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“Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink

caddiecoverI remember, back in elementary school, that there was a time when all of our classes were reading books about the pioneers.  While I can’t remember what book my class read, I know that a lot of other classes were reading “Caddie Woodlawn” and that I wanted to read it, too, but for some reason I never did.  This doesn’t make sense to me, because I’ve always been a voracious reader and there was a period of time – thanks, probably, to the Kirsten doll of the American Girl collection – where I was really into pioneers.  Anyway, now that I’m a “grown-a$$ woman” I went and found a copy at Open Books, and I read it. Boom.

“Caddie Woodlawn” is, as I expected, a charming tale of quainter times on the Wisconsin prairie back in the good old days.  Tomboy Caddie is one of the seven Woodlawn children, the apple of her father’s eye and the rough-and-tumble bane of her mother’s.  Along with her brothers, she finds all sorts of outdoorsy and plucky fun in the untamed wilds of Civil-War-Era Wisconsin.  Caddie & Co. make friends with an Indian who lives by them, help stop a massacre that isn’t really going to be a massacre, hunt pigeons, and learn about the true value of home and loving where you live. Based on the real-life childhood adventures of Carol Rhyrie Brink’s grandmother, the book is adorable and heart-warming, and if you’re into the “Little House” series of books, this is right up your alley.

I’m happily checking this one off my “things I need to read” list.


“The Tale of Despereaux” by Kate DiCamillo

I don’t think there’s a more adorable book on any shelf anywhere in the world than Kate DiCamillo’s 2003 chapter book, “The Tale of Despereaux.”  This sweet little tale – of a tiny mouse, the princess he loves, an evil rat, a daft serving girl, and a whole lot of soup – couldn’t be more touching, more charming, or better to read aloud.

Yep, I read this one aloud to my one-year-old.  Thanks to DiCamillo’s writing voice, which is tailored perfectly, to young readers, this book is perfect to read to another.  Our omniscient narrator stops to address the reader, asking questions about the things that are happening and words that have appeared, and it’s no surprise to me that this Newberry Award winner is also one of the National Educators Association’s “Top 100 books  for Children.”

With unforgettable characters, an interesting four book structure, and enough lessons about honor, friendship, family, and following your dreams to fill a hundred books, I’m so glad I became one of DiCamillo’s readers.

You know, I advocate giving books for Christmas.  This one would be perfect.  I’m just throwing that out there in case you needed some inspiration.

Side Note: I had no idea DiCamillo was also the author of “Because of Winn-Dixie.”  Clearly, this is a writer who appreciates young people and the adventures that books can take them on.


“Harold and the Purple Crayon” — S.D. Crockett’s tale onstage at Chicago Children’s Theater

There is, at present, a rather remarkable piece of literary adaptation onstage in Chicago.  S.D. Crockett’s timeless tale of childhood imagination, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is being presented in a colorful, classy, and always fun musical production by the good people at Chicago Children’s Theatre.

And translating the Harold books to the stage couldn’t have been easy.  There’s really only ever one substantial character – Harold himself – and he draws all of his surroundings with the infamous purple crayon, which can’t make set design easy.  In this clever production, directed by Sean Graney, the sweet-faced and strong-voiced Nate Lewellyn plays the titular hero.  He’s assisted by two additional talented actor/singers – Alex Goodrich and Bethany Thomas – who play “Storytellers,” which roughly translates to “every other role you could imagine” – from parents to dragons to a moose and porcupine to a (quite ingenious) puffer fish.  The set, smartly, is white, and projections and puppets and other bits of theatrical magic make the purple crayon lines appear and disappear at Harold’s whim.

Also, it’s a musical — and the score is terrific. I love a good musical.

I attended the opening night performance of this show in CCT’s new performance space at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and the crowd was packed with parents and children.  Proving themselves aware of their target audience, the folks at CCT were smart — the programs double as coloring/activity books, and everyone who attends gets a purple crayon for coloring all over the paper-covered walls.

This show reminded me of the time I discovered Harold in the library at my elementary school, and how great the book is.  (There are a few other books in the series, too, but my heart belongs to the original.)

If you have small children in your life, this show is a charmer and one they’d definitely enjoy.  Also, it’s about 50 minutes long,just right for little attention spans.  (Hint:  Check for a chance at finding half-price tickets.)

Celebrating Banned Books week with “Bridge to Terabithia” By Katherine Paterson

Happy Banned Books Week!  I hope you’re reading something scandalous in honor of the fight against censoring books.

Somewhere, there’s someone who doesn’t want me to read “Bridge to Terabithia,” likely due to the heart-breakingly sad ending, the fact that there’s a character in the story who’s father beats her, or the use of the word “Damn.”

So I read it.  I remember it vaguely from elementary school, but decided it was time for a re-read.  Man, am I glad I did.

