Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Midnight Dress, by Karen Foxlee

ImageRose wanders from town to town around Australia, pulling up stakes whenever her artist father falls into the bottle once again. As a result, Rose is tough and owns only a few t-shirts and jeans, bobby pins to keep her curly hair flat to her head, and her treasured journal, her book of words. When she begins school in the latest northern town, she doesn’t want to make any close friends, but chatty, exuberant Pearl finds a way into her heart: Pearl, who wants to live in Paris, loves trashy novels, and flirts with the 30-something owner of the used bookstore. It’s Pearl who convinces her to have the reputed witch, Edie Baker, make her dress for the Harvest Parade. When Rose arrives at Edie’s moldering mansion, she finds more than just an elderly seamstress. Edie tells stories of young love and a hidden cottage while she teaches Rose to sew the most beautiful dress she has ever imagined.

As this novel opens, a young woman has disappeared and is considered to be murdered, and Detective Glass has been called in to investigate. Rose’s shoes were found at the cane plant, and Rose has not been seen since the Harvest Parade. This unfolding mystery is woven throughout the book at the beginning of each chapter, with the action of the story and the investigation coming together at the conclusion. These two threads, plus the story of Edie’s family that she relates to Rose each week, are like the dress they create: bits of midnight-blue taffeta from one ancient gown, black mourning lace from another, pattern pieces cut from historical newspapers, all combining to create something deeper than one piece of cloth, than one straight narrative, could be. It is the skillful twining together of the fabrics, of the stories, that creates the magic.

ImagePerhaps we only see the best of the best, but Australia has some amazing authors. Markus Zusak wrote the awe-inspiring The Book Thief, among others, boldly experimenting with having a book narrated by Death. Now it’s a major movie, so that was a leap worth taking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s cute and sweet. He sat on the floor and ate lunch with the giggling girls in our Printz Club at the ALA convention the year The Book Thief won a Printz honor. ImageMelina Marchetta won loads of awards for her realistic fiction year after year, after which she shocked the book world by turning around and writing some of the most stunning high fantasy I’ve ever read. I am a devoted fan. What is in the water over there? Karen Foxlee’s The Anatomy of Wings was also highly decorated, and The Midnight Dress is lush and dreamy, filled with breathtaking writing that makes the reader go back and read passages again, just for the sound of the words. In the very beginning of the novel, I knew that I was in for pure joy when I read this description of the tide that Rose hears when they first arrive at their new home, the Paradise trailer park:

Rose can hear the ocean: the sudden intake of its breath, as though it has remembered something, something terrible, but finding there is nothing it can do, it breathes out again. (p.3)

I’ll never hear the ocean again without thinking that it’s breathing.

Here is Edie’s description of her mother, Florence, when she was young. Florence’s father was a tailor, and she was an exceptional seamstress.

But Florence, she was different, she knew the mysteries of folding and draping and the pleasant secrets of pin-tucking. [She and her brothers went to the creek, and she was afraid to swim.] When she finally let go of the bank and floated away on the river’s back, it had terrified her but also filled her with awe; the way the world was always leaning someway, draining someway, pulling someway. The tides, the moon rising above the rooftops, the water flowing from the mountains to the sea. (pp. 70-71)

This is not a novel for those who love action stories. Although there is a plot, the value of the story is in the interior journey of the characters. It is a book that revels in the words, in the heat of the rain forest, the secrets of families, and the heartbreak of betrayal. The ending is not as unexpected as I think it was meant to be, but it is satisfying, all the same. It’s a treat for readers who love fine writing. Some particularly offensive profanity, so be aware.

Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Calling All Greenlanders!

ImageIt is such a thrill for me to see readers from all over the world. This is the map that shows where my blog’s readers are located, and most have clicked in many, many times. The 48 countries represented have all of the continents covered except for Antarctica, and I’m not too worried about that. To my regular readers in the Philippines—whoever you are— I will say that I was so relieved to see you log in just a couple of days after the typhoon! Glad that you are well.

However, dear readers, I need your help. If we could fill in the map of Greenland, just think how much more complete this map would be! Greenland is the world’s largest island, an independent country within the kingdom of Denmark with a population of over 56,000—the least densely populated country in the world. Yes, of course, I looked it up on Wikipedia. I figure that some of you must know someone in Greenland. Now’s the time to give them a nudge. Go ahead! If you’re the one to get Greenland on the map, let us all know who you are! Bonus points for west Africa or Argentina.

Sometimes the Apple Does Fall Far from the Tree

One of the biggest problems that my mother had when she was going through her months-long illness and recovery was depression. Since she was bedridden for most of the time, she could not participate in any of her usual habits. It turns out that my mom does not have any sedentary pursuits. She does not knit or do any needlework, despises crafts, does not enjoy reading or writing, and only watches television late at night before bed. She likes to shop, do yard work, clean house, and cook—all standing or moving hobbies. When she was sick, she lay in bed and stared at the walls. Hence the depression.

