Toilet paper and Yiddish references, oy vey

Death by Toilet PaperToilet paper and Yiddish references, oy vey

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It has been a while since I’ve written a post about the books my kids and I read together. I am behind, but, then, that’s what toilet paper is for.

I got Donna Gephart’s Death by Toilet Paper at the Scholastic Book Fair at my son’s school. It seemed funny from the title, and I need to have a reserve of books available since we are still reading most nights of the week before bedtime.

So there it was on the shelf, ignored for a while, but I wanted something light and decided to go for it. I’m really glad I did. We all are.

Indeed, the book is funny, at times, but it’s not a funny book. There are stirring descriptions of a mother and son, Benjamin, rebuilding life due to the loss of dad. The financial struggles are serious. The sadness is serious, and the troubles get even worse when grandpa moves in, because he has some issues with his memory.

Benjamin’s friend is into movie makeup, and that part of the story works. It has to do with a costume contest, and contests in general are featured — but I don’t want to spoil too much of the book.

I will point out that the Epstein family is Jewish and the book is colored with Yiddish expressions. It’s certainly not religious, just a bit of cultural Judaism. This makes it a bit more fun to read out loud, of course.

Overall, the book was a hit (not a home run).

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Alexie's "Absolutely True Diary" is Quite Revealing

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Going to new school can be rough…

I’m so glad that I found Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary and decided to go with it. I had started Ceremony by Silko, but it was too slow an introduction for my boys, so I put it down and picked up this one.

My kids really got into the story. And it just happened that they were about to and then did switch schools while we were reading this book. It was serendipitous.

There is some talk about things my kids aren’t yet doing, but will soon enough, so they are aware. That proved not to be an issue, but if your kids aren’t ready for infatuation, masturbation, and real sadness, then it might not be a good choice. My kids are eleven and ten.

They really got into the basketball story. They play sports and understand rivalries.

They also really gained an understand of racism and alcoholism and education. The book has so many reasons to recommend it. It’s quite a popular book for a reason. I taught it in my lower level college English class.

The story is one of exile, and that’s an important facet of the human condition when one is torn between wanting to live in the greater world and wanting to live at home. Since a great many kids can relate to this feeling, Alexie’s book is universal.

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Robinson Crusoe – The Good and the Bad, Even for Kids

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Great Illustrated Classics)The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn’t ask why, but my local used bookstore has several “Great Illustrated Classics” editions and I have bought a few. I like classics and I like that these have been abridged and rewritten for younger readers.

Growing up, Swiss Family Robinson, because of the Disney version, was foremost in my mind. It was a telling experience for me at UCLA when I read Defoe’s original. I read his Moll Flanders in college, too, and gained perspective.

Robinson Crusoe is a colonialist and this book helped Europe to justify its tendencies to dominate. I explained some of this to my kids, but I also talked about the industriousness of Crusoe, who can herd goats and grow perennial crops, like grapes, which can be made into storable raisins.

With the good comes the bad.

I talked to them about Friday and subjugation, about how Crusoe started as a plantation owner, meaning he was an owner of slaves. This kid version was primarily the plot, but I added a lot to encourage discussion and perspective.

I do recommend the original and hope my kids read that version when they are older and ready to better understand it.

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Number the Stars – real history in story form

Number the StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw the Jewish Star of David on the cover of the book and picked it up at the local used book store along with Anne Frank’s Diary. We had gone to the Museum of Tolerance about half a year ago and I thought to put some Jewish books on the reading list.

I had no idea about the book and sort of had to force it on the boys who thought it might be too much of a girl book. It is not a girl book at all. It’s a great story. In the edition I have, Lowry writes an afterword about wanting to tell the story of the country of Denmark during World War II. She invented characters who represented very real actors in the war.

The book is a quick read and the tension rises as the Nazis threaten the Jews and the Resistance has to help some of the Jews escape by sea to Sweden. There are surprising facts and real history presented.

For us, because we read so regularly together, we were happy to have this one on the list, but I wouldn’t suggest that it be the first read nor the most serious study.

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Whittington – the storytelling cat spins a historical yarn

WhittingtonWhittington by Alan Armstrong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked Whittington and my kids did as well. It was a bit of a surprise. I got the book from the local used bookstore, pretty much just because of the cat on the cover. That was about the extent of it, though I did notice award.

We did not know what to expect and found the story to be compelling and earnest. There is a group of animals, a hodgepodge, who live in a barn behind a Texaco filling station. It’s rural America back east somewhere.

The story goes that Whittington arrives and finds a purpose in being a mouser…and especially in being a raconteur. He spins a story about his namesake and famous history.

This means that there is a story within the story. The ancestral Whittington is a human, a real person who made quite a name for himself in London back in the early days of England’s sea-voyaging and colonial expansion. He had a special cat.

This ancient story was interesting to my kids. They had heard about Marco Polo, so we talked about him (and I thought about reading his book to them in the near future).

There is also a story about a boy overcoming his reading difficulties. This works in the context of the book. My boys got it…that reading takes some effort and practice and I told them about dyslexia and other language processing issues.

I would recommend Whittington. It’s a good story and the writing is compelling.

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To Kill a Mockingbird – seeing the South through Scout's eyes

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to vary what my kids and I read together so that it’s not just kid stuff. Sometimes grown-up books feature children prominently, and I figured that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a decent choice because the narrator, Scout, is young.

