. There are those books which are time tested and approved, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall, the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries, and several titles by Kate DiCamillo. Other books, such as The Whipping Boy which I reviewed in the preceding post, I needed to read because I had never heard of it until quite recently.

As our older children moved from middle school into high school, we gave them complete literary freedom of choice. Thankfully they had been exposed to enough good literature that in addition to The Hunger Games, The Divergent Trilogy, and Percy Jackson, they were equally as likely to read Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Well, that’s my strategy for choosing good books. Also, I’m always on the lookout for suggestions of lesser known but excellent books we might not have read.

picture credit

The Whipping Boy

whippingboy2The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman, 1986. 96 pages.

I originally read this book as part of my very extensive search for books to use in our literature based homeschool co-op curriculum this year. It didn’t make the cut since as it turns out, the grade level I landed isn’t quite able to fully appreciate it. However, I enjoyed it so much that starting next week we will be reading it in our own homeschool and doing some activities based on the themes and setting of the book.

Prince Horace is mischievous, impertinent, and always causing trouble. It is a crime to spank or lay a hand on him in any way, so a whipping boy is needed to take the lashes he earns when he is caught misbehaving. Whipping boys were not uncommon in English courts during the 16th and 17th centuries. The title character is Jemmy, a street orphan taken in to royal palace to serve as the whipping boy for the prince.

Jemmy is a tough kid, and years of fending for himself on the streets has produced in him a stoicism and determination that makes him the “perfect” whipping boy. He never cries when he is called take lashes for “Prince Brat”, and that fact eventually comes to infuriate the prince.

When the prince decides to run away Jemmy knows that he will be held accountable if anything bad happens as a result, and goes with him. He also knows the prince can’t possibly fend for himself on the streets, and it’s not long before they run into serious trouble, only escaping due to Jemmy’s quick thinking and street smarts.

This book is a good read for girls and boys alike, but I really liked the themes, interactions, and thorough celebration of boyhood in it. I initially chose it precisely because so many of the other books I encountered in my search for a class reader were books that lacked the kind of action, adventure, mayhem, and fun that young male readers can enjoy.

Scholastic categorizes the book as appropriate for grades 3-5, so I’ll let that suggestion stand. The themes of personal responsibility, courage, and friendship are those that can be appreciated at any age, as evidenced by the fact that at 44, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent reading this book.

A

Content disclaimers:

Violence: The whipping boy takes several lashings, and there is much peril on their runaway journey.

Bandits, a kidnapping, and robbery are integral to the plot. There are also moments of awakening as the prince encounters the realization of his charmed existence and experiences, however briefly, the life of a peasant.

Please Stop Helping Us Get Mugged.

That’s actually not the title of a book I’ve recently read. It’s the combined titles of two books on the same subject. I concluded that rather than review the books separately, I’d combine them into a one post review. That said, the combination of these two titles is a very succinct and accurate description of the takeaway you’ll get from reading either of these two books on the politics of race in the U.S.

please stop helping usPlease Stop Helping Us, by Jason Riley  is an excellent rebuttal to the nonsense we are being treated to in the media when it comes to race relations and what ails the black community. Pulling no punches on the issues of crime (black on black as well as black on white), family breakdown, educational shortcomings, and the lot of it, it’s the kind of book I wish I could put into the hands of every one I know who staunchly supports our current Demagogue-in-Chief.

In addition, Riley puts the current woes and dismal statistics of the black community into a relevant historical context, something that is sorely needed as commentators on both sides of the debate fail to recognize or acknowledge prior evidence that given the opportunity to sink or swim without weights or life rafts, black Americans have usually done just fine.

Riley highlights the fact that contrary to post modern popular opinion, at the beginning of the civil rights movement American blacks were fairly fractured in terms of what it would take to improve their lot as Jim Crow fell out of legal favor. There was the Booker T. Washington school of thought, which focused on self-determination and industry as much more important than integration or political activism.