Unlike my mother, I am ready for retirement, even though it is years away. Not only do I have lots of sedentary hobbies now, like reading, writing, and watching movies, but I would love to take up more if I had time. I used to do needlecrafts, and knitting seems like a satisfying and useful activity, not to mention that it combines well with watching movies. I love music and would enjoy learning an instrument. I have recently started to make my own greeting cards, which is very creative, but takes way more material than I had anticipated. Gardening and cooking are my two active interests, but you may notice that they both lead to eating. Hmm.  My mother lost so much weight that her cardiologist, of all people, advised her to drink milkshakes at least once a day. I have never had a milkshake prescribed to me. I am studiously ignoring any connections here.


ImageMy current favorite song is Switchfoot’s “Ba55.” It is on their new EP, Fading West, which I have not downloaded because I am waiting for the full album to be released in February. However, it is already available for listening on YouTube here, so I sit at my PC and listen to it over and over. It’s great for those times when you’re just so sick of yourself that you’re ready to run straight into the fire, arms outstretched, if only to see what’s left on the other side. Probably nothing worthwhile, which seems shameful, really, except that it would feel like such a relief to just get that right out there, to stop struggling and pretending. Hey, look! Nothing here. Jon Foreman makes such terrifyingly beautiful and honest art. How does one go about doing that?

ImageI suppose that playing it over and over in a loop proves that I have not matured at all since college. During my sophomore year in the French House—the dorm where the French majors lived—I played Billy Joel’s Stranger album and the soundtrack from the Rocky Horror Picture Show nonstop. This was back in the day when you had to manually pick up the vinyl album and flip it over to the other side. One afternoon, after many, many repetitions of The Stranger, the girl in the room next door knocked and asked me, in a long-suffering tone, “Could you please change the record? I mean, that’s a great album, but can’t you listen to something else?”  So I switched to Rocky Horror.

Now that I think about it, she was quite nervy to ask me that. After all, she was a first-year violin student and the walls were thin. It was like living beside a perpetual traffic accident.


ImageYou know those lists of 100 books that everybody ought to read? They were tailor-made to send book nerds into panic attacks. “Oh, no! I haven’t read 8 out of the 100! Let me take care of that right now!” Well, one of the lists that I looked at a few months ago contained the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz, which I had never read.

Not all book awards are created equal. For example, I never thought I’d be able to navigate my way through the seemingly deliberate obfuscation of the Man Booker Prize winners until Hilary Mantel won twice, and I already loved her Wolf Hall novels. The Pulitzer Prize, however, was an old friend, because Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was such a revelation for me. Even though this woman was writing way above my head and I didn’t understand half of what she said, I didn’t know that anyone could write like that, and it changed the definition of nonfiction for me forever.

So I grabbed a copy of Oscar Wao. Yow! I am not terribly squeamish about profanity—I mean, I read YA novels!—but this was in a league of its own. There was a lot of Spanish in it, and although I know some basic Spanish, I didn’t understand all of it. I was afraid to look up the confusing words and phrases online, though, since someone at the NSA might get the wrong impression and start paying close attention to me. Who knows what my file might look like? Now, I am sure that the Pulitzer Prize committee saw all sorts of brilliant and profound insights in this novel, but after about a third of the book, I reached a certain description of a woman, pulled my bookmark out of the book, and returned it to the library.

The next time I see a list of required reading, I plan to check off Oscar Wao, though. Yep. Been there, done that, got the gist. I don’t need to be that well-read.


Filed under Book Reviews, Books and reading, Christian Life, Family, Life's Travails- Big and Small, Music

Grain Brain, by David Perlmutter, M.D.

ImageWhen new books on diabetes or low-carbohydrate diets are published, I will almost always read them, as you know from following this blog. However, you may not know that my father died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2004, so my siblings and I are always on the lookout for new research on dementia, as well. Little did I know that the two were interconnected, but Dr. David Perlmutter has put forth some very controversial and fascinating new research in his book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers. Dr. Perlmutter is a neurologist, as is his 96-year-old father, who now has Alzheimer’s, so the author has a vested interest in his subject. In the long run, this is very hopeful information, since it is the first time that anyone has stated that Alzheimer’s and other neurological problems are actually related to the food you eat, and, therefore, preventable!

