Mary on Horseback

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Wells, Rosemary (1998). Mary on Horseback: Three Mountain Stories. Puffin Books: New York.

Winner of the Christopher Award, a Booklist Editor’s Choice Book, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Mary on Horseback is the fictionalized account of the work of Mary Breckinridge. Written for ages eight and up, it paints a memorable picture of this World War I nurse who served the isolated mountains of Appalachia via horseback, in the 1920s and 30s. Mary Breckinridge’s pioneer work was the catalyst for the Frontier Nursing Service.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mary Breckinridge is that her ministry to thousands actually resulted from her own grief and despair. After losing two husbands, and both of her children, she made the “decision to become a nurse so that other children might have a chance to live.” (p.52)

I’ve never been a Max and Ruby fan, but Rosemary Wells outdid herself with this one. I only wish that it were longer. This book could be used to introduce internet researching, as kids can see what they themselves can find out about this historical figure. More importantly, it can be used as an example of how we can keep our eyes on helping others, regardless of our own trials and tragedies.

The Journeyman

Yates, Elizabeth (1990). The Journeyman. Greenville: BJU Press.

Yates, Elizabeth (1943). Patterns on the Wall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.                      (Original title. All quote citations are taken from this.)

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One of the things I am looking forward to in Heaven is having tea and conversation with author Elizabeth Yates. While she is perhaps best known for her Newbery winner Amos Fortune, Free Man, my personal favorite of the more than forty books she has written, is The Journeyman. Originally titled Patterns on the Wall, it is the story of an itinerant stenciler in New Hampshire in 1816, a year so harsh in weather that desperate farmers give in to fear, and seek someone to blame for their struggles.

Jared Austin is apprenticed at twelve to a painter, freeing him from the hatred of his abusive father, but not his fear of him. Mr. Toppan takes him under his wing not only in teaching him to stencil, but in faith, and in becoming a man.

“What do you mean by keeping true?” Jared asked, laying down his brush to rest his arm.

Mr. Toppan looked at him until his eyes seemed not to see the boy Jared, but the man Jared might become, then he said quietly, “It’s letting God take your hand so that it does the work He wants you to do.” (p.46, Patterns on the Wall)

And this lesson takes deep root in Jared’s heart. God gives him a vision in the trees of the woods, buffeted by the wind, but remaining ever faithful. Here is just the tiniest excerpt from this passage:

“Ah,” the wind wailed, clutching at gold and scarlet and green, “how can you hold those banners high when evil still stalks the earth?”

The trees quivered and were silent. The wind raged around them and his fury brought down cascades of leaves which he sent hurling over the dry ground.

“We hold our banners high in faith, O wind,” (p.84, Patterns on the Wall)

The vision, coupled with the roots of faith established during his apprenticeship, serve Jared well, and he holds firm to the knowledge that he has placed his hand in God’s, and has no need to fear, even when everyone and everything around him indicates otherwise. Jared brings with him encouragement and truth wherever he goes.

I’ve read many books, both Christian and secular. Never have I seen faith woven into story with such subtlety, the two inseparable. Savoring this work at least half a dozen times I love every character as if they were personal friends. Suitable as a family read-aloud with children ten and up, it is also a treasure for adolescent readers, and moms as well.

 

The King’s Equal

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Paterson, Katherine (1992). The King’s Equal. New York. Harpercollins.

“But you will not wear my crown until the day you marry a woman who is your equal in beauty and intelligence and wealth” qualifies a beloved old king, as he bestows a final blessing on his son (p.7). Prince Raphael is as arrogant and selfish a prince as there could ever be. Everyone in the kingdom fears the day he becomes ruler. Eager for the crown, Raphael threatens the councilors to find him a wife that matches his father’s requirements by the end of one year, or be thrown into the dungeon. Several princesses are found that can fulfill one of the criteria, but none all three.

But “in a far corner of the realm” there is a compassionate, humble, and lovely young woman working hard to keep herself and her goats alive, all the while maintaining a positive disposition. Her goodness extends even to a wolf, who turns out to be no ordinary animal. She shares the last of her bread with him- and finds each new day, enough grain miraculously has appeared in her jar to feed them all once again. The wolf encourages Rosamund to present herself as the wealthy, intelligent, and beautiful bride the prince has been looking for, knowing the king wasn’t the only parent to have bestowed a blessing.

“On the night that you were born, your mother lay dying. With her last words, she gave you a blessing. She said that you were to be a king’s equal.” (Paterson, p.34)

For the good of the kingdom, Rosamund resolves to try. An hour before midnight on the last day of the year, she asks the wisest of the councilors to take her to the prince.