(There will be reviews forthcoming of Booker T. Washington’s work as our President uses him as a favorite example of thinking the black community should ignore in favor of government as the benevolent savior to all who are “oppressed”.)

There was also the W.E.B. Dubois faction which focused on political power and influence as the chief end to achieve equality and prosperity. Riley points out what happened as those who emphasized political integration won the battle:

Since the 1960s, however, and beginning in earnest in the 1960s, the Du Bois-backed focus of political integration has prevailed among black civil rights leaders. It crystalized under Martin Luther King, and several generations of blacks have come to believe that the only legitimate means of group progress is political agita­tion of the NAACP-Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton variety. By this way of thinking, if you are more interested in black self-development than in keeping whites on the defensive, you’re accommodating racism.

You can find a much longer excerpt of Riley’s exposition on the Washington vs. Dubois approach to civil rights in this excerpt from his book that was featured on Forbes.com. Thorough, conservative and historically detailed book.

B+

mugged coulter

Mugged, Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama, by Ann Coulter does a good job of stating those things that no one else wants to say in polite company. The difference here is that again, she offers some historical context that shines a light on the fallacies and biases that both sides of these discussions fail to recognize or even know about.

Offering a very extensive record of crime statistics of various stripes, she points out that the proliferation of pandering and soft on crime legislation has led to a situation where we all are at greater risk of crime. This is why when I decided to combine the reviews for these two books of very similar subject, I went with “Please stop helping us get mugged.”

I wanted to like this book. I truly did. The problem with it was not the information contained within. There were plenty of convincing arguments backed up with historical references and legal facts. I appreciated this.

What I did not appreciate was the way Coulter’s quip-like humor and characteristic one liners translated into book form. What plays well in a 5 minute television debate or reads well in a 2000 word column on Townhall.com grows tiresome after about 75 pages:

The century-long struggle for civil rights was over. Attorney Thurgood Marshall had won his cases before the Supreme Court. President Eisenhower made clear he was willing to deploy the U.S. military to enforce those victories. President Nixon had desegregated the schools and building trades. Racist lunatic-and Democrat-Eugene “Bull” Connor was voted out of office by the good people of Birmingham, Alabama. The world had changed so much that even a majority of Democrats were at last supporting civil rights. After nearly a century of Republicans fighting for civil rights against Democratic segregationists, it was over.

That was the precise moment when liberals decided it was time to come out strongly against race discrimination.

For the next two decades liberals engaged in a ritualistic reenactment of the struggle for civil rights-long after it had any relevance to what was happening in the world. Their obsession with race was weirdly disconnected from actual causes and plausible remedies. They simply insisted on staging virtual Halloween dress-up parties, in which some people were designated “racists,” others “victims of racist violence” and themselves, “saviors of black America.”

The fact that New York City was the crucible of so much racial agitation in the seventies and eighties shows how phony it was. There was never any public segregation in New York. No one was moved to the back of the bus. There were no “whites only” water fountains. There were no segregated lunch counters. (Blacks could even get a sixteen-ounce soda in New York City back then!) But liberals love to drape themselves in decades-old glories they had nothing to do with.

You may have noticed the little one liners I referenced above. As I said, great for a 2000 word column, but tiresome over 300+ pages.

With those caveats in place, the book is worth a read to die hard Coulter fans and the open minded on both sides of the current debate on race in America. You have to be open minded, however because no matter where you fall, there will no doubt be something here that you’ll not like. It is however, far more offensive to the liberal than conservative (and I use those terms loosely as a way to generally distinguish two schools of thought that grow less dichotomous every day).

That brings to mind  another bothersome thing about Mugged. There was an over emphasis on framing everything in terms of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Now, given Coulter’s target audience, this is to be expected and I won’t hold it against her. Having myself evolved in recent years past the two simplistic and misleading labels, it was another thing that dragged down a potentially helpful book.

C+

Valley of the Sun: Frontier Stories

valley of the sunValley of the Sun, by Louis L’amour, collected and published posthumously in 1995.