Until very recently, scientists believed that neurological problems were almost all due to genetics. However, with the explosion of both diabetes and Alzheimer’s in the past few decades, they began noticing that the two diseases were tracking together. Why? Although patients with diabetes and other digestive issues tend to show symptoms years before the final diagnosis, the damage wrought in the brain by grains is silent until it is too late. Dr. Perlmutter began drawing connections between the rapid increase of carbohydrate consumption since the advent of the low-fat, high-carbohydrate government dietary guidelines and the increase of inflammation-related neurological disorders, including dementia, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, epilepsy, depression, Parkinson’s disease, migraines, and even autism. We consume much more gluten in our diets today than we ever have before, both because of our dietary guidelines and because of the change in our wheat, as outlined in Dr. William Davis’ Wheat Belly*, quoted often in Grain Brain. Gluten contains substances that connect directly to the opiate receptors in the brain, resulting in a very real addiction. But it is not only wheat, but all kinds of carbohydrates that cause inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain. Even people who are not showing gastric signs of gluten sensitivity are being affected.

Just as the medical establishment has decided that 40% of the population should be on statin drugs just on general principles, Dr. Perlmutter sets out to convince us that cholesterol is not bad for us. I have not heard that opinion since Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, who wrote Protein Power in 1999, published a graph showing how cancer rates rise much more precipitously under 140 total cholesterol than heart disease rates do over 200 total cholesterol.  Cholesterol is a substance that maintains the integrity of the cell wall throughout the body and is necessary to form the synapses between brain cells. Perlmutter notes that the Framingham Heart Study shows that people with higher cholesterol also have higher cognitive strength. Although he is not a fan of statin drugs, since cholesterol is obviously important to brain health, he does acknowledge that inflammation is the root cause of many of our most dangerous chronic illnesses today (thereby agreeing with Dr. David Agus in The End of Illness*), but he believes that the inflammation is caused, in large part, by what we eat. For most of history, scientists believed that brain cells were fixed, and although they could be damaged, they could never be repaired or replaced. The very encouraging news that the human brain can, in fact, regenerate is a real motivator to follow Perlmutter’s guidelines to maintain and improve your habits early in life so that you can avoid serious consequences later in life.

There is not even room in this review to tell you all that Dr. Perlmutter has to say about movement disorders, depression, fructose vs. glucose, how exercise affects your brain, and so much more, but about two-thirds of this book sets out the research and reasons for changing to a low-carbohydrate diet. The final third is a very practical guide to help you make that change. Dr. Perlmutter lays out a four-week plan to change your diet, exercise, and sleeping habits, and follows with menu ideas and recipes. The recipes, compared to many of the fabulous cookbooks I’ve reviewed, are quite basic, but when you’re new to the idea of giving up bread forever, basic can be very helpful. He also has charts of recommended supplements, good vs. bad oils, lists of gluten-containing substances, and more.

By this time, I hope that our culture is waking up to the fact that carbohydrates are not contributing to optimum health. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to find healthy choices in restaurants, and I still have to shop online or in more expensive stores to find some of the basic items in my pantry. I suppose eating well has always been more expensive, but I hope that almond flour, grass-fed beef, and a wide variety of non-starchy vegetables will soon be more mainstream. There are many restaurants out there whose side dish options extend to baked potatoes, fries, or rice. No wonder we’re all so sick.

I highly recommend Grain Brain to everyone, because we all know someone suffering from ADHD or depression right now and we all need to help ourselves to avoid dementia in the future. Add it to your pile of books on the carbohydrate-diabetes connection, and before you know it, you’ll put away the chips and soda. Just switch to red wine and dark chocolate!


*These titles are also searchable in this blog. Sometimes they were discussed within wider posts on the topic.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.


Filed under Book Reviews, Diabetes, Food

Grow a Love of Reading

ImageIn the past two weeks, I have had the privilege of visiting our library’s system’s two nationally-recognized “mock” Book Award clubs, the Mock Newbery and Mock Printz clubs, and I am always impressed by the rooms full of avid readers. These kids have so much fun sharing and debating, munching on snacks and teasing back and forth across the room, each with a stack of books in front of him. The clubs run from April to January, so by this time of year, they are good friends and their opinions are well-known. Since it’s a great honor to get a slot in one of these groups, I thought I’d examine what it takes to grow such an avid reader.

Not every child will enjoy reading to this extent just because personalities differ, and that’s fine. It’s important for all of us to become experts in our gifts, so we do want kids who will shoot hoops, paint great pictures, cure diseases, or invent the next big thing. (I am particularly in favor of the inventor, since I need a way to access television without paying Time Warner Cable.) However, it is valuable for all kids to read proficiently and to see reading as a positive, enjoyable activity. No matter the area of expertise, if a person can read well, she can learn anything.

Over the years of being a homeschooling mom, a teacher, and a children’s librarian, I’ve gathered up some wisdom about what parents can do to help their children to love reading, as well as a few common activities that will kill any interest they may have ever had.

