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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All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George

All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Don Bolognese.

Jean Craighead George, one of the great naturalist writers for children of the twentieth century, died in 2012. She left behind over 100 books, including the Newbery Medal-winning Julie of the Wolves and Newbery runner-up My Side of the Mountain. Although known for her fiction, Ms. George’s nonfiction narratives about various plants and animals and nature habitats are just as good as if not better than her novels.

In fact, All Upon a Sidewalk is something of a cross between fiction and nonfiction. It’s what many in the Charlotte Mason world would call a “living book” in that it tells a story that draws children in and encourages them to use their imagination to picture what life must be like for a tiny ant upon a large sidewalk. Lasius flavus is a small yellow ant who lives under the sidewalk on 19th Street in an unnamed city. “She was a yellow ant with big eyes, arrow waist, and a glittering assortment of six spindly legs.”

Lasius flavus is a worker ant, a natural chemist who serves the queen ant and follows the chemical instructions she receives from the queen. Whether it’s sugar or pollen or something else, Lasius flavus hurries to find what the queen wants. Today, Lasius flavus has a special mission: “the queen had asked for a wondrous treasure called Euplectus confluens. It was terribly appealing and hidden somewhere in the city.”

Both the reader and Lasius flavus remain in the dark as to the identity and whereabouts of Euplectus confluens until the end of the book. Lasius flavus walks about on the sidewalk, looking for this appealing substance, and on her way she encounters the dangers of spiders and bees and rainstorms and birds as she searches for the queen’s desire.

What a wonderful contrast to the flat prose of another popular children’s book about ants which says, “Do you know how many ants live in the world? More than 10,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of ants. Ants live in fields and forests. They live under sidewalks, too. Ants are everywhere!”

And, instead of photographs, you get Mr. Bolognese’s painting, done from life. “He got down on his hands and knees and carefully inspected the sidewalk world through a magnifying glass.” Mightn’t your own children be inspired to do the same after reading this book?

All Upon a Sidewalk is out of print, but you can find used copies quite easily on Amazon or other used book sites.

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?

Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education by Raphaele Frier

I would like to read I Am Malala, the book that Malala Yousafzai wrote about her own life and her activism on behalf of the education of girls around the world. Until I get around to reading that book, however, this picture book biography, translated into English from the French, gives a basic overview of Malala’s efforts and of her sacrifice for the cause of girls’ education and women’s rights.

I learned that Malala’s father is an educator himself and that he supports Malala’s efforts to protect and extend the rights of girls to have an education.

I learned that Malala was only fifteen years old in 2012 when Taliban extremists boarded her school bus and shot her three times. She was able to travel to England for medical treatment at a hospital in Birmingham where she was able to make a full recovery.

I learned that in 2014, when she was seventeen years old, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And the book also includes some quotes from Malala herself:

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when were in Swat, the nor of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens.”

“It does not matter the color of your skin, what language do you speak, what religion you believe in. It is that we should all consider each other as human beings and we should respect each other.”

This beautiful book is wonderful tribute to Malala Yousafzai, and it’s a good introduction to her life and work for elementary age children.

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New Nonfiction in the Library: 2017

I’m going to start posting here about the books that I acquire for my library. For those of you who don’t know, I have a private subscription library in my home, mostly for homeschoolers, although others who are interested in quality books are welcome to visit or to join. I have a lot of older books that are no longer available from the public library as well as some new books that I think will stand the test of time.

Here’s an annotated list of some of the new/old books I’ve acquired (from thrift stores, used bookstores, library sales, donations) in the past few months:

They Lived Like This in Ancient Mexico by Marie Neurath and John Ellis. I have others in this series (Ancient Rome, Ancient China), and I have found them to be a great and simple introduction to ancient people groups and their history. Of the series, I have They Lived Like This in Ancient Rome, They Lived Like This: the Vikings, They Lived Like This in Ancient China, They Lived Like This in Ancient Britain, and now this one.

How to Know the Minerals and Rocks by Richard M. Pearl. (Signet Science Library) I like to imagine some boy or girl in 1955 carrying around this field guide and busily identifying the rocks and minerals in their backyard or country vacation place. “Written for students, collectors, and hobbyists, this book offers a practical basic field guide to more than 125 of the most important minerals and rocks.”

A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary. At 344 pages, this memoir is for older fans of Ms. Cleary’s prolific output of children’s fiction. I also have the sequel, My Own Two Feet, which tells about Ms. Cleary’s young adult years.

Out of Darkness: The Story of Louis Braille by Russell Freedman. A brief biography of the blind Frenchman who developed a system of raised dots on paper that enables blind people to read. This system was later named “Braille” in honor of its inventor.

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins. Maria Merian, Anna Botsford Comstock, Frances Hamerstrom, Rachel Carson, Miriam Rothschild, and Jane Goodall.

Fireflies in the Night (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 1) by Judy Hawes. A great story with lots of good information about fireflies. A young girl who loves fireflies goes out to grandfather’s house to watch them, and her grandfather helps her to study the fireflies and their habits.

Sketching Outdoors in Spring by Jim Arnosky. Part of a series, one book for sketching outdoors in each season. Mr. Arnosky makes it seem simple to just observe and draw the natural world.

