The Mantlemass Chronicles by Barbara Willard

I purchased another one of Barbara Willard’s Mantlemass books to go in my library, the last one that I was lacking, even though I haven’t yet read all of this series. This one is called A Cold Wind Blowing, and it begins in the year 1536 as King Henry VIII, in a fit of pique and acquisitiveness at the Pope’s inconsiderate and uncooperative decision to deny him a divorce, sets about destroying the monasteries and seizing their assets. The Medley family, the family that is the focus of all this series of historical fiction books, takes in a sort of refugee from all the unrest named Isabella. Isabella has a mysterious past, and her secrets threaten the entire family’s safety and happiness.

I’ve read the first two books in this series, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Lark and the Laurel (1485)
The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A Cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets.

Fresh-Picked Poetry by Michelle Schaub

Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market by Michelle Schaub.

While you sleep
snuggled tight
farmers toil
by silver light.
Harvest, sort,
wash, and load.
Hop in trucks.
Hit the road.

With alliterative phrases like “tasty transformations”, “pyramids of peppers”, “a whisper of spice”, and “market melody”, poet Michelle Schaub transforms the local farmer’s market into a poetry market. There are other lovely images in these poems, too. The beekeeper brings “jars of liquid-gold alchemy” to the market. Green Zebra Tomato and Dinosaur Kale “live in peace upon a salad plate.” And a couple of blueberry thieves are caught “blue-handed.”

The illustrations by Amy Huntington are bright, colorful, and multi-cultural. And on the final page of this poetry collection there’s a list of “fresh-picked reasons to spend a day at the (farmers’) market.”

Home cupboards brim with bounty
while families dream away,
imagining the wonders
to come
next market day.

Reading these poems has me contemplating a trip to the farmers’ market —very soon.

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Sir Cumference and the Fracton Faire by Cindy Neuschwander

Is it didactic, a story built specifically to teach a lesson about fractions? Absolutely.

Do some of us prefer our mathematics lessons encased in a story? Yes, indeed.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And for some people, math equals medicine.

The Sir Cumference books are designed to engage young readers who like knights and ladies fairs and castles and to teach them a bit of math on the sly, so to speak. This latest Sir Cumference book is all about fractions. Sir Cumference and Lady Di of Ameter go to visit their friend the Earl of Fracton at the annual Fracton Faire. At the fair, they purchase cloth and cheese and other stuff in fractional parts, and a group of thieves target the market. However, the Earl and Lady Di and Sir Cumference use fractions to catch the bandits.

The ending is a bit lame. (The thieves get away, but the loot they took from the merchants at the fair is recovered.) Everyone lives happily ever after, and fractons later become known as fractions. Nevertheless, this story would be a memorable and gentle introduction to or review of the subject of simple fractions.

Other Sir Cumference books are:
Sir Cumference and All the King’s Tens (in my library)
Sir Cumference and the First Round Table (in my library)
Sir Cumference and the Roundabout Battle
Sir Cumference and the Viking’s Map
Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi
Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter
Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland
Sir Cumference and the Sword in the Cone
Sir Cumference and the Off-the-Charts Dessert

Another “living math” picture book that I picked up at the used bookstore is The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns. (Ms. Burns wrote two of the books in the Brown Paper School series, Math for Smarty Pants and The I Hate Mathematics Book!, and her name is on a series of math education books from Scholastic for preschool and primary readers, Marilyn Burns brainy day books.) The Greedy Triangle is about a triangle with a busy life who nevertheless becomes bored with doing the same old triangular things. With the help of a shapeshifter, our triangle tries out life as a quadrilateral, a pentagon, and a hexagon, then several other shapes all the way up to a decagon. But, of course, then the old life of a triangle starts to look good, and our shape-shifting shape asks for one last change.

I think this kind of “didacticism” is a just fine. Stories make math so much more interesting. Then again, I was usually the only one in my math classes who actually liked story problems best. Unadorned numbers make me cringe.

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Argyle Fox by Marie Letourneau

Argyle Fox, a picture book published by Tanglewood Publishing, begins with end papers that show a pictorial map of Argyle Fox’s forest home: Argyle’s house, Badger’s place, Knight’s castle, Beaver’s pond, Groundhog’s burrow, soccer field, and pirate’s hat (?). In the story itself, Argyle Fox, who walks upright and wears an argyle-patterned scarf around his neck, goes out to play on a windy day. All of his ideas for play are spoiled by the wind, including his pirate’s hat (aha!) that is whooshed away by a gust of “rotten wind.” Finally, after many failures, Argyle Fox finds “the most perfect thing to play in the wind.”