  1. Read. In the same way that you would model healthy eating and good manners, you should model a love of reading for your kids. Let them see you reading for information—magazines, newspapers, etc.—but at least some of the time, let them see you reading books for recreation. This way, they will aspire to read so that they can be just like the grown-ups.
  2. Read aloud to your little ones. I have been surprised to find that the time-honored habit of bedtime stories is withering away. Families are so busy, and more and more children have televisions and electronic devices in their rooms. Not only is reading before bed a wonderful way to wind down and prepare for sleep, it is a precious bonding time for parents and children. Furthermore, children effortlessly learn all of the elements of reading that we often consider instinctive. Not every culture reads from left to right; that is a learned skill, although we never think of it. Reading from top to bottom, turning pages: all learned on our parents’ laps. If possible, have a story time during the day, as well, perhaps before naps, if you are still so blessed. Older children can listen to stories that are well above their reading level, and will learn proper pronunciation of words not often used in daily conversation, as well as appropriate diction and cadence for reading aloud.
  3. Read aloud as a family. Many, if not most, families stop reading to their children after they become proficient readers. What joys are missed in this way! It was probably in my research of the L’Abri Fellowship that I was encouraged to read classics aloud as a family. Those books have become precious to all of us, even though Michael is now an adult. We read through all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the All Creatures Great and Small series, and Fields and Pastures New, to name a few. I believe there were some Ralph Moody books in there, too. If we had had girls, there may have been some Frances Hodgson Burnett, but all of our books were high in testosterone. I particularly remember sitting on the floor of David’s temporary apartment when we were moving from Georgia to Kentucky, passing around a paperback volume of The Hobbit, taking turns reading. We didn’t have enough chairs to sit on, and we didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but we were having rich experiences as a family far, far away in Middle Earth. You may want to provide two books, one for the younger children to read and one for the older. It will be important, of course, for the older siblings to provide loving support for the younger. Establish a judgment-free zone!
  4. Create a reading environment. Your home should be a place where reading is an everyday activity. Although some of your books should be precious and beautiful (and on a high shelf), it is even more important that reading material is readily available to pick up and put down at will. Kids’ magazines are beautiful and cheap. Ditto board books. Even though it is important to teach children to handle books carefully, no toddler or preschooler is perfect, and there will be ripped—or even chewed—pages at times. This should be treated as a tragedy, of course, but learning can take place more affordably if you’re prepared. Having books around all the time means that your child can tromp into the house after an exhausting baseball game, flop down on the floor, and travel to Narnia at a moment’s notice. Studies show that children who live in a print-rich environment enter school (or formal education) with a huge advantage over children who do not.
  5. Go to the library! Yes, of course this is self-serving. I am building up my market! In my defense, I will say that it will cost you nothing that you’re not already paying in your taxes. No one can afford all of the books that they would like, especially young children’s books. It is the parents of young children who leave the library with armloads of picture books, and the public library’s success in children’s circulation is very much tied to the local schools’ success. We happen to live in an area with an above-average level of education, and the parents really value what the library has to offer. However, we have all heard the success stories from Dr. Ben Carson and others, children from impoverished backgrounds whose regular trips to the public library enriched their educations beyond what the local schools had to offer. There are truly so many treasures to be mined at even the smallest libraries. I will offer a word of caution here: public libraries are not school libraries. They are not operating in loco parentis, in the place of the parent. Public libraries are open forums that provide information and materials to serve all of the diverse opinions and values in a community. There will be books in the collection, particularly in the young adult and adult collections, that may offend you and that you will not want your children to read. It is the parents’ responsibility to oversee their children’s reading. You may be surprised to find that your next-door neighbor is eager to have her child read exactly the book that you want to keep far from yours.
  6. Be thoughtful about screen time. Scientists and doctors are now reporting that viewing an electronic screen within an hour before bedtime makes it difficult for the brain to enter sleep mode. It’s something about the backlighting. Also, embedded hyperlinks, while often informative, can contribute to shortened attention spans and compromised focus. Finally, too much time at a computer or television robs the child of physical activity and social interaction (although the same can be said for books). All that being said, I am not a reactionary when it comes to electronic reading. Our children will live in a culture in which more and more of their reading is done on screens, and we should provide them with that experience—in healthy doses— while they are at home. For fiction reading, a dedicated e-reader (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.) without a backlit screen should be easier on the eyes and can be used before bedtime without problems. Font size can be adjusted in order to accommodate vision difficulties. Many e-readers have note-taking and note-sharing features that are very useful for homeschoolers.


There are a few common habits that will destroy your children’s enthusiasm for reading. Some of these practices are widely used by schools that follow certain corporations’ reading programs.