I encountered this book the way I encounter many; simply perusing various genres on the shelves of our local library. It had been a while since I read a Western, and since I ain’t never met a gun slinging tough guy character that I didn’t like, I figured I’d mosey on home with this collection of short  stories by the acclaimed Western writer.

The stories did not disappoint. However, they don’t rank as high on my L’amour scale as earlier works published when he was alive, such as for example, The Daybreakers. Of course, these are short stories, so perhaps my comparison is less apt given the levels of character development novels offer when compared to short stories.

With that disclaimer on record, I highly recommend Valley of the Sun for readers not deeply familiar with the Western genre. It offers the perfect opportunity to get your feet wet while enjoying the work of a writer who is arguably the best Western writer…ever.

The stories have all the elements of great Western tales. The strong honorable men, willing to draw to the death for the protection of what is right and just in the face of men of low honor and even less sense of justice. Women with intestinal fortitude, yet who understand the value of their soft power.

Cattle rustlers, law men, spectacular descriptions of the wild, Western frontier, and character  tinged with humor and insight. Consider character Ryan Tyler’s analysis of cattle baron Jim Lucas upon their first meeting in the introductory story, We Shaped the Land with Our Guns:

Lucas was a medium built man who carried himself like he weighed a ton. He sat square and solid in the saddle, and you could see at a glance that he figured he was some shakes.

Those 35 words are worth an album filled with photographs, as an instant picture of Jim Lucas develops in your mind’s eye.

The vivid imagery makes the old west come alive in story after story and whether you’re a long time fan or reading Westerns for the first time, Louis Lamour’s Valley of the Sun is sure to satisfy.

B+

Content disclaimer:

Violence: It’s the wild west. Lots of gun slinging.

If Beale Street Could Talk

if beale street could talkIf Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin, published, 1974

Right around the time I graduated high school, I decided it was time to be “down with the struggle” and began reading the Negro authors of the Harlem Renaissance.

Upon the birth of our first child I grew much more conservative (funny how that happens), discovered a book written by Thomas Sowell, and decided that I no longer wanted to read anything that encouraged me to see myself as a victim when in reality, our earthly destinies are largely shaped by our individual choices.

Armed now with a greater understanding of the world than I possessed at age 18, I recently decided to go back and re-read several of the Harlem Renaissance writers, because in many ways, they come from where I come from.

Although James Baldwin came along much later than the Harlem Renaissance movement, the contemporary flavor of his writing resonated with me and as a young person he was my favorite. Wondering if I might view one of his most famous novels differently now than I did 26 years ago, I was anxious to dig into it and finished in more quickly than I typically would finish a novel.

At its heart, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story. Alonzo and and Clementine (affectionately referred to as Fonny and Tish by those who knew them best), had been friends their entire lives. The best of friends, in fact, until one day Fonny “sees” Tish for the first time. They are 20 and 18 years old, respectively. He claims her -“You know you’ve always been mine, right?“- and they set about planning a life together, announcing to their families that they plan to marry. They work hard to save the money they’ll need to have a proper wedding and find a decent place to live. Fonny is not settling Tish down in the bad side of town.

The story is a first person narrative from Tish’s perspective.

Things are finally starting to come together for the young couple, when Fonny is unjustly jailed and awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit just as Tish realizes that she is pregnant. The families of the two young people set out to fund and assist in putting together a defense to prove his innocence.

What gripped me most about the story, some two decades since I first read it, was not the central story, but its back drop. Things that should have offended me (besides racists, only church people are depicted in a bad light), simply didn’t. And they didn’t offend me because I recognized every single meme that Baldwin presented.

While Baldwin’s bittersweet relationship with the church coupled with his own sexual confusion were no doubt the catalysts for his disdain for most church people, his characters didn’t just ring true. They were real to me. I knew them, grew up with them, went to church with them, was one of them.

The young people who were steadfast and vocally devoted to the Lord right up until they were old enough to make their own decisions. The “saved, sanctified, Holy Ghost-filled, fire-baptized” wife who somehow ended up with a heathen for a husband. The husband who tried to love her, but her zeal for “holiness” crowded out any ability for her to receive his love.

