Birthday Watch: April 27th

Samuel Morse, b.1791. Mr. Morse was a painter and an inventor, and he developed both the telegraph system in the United States and the Morse code that was used in sending telegraphic messages, the primary language of telegraphy in the world.

Journalist and writer Maurice Baring, b. 1874. Baring was a close friend of Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. Has anyone read ony of the following works by Baring?
Passing By (1921) novel
The Puppet Show of Memory (1922) autobiography
C (1924), novel
Cat’s Cradle (1925) novel
Daphne Adeane (1926) novel
The Coat Without Seam (1929) novel
Robert Peckham (1930) historical novel
Have You Anything to Declare? – collection of notes and quotes
In My End is My Beginning – novel & biography about Mary Stuart

Ludwig Bemelmans, b.1898 “In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… the smallest one was Madeline.”

What is a Living Book?

“Living books” is a big buzzword in homeschooling these days. What does it mean? Really, living books are just good books, books that engage the reader and make the subject “come alive” in one’s imagination. But I realize that definition or re-statement rather begs the question.

The difficulty lies in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. The books that make history or science or imagination come alive for me might not be the same books that do the same for you and your children. However, there are a few characteristics that at least indicate that a book might become a “living book” in your pantheon of well read and fondly remembered books:

1. Books that tell a story are to be preferred over books that recite facts. Some children sometimes can enjoy books that have little boxed facts grouped around the perimeter of the page or textbooks that just give the facts, m’am—for a while. But a dry recitation of tiny packets of information, even if it’s spiced up with pictures and fancy fonts, isn’t going to hold anyone’s attention though an entire book, or engage them to want to read more. We need and crave story. Tell me that bees live in hives with workers, drones and a queen bee, or tell me the story of a hive of bees with its queen that is about to become the victim of CCD (colony collapse disorder). Tell me the story of how, almost overnight, the worker bees disappear, and no one knows why it happens or what to do about it. In other words, tell me a bee story, true or fictionalized, and I will remember and be interested and engaged.

2. With the exception of picture books, which are a special case, books that emphasize printed narrative are to be preferred over books that devote most of their space to pictures and graphics. Unless the book is meant to introduce children to art and the rich world of artistic story, the books that you choose to read should be rich in narrative, painting pictures with words. And even picture books or wordless books should tell a story, and in in quality picture books the story and the illustrations work together to create a captivating narrative.

3. Living books are usually written by one author who has a passion for his subject or story, not by a committee. Books by committee, textbooks or compilations, are not useless, but they are usually ineffectual for the purpose of introducing a subject or arousing the reader’s passion and curiosity for learning more.

4. Books that appeal to the imagination and nourish passionate relationships with the subject of the book are to be preferred over books that simply provide pieces of information without giving readers a reason to desire that knowledge. Nowadays, one can turn to Wikipedia or other internet sources to get basic information about anything from kite-flying to welding. Sometimes, after a person has already developed an interest in a subject, knowledge intensive books are just what is wanted. However, “living books”, what Charlotte Mason called “ideas clothed upon with facts”, are what is needed to inspire interest, engage the imagination, and speak to the soul of a reader, giving him reason to remember the knowledge that can be acquired from books and from other sources.

5. Living books ask questions or create questions in the reader’s mind. Instead of telling a child that 3 x 4=12 (memorize it!), a living book might ask what would happen if we arranged twelve marbles into sets of four? Or sets of three? Or it might tell a story about how multiplication is used in the real world, or about the beauty of mathematics. Yes, there is a place for the memorization of multiplication tables and of other facts, but it is much easier to memorize or to get children to memorize when the facts that are being committed to memory are perceived as important and valuable.

6. Living books inspire rather than depress the mind and the spirit. Living books create a deep sense of hope in the reader, not by ignoring the sadness and and sin in the world, but but by showing that there is also beauty, hope and redemption to be found. Modern books tend to either end in near-despair (Hunger Games, other post-apocalyptic and dystopian young adult books) or deal in false hope (put on a happy face! follow your dream! you can succeed if you try!). If any book old or new is frightening your child (deeply, not deliciously) or leading them to despair, don’t read it, no matter how classic or beloved the book is.