  1. Don’t reward reading with other things. If someone convinces you to perform a certain task—say, painting fences— by promising you a reward of money, ice cream, or— oh, say—pizza, what does that tell you about the task? It tells you that you would not want to perform the task for its own sake, since it is distasteful or difficult. Reading should be its own reward, and if you follow the advice above, your children should view it as such. Of course, if your children already love reading, a little extra pizza never hurt anyone.
  2. Use levels for instruction only. Droves of children are being corralled into narrow compartments called “reading levels,” which are numbers or letters that someone, somewhere decided can accurately describe how your child is reading at this moment in time. Schools jumped on the bandwagon, painting the entire school library in red, blue, and green stickers, assigning points to books that should be read for their own sake, and filling children everywhere with unwarranted pride or shame. Every classroom has a poster displaying each student’s level and point count, and the high-level students learn to consider reading as a means to power, while the late bloomers learn to hate reading forever, nipping in the bud any chance that they could later become very proficient readers themselves. Parents who want their children to succeed sometimes force them to read only at or above the level that the teacher gave them, not realizing that this instructional level is the level at which the child is struggling to learn, not the level at which they can enjoy reading fluently and develop a love of reading. It is such a shame to see children skipping over books that should be a precious part of childhood because Accelerated Reading has placed them at a lower level—or, for competitive children, assigned them too few points—only to read advanced books that they cannot appreciate, since they were written for older children. It is not just the difficulty of the vocabulary that makes books appropriate for a certain age. More importantly, the difference lies in the emotional maturity and life experience of the reader. The book that would have been perfect for the eight-year-old is missed forever while she reads a book written for a twelve-year-old. She can read the words in the book, but she is not equipped to think like a twelve-year-old, and so both books are lost. If there is one issue that saddens the children’s staff in a public library the most, this is it.
  3. Don’t keep your kids from reading non-traditional materials. I had to stop myself from laughing when the mom told me how upset she and his teacher were that her son preferred nonfiction to novels. (Of course, that was before Common Core.) Until fifty or so years ago, novels were considered a lower form of reading, and proper young ladies were often forbidden from reading them. Nonfiction was the only approved form of reading. Granted, these days, nonfiction has changed quite a bit. Gone are the long, dull tomes with tiny black-and-white photos or diagrams scattered sparingly through the text. Dorling-Kindersley led the way to photo-filled volumes with text arranged in dizzying patterns around the pages, pulling the reader in to browse the various beauties—or, more likely, terrifying snakes, spiders, etc. Likewise, so many male authors reminisce about how the libraries of their childhoods never had anything as low-brow as wrestling magazines or comic books, which were all they wanted to read at the time. As a result, these boys considered themselves “non-readers.” And now they are authors! Today, there are graphic novels that talk about Lincoln’s assassination or quantum physics, and boys happily devour them. Girls, too. Libraries pay thousands of dollars every year for access to databases that provide your children with peer-reviewed research that goes far beyond what any encyclopedia could offer. While the extended, focused reading experience of a novel is important, all sorts of reading methods are valuable, and parents can work to tailor all of those kinds of reading into the best ones for their children. What is important is for your child to think of himself as a reader, no matter what his material may be. If he has this self-concept, he will be open to picking up more traditional reading materials when his needs change.

You are probably already doing many of these things to help your children to love reading. Through books, they can master new concepts, meet people from other countries or other times, or imagine life in a totally new way. They can develop compassion or scientific theories, become theologians or doctors. They can even join award-winning book clubs and grow up to become librarians.

Happy reading!

Disclaimer: These are my opinions only, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.


Filed under Books and reading, Family

Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

ImageJackie Baker lived in the warm glow of his mother’s love in Kansas while they both waited for his dad to return from serving in the military during World War II. His hopeful life was shattered when his mother died unexpectedly, and his father returned—not to the celebration that they had planned, but to a funeral. With military precision, his father packed up the house and packed off his Midwestern son to a boys’ boarding school in Maine.

The first time Jack saw the ocean, he threw up on the sand. The teachers at the school expected Jack to know all sorts of things eastern boys grew up with, but eventually both boys and masters started to realize that Jack was bluffing his way through the days. After a disastrous incident resulting from Jack’s failure to mention that he’d never been in a boat before, he wandered away from the crowd in shame and found himself drawn to the music that he heard emanating from the custodian’s workroom. This basement room was not occupied by the janitor, but by the strangest boy Jack had ever met, Early Auden.

Early was also a boy who had known loss. His parents were gone, and his very famous war-hero brother was dead. The army had sent a letter of condolence, along with his dog tags. Early refused to believe it. He also refused to believe the new theory that their math teacher had introduced: that the number pi did have an end, and that a famous mathematician was going to prove it. Early saw numbers with colors and personalities, and he was bringing order and meaning to his own world by “reading” a story about a character named Pi that he could see in the numbers that he calculated on the board in the workroom. He told the story to Jack, who didn’t know what to believe, but since Early was willing to teach him rowing and even to help him to repair the boat, Jack listened. Besides, the music was good: Louis Armstrong on Mondays, Frank Sinatra on Wednesdays, Glenn Miller on Fridays. When it’s raining, it’s always Billie Holliday.

