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.

The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon.

I love nonfiction picture books about overlooked and under-reported events and people in history. The Language of Angels is just such a picture book, about Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Zion) and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who were instrumental in the revival and implementation of Hebrew as the official and modern language of the state of Israel.

I knew that when Israel became a nation, that new/old nation adopted Hebrew as their official language. But I had no knowledge at all of the people behind the revival of the modern Hebrew language. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their main, or native language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew in daily life.

How did Eliezer and Devorah Ben-Yehuda and their son, Ben-Zion, manage to reinvent a language that had been dead as a daily spoken language for over 1500 years? Well, Eliezer started schools where the primary instruction was in Hebrew. And he decided that his children would speak and be spoken to only in Hebrew—a decision which made for a lonely childhood for Ben-Zion, since no one else spoke Hebrew when he was a child. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also wrote a Hebrew dictionary and enlisted his pupils to help him make up words for modern things such as ice cream cones and bicycles. (Read the book to find out how to add new words to an old language.)

Even with the afterword that has more information about these people and their language-making, I still had unanswered questions. How did Ben-Yehuda get people to agree to have their children educated in Hebrew, an antiquated and unused language at the time? How did someone talk the fledgling government of Israel into adopting Hebrew as the national language? What happened to Ben-Zion during World War II and after? (His father died in 1922.) Of course a picture book can’t answer all the questions one might have about a particular subject, but the fact that this one sparked so many questions is a good recommendation for it.

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Two Books about Appreciating Differences

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood.
Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Nathan and Sally Clarkson.

First I picked up The One-in-a-Million Boy, as recommended by Lisa Spence and by Shelia at Dodging Raindrops. It was a good read about a boy who befriends a centenarian, 104 years old, and entices her to dream of and work toward becoming a Guinness World Record holder. It’s also about how the boy’s musician father, Quinn Porter, becomes friends with Miss Ona Vitkus, and how families bond and how they fail one another.

The boy is just referred to as “the boy” throughout the book. He never gets a name. Maybe that omission emphasizes the difference inherent in the boy. He is a one-in-a-million boy, maybe autistic, maybe just quirky. He makes lists, counts items a lot, memorizes records from the Guinness Book. The story about the boy, Miss Vitkus, and Quinn has some memorable minor characters, too: Ted Ledbetter, a well-intentioned but unimaginative scoutmaster; the members of an up-and-coming Christian band; and the boy’s mother, Belle, who spends most of the book in the throes of grief and what I would diagnose as PTSD. It’s an excellent story about appreciating others for their differences and yet expecting them to grow and learn from their mistakes.

And that’s just the theme of Nathan and Sally Clarkson’s memoir, Different. Nathan Clarkson started out different as a baby, not sleeping, screaming for no apparent reason, fussy, difficult. And as he grew, the differences grew, too. He was eventually diagnosed with a whole alphabet soup of “differences”—ADHD, OCD, ODD—plus some learning differences, personality quirks, and a strong will. Put it all together, and you’ve got an array of problems and diagnoses, but Sally Clarkson, Nathan’s mother, had to learn to appreciate the person inside Nathan, help him deal with the issues that his differences caused, and also show him that God made Nathan Clarkson for a purpose, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, even with his many differences.

Told in alternating voices from Sally’s point of view and then from Nathan’s as a 28 year old man looking back on his childhood, teen years, and young adulthood, the book is insightful and inspiring.

Sally: “Being Nathan’s mother taught me so much about what really matters in life. It taught me how to see people through a different lens, to appreciate and validate the variety and differences of people without casting judgment on the ways they differ from me. I grew to become a healthier person as I came to understand and practice living well with the miraculous gift of Nathan in my life.”

Nathan: “In my soul I knew I wanted to be the hero of the story I was in. But so often, like the knight in my picture book, I felt tiny in comparison to the looming dragons of anxiety, learning disabilities, obsessions, and self-doubt. So often I wondered how I could ever win. But still I marched to battle, trusting that in the end the heroes always win, even if they’re beaten, tried, and worn. That while the battle is hard, good will always defeat evil and light will always win out over dark.”