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things. Philippians 4:8

Learn more about living books and about libraries that seek to preserve living books for all of us to enjoy:
Liz Cottrill and Emily Cottrill Kiser talk about their library, Living Books Library in Virginia.
Toward the Definition of a Living Book by Colleen Manning at Ambleside Online.
How a Library Was Born by Michelle Miller: Children’s Preservation Library in Michigan. (Old Schoolhouse Magazine)
How Can I Know if a Book Is Living? by Michelle Miller (Old Schoolhouse Magazine).
Our Good-Book-Collecting Journey by Michelle Miller (Old Schoolhouse Magazine)
Information about my living books library, Meriadoc Homeschool Library, in Houston, Texas.

Saturday Review of Books: April 25, 2015


“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.” ~Mortimer Adler, How To Read a Book

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham.
The Luck Uglies #2: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham.

The first book in this fantasy series for middle grade readers, published in 2014, won the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. I read it when I was on the panel for Cybils, and I thought I had reviewed it here, but it turns out that I was too busy reading to review The Luck Uglies. So, a quick re-cap:

Riley (Rye) O’Chanter lives on Mud Puddle Lane in Village Drowning with her mother, Abby O’Chanter, her little sister, Lottie, and Nightshade (Shady) Fur Bottom O’Chanter, the cat. Rye is a mischievous urchin, but she has quite a few rules to remember. There are her mother’s house rules. (House Rule Number One is: “Don’t stop, talk or questions ask; beware of men wearing masks.”) Then, there are the rather arbitrary Laws of Earl Morningwig Longchance, such as “it’s illegal to feed pigs on Market Street” and “no woman may wear blue without the express permission of the Honorable Earl Longchance.”

All rules and laws become insignificant in the face of the danger that is coming to Village Drowning: the supposedly extinct Bog Noblins are returning, and there are no more Luck Uglies to fight them off. The Luck Uglies, a secret society of outlaws who used to be Village Drowning’s protectors, are now the Earl’s enemies and hence banished from the village. How will the inhabitants of Village Drowning fight off the Bog Noblins, keep the Laws of Longchance, and figure out whose side the Luck Uglies are on?

So, the first book was an exciting and absorbing introduction to Rye O’Chanter, the Luck Uglies, and Rye’s friends and family. Book 2, Fork Tongue Charmers, introduces us to new characters, new places, and new problems for Rye and the people of Village Drowning. In this book, the Luck Uglies are divided and at odds with one another, while Earl Longchance has hired a new enforcer to bring the villagers, and the Luck Uglies, into line. Rye and her family run away to the island of Pest, her mother’s homeland, but trouble follows them there.

The story is, as I said, absorbing. If I had any issue at all with these first two books in this trilogy-to-be, it was the moral ambiguity of the characters and indeed of the entire story so far. It’s hard to tell whether the Luck Uglies, in particular, are the good guys or the bad guys or a little of both. I predict that this ambiguity will be resolved by the end of the third book in the series, and we will find that, though perhaps mistakes and misunderstandings have occurred, the white hats and the black hats are distinguishable after all. But I can’t promise, since there are a lot of unanswered questions yet to be settled.

So what did I like about this second book? I liked Rye and her penchant for going straight to the heart of a problem and solving it. I liked the family dynamics in Rye’s immediate family and in her extended family. I liked “traveling” to the island of Pest and feeling a taste of Ireland, or perhaps Scotland, in this fictional other-world setting and culture. I liked the Robin Hood echoes and the way I was reminded of Heidi’s grandfather in Swiss Alps in Rye’s island grandfather.

The Luck Uglies is good stuff. Different stuff. Perhaps, depending on how the series wraps ups, even classic stuff.

Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Set on an island in the Sunderbans (islands) of West Bengal, Tiger Boy is a story about a disobedient and somewhat lazy boy who nevertheless does the right thing and inspires his father to choose right and justice over the desire to see his family prosper.

I had some hesitations about the plot of the story, showing Neel and his sister deliberately disobeying their parents in order to save a lost tiger cub from poachers, but by the end I was pleased with the way the actions of the characters came together. Everyone grew and learned, except maybe the money-grubbing criminal, Gupta.

One throwaway line in the story has Neel’s headmaster commenting that “It’s so blazing hot for January. I’ll sweat to death, I’m sure. Our climate is changing due to the rest of the world, and we’re the ones who suffer.” I can’t find any hard data, in an admittedly cursory search of the internet, that indicates that the temperatures in Bengal and Bangladesh are getting warmer, and the idea that hot weather is caused by “climate change” produced in Western nations is hotly disputed. However, a Headmaster in the Sunderban islands might very well believe that his perspiration can be blamed on climate change.