These two young boys were somehow expected to navigate the turbulent years of early adolescence in a time when everyone was losing loved ones in a war and there was no one to care about the emotional needs of two kids who were fed, housed, and taught. After an episode that leaves misunderstandings and guilt all around, Early and Jack set off on a misguided adventure to track down the Great Appalachian Bear and end up retracing the entire story of Pi’s journey, impossibly meeting up with pirates, volcanoes, ancient wise women, and even a whale in an inland river. Dreams and reality twist and weave together to plumb the depths of Early and Jack’s inner worlds, finding significance and revelation from each incredible new coincidence.

Early Auden is a wondrous creation. He reminds me of another favorite character, Gary Schmidt’s Lizzy Bright, in their mutual complexity, wisdom gained from painful experience, and sweet, childlike innocence. Early adds the dimension of an autistic savant in a time before such things were diagnosed. All Jack knows is that Early is odd, but in a brilliant way. Vanderpool’s use of metaphor and dreams is so lovingly written that the reader is willing to suspend disbelief and flow with this slowly unfolding story that is surprising, yet completely expected; impossible, yet apt.

Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery Medal her very first time out with Moon Over Manifest. Navigating Early is her sophomore attempt, born from one of her mother’s dreams and a reading of Daniel Tammet’s book, Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, which I recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about autism. Vanderpool wondered what it would be like to have an unexplainable gift, so she created a character who would help her to find out. Sometimes a writer bursts onto the scene with the novel they’ve had inside them for years, wins fame and accolades, and never achieves that level of creativity again. Clare Vanderpool is not one of those writers. I was even more impressed with Navigating Early than with her earlier novel, and I would be very happy to see yet another medal on this one.

Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Learning Football: Perfect Wife Lesson #5978

ImageMy dad loved football. All of it. If there was a game on from Saturday morning until Monday night, he would watch it. Oh, yeah, he had his favorite teams—the New York Giants, the New England Patriots, and Notre Dame—but he wasn’t too picky. He came home every Friday night with a block of Swiss cheese and a bag of potato chips (great for his high triglycerides) and settled in. Daddy had a Man Cave before the term was even invented. When we lived in New Jersey during my teen years, we had a half-basement about six steps down from the main floor, decked out in dark wood paneling, red fuzzy shag carpeting, and black leather furniture. Hey, it was the ‘70s.

My mom was conspicuously absent during the games. From what I can remember, she was doing housework upstairs all the time, but since my mom considered housework a hobby, no one really noticed. Since my mom didn’t eat sweets then, she always asked me to bake the cakes and such, which is why I could make a million desserts by the time I married, but couldn’t make anything more challenging than burgers for the main course. Now, this was before the time of cable TV, and for those of you who are too young to remember, any little thing threw off the reception. One day, my mom asked me to make a cake during a game and then disappeared. I was beating the batter well when my dad came pounding up the stairs, yelling, “You’re doing that on purpose! Stop it right now!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but apparently the mixer was destroying his chances of seeing any of the action on the field. I’m sure that my mother was not aware of this problem, or surely she would never have asked me to do something that would mess up my father’s football game.

ImageA couple of years ago, Mom mentioned that if she had one regret in her marriage, it was that she never tried to learn about football and spend some time with my dad enjoying the game. Mom lives near my sister and her husband, and Karen is a natural athlete who has always enjoyed sports and is a big football fan. I’m sure that her observation of my sister having fun watching the game with her husband made my mom thoughtful, and for me, her statement was a huge wake-up call. I have never cared about sports at all, and although my husband is not quite as big a fan as my dad, I could see that my resentment of his time spent watching sports would cause me to end up with the same regrets as my mom. Time for a game change!

It’s not as if there was nothing that one could enjoy about football, no matter who was playing. For example, I am very fond of special cocktails and tailgating. I decided to at least look at the screen while sipping and munching to see whether I could learn something. My husband has been a very patient teacher, and he really does like for me to stay with him during a game. I was afraid that he would react the way Raymond did when Debra decided to take up golf so that they could spend time together, and Raymond tried hard not to show her that she had just ruined his “me” time. David is also more willing not to watch every single game indiscriminately now, since he knows that I’m not just being negative and grouchy. We have our special teams, and we keep up with them, but that’s about it.