I recommend both of these books for every parent who has a “different” child, one who at his or her best is amazing and beautiful, but at his or her worst is frustrating, oppositional, and enigmatic. Also these are good books for those of us who deal every day with being “different” in some way ourselves, or who know someone who is just a little—or a lot–strange and unusual and in need of understanding and affirmation. And that’s all us, isn’t it?

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott.

What sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible people! This book is about the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, Mary’s step-sister, Claire, Lord Byron, and for some reason, Byron’s erstwhile doctor, John Polidori. It’s mostly about the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron and the Shelley ménage and Doctor Polidori were all in Geneva, hanging out and being sad, dissipated, lost, and horrible. Oh, and they also decided to enliven a rainy day by competing to see who could write the best horror story. Mary “won” because she was the only one who finished and published her story, Frankenstein. Polidori wrote something called The Vampyre, too, but it may or may not have been mostly plagiarized from Lord Byron

Percy and Mary were on the run from Mary’s family, unmarried and plagued by debt. They had been together for two years by the summer of 1816 and had a son, William, but they believed in “free love” and therefore were not married. There were persistent rumors that Claire, who ran away with them when they first eloped, was also Percy Shelley’s lover. However, according to this book, Claire only had eyes for Lord Byron, and she was probably already pregnant with Byron’s child when the Byron contingent and the Shelley group met up in Geneva in May of 1816. If it all sounds complicated and rather tawdry, it was.

The Poet and the Vampyre is chronologically scattered, maybe because the Shelleys and Lord Byron and Claire and Polidori led such nomadic and convoluted lives. Lord Byron was also “on the run” in 1816, escaping from his estranged wife and tattered reputation in England. He took up with Claire mostly because she kept throwing her self at him, and he had no power or reason or moral principles to make him resist. Then, there’s a baby, and Byron wants to ignore it, ignore Claire and forget the spring and summer interlude with her ever happened. The narrative keeps going back and forth between Byron’s former life in England and his rise to fame, the Shelleys and Claire and their former lives in England before the great elopement, John Polidori’s history and current situation as Byron’s personal doctor, all of the mess they made of their lives after the summer in Geneva, and various and sundry other anecdotes and historical notes that the author decides to throw in here and there.

The book could have been much better organized, and I never did understand why Polidori was even a focus of the story. Maybe the author felt sorry for him because at the time Mr. Polidori felt ignored and overlooked by the great poets, Byron and Shelley. Since the Romantic poets were so very confessional and personal in their poetry, it makes since to read about their actual lives. Unfortunately, reading about the casual cruelty and lack of any moral standard that Shelley and especially Byron exhibited in their personal lives makes me not want to read their poetry at all. Ever.

I would suggest reading the poetry on its own merits and knowing as little about the poets as possible. That method of literary engagement might mean that you interpret some of the poems of Byron and Shelley in a way that they weren’t meant, but at least you would skip the scandal and gossip and general nastiness. I did find out that Mr. Polidori was the uncle of the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. Interesting, but again I’m not sure it’s terribly significant that the Rossettis had an uncle who was Lord Byron’s personal doctor for a few months.

Jonathan Edwards by Simonetta Carr

I’m spending my Thursdays here on the blog in the eighteenth century, 1700’s.

This picture book biography of the great preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (b.1703, d.1758), is just beautiful. The book is hardcover, printed on lovely paper, large print, with both color illustrations and photographs of important documents and places in Edwards’ life. I want all of the books in this series.

The information about Jonathan Edwards is well-written and organized, and the presentation is, again, just lovely. Mrs. Carr, a homeschool mom and former teacher, tells students about Edwards’ scientific explorations of spiders and Newtonian physics. She explains the ins and outs of the First Great Awakening revivals, and the theological controversies that accompanied those revivals in terms that a tenor eleven year old could understand. She writes about Edwards’ youth and his courtship and marriage to Sarah Pierpont and his friendship and partnership with George Whitefield. The biography is thorough enough, but also with only 60 pages, it won’t exhaust the young readers it’s meant to engage.

