Tag Archives: books

Close Reading

While reading the chapter on the battle of Helm’s Deep in the Lord of the Rings last night, Maggie exclaimed, “Whoa! The walls are 20 feet tall!”

“I know! That’s almost as tall as our house,” I replied, thrilled at her level of engagement.

“Yeah. . . . Did you know that dogs eat their own poop? And rabbits do too?”

An Unexpected Party

The kids were ready for bed tonight with a good 45 minutes to spare. They wanted to play Munchkin, our current favorite game, but we’ve been playing a lot lately,  so I suggested that we start a new book together. I told them that I had something in mind, and found the beautiful edition of The Hobbit that Sarah got for me many years ago. I’ve been putting off reading this with them because it is one of my favorite books; I didn’t want to drag them through it before they could appreciate it. And, truth be told, a small part of my heart would break if they didn’t find the magic in it.

With some trepidation I brought the book upstairs. Griffin was interested, with some reservations—we’ve had mixed results with chapter books. Maggie groaned and moaned, stating categorically that she didn’t like the book, despite knowing nothing about it. I told them a bit about the story—dwarves, goblins, a dragon—and we spent some time examining the beautiful cover. Griffin was in, but Maggie remained skeptical. I suggested that we give it a try.

As we began chapter one, “An Unexpected Party,” my fears were allayed. As I once was, they were captivated by the opening lines:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

They giggled about the worms and then wanted to know so much more about this comfortable hole. By the time the first dwarves made their appearance, they were laughing and exclaiming about everything. They loved Bilbo’s obsession with food, particularly cakes, and were in hysterics over the emptying of his many pantries. When things took a serious turn, with the song about the misty mountains and the dragon’s depredations, they were both completely hooked. Griffin announced, “this is the best book ever” and Maggie, in an uncharacteristic turn, agreed.

Tolkien’s original submission of the cover jacket for the first edition of The Hobbit. The 2007 Houghton Mifflin edition has a beautifully restored version of this.

Reading Time

Our bedtime routine is not as structured as it used to be, though we do get the kiddos to bed by 7:30 most nights. (Which we know from experience is a major ingredient in the following day’s success.) But one thing we all love to do is read in bed together before lights out. On nights when we finish dinner early enough and the kids clean up, brush teeth, and get their PJs on in time, we pile onto the big bed in our bedroom and select a book to read. Sometimes we only have time for a few pages; other times we read multiple chapters.

I love this time for a number of reasons. Of course I think it is “good” for the kids. And it helps calm them down so they can actually fall asleep instead of hurling stuffed animals at each other. And I love books and stories. But it also hearkens back to my own childhood when I remember sitting with my dad reading books. I still clearly remember many of the plots, the sound of my dad’s voice, the way he would slam the book shut when we were finished, the way his wedding ring reflected the lamp, and the ridges on his massive (to my young eye) fingernails.

I don’t remember conflicts and problems, though I’m sure we had them. We do now, too. Sometimes the kids can’t agree on a title. Sometimes Maggie interrupts the story so many times that I want to exile her from the room. Pretty much every night Griffin elbows Sarah in the face or fidgets so much that we want to strap him down. But these sorts of challenges are part of everything we do, and they don’t diminish the magic of storytime.

With the completion of The Secret Garden a few weeks ago, we’re finally at the stage where we can read complete novels. Maggie’s still not 100% ready, but Griffin is eager to tackle bigger stories. Prior to this, we were mostly reading shorter children’s books or episodic graphic novels (BoneAmulet, and, our all-time favorite, Lumberjanes). It’s exciting to consider all the books we can read together now!

Girl Power

The weekend after the election, the kids and I stopped by our local bookstore to browse. They went straight to the kids’ section while I looked at new releases. Moments later, Maggie comes running up to me with this book in her hands:

Girl Power
Girl Power

I didn’t manage to capture the look of wonder that she had on her face moments earlier, but she could not have been more excited that such a book existed. I was still pretty raw from the election, and my emotions ricocheted between hope and despair. Hopeful that as Maggie gets older, she will discover and nurture her own super powers. That her generation will join her. That she will appreciate the powers of the superheroes who preceded her (mothers, grandmothers, celebrated warriors, silent survivors). Despair that I’ll need to explain the phrase, “Grab them by the pussy;” that our culture still reveres hypermasculine cavemen; that two of the three superheroes on the cover are wearing swim suits.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The book, by the way, is only meh. Too moralistic for my taste: “Wonder Woman knows the importance of telling the truth.” Not to mention the absurd implication that DC Comics is at the vanguard of any sort of women’s empowerment. According a reputable recent study, women make up about a quarter of comic book characters, and among comic book creators, men outnumber women by a staggering nine-to-one ratio. But, I’m good with Maggie, at 4 ½, grabbing a book called Girl Power and thinking it’s the coolest thing ever. Someday, we’ll graduate to more sophisticated fare. (High on my reading list is Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I think I’ll bump that into my next spot!)


On a barely related note (we’re talking about books, right?), one of Maggie’s favorite things to do is pull out my D&D books. She looks at the pictures, no matter how gruesome, making up stories as she goes. She is also very proud of the D&D character that she plays at our rare family games, proclaiming, “I’m a fighter with a really big sword!”

D&D books
One of Maggie’s favorite genres: D&D books!

