Saturday Review of Books: April 29, 2017

Posted by Sherry on 4/28/2017 in General, Saturday Reviews |

“I hate to read new books. Contemporary writers may generally be divided into two classes—one’s friends or one’s foes. Of the first we are compelled to think too well, and of the last we are disposed to think too ill, to receive much genuine pleasure from the perusal, or to judge fairly of the merits of either.” ~William Hazlitt


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.


Texas History: A Brief Tour

Posted by Sherry on 4/27/2017 in Children's Fiction, General, Texas, Texas Tuesday |

A couple of homeschool moms asked me to put together a reading list for Texas history so that they could do a (brief) literature-based Texas history unit. Well, the list grew a little longer than the request, but here are a few not-to-be-missed gems for children and adults who are making their way through Texas’s colorful and fascinating history.

TEXAS Unit Study:

Indians Who Lived in Texas by Betsy Warren. This is a nonfiction book, only 46 pages, but it is an introduction to the study that gives students a good overview of the Native Texans who lived here before the coming of the European explorers.

Walk the World’s Rim by Betty Baker. Read aloud fiction about the tragic story of a Native American boy named Chakoh and of Esteban, the slave who accompanied Coronado on his search for the Seven Lost Cities of Cibola.

Easter Fires by Wilma Pitchford Hays. A fictionalized version of the beginning of the custom of lighting bonfires at Easter time among the Indians of the Southwest. This short book also tells the story of how the Tonkawas were introduced to the wonderful story of Easter and of God’s son, Jesus.

Biography of early Texas heroes. Choose one (or read them all):
For younger children, grades 1-3:
A Picture Book of Davy Crockett by David Adler.
Davy Crockett: Young Rifleman by Aileen Wells Parks.
Stephen F. Austin: The Son Becomes Father of Texas by Mary Dodson Wade.

For older children, grades 4-8:
Wilderness Pioneer: Stephen F. Austin of Texas by Carol Hoff.
Make Way for Sam Houston by Jean Fritz
James Bowie by Shannon Garst.
Texas Yankee: The Story of Gail Borden by Nina Brown Baker.

Johnny Texas by Carol Hoff. “In the early days of Texas history, ten-year-old Johann comes from Germany with his family to settle in this vast land and soon grows to love his new home.” In the sequel, Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Road, Johnny travels over 600 miles to Mexico and back on the old San Antonio Road.

Caleb’s Choice by G. Clifton Wisler. In 1858 Caleb Dulaney feels an obligation to help the runaway slave who saved his life even though the Fugitive Slave Law makes it a crime to assist a runaway slave. Mr. Wisler wrote several other good books set in frontier days in Texas. If you like this one, check out Buffalo Moon or Winter of the Wolf or All for Texas.

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. Classic boy and dog story takes place just after the Civil War.

Texas Rangers: Legendary Lawmen by Michael Spradlin. This picture book packs in a lot of story and information about the men who were Texas Rangers. I have a couple of other books that are longer with more stories about the Rangers for kids who are particularly interested: The Texas Rangers (Landmark history) by Will Henry and The Real Book about the Texas Rangers by Allyn Allen.

Cowboys of the Wild West by Russell Freedman (nonfiction) OR The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (fiction). Cowboy life and times.

Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake. (fiction) The Galveston hurricane of 1900, still the deadliest single-day event in U.S. history.

Moonshiner’s Gold by John Erickson. Fourteen year old Riley and his younger brother discover moonshiners have set up a still in a deserted canyon on their family property. How can they protect their single mother, outwit the outlaws, and get them to leave without violence? Great action-packed adventure with engaging characters and a lot of history sneaking in through the back door. John Erickson is known for his Hank the Cowdog series, but this stand-alone adventure is just a good as the Hank books and should be just the right reading level for most sixth graders.

I know that’s more than the five books than the mom who started all of this Texas history listing asked me for. And I have lots more great Texas living books on my shelf: Texas Tomboy by Lois Lenski, Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss, We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo by Margaret Cousins, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Underneath by Kathie Appelt . . . OK, I’ll stop.

Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!


Henry and the Chalk Dragon by Jennifer Trafton

Posted by Sherry on 4/26/2017 in 2017, Children's Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, General |

“Henry Penwhistle’s bedroom door was the sort of door where adventures began.”

And that’s the sort of first sentence that makes me think that this book is going to be a great adventure. Immediately, I am reminded of a wardrobe door into Narnia, or Bilbo Baggins’ front door that led him out onto the road to all sorts of interesting and dangerous places.

“And one day, on top of all the ghostly shapes and squiggles and smears, Henry drew a dragon. . . . [I]t made him think of exotic creatures and perilous places. This dragon was everything a dragon should be: fierce and fearsome and full of fire.”

A door and a dragon. Yes, this story is definitely headed in the right direction.

