Category Archives: Nonfiction Monday

Read Aloud Thursday–October 2014


What a busy month of reading aloud we’ve had!  We’ve settled into a nice routine of reading aloud most weekdays at lunchtime, and then again from a different chapter book at bedtime.  The lunchtime book is usually related to history (mostly from Sonlight Core D) and the bedtime book is one I’ve picked.  I’ll be honest in stating that the lunchtime read-alouds haven’t been favorites of mine.  I’m realizing how much I value freedom of choice in what we do in our homeschool.  I don’t always like our history read-alouds.  Well, that’s not true.  I do think each one of them would make a perfectly fine okay book to read independently, but they’re not exactly ideal, at least to me, as read-alouds.  The two books I have in mind as I compose this blog post are two of the ones we’ve finished since last month’s Read Aloud Thursday:  Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen and Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.

I’m no stranger to Gary Paulsen’s stories, having at least read Hatchet in the nebulous past of my pre-blogging days.  Lawn Boy is nothing like Hatchet, at least plot-wise.  It’s the story of a boy who starts a lawn care business and by the end of the summer ends up very rich as a result of one of his customer’s investments on his behalf.  It’s a story about economics–each chapter has as its title an economic term.  The novel isn’t without its excitement, too, because he also manages to attract the attention of some thugs as well as a protective professional boxer.  What I found difficult about reading this story aloud, aside from the fact that I read this one only once a week (and hence would often forget myself what exactly was happening in the story) is that it is chock-full of dialogue.  This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, though I am noticing that stories that rely on dialogue and not much else tend to be more recent stories, and that’s probably one reason I’m not so crazy about them.  My main problem with dialogue is that I don’t do voices, so I always think the storyline gets sort of muddled because of that.  The Sign of the Beaver is a 1984 Newbery honor book, but again, it’s chock-full of dialogue.  It’s not quite as dialogue dependent as Lawn Boy, but the kicker for it is that the Native American characters speak in that terrible, stilted, stereotypical way that we associated with bad Westerns.  I’m usually not bothered much by stereotypes and being politically correct, but I found this one almost painful to read and actually found myself correcting the grammar of the Indians’ speeches.  Also, in my opinion it’s not a very complex story, and I really appreciate a story with a little more nuance as a read-aloud.  All of this actually surprises me because Elizabeth George Speare is a favorite author of mine from childhood–I loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond and read it multiple times, and then when I read The Bronze Bow as a young adult, she rose even higher in my estimation.  It is interesting to note that both of those title won Newbery Medals in 1958 and 1961 respectively, while The Sign of the Beaver came about twenty-five years later.  That makes me wonder if it’s just the “dumbing down” effect that we’ve seen over time.  At any rate, I mostly wished that I had just handed both of those books to my girls to read alone and had picked up something else.  We’ve now moved on to The Witch of Blackbird Pond as our lunchtime read, so we’ll see if my good opinion of it remains untarnished.  :-)  For our bedtime story, we’ve come back around to the Little Britches series by Ralph Moody after finishing the Melendy Quartet with its last book, Spiderweb for Two.  We were sad to see it end but so happy to have spent so much time with the Melendys this year.  Highly Recommended!

As for picture books, well, I always think to myself, “Oh, this is a good one to share for RAT,” but then I run out of time before the books are due (usually after being rechecked at least once) at the library.  A couple of books stand out in my mind from the past month that have been favorites of the DLM.  The first one is Lightship by Brian Floca.  Although it isn’t quite as detailed as his 2014 Caldecott Medal-winning Locomotive, it’s still not exactly a book I would expect a four year old to love.  The DLM does love books about vehicles of almost any kind, and this one has the thing the DLM loves the most:  a list!  He loves lists of information.  In this case it’s a list of people who work on a lightship, and the DLM loved to point at the worker’s picture and say his title.  Whatever the reason he loved it, he did–enough to make it a nightly read-aloud for a couple of weeks.  The other winning title for the toddler and preschool crowd here at the House of Hope is the newest Kate and Jim McMullan title, I’m Brave!  I’ve written before (& here) how much we’ve enjoyed their books over the years, so when I saw this one in the new books bin in the library, I almost gave an audible gasp of delight!  I knew it would be a winner, and it was is.  I read it to the DLM’s class at co-op first before reading it to him.  They’re a pretty hard crowd, and even they got caught up in it!  It has not one but two pages of equipment listed to identify (oh, joy!), so it’s perfect for my detail and list-loving little fellow. We’ve read it at least a half dozen times since Saturday.  It’s humorous and full of bravery, swagger, and onomatopoeia, so it’s just perfect for brash and blustery preschool crowd.  I’m considering this one for a Christmas present for the DLM.  Highly, Highly Recommended.