The men who sat under the tree drinking beer and playing cards while their women spent all afternoon on Saturday laundering, ironing dresses, pressing and cutting hair, in anticipation of Sunday morning services. Most of said husbands had no intention of darkening the door of a church with their wives unless they were paying respects to the dearly departed.

Baldwin’s depiction of the theater beneath the hoopla during Sunday morning services also took me back. Women who seemed to be trying to out shout one another. The men watching with disinterest. Baldwin, the son of  a Pentecostal preacher, had his finger on the pulse of the games church people played and there was no denying the reality of his presentation, as much as it grieved me to acknowledge it.

Revisiting Beale Street was like walk down memory lane in myriad ways. I am not as enamored with it now as I was way back when, but I still like it well enough because Baldwin turns an excellent phrase and captures the intricacies of family and romantic relationships with a candor that is hard to find anymore.

He acknowledges hard truths without seeming angry or preachy, except of course, on the subject of race. Given the era in which he lived and wrote, I won’t begrudge him that. The universal truths, however, are well presented. That some families are extremely dysfunctional, but others are full of love and togetherness. That some wives are the salt of the earth in difficult relationships, but just as likely a man  might wake up from the honeymoon to realize that he is on the verge of spending the next 50 years living a nightmare.

I am more than certain that this book is not for everyone.You need to be able to embrace nuances and the context of the climate in early 1970’s America to appreciate it, but I still like it well enough, all these years later.

B-

Content disclaimers:

  • Sex: Scattered references, 2 0r 3 graphic moments (see my “Reading Standards” page).
  • Profanity: Here and there, also with racial epithets.
  • Faith: Narrated through the lens of ambivalence, but a very realistic portrayal of black church life in the 1970’s.

On Reading Standards

It just occurred to me that as many people who discover me (or whom I invite among my real life acquaintances), will be devout Christians, I should probably issue a standard disclaimer concerning the books I will review in the space.

I read just about everything under the sun. I draw the line at romance novels and erotica, because I think the psychological and emotional ramifications of reading such trash is just as bad if not worse than the effects of the sexual content.

That said, I have read and enjoyed many books that have the occasional racy/erotic scene written into the story. Generally I just skip over that part, since after 2 decades of fruitful marriage, I know how sex works. The presence of such material in context, as a part of a well written and superbly executed work, is not enough for me to toss aside the book or refuse to review it. I will however, offer fair warning as part of the review for those of you whose standards are much stricter than my own.

Additionally, I read books with political and religious points of view that differ from my own. I am well past the age of easy impressionability and feel confident reviewing material with which I may disagree. There is no litmus test here based on religious correctness. Again, when the work is one that contains extensive material that needs to be disclaimed, I will do so.

When reviewing children’s books, I will be careful to categorize age appropriately and also offer any information concerning ideas that may need to be dissected more closely with young readers.

Letters of Woman Homesteader

This short collection of letters, which I never would have read -or even heard of!- had it not been recommended by another blogger, was quite a fascinating little book.

This homesteading woman, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, flies in the face of everything I thought I knew about the way women lived during this period in American history. She was bold, adventurous, and a risk taker in ways I could never imagine. She didn’t shy away from a challenge and she forged on despite numerous hardships. A genteel, shrinking violet waiting to be rescued, she most certainly was not.

It serves as another reminder of the vast difference between what many of us have been taught concerning life at the turn of the 20th Century/Victorian period, which is largely recounted through the lens of the affluent, and what life was really like. At least, what life was really like for those who were not wealthy, noble, or connected.

Of course, since these are the words of an American woman -a widow, no less – making her way out west to Wyoming to spread her wings and start anew, it has a very different flavor than it would had she been writing from the more established, less tempestuous east coast of the United States.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader is worth the read because of its historical value. What’s more, despite Mrs. Stewart’s limited education, she is quite the entertaining writer as well.

A-