ImageWell, it has been quite a learning curve. Imagine my surprise when I first found out that those bright yellow lines are not painted on the field! They keep disappearing and showing up somewhere else, and the players can’t even see them! Two weeks ago, I learned that a “pooch kick” is “less than a bunt.” OK. I still do not understand the penalties. Today, for example, there was a penalty for holding, and I asked David what that meant. He said that one player had pulled on the shirt of another player, which kept him from doing what he was supposed to do. “But,” I said, “Isn’t that the point?” I don’t understand “pass interference,” either. Don’t you want to interfere? It seems that you are only allowed to stop the other team in prescribed ways, not just any old way. I don’t know all of the positions yet, but I do now know that only half the team plays at one time; the other half is sitting on the bench. I guess I just thought that they had different jobs, depending on whether they had the ball or not. Now I realize that they do something or nothing, depending on whether they have the ball or not.

ImageMy dad was an only child with two very low-key parents, so when he watched football, he was quietly intense. David, on the other hand, is the youngest of three boys with a boisterous father. The first few times David and Daddy watched football together, I was terrified that my dad would not be able to handle David constantly coaching aloud, leaping out of his chair, and yelling at the screen to either cheer or berate the team. When I looked at my dad, though, he was smiling. Maybe he felt that David was expressing all of the emotions that he felt obliged to bottle up inside. Of course, David was an excellent sport, immediately adopting all of my dad’s teams as part of the marriage contract. To this day, David is a Red Sox fan in baseball, which is a great thing this year.

Of course, my timing couldn’t be worse. I am taking up football just when the rest of the world has decided that it should be eradicated because of the head injuries. I have to admit that the number of injuries sustained each week is shocking. So far, though, I have only seen knee injuries, but they are sickening to witness. Especially when it’s someone on our team that I’ve gotten to know. I refuse to allow this to stop me, though, since I can see that this has always been part of the game. I’ll buy books about concussions for the library, and continue to cheer for the home team on weekends.

ImageSpeaking of injuries, this is definitely an area in which men and women differ. We are usually watching the South Carolina Gamecocks or NC State Wolfpack, and my son is older than the current players. When I see a boy on the field who is hurt so badly he can’t get up, I get all mothery and practically cry. David usually says, “Oh, he’s alright.” He sees him as a football player, and I see him as a child. I even felt bad for the Missouri kicker who missed the final field goal last week. “Oh!” I said, “His whole life might be defined by this moment! They lost the game because his kick was just a few inches to the left. No one will ever let him forget it, poor thing.” “But,” David replied incredulously, “We won!” I just don’t have the killer instinct.

ImageSo, now that I am a football fan, my sister and I are planning a tailgating dinner at her house during the holidays. I am still better at snacks than sports, although I did achieve a milestone last week when I was talking to Karen and she said, “Oh, who was that guy who was with the team last year and went pro this year?” and I said, “Lattimore?” Neither one of us could believe that I knew that. This year, however, my sister and her husband have experienced the grief of having a daughter go off to college with their arch-rival. Yes, that’s right: Clemson. Now they have to wear orange and cheer for their lifelong enemy. How gut-wrenching for them. We all feel terrible, of course, but we don’t talk about it much since we know how painful it must be. We’ll all be together this Thanksgiving weekend—even the traitor daughter— for the biggest battle of the year:  the annual Clemson-Carolina game. Pray for us. Family loyalties only go so far.


Players pictured are Connor Shaw, USC Gamecocks’ brillant quarterback (#14) and Jadeveon Clowney, USC Gamecocks’ much-feared defensive end (#7).


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The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

ImageSummer and her family have been wheaties for generations, workers who travel around during harvest time, cutting, threshing, and storing many farmers’ wheat. Summer, her brother, Jaz, and her faithful dog, Thunder, are living with her Japanese-American grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan, while her parents are caring for sick relatives in Japan. When harvest time comes, Summer and Jaz set off with their grandparents to travel from state to state, living in campers without air conditioning, bowing to the dictates of the strict supervisor couple, the Parkers, and enduring the scorn of the farmers who do not trust immigrants to work hard enough to get the crop in before the rains come. They persevere through all of this because they must be able to pay the mortgage on their home, and all of their fortunes depend on this one season each year.

Although she is only twelve, Summer is no stranger to hard work. She helps her crabby Obaachan to cook for the entire crew, according to Mrs. Parker’s explicit instructions. As Obaachan’s health is deteriorating, Summer ends up doing most of the cooking herself. She also cares for her brother, Jaz, who has been diagnosed with all sorts of disorders from autism to OCD. Her parents have decided not to medicate him, and they all love him even when he drives them nuts. This season, Summer discovers that Robbie Parker has suddenly become a very interesting young man, but she is not sure what Robbie would see in a sweaty, apron-wearing girl like herself.

During the previous year, Summer had barely survived a bout with malaria, and she is now terrified of mosquitoes and is continuously slathering on DEET, so much so that she reeks of the odor all the time. However, her brush with death has caused her to think deeply about subjects of which most young adolescents are blissfully unaware. When her Jiichan falls ill, Summer clearly understands that he may not be able to drive a combine any longer, which would mean that they would all be fired and eventually lose their home. As she struggles to deal with these practical matters, she is also frightened about both of her grandparents’ health and realizes that she may soon be taking care of her brother alone, with their parents far away in Japan.