The pictures in this book, illustrated by the author, are lovely, colorful, and childlike. Argyle Fox is an intrepid and persistent preschooler with a lot of heart and imagination. His mother is patient, kind, and encouraging, allowing Argyle Fox to try and try again until he can figure out for himself what kind of play will work on a windy day. Argyle Fox would be a great choice for story time on the theme of wind and windy weather. Read along with:

Gilberto and the Wind by Marie Hall Ets.

Feel the Wind by Arthur Dorros.

The Wind Blew by Pat Hutchins.

The Storm Book by Charlotte Zolotow.

Catch the Wind: All About Kites by Gail Gibbons.

A couple of poems about wind wouldn’t go amiss for reading along with Argyle Fox either:

Who Has Seen the Wind? by Christina Rossetti.
The Wind by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Wind on the Hill by A.A. Milne.

The Wind by Amy Lowell

He shouts in the sails of the ships at sea,
He steals the down from the honeybee,
He makes the forest trees rustle and sing,
He twirls my kite till it breaks its string.
Laughing, dancing, sunny wind,
Whistling, howling, rainy wind,
North, South, East and West,
Each is the wind I like the best.
He calls up the fog and hides the hills,
He whirls the wings of the great windmills,
The weathercocks love him and turn to discover
His whereabouts — but he’s gone, the rover!
Laughing, dancing, sunny wind,
Whistling, howling, rainy wind,
North, South, East and West,
Each is the wind I like the best.

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

Young Sami and his family escape from the bombing of his Syrian neighborhood and go to live in a refugee camp, but Sami had to leave his pigeons behind. As others in his family and in the camp begin to make a new life for themselves, Sami cannot think of anything other than his beautiful birds.

The artwork in this lovely picture book uses “plasticine, polymer clay and other mixed media” to create a sense of beauty in the midst of war and desolation. Even young children can sympathize with Sami and his loneliness and depression as he tries to adjust to a new home without any of the things or people he had to leave behind in Syria, and especially without his pet birds. And I can picture young readers being inspired to use clay and painting and other mixed media to create their own pictures and art that perhaps speak to the losses that they have experienced themselves.

The book would even be a good art therapy book for older children and young adults. The use of literature, art and nature in helping people to cope with loss and with trauma is well-established by now, and this book would be a window for those who don’t understand much about the sadness and grief that refugees experience and a mirror for those who have experienced war or disaster firsthand.

“In 2015, looking for resources to explain the Syrian Civil War to her own children, Suzanne (Del Rizzo) came across the article of a boy who took solace in a connection with the wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp.” She wrote My Beautiful Birds in response to that article.

John Adams: Advice to Johnny

Sprinkled throughout David McCullough’s biography of John Adams is the father’s advice and guidance to his young son, John Quincy. Since father and son were often separated, John Adams wrote his son letters full of fatherly counsel, recommendations for his education, and general wisdom. Here are a few quotes from John Adams’ letters to his son, John Quincy Adams:

As a branch of knowledge, geography was “absolutely necessary to every person of public character,” and to every child, Adams declared. “Really there ought not to be a state, a city, a promontory, a river, a harbor, an inlet or a mountain in all America, but what should be intimately known to every youth who has any pretensions to liberal education.”
(Of course, “America” was much smaller in John Adams’ day.)

“A taste for literature and a turn for business, united in the same person, never fails to make a great man.”

“I advise you, my son, in whatever you read, and most of all in reading the Bible, to remember that it is for the purpose of making you wiser and more virtuous. I have myself, for many years, made it a practice to read through the Bible once every year. I have always endeavored to read it with the same spirit and temper of mind, which I now recommend to you: that is, with the intention and desire that it may contribute to my advancement in wisdom and virtue.”

“But above all Things, my son, take Care of your Behaviour and preserve the Character you have acquired, for Prudence and Solidity. Remember your tender Years and treat all the World with Modesty, Decency and Respect. . . .”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read and reviewed this slim novel back in 2012, and since it’s supposed to be coming out as a movie in March, I thought I’d repost, FYI. I’m wondering how well the movie will be able to capture the “unreliable narrator” point of view.