At the end of the book Mrs. Carr includes a time line of Jonathan Edwards’ life, a list of interesting facts about Mr. Edwards and his lifetime that didn’t fit into the main narrative of the book, and a facsimile of an actual letter from Edwards to his daughter Mary in 1749. The letter is inspiring, It made me want to copy it and send my handwritten (plagiarized) letter to my own grown children who are far away from home.

Here’s just the beginning of the letter:

My dear child,
You may well think it is natural for a parent to be concerned for a child at so great a distance away, so far out of view, and so far out of the reach of communication; where, if you should be stricken with any dangerous sickness, which should issue in death–you might probably be in your grave before we would hear of your danger. But yet, my greatest concern is not for your health, or temporal welfare–but for the good of your soul.

Though you are at so great a distance from us–yet God is everywhere. You are much out of the reach of our care–but you are in His hands every moment! We have not the comfort of seeing you–but He sees you! His eye is always upon you. And if you may but live sensibly near to God, and have His gracious presence, it is no great matter if you are far distant from us. I had rather you should remain hundreds of miles distant from us–and have God near to you–than to have you always with us, and live at a distance from God.

Isn’t that the most deeply loving letter you’ve read in a long time? Read the entire letter here.

Jonathan Edwards by Simonetta Carr is one biography in the series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers. Illustrated by Matt Abraxas. Published by Reformation Heritage Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Other books in the series, all authored by Mrs. Carr with the same stunning illustrations by Mr. Abraxas:

Augustine of Hippo.
Anselm of Canterbury.
Athanasius.
John Calvin.
John Knox.
Marie Durand.
Martin Luther.
John Owen.

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.

Texas Yankee by Nina Brown Baker

Texas Tuesday: Texas Yankee; The Story of Gail Borden by Nina Brown Baker.

Benito Juarez, Peter the Great, Simon Bolivar, F.W. Woolworth, America Vespucci, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Nellie Bly are a few of the other celebrities and historical figures that Nina Brown Baker wrote about in her prolific career as a children’s biographer. Texas Yankee, about the inventor of condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk, is a biography in Ms. Brown’s short, slightly fictionalized, and highly readable style. The story begins with twelve year old Gail Borden and his family moving from New York to Kentucky and ends 129 pages later with Gail Borden’s death at his ranch near Columbus, Texas in 1874 at the age of 72. Borden’s life in-between these two events took him from New York to Kentucky to Ohio to Mississippi to Texas and back again up north to Connecticut and New York to try to sell his inventions and ideas to an Eastern seaboard audience.

Then, came the disruption of the Civil War, and Gail Borden found himself on the opposite side of the slavery and Union issues from most of his fellow Texans and therefore in exile so to speak from his beloved Texas. But after the war and the bitterness from the war had died down, Gail Borden was able to return to Texas a successful man who gave travelers and immigrants and settlers of the West a way to transport good, healthy milk over long distances without having it go bad and without having to purchase milk for their children from questionable sources along the way.

I once met a restaurant owner who read a book about Gail Borden when she was in fifth grade and was so inspired by her reading that she looked to him as an example for her business dealings and also made a lifelong study of the history of Texas. Nina Brown Baker’s book about Gail Borden may have been the book she read as a fifth grader, for all I know. At any rate, I can see how this book and Gail Borden’s life would be inspirational. Mr. Borden’s commitment to Christ is a thread throughout the biography, not over-emphasized but definitely acknowledged. The only problem in recommending this biography to your fifth grader is that it was published in 1955 and is now out of print. I do find one other biography of Borden, Milk, Meat Biscuits, and the Terraqueous Machine by Mary Dodson, but it’s from 1987 and also out of print. And there’s a Childhood of Famous Americans series volume, Gail Borden: Resourceful Boy by Adrian Paradis, also out of print.

It seems as if the subject of Gail Borden, supporter of the Texas revolution and persistent inventor, might be ripe for a new biography by some up-and-coming adult or children’s biographer.