Other than that little glitch, I thought the story was a delight. Neel and his sister work together to thwart the evil Gupta, who wants to capture the tiger cub, escaped from a wildlife reserve, and sell him on the black market. Neel, at the beginning of the story, is a boy who would rather play than learn math and who doesn’t understand the great contribution he could make to his family’s economic well-being if he were to work hard to earn a scholarship to a good school. By the end of the story, Neel begins to comprehend that his father’s ambitions for him are good, and Neel’s father also learns that even the scholarship and a good education for his son are not worth the price of losing one’s integrity.

The setting is described so beautifully in this book that I wanted to hop on an airplane and go see the Sunderbans. “Home for him (Neel) was the hiss of his father’s boat as it slipped through the deltas, golpata branches swaying in the monsoon rains, and the evening smell of jasmine flowers near his house mingling with green chilies and fresh ilish fish simmering in mustard-seed oil. Need had climbed all the tall palm trees, waded in the creeks, and foraged for wild guavas in every corner of the mangrove forest.”

In her acknowledgements, Mitali Perkins writes that “many of my writing themes emerge from reflection on the parables of Jesus. This book is based on the story about the talents given to three stewards (Matthew 25:14-30).” Neel certainly does learn to use the gifts that he has been given instead of burying them in a cycle of fear and insecurity. And his father, although tempted to give in to the need to take any opportunity to pull his family out of poverty, steps up to take responsibility for his own gifts and duties as a citizen of the larger community.

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Before there were “steampunk” and “alternate history” and multiple volume fantasy series in children’s books, there was Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, made up of twelve middle grade novels “set in an imaginary period of English history which never took place: the reign of King James III, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, when England was still sadly plagued by wolves.”

Black Hearts in Battersea is the second book in the series. Joan Aiken’s website, created by her daughter Lizza Aiken, is full of treasures, including this bibliography of the over 100 books that Ms. Aiken wrote. The Wolves sequence in order consists of:

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Black Hearts in Battersea
Night Birds on Nantucket
The Stolen Lake
The Cuckoo Tree
Dido and Pa
Is (Is Underground)
Cold Shoulder Road
Limbo Lodge (Dangerous Games)
Midwinter Nightingale
The Witch of Clatteringshaws
The Whispering Mountain
(prequel to the series)

Black Hearts is a great stand-alone story, but it probably makes more sense and carries more depth if you read the books in order. I’ve read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and reading Black Hearts made me want to go back and re-read it and then read all of the others in the series, something that not too many contemporary fantasy series can inspire me to commit to. If you like Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series or perhaps Leon Garfield’s atmospheric and very British historical fiction, the Wolves sequence might be just up your alley.

Many of the characters who dominate the later books in the series are introduced or developed in Black Hearts, including Simon the orphan, his good friend Sophie, and Dido Twite the ragamuffin offspring of Simon’s neglectful and suspicious landlords. The story also features ships and piracy, bombs and plots, a very useful tapestry, and a rose-colored hot air balloon.

Joan Aiken was born on September 4, 1924 in Sussex, England. She grew up in a country village with a mother who “decided that I’d learn more if she taught me herself than if I went away to school” and an American father, Conrad Aiken, who was a Pulitzer-prize winning poet and author himself. Joan’s parents divorced when she was a child, and her mother married another author, Martin Armstrong. Ms. Aiken wrote books for children and adults, and she received the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction in 1969 and the Mystery Writers’ of America Poe Award in in 1972. She died in 2004. The last two books in the Wolves sequence were published posthumously.

The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh

A 1945 Newbery Honor book, The Silver Pencil really isn’t a children’s book at all. It’s more of a young adult fiction book in the tradition of L.M. Montgomery’s sequels to Anne of Green Gables or her Emily of New Moon books, or maybe more like Little Women, the book that The Silver Pencil alludes to and depends upon for its framing device. (The main character, Janet, is a fan of Little Women, and hence of the United States, a country she has never seen until she comes to New York to study in her late teens, except in the pages of Alcott’s inspirational book.)