I had read the book a couple of times previously and I even taught it once in a developmental writing class (which was a mistake given the vocabulary level), but when my kids and I read a book together, they will stop me when they encounter an unfamiliar word or concept, so I wasn’t worried about their ability understand it.

It did happen frequently that I had to explain a word (even look up a word or two, myself) and provide some context. So this was great to read together, but I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to kids to read on their own.

I chose the book precisely because of the racism issue. We had previously read Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so To Kill a Mockingbird made sense to add to our understanding of America and, in particular, the story of the South after the Civil War.

The story is sad. In the case of Tom Robinson, a false accusation leads to a false conviction and the worst possible outcome. Among the other characters, most tolerate and even excuse the injustice. The moral compass of Scout, so strongly influenced by her father Atticus, though, is clear.

There are delightful moments detailing Southern life among the more gloomy parts. My boys were drawn to many of the characters, including Jem (Scout’s older brother), the famous Dill, and mean Mrs. Dubose.

The novel works on many levels. The writing is fantastic. My kids very much enjoyed this one.

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With a name like Mudshark, expect the odd

MudsharkMudshark by Gary Paulsen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally $4.99 but marked down to $1.99 at my kids’ school book fair. A short, two dollar book is worth it. I read almost every night to my kids, after all. We consume a lot of pages.

So I picked up Mudshark not knowing anything about it or its author Gary Paulsen. I do know that Scholastic has a business model that gets some books published because the author is prolific, but I never begrudge an author for that.

I can’t say why exactly, but I got the impression that Paulsen actually put something into this book. It feels like it is more than just a piece of pulp fiction.

That being said, it may not be much more than that. The story is odd. An unrealistic mystery involving a parrot works, but not that well. It is fanciful and that’s good. I recall some range of vocabulary, which is always good. And there are some nice tropes that Paulsen employs, like the chapters’ opening with the principal over the public address system.

Ultimately, though, the book is little more than an at times clever diversion. I got the impression that the story started on a whim and needed a resolution. My kids agree…a sometimes clever “meh”.

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The Whale Rider – the other side of the world is not so far

The Whale RiderThe Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Whale Rider is another book that I found on the shelves of my local used bookstore. The cover mentioned something about a movie, so I figured I’d buy and get to it at some point, and then my boys and I could watch the film version.

It sat unread for quite a while, but then I urged us to consider it. I’m glad we did. It is rewarding, but it’s kind of a strange book to read to children. Partly this is because the language is difficult to unpack at times. Ihimaera writes in the language of the South Pacific. It is at times beautiful and easy, but it also at times quite difficult. I did my best to pronounce things the way that I have heard them pronounced in some of the movies I have seen.

Anyway, the boys did enjoy the story of baby Kahu and old man Koro. She grows to be a leader, a conduit to the old ways, even though she is female and the old man cannot reconcile himself to her being the one. But she is. She rides a whale!…I think.

I didn’t really know what to say to my kids about that part. It seemed very metaphorical. It is quite obviously based on an ancient myth about how people populated these remote islands.

But then I heard something that made me wonder about the possibility that it might be real. We certainly do have trained whales in amusement parks. So I didn’t really know what to say to my kids about that part. They got the metaphor, though.

There is a curious side story about the narrator, a young man, going to Australia and then Papua New Guinea. This was an interesting treatment on globalism and identity. I found that part of the story quite compelling and so I emphasized it to my kids in case they weren’t able to understand the more abstract parts of the book.

I recommend The Whale Rider because it is always good to expose oneself to different cultures. The story certainly has its charms.

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Lock that diary – privacy in Harriet the Spy

Harriet the SpyHarriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harriet the Spy was a book that was recommended to me to read to my kids, but in a way I’m glad it took me some time to get around to it. I think it may be a bit too much for younger readers, but for pre-teens, it’s great.

Harriet the Spy deals with a very real issue, namely, privacy. The right to one’s private thoughts is important. Harriet goes through a painful lesson when her diary, in which she has written many comments about others in town, including friends and acquaintances at school, is taken from her and read by those she has commented about.

The conflict comes when these friends and enemies all turn on Harriet. It’s a tremendous amount of conflict and the narrative tension comes from trying to figure out how it is to be resolved.

So many stories today have unrealistic endings, but Louise Fitzhugh found a way to resolve Harriet’s problems that works.

The book is not, in my opinion, a total win because it was a bit hard to reconcile its disparate parts. The first half of the book seems to have everything to do with Harriet’s relationship with her nanny Ole Golly. I had to explain a lot of that relationship to my kids, who don’t have a nanny. I also had to explain the race issue.

The first half probably has connections to the second half about the diary being stolen, but the only direct ones have to do with Harriet missing her nanny, writing her a letter, and getting a response.

To sum up, I’ll say that Harriet the Spy is a tougher read than one might expect; however, it is a much better book because of those tougher issues.

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Theodore Boone: The Adbuction – character development

Theodore Boone: The Abduction (Theodore Boone, #2)Theodore Boone: The Abduction by John Grisham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second book in the Theodore Boone series is good, but it is the weakest of the four.

That’s a small criticism, but it gets it one less star. Of course, the book is fine. There is some good character development that builds on the foundation of Kid Lawyer.

But the story of the abduction and resolution are lacking. There are cute details about llamas and frat parties and my boys did enjoy the book.

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