Here is an author whose books are almost guaranteed to win awards. The Thing About Luck is already sporting a “National Book Award finalist” medal, and I would not be surprised to see a Newbery medal on that cover soon. Cynthia Kadohata writes about serious topics that affect children who may be very different from her readers. In the Newbery-winning Kira-Kira, the protagonist is dealing with the loss of a beloved sister. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work in the harsh conditions of a chicken processing plant in Georgia in the 1950s. In Weedflower, she relates the personal stories of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, tells the true, disturbing story about soldier dogs. Kadohata shakes us out of the stereotype that all Asian immigrants are working in tech companies and have math genius kids, or that immigrants who work in chicken factories and fields all speak Spanish. She shows us poor, struggling Asian immigrants who endure grinding manual labor and highlights the lives of the children who are always hidden behind the headlines in the news stories.

Lest you think that The Thing About Luck is relentlessly depressing, I can assure you that Kadohata sprinkles her novel with plenty of humor. Summer is, after all, a twelve-year-old girl with her first crush. She practices kissing the back of her hand in her bunk at night, but her grandmother seems to know everything that she is doing, so she ends up embarrassed. Summer and Obaachan’s dialogue is often hilarious, as Obaachan feels that it is her duty to scold Summer about every single detail of her life and ground her so often that Summer would probably be eighty years old before she was free. Summer has a hard time believing her mother who told her that Obaachan slept with Summer every day when she was sick because she loved her so much and couldn’t bear to lose her. Here are some of my favorite bits of Summer and Obaachan’s interchanges.

…I had to wear rubber gloves whenever I did the dishes. Even at Obaachan’s age, she had beautiful hands. She often held them in front of herself to admire them. The gloves made my hands sweaty, but if she caught me with no gloves on, she would say, “Even if I ugly fish for face, someone would marry me for my hands. “

“But you had an arranged marriage,” I once pointed out.

“No talk back or I ground you.” (pp. 26-27)

Obaachan… said to me, “Too young to stare at boys.”

“I wasn’t staring.”

“You staring like he alien from outer space. Boys not alien, they real, and they cause trouble.”

“How do they cause trouble?”

“You too young to know that.” She looked at me as if making a decision. Then she said, “Maybe I tell you if I have time before I die.” (p. 52)

“Something happened,” I said [to Obaachan].
“Something happen every day.”

“It’s really all my fault. It isn’t Thunder’s fault, and it isn’t Robbie’s fault. It’s all mine, one hundred percent,” I said passionately.

“Tell me what it is,” Obaachan said. “But I warn you, you tell me something that give me heart attack, my death on your conscience forever.” (pp. 144-145)

This novel is definitely one of my top picks for the year. I am having a hard time deciding between Counting by 7s and The Thing About Luck. It is interesting that they are both about Asian-American girls in such difficult circumstances that they are forced to stretch themselves farther than they thought they could go.

Very highly recommend for ages 9 and up.

Update on November 21, 2013: I am excited to report that this title won the National Book Award for Young People last night! Richly deserved.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff

ImageEleven-year-old Cady has the supernatural Talent of knowing the perfect cake for someone just by meeting them—and then she can make it better than anyone else in the world. Miss Mallory has the Talent of matching orphans to their perfect family—sometimes within hours—but in all the years that Cady has lived at the orphanage, Miss Mallory has never found the right family for this sweet, quiet girl.

A young man sets out in life with a powder-blue suitcase, a slip of paper with the key to his fortune tucked inside the lining. Alas, the bag is stolen at the train station. The next time we see him, fifty years later, he is a bitter old man who runs The Lost Luggage Emporium, buying and selling used suitcases. He is still hoping to find that paper. The upstairs portion of the Emporium consists of rented rooms inhabited by Mrs. Asher of the troublesome hairpin; her disgruntled teenage son Zane, whose Talent is spitting; her son Will, whose Talent is disappearing; her daughter Marigold, who is desperate to find her Talent; an elderly lady who never speaks; and a younger man who may not be exactly what he seems.

Lisa Graff spins out each character’s story and slowly weaves them together as she reveals the answer to the mystery of Cady’s true identity. In between the chapters are recipes for the cakes that Cady makes for each person, all of them perfect, of course. The good characters in this story are thoroughly winsome, and the villains are truly odious. Will little Cady ever have someone to love and care for her permanently, and what will happen to the gentle Miss Mallory if Cady does leave her?

I am not convinced that this will be a Newbery winner, just because the theme and writing style are not quite substantive enough, although I enjoyed it very much and intend to give it to several readers immediately. A puzzle of a tale, charmingly told. Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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