What a wonderful book about friendship and growing up.  Preteen Jess has worked all summer to get faster at running so he can be the fastest kid in the fifth grade, but his plans are cut short by the arrival of a new neighbor girl – Leslie – who is faster than all the boys.  Jess and Leslie soon become best friends, and build an imaginary kingdom in the woods and make themselves King and Queen.  It’s a touching story of two kids learning about the world.

And then there’s the sad part. And geez, is it sad.  But it’s not unrealistic.  Tragedies happen to even the best of kids, and kids shouldn’t spend all their lives reading about fairy princesses and happily ever after.  I’m keeping this one on my bookcase for a few years down the line when my son is ready for a great read.  Also, a Newberry Award winner.  😉

If we’re speaking of the power of books, when I mentioned on facebook that I was reading this, here are some responses I got;

“It will make you cry.”

“Just don’t read “Where the Red Fern Grows” or “My Brother Sam is Dead” for a few weeks after Bridge to Terebithia or you won’t be able to get out of bed ever again.”

“Bridge to Terebithia is the only book I found worthy of pulling an all-nighter (as a Fr. in college), just to have an uninterrupted, unassigned pleasure read. Wonderful book.”

These terrible books, these banned books, are the ones we remember.

Celebrate the power of amazing literature this week — read a banned book.

“The Last of the Mohicans” (Great Illustrated Classics edition) by James Fennimore Cooper

imageGuys, I tried.

Really I did.

However, sometimes despite their living on for centuries and being the topic of much scholarly research and a hit film adaptation, books can be a snore.

“The Last of the Mohicans,” by James Fennimore Cooper, is such a book as far as I’m concerned.  There, I said it. I tried to read the original version of this book, but not even 20 pages in felt my eyes glazing over and my attention turning to things like doing the dishes.

However, it’s on my list of “The 30” books I own but have never read and am going to read in 2012.  What’s a booknerd to do?

Obviously, go find an abridged version of the book for a quarter at a nearby thrift store and read it instead of the original novel.

I’m not ashamed of my actions.  Honestly, the Great Illustrated Classics edition is pretty great for what it is — an abridged version of an American classic written for young readers.  With this audience in mind, it keeps the violence clean and the action going.  Also, there’s an illustration on practically every other page.  The whole thing works.  I even found myself somewhat concerned for the beautiful Munro sisters and the heroic Hawkeye as they make their way through hostile territory during the French & Indian war.

By the by, regarding the beautiful Munro sisters. (Did I mention they’re beautiful? Did I?) Cora Munro has moments of being kind of an awesome heroine.  Even if she has to get rescued like five times and meets a tragic end.  Alice is pretty bland, and also needs rescue every time the guys turn around.

I looked up the Great Illustrated Classics series, since I’ve been collecting all the ones I can find at thrift stores and used bookstores for my son’s rapidly growing library.  After over 25 years, the company is still going strong, and the books are often found in school libraries, and have recently been adopted by a lot of homeschooling parents as a way to encourage their younger readers.  There are now 66 titles to choose from. Kudos to them!

I’m crossing this one off my list of 30 books I need to read.  I heard the story, just in a faster version.  I think it counts.

“Tilly’s Moonlight Garden” by Julia Green

My son (now approaching his 1 year birthday, by the way) and I have an afternoon quasi-tradition: reading a chapter book.  It began with “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and has now continued with Julia Green’s “Tilly’s Moonlight Garden,” which I got my hands on an advance copy of before it’s October 2012 release.  I read, my son chills out and plays with a toy or two while he listens for a bit.  It’s good times. I’ll continue it.

“Tilly’s Moonlight Garden” is a lovely book.  At first, it brings to mind the book-child of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” and “The Secret Garden,” as it’s the story of a young girl with family issues who moves to a new house and makes discoveries about things in the house and outside that no one else knows about, and the magic begins.  However, Tilly’s family issues aren’t the stuff o fairy tale.  Her Dad is a writer and something is wrong with her Mom – she spends a lot of time in bed. (No worries, it’s revealed.)  A mysterious girl and a fox add elements of magic, but what actually happens is left wide open to speculation at the end.

“Tilly’s Moonlight Garden” will likely capture the imagination of girls in that tricky age right before “tween” hits.  It’s the story of a young girl growing up a little, and emphasizes that sometimes reality and magic can co-exist and both be pretty cool.  It’s a fairly easy read, and Tilly is an understandable heroine.  For adult readers, you might find the dialogue and some of the characters a bit flat, but in all fairness this book wasn’t really written for us.

I liked it — it was a nice book to read aloud, too.  I’ll keep it on my bookcase.



“Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1: Professor Gargoyle” by Charles Gilman

Young Adult Literature is experiencing a renaissance of sorts right now, with an explosive rise in popularity triggered by a mighty combo known as “Harry Potter”/”Twilight”/”The Hunger Games.” They’re massive, they’re heavily marketed, they’re movies, and they’re everywhere.

Say what you will about any of those books, but they’re getting young people reading.

And that’s never a bad thing.