Other picture books I’ve reviewed since last month’s RAT are

I apologize for the length of this post.  This should’ve been more than one post, but as always, time escaped me and I had to just cobble it all together.  Thank you for reading and participating in RAT!  It’s truly a monthly high point for me!

Link up below, or share in the comments.  :-)


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Locomotive by Brian Floca

Wow.  That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about Locomotive by Brian Floca.  This is a nonfiction picture book that manages to pack an epic story–the building of the transcontinental railroad–into the interesting narrative of a family making their own transcontinental journey on that very railroad.  In other words, the information about the railroad is interwoven throughout the family’s journey much as if they have their own personal historical  guide they’re sharing with the reader.   The story itself is written in a very poetic prose that verges on pure poetry both in sound, rhythm, and format:

Up in the cab–small as a closet, hot as a kitchen–

it smells of smoke, hot metal, and oil.


The fireman keeps the engine fed.

He scoops and lifts and throws the coal,

from the tender to the firebox.


It’s hard work, hot work,

smoke and cinders,

ash and sweat,

hard work, hot work–

but that’s a fireman’s life!

He tends the fire

that boils the water,

that turns the water into steam.


Beautiful typography–stylized capitals, script, boldface–all help communicate this very rich narrative.  Floca‘s illustrations, which are rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache, are every bit as much the star of the story as is the text.  He uses a variety of perspectives to communicate the immensity, power, and detail of the steam engine itself and what it was like to travel cross country by it.  One of my favorite illustrations is a huge, two-page close-up of the train’s wheels on the track, which are accompanied by the very onomatopoetic text that includes the words huffs, hisses, bangs, and clanks in large, colored, boldface typography.  The very next two-page spread includes small vignettes:  an aerial view of the train; the ticketmaster collecting tickets; our passengers looking out their window; the engineer leaning out of his window with “the wind on his face, the fire by his feet.”  If you’re expecting a gorgeous picture book, you won’t be disappointed.  However, don’t expect a simple, pre-school story; this book is appropriate for all ages, from school-aged to adult.  I read it to my three year old, and while I think he probably missed most of the details (and honestly, so did I–this is no lightweight informational book!), he appreciated the rhythmic text and the beautiful illustrations.  From the detailed endpapers (maps, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a beautifully detailed diagram of a steam locomotive) to the author note and lengthy list of sources, this is a not-to-be-missed informational picture book for history lovers and train lovers alike.  I won’t be surprised by any accolades this book receives–a Cybil, a Caldecott–whatever.  Don’t miss this one.  Highly, highly (highly) Recommended.   (Atheneum, 2013)

Related links:

This is a long-ish video of Floca discussing his creation of Locomotive (which is essentially about “a big teakettle on wheels”) at the 2013 National Book Festival:


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Louisa May’s Battle by Kathleen Krull

Louisa May’s Battle:  How the Civil War Led to Little Women by Kathleen Krull is a picture book biography that focuses on Louisa May Alcott’s involvement in the Civil War as a nurse and how her experiences there led to the discovery of her voice and style as a writer, which in turn enabled her to write her wildly successful novel, Little Women.  Krull makes liberal use of quotations from Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and an article by Alcott entitled “Recollections of My Childhood” throughout this biography.  Because of the quotes, a sense of Alcott’s lively personality and her voice as a writer shine through.  I learned a lot from reading this picture book, having never read much about Alcott’s life before, and it really made me appreciate how her own experiences influenced her writing.  Additional backmatter in this book includes a page-long essay discussing various women in medicine during the Civil War, many of whom were inspired to get in on the action by Alcott’s Hospital Sketches.   Also included is a lengthy bibliography.  Carlyn Beccia‘s illustrations are luminously portrait-like  and expressive, an excellent companion to this interesting story.  (Side note:  We really enjoyed Beccia’s I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat last year!)  Highly Recommended.  (Bloomsbury, 2013)



(I’m sharing this review today at Nonfiction Monday, a brand new group blog which rounds up nonfiction titles for children each Monday.  Check it out!)