I do believe SFP at pages turned nailed this one. (You’ll only want to read her thoughts after you’ve read the book.) It’s a short book, a novelette really, but the ending isn’t . . . exactly. Hence the title.

The book is only 176 pages long, but it tells the story of Tony Webster’s life from his perspective, which it turns out is somewhat skewed. Maybe. Tony doesn’t “get it.” The book raises the possibility that we’re all like Tony, that our memories are unreliable and we really don’t understand each other or the events of our lives very well.

The Sense Of An Ending won the 2011 Man Booker prize for literature. I think it well worth the the time invested to read it and think about it.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”

“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient— it’s not useful— to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

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Saint David’s Day

The patron saint of Wales is Saint David, or Sant Dewi as the Welsh call him. He lived in the sixth century and became the Archbishop of Wales. He was particularly fond of bread, vegetables, and water, drinking nothing but water for most of his life. He is also associated with water because it is said that a spring of water came bubbling up where he walked at significant times and places during his life. I’m interested in Saint David partly because some of my ancestors came from Wales.

The Welsh celebrate Saint David’s Day with leeks (remember Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V?) and daffodils, male voice choirs, and harp concerts. If you would like to celebrate this Welsh holiday with your children, the website below has coloring pages, craft projects, a recipe for leek soup, and more information on David’s life.
St. David’s Day Activities for Kids
St. David died in about 589, and his last words were recorded as:

“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

‘Do the little things’ (‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’) is today a very well-known phrase in Welsh. It reminds me of Elisabeth Elliot’s admonition to “do the next thing.” Either way it seems to me to be a good motto. Sometimes it’s all I can do– to do the next little thing that needs to be done, and sometimes it’s enough. Happy St. David’s Day!

The Most Wonderful Doll in the World by Phyllis McGinley

I wrote a post a week or two ago about doll stories, when I was reading some of Rumer Godden’s stories about dolls. Now I’ve found another doll book to add to the list—the 1951 Caldecott Honor book, The Most Wonderful Doll in the World. Poet and author Phyllis McGinley wrote this tale of a girl, Dulcy, with a powerful imagination. In fact, Dulcy’s mother says she has “too much imagination” because Dulcy is always dissatisfied with the dolls she receives as gifts and must imagine them just a little bit different or better.

When Dulcy gets a new doll, Angela, from her friend, the elderly Mrs. Primrose, Dulcy thinks Angela is a fine doll, but she can’t help wishing that Angela’s hair were black instead of yellow. However, when Angela is lost, Dulcy’s longing and imagination transform the missing doll into the most wonderful doll in the world.

I couldn’t find much information about Helen Stone, the illustrator of this little story. She won two Caldecott honors for books upon which she collaborated with Phyllis McGinley. Her other Caldecott honor book is called All Around the Town by Phyllis McGinley, and it seems to be an alphabet book. Helen Stone also illustrated my favorite Phyllis McGInley story, The Plain Princess.

Read more about Phyllis McGinley here.
If you know or find out more about Helen Stone, please leave a comment.

Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst

I’ve seen this picture book biography recommended on several lists of “living books”, particularly living science books, and I agree that it’s a beautiful and inspiring story. The author’s father, who is never actually named in the text, was a collector of rocks. But more than a collector, he was a student and archivist who carefully curated and labeled his collection of rocks from all over the country.

Since Ms. Hurst’s father and his family were living through the Great Depression, her father’s day job was minding his gas station. When the gas station went broke, he took other jobs to support his family. Because he had never been to college or formally studied geology, most people thought Carol Hurst’s father’s passion for rocks was simply an amusing hobby. However, he eventually met someone who appreciated the informal study he had done and the depth of knowledge he had acquired.

Rocks in his Head is the kind of story our children need. They need to see that if they pursue an interest with persistence and passion, they can become experts. And they can do that whether or not this interest or passion becomes their job. I have an adult daughter who is teaching herself Polish because she is interested in all things Polish at the moment. I have a son who is becoming a talented and expert musician, in his spare time. I am an amateur, part-time librarian. So far, none of my children has “rocks in his head”, but if that were to be someone’s passion, I would encourage them to study and collect and learn with all the resources available to them. Because our economy is generally much better than that of the time during the Great Depression when Ms. Hurst’s father was living, we have much greater opportunities to both make a living for our families and pursue our own interests. Encourage your children and yourself to take advantage of every opportunity.