The Silver Pencil is also quite the autobiographical novel:

“Born October 7, 1893 in Trinidad, British West Indies, to John and Alice (Haynes) Dalgliesh, Alice immigrated to England with her family when she was 13. Six years later she came to America to study kindergarten education at the Pratt Institute in New York City. She eventually received a Bachelor in Education and Master in English Literature from the Teachers College at Columbia University. While she was at school Dalgliesh applied for and received her naturalization as an American citizen. She taught for 17 years at the Horace Mann School, while also leading courses in children’s literature and story writing at Columbia.”

The Silver Pencil‘s protagonist, Janet Laidlaw, also moves from Trinidad to England and then to the United States, to study kindergarten education. She has some health issues and also spends some time recuperating in Nova Scotia, Canada. Janet becomes a kindergarten teacher, but finds that she is better suited to be a writer. She struggles with young adult sorts of issues: finding her vocation, responding to the men who come into her life, deciding in what country her true citizenship should lie. I daresay most young adults don’t need to make the final decision, but they do decide how much of a citizen they will be and what citizenship and civic duty entail.

I liked the book, but it’s not going to appeal to the masses. For teen and twenty-something girls who like stories about bookish and thoughtful young ladies growing up in and earlier time period (again fans of Montgomery’s Emily books, perhaps), The Silver Pencil might be just the thing.

Saturday Review of Books: April 18, 2015

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

This 89-page little gem of a story takes place in Corfu, a Greek island in the Mediterranean, and it’s about a boy and his donkey. Well, it’s really his grandfather’s donkey. The boy Mikis, however, is the one who names the donkey Tsaki and the one who cares for Tsaki when he is hurt and the one who insists on building Tsaki a new stable and the one who finds Tsaki a lady-friend.

This one reminded me of Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil, a 1953 Newbery honor book: Mediterranean island, simple family life and family dynamics, children exploring the island and learning about their heritage and their place in their culture. Mikis and the Donkey also won an award from the ALSC, the Batchelder Award for children’s books originally published in another language and translated into English.

Anyway, it’s a lovely book, and I wish I had a copy for my library. It’s definitely going on my wishlist.

Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey

I think this book, about “a small-town girl with big-time magic”, a middle grade novel that hardly mentions God and never references prayer as such, has something important to say about prayer and the way we relate to God and his generosity and grace, nevertheless. I’m just not sure I completely understood what it had to say, even though there’s a chapter at the end in which Miss Genuine Sweet tries to wrap it all up in a great big bow and present The Lesson(s) to the reader who’s made it all the way to the end of the story.

Genuine Sweet finds out near the beginning of the story that she has inherited the family shine for wish-fetching. Like her mother (deceased) and her grandmother before her, Genuine is a wish-fetcher. Gram tells Genuine: “Wish fetchers are real. The underlings of angels, my ma used to say, with humbler clothes.”

Of course there are rules. The most important rule is that “wish fetchers can’t grant their own wishes.” And they only grant “good-hearted wishes”, not wishes for revenge or evil gain at the expense of others. Wish fetchers draw down magic from the stars and find a way to grant other people’s wishes.

So Genuine Sweet, twelve year old inhabitant of the very small and isolated town of Sass, Georgia, becomes a wish fetcher. And it’s not long before the whole town is in an uproar over Genuine’s ability to give people what they want and need with her wish biscuits, made out of liquid starlight and special miracle flour. And Genuine wonders what good it does to grant other people’s wishes when her drunken Pa is unemployed, she and her family are about to starve, and the electric is about to be turned off because they can’t pay their bill.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but turn Genuine’s wish-fetching into a metaphor for prayer in my mind. What good does it do to pray for other people when it seems as if I have needs and wants of my own that God isn’t satisfying? How do we know how to pray and what to pray for? If we try to help others will our own desires be granted somehow in the end? What if the one you’re wishing for/praying for doesn’t want to be healed/strengthened/given whatever it you’re asking for on their behalf? Should you wish a good wish or pray a good prayer for someone who doesn’t want it? Jesus actually told us to ask God for our daily bread and for His provision for other needs, but sometimes (most times?) His answer to those sorts of prayers comes in the form of our own hard work and ingenuity. What if our prayers go unanswered?

At least one of the conclusions that Genuine Sweet comes to after all her adventures in wish-fetching is that “there’s nothing in the whole world—except our own selves–that can keep us from our good.” Her conclusion sounds a lot like a secularized version of a Bible verse I know: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:28-29)

I really enjoyed the story and the writing and the thoughts that the book brought to mind. If you read it, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Leave me a comment.