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Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough

This must be the year for picture biographies of world-changing women. Last Read Aloud Thursday I highlighted a new biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, and today I’m sharing a new book I like every bit as much as that one.  Miss Moore Thought Otherwise:  How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children by Jan Pinborough is the story of one Anne Carroll Moore, whose life spanned the turn of the twentieth century and who had “ideas of her own.”  At nineteen she made the unconventional decision to become a lawyer like her father.  Then tragedy struck and she became the surrogate mother to her brother’s children after their mother died.  Just about the time she was released from this responsibility by her brother’s marriage, Miss Moore learned that libraries were hiring women librarians.  This possibility exhilarated her, so she headed to New York City to enroll in the Pratt Institute library school.  What followed was a lifetime of passion given to a career for which Miss Moore was perfectly suited.  She eventually became the manager of all the children’s sections of the thirty-six branches of the New York Public Library.  She made all sorts of changes in the libraries, from allowing the children to actually touch the books (!!!) and take them home to improving the book selections.  Finally, the crowning achievement of her career was the development of a fantastic children’s room in the newly constructed New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lions out front).  After the library opened, she did innovative things like inviting children’s authors there to read their works to using a wooden doll she named Nicholas Knickerbocker as a prop to draw shy children out of themselves.  Even after the finally retired, Miss Moore went on a cross-country mission to teach other librarians how to develop their own children’s collections.  Truly, her influence cannot be measured.

Debby Atwell’s acrylic illustrations are colorful and cheerful, just like Miss Moore’s children’s room at the NYPL, and they make an already great story even better.  The refrain throughout this delightful book is the same as the title:  “Miss Moore thought otherwise.”  Aren’t we glad she did?  Highly Recommended.  (Houghton Mifflin, 2013)

I’m linking up today for Nonfiction Monday at Perogies & Gyoza.

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Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter

Many women down through history have done unexpected things that make them not only champions for their gender, but also heroines for the more obvious reasons. Alicia Potter’s 2012 picture book biography, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Knopf, 2012), is the story of just such an unlikely heroine. It is the story of Ruth Harkness, who in 1934 kissed her husband goodbye as he sailed off to China in search of a panda to bring home, the first of its kind to be seen in the United States. Ruth Harkness stayed home and designed tea gowns, as was expected of a woman in her time, though she did expect to join her husband at the end of his expedition. However, tragedy struck, and Ruth received word that William Harkness had died in China. In Ruth Harkness’ own words, “I had inherited an expedition.” She set out for China despite the naysayers and despite complications and difficulties.

After many people told her it couldn’t be done, Ruth found a champion and encourager in a young Chinese man she called Quentin Young, and he helped her on her journey in a multitude of ways, from packing for the trip (no small task!) to navigating the waterways and mountainous terrain. Ruth Harkness and her expedition finally found their panda, and when she brought baby Su Lin home to the U.S., “panda-monium” broke out. In addition to introducing these black and white furry creatures to what quickly became an adoring public, Ruth Harkness also gained for herself a new title: “woman explorer.”

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda was awarded a 2012 Cybils Award in the nonfiction picture category. Not only is this an engaging and well-written tale about a little-known woman from history, it is also beautifully illustrated by the inimitable Melissa Sweet in her trademark watercolor and mixed media style. Using actual maps, Chinese characters, and facsimiles of newspapers, Sweet’s illustrations evoke the feeling of both the time and place in history. This is an excellent biography that appeals to a variety of ages and is well deserving of the accolades it has received. Highly Recommended!

Grab Our Badge!This post was originally posted on the  Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History Month blog and linked up at Nonfiction Monday, hosted by my friend Alice at Supratentorial.  

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