Christmas in New York City, 1835

A Dutch Christmas on St. Nicholas Day from Mary Mapes Dodge: Jolly Girl by Miriam E. Mason, one of the many volumes in the Childhood of Famous Americans series:

“First they all sang several songs. Then somebody told the story of the first trip good Saint Nicholas made across the ocean from Holland.
Finally, there was the sound of bells outside, then a tramping of feet. In a minute in came good Saint Nicholas, dressed in a bright red suit. He was carrying and enormous bag over his shoulder. A small boy followed him.
‘See, there is the little kabouter manikin behind him to help him with the presents,’ Sophie whispered excitedly. She exclaimed to her sisters: ‘The kabouter is the dwarf who goes about helping needy people.’
Saint Nicholas came to the front of the room. In a loud voice he asked if the children had all been good.
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas,’ they all answered.
‘Have you obeyed your parents and done your share of the work without complaining?’
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Have you been polite in church and not smiled or gone to sleep while the preacher was talking? Have you listened to him?’
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Have you been mannerly at table and not wasted your food?’
‘Yes, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Have you been rude to your elders, cruel to your pets, or lazy about rising in the morning?’
‘No, Saint Nicholas.’
‘Very well, then, I shall see what is in my treasure each of you. Come forward as I call your name.'”

Mary Mapes Dodge was the well-known author of many stories for children, including the famous classic Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, which was featured in a previous “Literary Christmas Through the Ages” post, Christmas in Amsterdam, Holland, 1853. The biography, Mary Mapes Dodge: Jolly Girl tells the story of Mary’s childhood as she grew up among many friends of Dutch heritage in old New York City.

Christmas in Kentucky, 1809

From Kit Carson, Trailblazer and Scout by Shannon Garst:

“The homemade crib in the snug log cabin of the Linsey Carsons was seldom empty. When on Christmas Eve of 1809 the thin wail of a newborn babe rose from the battered cradle, the little cabin was already fairly bulging with Carson offspring, and the birth of another baby occasioned little excitement.

Linsey Carson, who had to stoop when he went through a door, bent over the crib and made clucking noises at his youngest. ‘He ‘pears to be a mite runty,’ he commented. ‘Reckon we’d best give him a good-sized name to grow up to.’

So the child was christened ‘Christopher,’ an already illustrious name to which the child was to add further glory. However, his physical stature never grew to fit the name, so the name was shortened to ‘Kit’ to fit the boy. Always his father referred to him as ‘the runt of the litter,’ which designation never failed to make the boy cringe inside as though a burning iron had been thrust through his heart. All of his nine brothers were strapping fellows well over six feet when grown to manhood, but Kit never attained even medium height. Yet of the fourteen Carson offspring he was the only one to make the family name famous. Runty, sandy-haired and with pale eyelashes fringing blue eyes, he remained to the end of his days undistinguished in appearance, yet the germ of greatness slumbered in that undersized but sturdy body.”

The runt of the litter who grows up to be the greatest. It’s an old story that never grows stale in the telling. From David, the youngest of his family, who nevertheless kills the giant Goliath and later becomes King of Israel, to Peter the Great, youngest son of Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, to fictional youngest sons who rise to greatness, there is a something about seeing the “underdog” become the hero that appeals to our sense of rightness and hope.

Perhaps it’s a little like the true story of the baby, born in poverty and obscurity, who became the mighty and resurrected King.

Adrift at Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines.

This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang: our narrator, Tuan Ho, comes from school to his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to find preparations being made for a journey. His first reaction is to ask his mother, “Are you leaving me now, too?” A year before Tuan Ho’s father had left Vietnam with his older sister, but then-five year old Tuan and his other three sisters were too young to make the journey as “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. Now, Tuan’s mother tells him that he and two of his sisters will be leaving with “Ma” in the dark of the early morning. It’s a secret; no one must know that they are going. And they must leave Tuan’s four year old sister, Van, behind with family members. “She’s too young to travel.”