Review: The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education

The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic EducationThe Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by Diana E. Hess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a refreshing and valuable addition to current educational research—a must-read for 6-12 social studies and history teachers. The authors tackle important questions that all competent social studies teachers consider regularly: How do you select issues to open up for student discussion? Are some issues too “hot” or too divisive to be fruitfully discussed by students? How should a teacher balance the need to maintain a safe space for all students with the educational goal of fostering authentic political conversations about relevant controversies? Should a teacher ever share their own beliefs, or is that tantamount to proselytizing?

To answer these questions, the authors conducted years of empirical research at a wide range of schools around the country. Along the way they describe three case studies in detail, each of which is a fascinating look at how different teachers and departments grapple with these issues. The case studies alone are worth the price of the book, but the real gems here are in the final chapters where the authors analyze the data and attempt to answer the questions posed above. These chapters stand as a perfect example of how to use relevant theory and research to guide classroom practice.

Make no mistake: this is not a book aimed at a popular audience. It is written primarily for education schools rather than regular classroom teachers. With that said, however, I found plenty here of immediate, practical value. (I primarily teach 8th grade social studies.) The research cited in the book focuses on grades 9-12, but the issues raised are certainly relevant in middle school and possibly even in the younger grades.

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Little Free Libraries

Little Free Library
Little Free Library

Recently, I walked with the kids to some of our neighborhood Little Free Libraries. While walking, we started talking about whether we would someday put one in front of our house, even though there is one directly across the street from us.

Andrew's library would be dedicated to science fiction.
Andrew’s library would be dedicated to science fiction.

I suggested that I might make one that was all for science fiction stories, and I would decorate it with space ships and alien planets. Griffin and Maggie loved this idea, and quickly came up with their own versions.

Griffin's library would be all about science.
Griffin’s library would be all about science.

Griffin’s would be all about science and would have pictures of microscopes and tiny (microscopic?) creatures on it. He asked a few questions about the difference between science and science fiction, but once he understood the distinction, he was firmly committed to real science.

Maggie, of course, shouted, “FROZEN!” When I asked her how it should be decorated, she looked at me like I was hopelessly ignorant, and said, “ELSA!” followed by a whooshing sound which I took to be the sound of Elsa’s ice magic.

Maggie's library would be dedicated to Frozen, decorated with pictures of Elsa.
Maggie’s library would contain anything related to Frozen.

Review: Rebel Queen

Rebel QueenRebel Queen by Michelle Moran
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although I usually avoid this sort of book, being suspicious of most western, orientalist portrayals of the “east,” I do love picking up random books from the many nearby little neighborhood libraries (those wonderful front-lawn libraries-on-a-post that have sprung up in recent years). This one leapt out at me, so I blazed through it over the past few days. The basic story was interesting enough to hold me to the end, but that’s built into the historical material: the clash of cultures, colonization, rebellion, etc. Beyond that, the book was a disappointment.

First, I tripped over the language. Moran makes use of some astoundingly clunky imagery. Consider a few examples:

“As anyone who’s ever lived inside a house of eggshells knows, nothing is more fragile.”

“I became like a frozen stream—hard and impenetrable on the outside, but secretly bursting with life within.”

“By the time we rode out, the lump in my throat had grown so large I could hardly swallow.”

“Love can be like the seasons, turning a green leaf into something frail and yellow.”

Hello… editor? How did these make it into the final draft? Those first two are on the same bloody page. On the bright side, as a writing teacher, it’s always good to find such stink bombs. I’ve already shared them with one English class… and even seventh graders recognized their flaws.

Second, the book succeeded in dampening my interest in the title character (the famed Rani of Jhansi). I was certainly sympathetic to the rebel cause, but after reading page after page about the overwrought opulence of the Rani, the Raja, and the members of their court, and then contrasting this with the lives of the bulk of the people in their community, it was difficult to maintain a sense of sympathy. When the British first annex Jhansi, there is a chapter that focuses on the Rani being forced out of her stupendous palace and moving to a smaller, older, stupendous palace. It’s filled with pathos, with lines like, “Thousands of people lined the roads to watch our procession to our new home, and they were utterly silent.” And the dramatic tension was sustained by focusing on whether the Rani would be able to keep her stuff, including her “elaborate peacock throne” made of emerald studded gold. But luckily, in the midst of central drama of who gets to keep the bling, the Rani says, with tears in her eyes, “And what will happen to our people?” See, she really does care!

Ultimately, I recommend reading an actual historical account of this period and these legendary characters rather than this clumsy fictionalized version. And, don’t forget that your house of eggshells is fragile.

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Review: The Road Not Taken and Other Poems

The Road Not Taken and Other PoemsThe Road Not Taken and Other Poems
by Robert Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Frost never leapt out at me during my sporadic forays into poetry. I was familiar with—and moderately fond of—a few of his most famous poems, and certainly the title poem of this collection, but never enough to seek out more. I picked up this collection because of David Orr’s introduction, which did not disappoint. I love an intro that can contextualize the author both historically and in terms of current sensibilities. Orr is erudite, efficient, and precise, with enough wit (and delicious dashes of pop culture) to avoid any whiff of pedantry.

I intended to skim through the rest of it, but found myself sucked in. To my surprise, I was particularly drawn to his longer poems; I rarely have patience for these, preferring poetry that packs a quick wallop. The first that wowed me, and still my favorite in the collection, was “The Death of the Hired Man.” I read it, was stunned at how evocative it was, and reread it immediately—I was there on the porch steps watching the conversation unfold. A 166 line masterpiece. Others that leapt out were “The Housekeeper,” “The Fear,” “Birches,” and “The Bonfire.” Each of them packed an emotional punch and grew with each rereading.

My former English teachers may be relieved to know that I finally, a few decades late, get what all the Frost fuss is about.

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