Author Archives: Amy

The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg

The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg is the third of his books I’ve read, the third in a collection he has written about his family.  In this one, he beards the lion in the den of his and his family’s memory:  he approaches the subject of his father–the same father who comes out the villain in his mother’s story, All Over but the Shoutin’.  We learn in The Prince of Frogtown that Bragg’s appraisal of his father is, by most counts and certainly by the hard evidence, pretty fair.  However, the story is made a bit more palatable by the foil Bragg places it against:  his own journey to stepfatherhood and how it has changed him.  As much as anything, this book is Bragg’s ode to boyhood, written in his inimitable voice and style.

One word I would use to describe Bragg’s writing is poignant.  I can’t really think of another author who can bring me to tears and make me nod my head in recognition quite as much as he does.  A large part of that is because I’m a native Alabamian, too, and while I grew up and still reside in the other corner of the state, his culture is familiar to me in my own family’s history.  The Prince of Frogtown relates his father’s childhood as a boy who grew up in a cotton mill town, the youngest son of an alcoholic father and a loving mother. Alochol and violence were just part and parcel of their lives.  It’s about the disintegration of Bragg’s own family after his father finally succumbed to the power of the demon and just lost or gave up his ability to be a father or a husband.  Bragg doesn’t over-simplify it, though; he writes about the environment, his own mother’s difficult decision that might’ve had a part in his father’s undoing; the classism and prejudice that made it seem impossible for the Charles Bragg to do better.

Hard but beautiful.  That kind of sums up everything that I’ve read by Bragg so far.  Here’s the opening paragraph of the book, just to give you a taste:

In water so fine, a few minutes of bad memory all but disappears downstream, washed away by ten thousand belly busters, a million cannonballs.  Paradise was never heaven-high when I was a boy but waist-deep, an oasis of cutoff blue jeans and raggedy Converse sneakers, sweating bottles of Nehi Grape and Orange Crush, and this stream.  I remember the antidote of icy water against my blistered skin, and the taste of mushy tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, unwrapped from twice-used aluminum foil.  I saw my first water moccasin here, and my first real girl, and being a child of the foot washers I have sometimes wondered if this was my Eden, and my serpent.  If it was, I didn’t hold out any longer than that first poor fool did.  It took something as powerful as that, as girls, to tug me away from this tribe of sunburned little boys, to scatter us from this place of double-dog dares, Blow Pops, Cherry Bombs, Indian burns, chicken fights, and giggling, half-wit choruses of “Bald-Headed Man from China.”  Maybe we should have nailed up a sign–NO GIRLS ALLOWED–and lived out our lives here, to fight mean bulls from the safe side of a barbed-wire fence with a cape cut from a red tank top, and duel to the death with swords sliced of a weeping willow tree.  I don’t know what kind of a man I turned out to be, but I was good at being a boy.  Then, a thrust to the heart only bent against my chest, in a place where I could look straight into the Alabama sun through a water-smooted nugget of glass, and tell myself it was a shipwrecked emerald instead of just a piece from a broken bottle of Mountain Dew.

I feel compelled to tell you that Bragg’s writing is full of bad language, so if that’s something you avoid, steer clear of his books.  He writes it as plain and as unvarnished as he can, but he manages to see the beauty through the heartache most of the time.  I can’t think of another writer who tugs my heartstrings more.  (Knopf, 2008)

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Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo is a very prolific and well-loved children’s author, and her stories vary in genre, style, and age-appeal.  Her latest offering is a brand new book in her “Tales from Deckawoo Drive” collection.  Leroy Ninker Saddles Up is about a character familiar to those who already love the Mercy Watson series.  He is a diminuitive cowboy wanna-be who works at the Bijou Drive-In, parceling out popcorn and filling drink cups.  In this story he gets a start on his life-long dream of becoming a real cowboy by acquiring a real horse.  He dreams of a valiant steed he will name Tornado; he gets an elderly nag named Maybelline.  Still, there are gags and gaffes, and yes, even adventure, to be had in this book as Leroy figures out how to be a horse owner when he lives in a tiny apartment in town.  The story very appropriately ends with the two of them on Deckawoo Drive, enjoying a breakfast with none other than that “porcine wonder,” Mercy Watson and her family.