“[H]e whirled past the overflowing book chest with its stirred-up soup of favorite stories–stories about wild things and unlikely heroes, chocolate factories and tiny motorcycles, buried giants and mock turtles.”

Did you get all of those kidlit allusions? If not, you need to read some more very good children’s books.

I could go on for a long time, quoting sentences and passages from this awesome, adventurous, artistic story and then commenting about how awesome, adventurous, and artistic each quotation was, but now I’m only on page three. And the book has 223 powerful pages. So if I quoted from every page this blog post would become a book—a partially plagiarized, partially fangirling, bloggy book. And you don’t really want to read that when you could be reading Henry and the Chalk Dragon.

Suffice it to say, Henry draws a chalk dragon on the back of his door, but he’s not prepared for the chaos that ensues when the chalk dragon comes alive and goes to school with him. The plot is rather dream-like, for lack of a better word; the things that happen are kind of random, don’t always fit together or follow strict rules, but I didn’t care. The writing is just so good, lots of memorable descriptions and quotes, but not overwritten in the way I felt last year’s Girl Who Drank the Moon sometimes was. And Henry and the Chalk Dragon feels like a children’s book, not trying to push the envelope into YA territory. But it also doesn’t talk down to its intended audience; the story talks about important things like the difference between “real” and “true”, and the importance of friendship and chivalry and art, and what to do when you’re afraid (BE BRAVE) or laughed at (FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT), and the many different kinds of smiles. Oh, and the allusions to classic children’s books are a delight.

I read the book, and then I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again. But I waited about a week to let the new wear off (or come back again), and now I’m reading Henry and the Chalk Dragon for the second time. I’ll just leave you with few more excerpts to whet your appetite, and then you can be done with this very long, but real blog post, and you too can go and read the truly admirable, original, and applauded Henry and the Chalk Dragon.

“Dragons aren’t scary—well, they are, but they’re a good kind of scary. They’re the kind of scary you want to be scared of. People are the bad kind of scary, he thought. Dragons can only eat you, but people can laugh at you, and that is like being chewed to death by a smile.”

“There is a kind of fear that squeezes your heart with an icy hand and freezes you into a popsicle. But there is another kind of fear that is thrilling and hot, that makes your fingers tingle and your toes tickle each other inside your shoes until you want to leap over the Empire State Building. Henry was afraid with this kind of fear, and it felt good.”

“Miss Pimpernel had at least a hundred different kinds of smiles. Henry thought she must keep them in her gigantic purple purse and pull them out at night to count them, like a pirate grinning as she counted her pieces of silver. She could be his teacher for ten years, and he would never finish learning all the names of all of her smiles. Right now she was wearing her Be-Nice-to-Me-I-Haven’t-Had-My-Coffee smile, which wasn’t her happiest. Still, there were worse.”

“There are many things in this world that do not belong. A volcano does not belong in a bathroom. The Indian Ocean does not belong in Iowa. Ketchup does not belong on chocolate cake. But most, most of all, a teacher’s smile do not belong on the face of a fearsome dragon. When the You-Are-the-Apple-of-My-Eye smile is stretched between two glittering dragon eyes, believe me, you do not want to be the apple.”

Trust me. There’s much more fearsome, smiley, arty goodness where that came from.


The Circle by Dave Eggers

Posted by Sherry on 4/25/2017 in Adult Fiction, Dystopian Fiction, Movies |

Here are my thoughts from 2014 on the book called The Circle, soon to be released as a motion picture. Perhaps the movie will fill out the characters and retain the thought-provoking ideas.


Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?


If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, improbable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.


Treasures from Barefoot Books

Posted by Sherry on 4/24/2017 in Around the World, Kenya, Korea, Spain |

Barefoot Books, a publisher and bookseller dedicated to producing inclusive and diverse books, sent me a selection of lovely books that I can’t wait to write about. Their website says, “At Barefoot Books, our mission is to share stories, connect families and inspire children.” I’m impressed with the quality and diversity of the books I have been able to review from Barefoot Books.

My Big Barefoot Book of Spanish & English Words by Sophie Fatus. This picture dictionary includes words paired with pictures, but also a simple narrative that takes readers through the day with a family in Spanish. Each vocabulary word and each narrative sentence is accompanied by English translation. Beginners aren’t going to learn much grammar or sentence structure from a book like this one, but it’s a great format for vocabulary building. The illustrations are bright and colorful, acrylic painting and colored pencil, and the book itself is large enough for two people to share comfortably. No pronunciation guide, but again it looks like a great vocabulary builder.