Quirk Books is getting in on the young adult boom with their new, and super clever, series, “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School.”  In this series, a town’s students have been redistricted to attend a brand new state-of-the-art eco-friendly high-tech middle school where nothing is what is seems and creepy things are around every corner.  There are secret rooms, two-headed rats, mysterious disappearing kids, and potentially monstrous teachers on top of the normal middle school headaches of bullies, where to sit at lunch, and class.

Geez.  What’s a 7th grader to do?

In the first book of the series, “Professor Gargoyle,” we meet 12 year old Robert Arthur, our hero, and follow along with him as he realizes this fancy-schmancy new school has mysterious secrets.  It’s a fun read, and shouldn’t be too difficult for younger readers.  Robert is a likable hero.  He’s not magical and doesn’t have any super powers.  He’s just a normal kid in the middle of some crazy stuff.  The book’s ending leaves the door wide open for more books in the series, which is a lot of fun as well.

I hope Quirk has a lot of success with this series, and look forward to reading the rest of them as they come out.  This one’s going on the bookcase for a few years down the road, some October when my son wants to read something scary but isn’t quite old enough for the original Lovecraft yet.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Roald Dahl

I’m a lifelong Roald Dahl fan, and it’s all due to one of my all time favorite books, “Matilda.”  Oh, how I loved that fantastical tale of a special little girl and her days at school and her love for books.  Also, I love “The BFG,” and “The Twits,” and “The Witches” scared the ever-loving crap out of me until I was in 3rd grade.

So how did I make it to 30 without having read “Fantastic Mr. Fox?”

Reader fail.

Who knows, but I recently read the book aloud to my (now) ten month old son, and it was a blast.

Dahl is about silliness.  His books are not complex or full of great grand life lessons, but they’re always a romp and a hoot – and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is exactly that.  It’s a quick and easy read with likable animal characters and a pleasant resolution that’s sure to make little kids happy.

Mr. Fox has a system to feed his family, stealing from three local farmers – the despicable Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.  When the three farmers tire of being raided, they decide to try and kill Mr. Fox, and wind up driving the Fox family deep underground where they’re sure to starve.  Fortunately, the Fantastic Mr. Fox has a plan — and with the help of an underground friend or two, might even be able to save his family and the other animals threatened by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean from starvation.  Yeah, I think you can guess how it ends. Which is not a bad thing at all.  Sometimes, in this world, you need a happy ending.

I should probably watch the recent Wes Anderson film adaptation soon, but TBD on that.  (I can’t imagine how hipster foxes will work, le sigh.)

Roald Dahl remains, now and forever, the man.  I’ll absolutely introduce my son to all of his works.  In fact, “James and the Giant Peach” is up next, after  Tilly’s Moonlight Garden,” by Julia Green.

“Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

I’m going to keep this short.

Though I love J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” very much, I only became interested in reading Barry & Pearson’s prequel, “Peter and the Starcatchers,” after seeing the segment from the Broadway cast of the stage adaptation on the 2012 Tony Awards.  The show cleaned up at the awards, and the book is equally lauded.

Because it’s great.

I seriously cannot wait for my son to get old enough to know the story of “Peter Pan” so I can read this to him.  Reading it as an adult, it’s a little simple — but I’m not the target audience, and it was easy to put myself in the shoes of those the pages are aimed at.  From that viewpoint, the book is a complete and totally magical win.

It’s a prequel, in which a normal orphan boy named Peter gets sent on a ship, encounters a mysterious girl and pirates, then has to save all his friends and a magical trunk from falling into the wrong hands.  This is pre-Darling children, but many of the familiar characters of NeverLand are present.

It’s a splendid romp that young people will devour, I’m sure.


“After the Snow” by S.D. Crockett

S.D. Crockett’s “After the Snow” is being released at a time when it can’t help but be compared to the current biggest book in the world, Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” It’s yet another Young adult novel with a young protagonist who has to deal with some violent and scary stuff in order to survive, as so many young adult novels are these days.

Hey – that stuff sells.  Big time.

In “After the Snow” our young warrior hero is a boy named Willo, who makes his way through the barren hills and mountains of a new ice age while trying to survive and track down his recenty-vanished family.  Along his scavenging way, he becomes responsible for a young girl named Mary, and they wind up in a “city” that will probably remind any of Ms. Collins readers of some of the districts of the fictional Panem.  (The Government is over-arching and kind of scary, while the people are struggling to get by, or wealthy for shady reasons.)The book has quite a bit of violence and mature themes in it — including a few mentions of death (of adults and children) so maybe this isn’t the book for your little ones.

Willo is interesting enough to keep the book going. In fact, one of the strengths of “After the Snow,” is Crockett’s choice to write the book from Willo’s point of view, and in the broken/stylized way this wilderness boy (who wears a coat he made from the fur of a dog, who may or may not speak to him) would speak.  It reminded me a little bit of the way “A Clockwork Orange” is written in Alex’s vernacular, and how it immediately sets the scene and makes the reader sit up and take notice.

If dark and brutal young adult literature is your thing, check out “After the Snow.” It’s a pretty good read.