The family ride in a truck to the beach. There they are chased and shot at by soldiers as they run to board the boat. On the boat, they face even more hardships: a shortage of food and water, engine trouble, too many passengers, a leaky boat. But the book finally ends with a rescue and a tall glass of milk for the relieved and smiling Tuan Ho.

The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning. Canadian illustrator, Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life.

The story itself, a slice of life, begins abruptly without any explanation as to why the family must leave Vietnam. Nor does the main part of the text explain what happens to Tuan Ho and family after they are rescued at sea. However, there are some explanatory pages with both photographs and text at the end of the book that tell readers about the history of the Vietnam War and about the entire history of Tuan Ho’s family and their emigration from Vietnam and eventual reunification in Canada. It’s a good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people for both older students and middle grade readers. Even primary age children could appreciate Tuan Ho’s story with a little bit of explanation from a parent or teacher about the war and the Communist persecution that they were fleeing.

Another good 2016 entry for my impromptu Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon.

What’s New in the Library? November 1, 2016

These are just a few of the books that I’ve recently added to my private subscription library for homeschoolers and others in southeast Houston, Meriadoc Homeschool Library:

Finding Providence: The Story of Roger Williams by Avi. With lovely illustrations by James Watling, this I Can Read Chapter Book tells the story of the hero of religious liberty, Roger Williams, from the point of view of his daughter, Mary. The book has five very short chapters, and the text by Avi is thorough, but simple and straightforward. I have another book about Roger Williams for more advanced readers, Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams by Jeanette Eaton.

Ten Brave Men: Makers Of The American Way by Sonia Daugherty. With illustrations by Sonia’s husband, Newbery award winning author, James Daugherty. The stories include the following men: William Bradford, Roger Williams, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln.

Tales From Far and Near and Tales of Long Ago (History Stories of Other Lands) by Arthur Guy Terry. World history in story form, perfect for reading aloud.

Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant. The one is a brand-new picture book biography written by the very talented author of The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus. Six Dots concentrates on the few years in his life when Louis Braille was busily inventing braille writing, in his early teens! At age fifteen, Braille had essentially perfected braille writing, a magnificent invention that “has had a lasting and profound impact on so many people.” Helen Keller compared Louis Braille to Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press.

We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo by Margaret Cousins, historical consultant, Walter Prescott Webb. There were about 35 or 40 books of historical fiction published by Grosset and Dunlap in the We Were There series. Each volume has both an author and a historical consultant. Mr. Webb, who was a renowned Texas historian during the first half of the twentieth century, was president of the Texas State Historical Association for many years. He also launched the project that produced the Handbook of Texas. So, if his name is on the book, it’s historically accurate. And Mrs. Cousins, who wrote a couple of the Landmark series books, Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia and The Story of Thomas Alva Edison, was also an accomplished writer for children and a respected biographer. She also wrote The Boy in the Alamo, another Alamo story. Other We Were There historical fiction in Meriadoc Homeschool Library:
We Were There with Cortes and Montezuma by Benjamin Appelt.
We Were There on the Oregon Trail by William O. Steele.
We Were There on the Santa Fe Trail by Ross McLaury Taylor.
We Were There With the California Rancheros by Stephen Holt.
We Were There at the First Airplane Flight by Felix Sutton.
We Were There With Caesar’s Legions by Robert N. Webb.
A few of the books in this exciting and educational series are available from the public library as e-books. Most of them are not available in any form at Houston or Harris County Public Library.

I also acquired several volumes in the Makers of History series by brothers, Jacob and John Abbott. Jan Bloom says of the thirty-two volumes in the series that they are “interesting, well-written, and full of insights into the people the brothers thought were important.” These books are for older students, junior high and high school, even college age. Of the thirty-two, I have the books profiling the following “makers of history”: Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, Empress Josephine, William the Conqueror, Henri IV of France, Marie Antionette, Darius the Great Xerxes the Great, Alfred the Great, Cyrus the Great, Pyrrhus, Mary Queen of Scots, Peter the Great, Genghis Khan, Joseph Bonaparte, and Romulus.

So many treasures to read, so little time.