The Wise Fool: Fables from the Islamic World by Shahrukh Husain and Michael Archer. Mulla Nasruddin, “a legendary character whose adventures and misadventures are enjoyed across the Islamic world,” is the subject of these tales from the Middle East and Northern Africa. He’s a “wise fool”, the kind of guy who is often the butt of the joke but who gets the last word anyway in his disingenuous and sometimes innocent, sometimes shrewd, wisdom. Mullah Nasruddin is not above a little white lie or a trick now and then if he thinks it might serve a higher purpose, but he’s generally a harmless and benign presence in these tales. These stories would make a good comparison/contrast to Aesop’s fables, or one could try to pair each story with one of Solomon’s proverbs in the Bible. Just reading the stories and enjoying their sly wisdom could spark discussion and give a good introduction to Islamic and Middle Eastern culture. The illustrations are beautiful collage-type spreads in an Islamic mosaic style, but the many pages where the print is imposed on a deep colored background were hard on my (elderly) eyes.

Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary and Rich Chamberlin, illustrated by Julia Cairns. This picture book is a backlist title, originally published in 2005. However, it’s a worthy multicultural story, set in Kenya, about a boy and his mama who are planning a pancake supper. Mama rather mysteriously tells Adika that she will make ” a little bit and a little bit more” pancakes when he ask how many pancakes she plans to cook. So, Adika feels free to invite the entire community, all of their friends and acquaintances, to join them for the pancake supper. Will there be enough? The story ends like the old European tale Stone Soup and shows how a village can come together in generosity and community.

My Granny Went to Market: A Round-the-World Counting Rhyme by Stella Blackstone and Christopher Corr. Another backlist title from 2005, this counting book has Granny visiting ten different countries on a magic carpet purchased in Istanbul, Turkey at the beginning of the book. She ends up in Peru where Granny gives the magic carpet away to another adventurer. The rhymes are adequate, both rhythm and rhyme a little off, but the colorful pictures and the journey itself all around the world are worth a look. It’s short and sweet, for beginning world travelers.

The Beeman by Laurie Krebs and Valeria Cis. Yet another backlist title (2008), this one begins with a poem about our dependence on bees by classic children’s poet Aileen Fisher. Then, Ms. Krebs writes her own poem in the style of This Is the House That Jack Built and tells about a boy’s admiration for his grandpa “who’s know in our town as the Beeman.” All the many aspects and stages of beekeeping and honey extraction are examined in rollicking rhyme as the boy and his grandfather care for the bees together. Then, there’s more information bout bees an beekeeping in the back of the book as well as a recipe for Grandma’s Apple and Honey Muffins. This story in rhyme is definitely a “keeper”.

Never Trust a Tiger: A story from Korea, retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Melanie Williamson. Based on the traditional Korean tale “The Tiger in the Trap”, this easy-to-read folktale plays out in six brief chapters. A merchant rescues a tiger from a pit where the tiger is trapped, but the tiger immediately proceeds to repay the merchant’s good deed with a very bad deed: the tiger is determined to eat the merchant. “You can’t follow a good deed wth a bad deed,” says the merchant. And the two of them decide to find a judge who can tell them whether or not bad deeds can follow good ones. The moral of the story: never trust a tiger, or be careful whom you help.

Lola’s Fandango by Anna Witte, illustrated by Micha Archer, narrated by The Amador Family. This picture book, set in Spain, is accompanied by a audio CD narration with flamenco music as a background. Lola wants to distinguish herself from big sister Clementina by learning to dance the flamenco, but to do so Lola must practice hard. And she must find her duende (spirit, attitude, courage). Fandango, as well as I can ascertain, is a particular style of flamenco. This book would be hard to read aloud for those of us who are unfamiliar with flamenco and its rhythms. Lola practices the rhythm over and over, “Toca, toca, TICA! Toca, toca, TICA! Toca, TICA! Toca, TICA! Toca, TICA!” I would have no idea how to read this properly, so I’m glad the CD narration is included. There’s also a Spanish version of this title in the Barefoot Books online catalog.

There you have it. I’m sold on all of these books—and on books from Barefoot Books, generally. And I got to take a trip around the world while reading these delightful titles. What a bargain!


Will’s Words by Jane Sutcliffe

Posted by Sherry on 4/23/2017 in General |

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe.

In honor of the Bard’s birthday (April 23, 1564), what a lovely introduction to the writing prowess of Mr. William Shakespeare for elementary and middle grade, even high school or college age, students. In fact, I enjoyed it as an adult who has already been steeped in Shakespearean lore, so I guess it’s for anyone who likes Shakespeare or wants to learn to enjoy Shakespeare or who enjoys word origins and word play or well, just about anyone. Even if you just look at it for the illustrations, by illustrator John Shelley, you’ll find it fascinating and appealing.

Shakespeare is known for his inventive use of words. This website, Shakespeare Online, says:

“The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.”