A Drop Of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder by Walter Wick. All about water with beautiful photographs and simple experiments.

Jonathan Edwards (Christian Biographies for Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr. This picture book biography is also part of a series, and I would love to have the rest of the books in the series. The illustrations are stunning. To date, the series includes volumes on John Calvin, John Owen, Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, Anselm of Canterbury, Lady Jane Grey, and John Knox.

The Texas Rangers by Will Henry. A Landmark history book.

Up the Trail from Texas by J. Frank Dobie. Another Landmark history book.

Chipmunks on the Doorstep by Edwin Tunis. The famous author/illustrator tells about his observations of the chipmunks who took up residence near his his porch and in his yard. He gives them names related to their individual personalities and writes about their habits and their relationship to the humans who live nearby.

It’s so much fun, and I am so blessed, to be able to collect these books and have them available for children and families to borrow and enjoy.

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.

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Up the Trail from Texas by J. Frank Dobie

Texas Tuesday.

This book, published in 1955, is one of the Landmark History series from Random House. The publisher had a policy of hiring the best writers, award winning authors and experts in history and in particular historical eras and events, to write these books, and it shows. J. Frank Dobie was a journalist and a rancher and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin for many years. He was instrumental in saving the Texas Longhorn from extinction. He wrote over twenty books about the history, folklore, and traditions of Texas. If anyone was qualified to write a Landmark history book about the history of the cattle, cowboys, and trail drives of Texas, it was Mr. Dobie.

And Up the Trail from Texas is certainly a well-written, exciting nonfiction compilation of the stories of various cowmen, trail bosses, and cowboys that Mr. Dobie interviewed personally, along with information about the real life of a trail driving cowboy and the logistics and work of a trail drive from Texas to the northern cattle markets in Kansas or Nebraska or Montana. Read about drouths, blizzards, lightning, and floods, encounters with the Comanche and other Indians, and about the jobs the cowboys were expected to perform. Dobie’s writing especially shine when he is recounting the stories that the cowmen told him, many of them recalling in old age their youthful exploits and adventures on the cattle trail.

I remember when I was a kid of a girl watching Clint Eastwood as drover Rowdy Yates in the early 1960’s TV series, Rawhide. I think the writers of Rawhide must have read Mr. Dobie’s books, especially this one. If I were teaching a unit on the cowboys and trail drives of the 1860’s, I’d read a couple chapters of Up the Trail from Texas to my students each day until we finished the book, and then I’d let them watch a few episodes of Rawhide.

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapprovin’,
Keep them dogies movin’, rawhide.
Don’t try to understand ’em,
Just rope ’em, throw, and brand ’em.
Soon we’ll be livin’ high and wide.
My heart’s calculatin’,
My true love will be waitin’,
Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.
Move ’em on, head ’em up,
Head ’em up, move ’em on,
Move ’em on, head ’em up, rawhide!
Head ’em out, ride ’em in,
Ride ’em in, let ’em out,
Cut ’em out, ride ’em in, rawhide!

At the end of each episode, trail boss Gil Favor would call out, “Head’em up! Move’em out!”

Christmas in Vienna, 1192

From Tales of the Crusades by Olivia Coolidge:

“Two days before Christ’s Mass, a minstrel wandered into a small town on the outskirts of Vienna. He did not sing in the marketplace, being French-speaking and in any case superior to the ragged crew thumping tabors who were already performing here and there and begging for pennies. This man was warmly dressed, though stained with travel; and he carried a viol on his back, which proclaimed he had some skill. Though he did not my any means look like a court musician, he probably at least could sing for his supper in small baronial castles whose rough owners cared less for music than for novelty.

It was market day when he appeared, strolling casually up to a crowd which was gathering to listen to a man preaching a new crusade. The speaker was a hoarse-voiced fellow, one-eyed and villainous looking, who had taken the Cross, he said, on account of his sins.”

The minstrel in this story turns out to be a spy, looking for King Richard of England who is late coming home from the Crusades. He goes to the court of Duke Leopold, to ask questions and perform for the nobility.

“Duke Leopold was holding Christmas court at Vienna with mumming plays and games of blindman’s bluff or forfeits. Presents were being given and received with gay flirtation. Dishes were brought into the hall preceded by trumpeters and outlined in flickering brandy. Jugglers, minstrels, and fools entertained the company, the court performers striving to add to their repertoire, lest it become stale. These last were not best pleased at the arrival of the minstrel, who had bought himself gay clothing with gold ducats he had concealed in the lining of his viol case. To the lords and ladies a French-speaking man was especially welcome, for the lays of chivalry had their birth in France.”

Read Ms. Coolidge’s Tales of the Crusades to find out what happens next at this medieval Christmas celebration.

Olivia Coolidge was born and grew up in England, but she came to the United States as a young woman and stayed to teach school and eventually to marry an American. As the daughter of an Oxford professor and an Oxford graduate herself, Ms. Coolidge saw the value of a classical education. Her books, about Greek and Roman heroes and other historical figures, are a classical education in and of themselves.
(Information about Olivia Coolidge taken mostly from Jan Bloom’s bibliographic resource, Who Should We Then Read?.)

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.