Like the Mercy Watson books, this makes a delightful read-aloud for the younger set.  The chapters are short and the Chris Van Dusen’s illustrations are both entertaining and plentiful. The DLM fell in love with our one copy of Mercy Watson early this month, so when I saw this title on the new books shelf at the library, I knew it had to come home.  We’re on our first re-reading now.  :-)    This book is not overly simplistic; in fact, I would wager a guess that the DLM doesn’t “get” any of the nuance or most of the vocabulary.  Still, he is carried along by the sheer improbability (and thus, hilarity) of the story, and the illustrations.  My only two caveats to offer about this book are these:  it is chock-full of “fake cussing”– first, Leroy almost constantly says things like “gol dangit” and the like; and second, several of the characters use both grammar and vocabulary that are wrong.  This makes for GREAT reading aloud, as the characters are easy to “read,” but if you’re concerned about reading that aloud to your younger children, you might want to give this one a pass. (I’m not of this opinion, by the way.)  Otherwise, definitely check out Leroy Ninker.  We look forward to many more volumes in the Deckawoo Drive collection!  (Candlewick, 2014)

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Goodbye, Gil

I, along with legions of other thirty- and forty-something women, am mourning the death of actor Jonathan Crombie, best remembered for his role as Gilbert Blythe in the film adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea.  The Anne of Green Gables series was the most formative fiction of my adolescence.  I was a bookish, overweight, frumpy, smart, Christian teen (who didn’t always even fit in with the other Christians in my school).  I had dreams, but I did a good job of muffling them.  Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe helped me in two ways:  he helped me believe that I, a girl who often had her nose in a book and her head in the clouds, could be loved some day; and he helped me keep my ideals.  About a decade after I fell hard for Gil Blythe (and everything about Anne), I fell hard for a fellow who reminds me of him in a lot of ways.  I think I owe a tiny bit of thanks to Gil Blythe for keeping that dream alive.  (My own Gil Blythe even agreed to a honeymoon on PEI.  Yes, he’s a keeper.)

I found this lovely compilation via a USA Today article.  It’s worth watching just because it puts together all the important Gil and Anne scenes.

Speaking of movie scenes, my favorites (I think–so hard to choose!) are two, both from Anne of Avonlea:  the scene after Diana’s wedding when Anne and Gilbert dance in the meadow (at 1:03 above) and the scene when Anne runs into Gil on the bridge and they take shelter in the gazebo (at 1:17).  Which Anne and Gilbert scene is your favorite?

Goodbye, Gil.  (Y’all are hearing the emotion-laden and hesitant voice Anne uses to utter that phrase when you read that, aren’t you?)

May you long live in our hearts.

 

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Bear Circus by William Pene DuBois

It has been a year and a half since my mother gave me a stack of books from my childhood that she rescued from the basement of my childhood home.  I intended to share a few titles before now, but that’s the way it goes.  I’m sharing a favorite title today because the DLM has discovered it and loves it.

Bear Circus by William Pene DuBois is the story of a colony of koalas that have to leave their home because a swarm of grasshoppers eats all the eucalyptus leaves within the Koala Park where they live.  These frightened koalas set out to find a new home and are helped along by a troop of friendly kangaroos.  Just as the koalas and kangaroos are getting acquainted, an airplane transporting Colonel Tim’s Tiny Time Circus crashes nearby.  (Don’t worry–the Tiny Time Circus performers parachute to safety!)  I love this description:

With great luck, the bears and the kangaroos soon came across some beautiful gum trees.  They were standing straight and were green as a crisp salad.  There was a fine beach and the sea behind them.

The crashing pink airplane arrived at the same place at just about the same time.

“What is that?” asked a baby bear.

“I never saw anything like it,” said his friend.

The pink airplane crashed into a million tiny bits, scattering pretty circus things all over the bears’ new home.

“It must have been a Christmas present which opens itself,” said a baby bear.

“I think you are right,” said his friend.

The koalas decide they will put on a circus to thank their kangaroo friends.  Of course, because koalas move slowly, it takes them years to get it together, but get it together they do.  It is absolutely delightful!  (This is the part that hooked the DLM.)  We get to see koalas performing as clowns, strong men, and even the amazing Splasho, who goes up into the air from a teeterboard and lands in a bathtub.  The story ends with the koalas looking for a new home (the grasshoppers found their gum trees!).  More importantly, though, it ends with a sweet commentary on friendship.