Author Jane Sutcliffe uses many of the words and phrases that Shakespeare invented in her text about Shakespeare, and then in text boxes on the right hand opposing pages she explains how and where Shakespeare himself used his new and improved words in his plays. A few examples of words Shakespeare invented or popularized: outbreak, amazement, excitement, fashionable, hurry, well-behaved, cold-blooded, and many more. Then, there are also entire phrases and sayings that came from the pen of Mr. Shakespeare: for goodness’ sake, too much of a good thing, with bated breath, and dead as a doornail, to name a few.

Will’s Words is just an introduction to the many, many words that Shakespeare minted, but it’s a beautiful and informative introduction. For more information on the subject of Will’s words, you can check out the following websites:

Shakespeare Online: Shakespeare’s Coined Words in Depth
Did William Shakespeare Really Invent All Those Words? National Public Radio.
And here’s a youtube video about 10 Words Shakespeare Used That No One Can Work Out. Enjoy.


Saturday Review of Books: April 22, 2017

Posted by Sherry on 4/21/2017 in Saturday Reviews |

“As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading–the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.” ~E.B. White


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.


Chester Raccoon and the Almost Perfect Sleepover by Audrey Penn

Posted by Sherry on 4/20/2017 in Picture Book Preschool |

Chester Raccoon is going to his friend Pepper Opossum’s house for a sleepover, “his first whole day away from home”. Chester, Pepper, and several other animal friends, including Sassafras Skunk, play together, learn to get along, and eventually, when they are “all tuckered out”, they curl up in the opossum’s hollow to go to sleep.

This picture book is the tenth in Ms. Penn’s Kissing Hand series. Chester takes his kissing hand, the one that Mother Raccoon kissed right in the middle of the palm, with him to Pepper Opossum’s house, and it is a comfort when the friends go to bed. But Chester still misses his own bed in his own home.

Preschoolers who are just getting to the age where they might spend the night away from home could appreciate this gentle, somewhat humorous, story of a “dayover” that ends with a comforting trip home for Chester. During the day, the animal children play and work out their minor differences, and they are very tolerant of Skunk’s “stinky puffs” that seem to overtake him at several inopportune moments during the day. I enjoyed both the story and the illustrations, and I think preschool children would like it even more than I did.

It turns out the the original book in this series, The Kissing Hand, made School Library Journal’s Betsy Bird’s Top 100 Picture Books list a few years ago, coming in at #95. I’ve never read The Kissing Hand, about Chester’s first day of school, but Ms. Bird says, “This title falls dangerously close to the realm of the sentimental picture book.” However, she also opines, “The Kissing Hand seems to raise no ire. It simply fulfills its purpose in life and continues onward after that.” So, yes, the tenth book in the series is a bit on the precious side, but maybe it, too, fulfills its purpose.


Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco

Posted by Sherry on 4/19/2017 in General, Picture Book Preschool |

I was only recently introduced to picture book author and illustrator Patricia Polacco, a gap in my kidlit education and appreciation if there ever was one. Ms. Polacco writes rich traditional family stories about children and their cultural heritage. Often the stories are based on or come from the Russian/Irish family history and traditions of Ms. Polacco’s birth family.

“My fondest memories are of sitting around a stove or open fire, eating apples and popping popcorn while listening to the old ones tell glorious stories about the past.”

Thunder Cake, the author tells us in the introduction to the book, “is the story of how my grandma—my Babushka—helped me overcome my fear of thunderstorms.” Babushka tells the little granddaughter in the story to come out from under the bed and count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder to see how far away the storm is. Then, they will know how long they have to bake a thunder cake “and get it into the oven before the storm comes, or it won’t be a real Thunder Cake.”

The impending thunderstorm becomes an occasion for celebration and for facing down fears as the girl and her Babushka gather the ingredients for the thunder cake. Babushka teaches her granddaughter to draw on the courage that she has within herself while depending on the loving support of her Babushka.

If you want to enjoy the entire story now, here it is, read by the author:

I just added Thunder Cake to my library, and I’m pleased to think of my patrons enjoying the story together. It even has the requisite recipe for “Thunder Cake” on the last page—a cake recipe with a secret ingredient. Who could resist?

I have two other books by this author in my library: Mrs. Katz and Tush and The Keeping Quilt. There are several others I would like to have, including The Blessing Cup, An Orange for Frankie, Christmas Tapestry, Pink and Say, The Bee Tree, Chicken Sunday, and Rechenka’s Eggs. In fact, I guess I’ve became a Patricia Polacco fan.


Cleophas and Elizabeth Visit Easter Sunrise Service

We have a tradition in our church of having Biblical characters visit our Easter sunrise service in the park. This year Cleophas and his wife, Elizabeth, from Emmaus told us about their encounter with the resurrected Christ.

First Person Drama, written by Pastor Bob DeGray and performed by John Bauer and Zion Early. Based on the story of the meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35.

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