If you’re looking for political correctness or scientific accuracy, keep looking.  However, if you’re looking for an engaging story with gorgeous illustrations (and koalas adorably dressed as circus performers!), this is your book.  William Pene DuBois won a Newbery Medal for The Twenty-One Balloons in 1948 and a couple of Caldecott Medals for picture books after that, but this is the only book by him I’ve ever read.  Published in 1971, my copy is a Weekly Reader Bookclub Book (remember those?).  I have no memory of how it came into my possession as a child, though it definitely made an impression on me.  It isn’t the best book to read aloud to a group (I tried), but it’s the perfect book to snuggle up with and enjoy together.  Highly Recommended.

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Homeschool wanderings: history edition

IMG_1852In the spirit of Old School Blogging (which I’ve decided to make an Official Thing), I’m going to share some very raw and likely under-developed thoughts about our homeschool journey and where we find ourselves at the moment.  This won’t be Pinterest-worthy, with five neat points; neither will it be complete with Tweetably succint statements.  It won’t include beautifully coordinated stock photos.  It will simply be what I’m thinking at the moment.  You’ve been warned.  :-)

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

–J. R. R. Tolkien

We began this homeschool journey after I fell under the influence of the world of early-learning (mostly book) blogs and later the book The Well-Trained Mind.  Way back when I had two children, a five year old and a three year old, and was gestating a third, I imagined a completely idealistic homeschool experience for our family:  a four year history rotation; well-developed writing skills; eager learners who never balk at any challenge.  Happy!  Happy!  Happy!  Engaged!  Engaged!  Engaged!

And then I had a fourth child, and the third child turned out to be a gregarious, attention-loving cutie pie who will not be denied.  With the maturation of these two pairs of children, those idealized dreams have died a protracted and painful death.  I’ve tried out numerous plans.  I’ve attempted to “do” the WTM model.  We were Classical Conversation-ers for a year.  I even bought the Sonlight notebook (!!!) last summer.  Here’s the truth of the matter:  I don’t like to plan, but I also don’t like to follow someone else’s plan.  Spreadsheets nearly send me into a full-blown panic.  I like routine, but I also like flexibility.  For the core subjects–math, writing, and language–we stick to the same curricula and cover the basics.  I feel pretty good about where both girls are.  However, for things like history and even science to some degree, we’ve been all over the board.  We read through the first three Story of the World volumes and loved them (and read a whole lot of related books, too), and then I decided it was time to delve into U.S. History.  After trying out a couple of the Sonlight-recommended spines, I finally struck out on my own and gave Joy Hakim’s The History of US a try.  Can I just say that we have loved these books?  Seriously, y’all.  I know they’re perhaps not completely acceptable in conservative circles, but the narrative style and interesting human-interest details have captured our minds and hearts. Couple the interest-factor with the fact that we’ve listened to much of it via OneClick Digital (and the narrator is fantastic!), and we have a winning combination.  I’ve had the girls keep a timeline in a notebook, and every week(ish) they add pictures and a short explanation of the person or event.  I also have them write up narrations occasionally.  They read lots of historical fiction, with the occasional nonfiction pick or biography thrown in.  I read aloud historical fiction to them.  They’ve memorized the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and are working on the preamble to the Constitution, as well as the presidents in order.  They occasionally put together a puzzle of the U.S.  The end.

So what’s the problem?  Well, Lulu will be in sixth grade next year.  SIXTH GRADE.  That’s one year away from SEVENTH GRADE.  Things start to feel a little more serious when you’re two years away from high school.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to proceed:  do I find a curriculum, say Veritas Press or Memoria Press, and try to once again follow a schedule?  (I’ve looked at those, and they almost make me break out in hives.)  Or do I accept Tolkien’s philosophy and believe it:  all who wander aren’t lost?  Is there a need to box us in, though the year already promises to be jam-packed with busy-ness, with the bonus challenge of adding an Official Kindergartener next year?  Or should we continue our freewheeling ways, with nary a worksheet, test, or real actual objectives and scope and sequence in sight?

These are the heavy thoughts tumbling about in my mind on a Friday night.

I have thoughts about subject besides history, too, but I’ll save them for another day.  Even Old School Blogging has its limits.  :-)

 

 

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