“I must warn you,” he said, “the prince is a very hard man. If he does not accept you as his equal, I cannot promise that any of us will escape with our lives.” (Paterson, p.38)

The prince is astonished at her beauty and intelligence, but it is her “wealth” that is noteworthy, for it turns out Rosamund is richer than he:

“Then,” said Rosamund quietly, “perhaps you are poorer than I, for there is nothing I desire that I do not already possess.” (Paterson, p.44)

But can she be Raphael’s wife? Not yet.

“By your own words, my lord, you have declared me more than equal to you.” (p.45)

I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, but be assured that like all good fairytales, it does so happily.

Katherine Paterson spent her earliest years in China, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, and later married a minister. Miraculous provision of daily bread, a woman willing to risk her own life for her kingdom, and the values of humility, kindness, and goodness, all reflect her absorption of years of truth by hearing and teaching God’s word. Among her sixteen books for children she has won two Newbery Medals, two National Book Awards, the Hans Christian Anderson Medal, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. In addition, she is one of the handful of woman writers I am aware of who, while putting her family first, still wrote beautiful, worthwhile books for children. Speaking about her own writing career in Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children she shares the following:

“It might have happened sooner had I had a room of my own or fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.” (Gates of Excellence, p.3)

And I’m so glad they did, and that this mom-writer didn’t give up! Enjoy The King’s Equal as a family read-aloud. And then explore Katherine Paterson’s other wonderful titles.

The Mousehole Cat

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Barber, Antonia (1990). The Mousehole Cat. London: Walker Books.

(Reprinted in 1996 by Aladdin Paperbacks, a division of Simon & Schuster)

The Mousehole Cat, written by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Nicola Bayley, was inspired by an old Cornish legend. Mowzer the cat lives happily with her “pet”, Tom, who is “very well-behaved” (p.7). Not only does Tom keep her saucer full of cream, and the wood stove well stoked, but he passes his days “in the most useful way possible”: catching fish for Mowzer’s dinner (p.7). When the villagers of Mousehole are unable to send out their fishing boats, it appears the children will go hungry and just before Christmas. Tom, whose children are grown, and parents long gone, decides that he’s the most logical choice to risk his life to bring back fish for the village. Mowzer chooses to join him:

“For he was only a man, she thought, and men were like mice in the paws of the Great Storm-Cat” (p.14).

Listening to the Great Storm-Cat’s wailing, she imagines him to be lonely, “endlessly hunting the men-mice in the deeps of darkness, and never returning to the rosy glow of a red-hot fire” (p.18). To comfort him, she serenades him with her singing… and it works. While they are still in for a tumultuous ride, Mowzer and Tom will return home a boat laden with fish.

Back in the village the townspeople realize what Tom is doing for them and they wait:

“All day they had watched and waited, staring out into the cloud-wracked sea, but they could see no sign of him. And when night fell, the women went home and set candles in all their windows and every man lit his lantern and went down to the harbor walls.” (p.26)

I love the illustrations in this book. The paintings tell the story so beautifully that once they’ve heard it, younger children can relive the adventure simply by looking at them. Rarely does a picture book combine such lyrical prose with so natural a rising climax. Its simple story of valor and loyalty is sure to enthrall the five to eight year olds it is marketed for. It is no surprise that it holds the honors of being both an ALA Notable Children’s Book and Booklist Editor’s Choice in 1990. The Mousehole Cat is sure to live in reader’s and listener’s memories for years to come.

 

Mockingbird

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Erskine, Kathryn (2011). Mockingbird. New York: Puffin Books.

After more than a quarter of a century teaching special education, my favorite population to work with remains those kids with “autism spectrum disorder”. Over the years the American Psychiatric Association has redefined exactly what this includes, and with the publication of the DSM-V in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was no longer its own, separate category. While similar to autism in many ways, I personally find its characteristics to be different enough to warrant its own diagnosis, and anticipate that some day in the future, it will have this once again.

In Mockingbird Kathryn Erskine weaves two circumstances close to her heart into a memorable story for upper elementary students: Asperger’s syndrome, which her own daughter was diagnosed with, and in memory of the Virginia Tech massacre, school shootings. Told in first person narrative by ten-year old Caitlin, who has Asperger’s, the story is propelled forward by her search for closure after her older brother is gunned down in his middle school. With the completion of a project her brother had started she, her dad, and the entire community step closer to the healing they so desperately need.

Aspergers is characterized by a disconnect in emotional understanding and consequently, social skills. Caitlin has difficulty “stepping into someone else’s shoes”. She is extremely literal and likes her world to be well-defined. Even when drawing, which she does exceeding well, her pictures need to be done in black and white. Very bright, Caitlin is in a regular fifth grade classroom, preparing to transition to middle school, learning to make friends, and coping with extreme sensitivities to sensory stimuli.

Reading as Caitlin can be a little tricky if Aspergers is new to you. When she speaks there is usually less inflection than other characters in the dialogue. While suitable as an independent reader, reading aloud the first chapter or two may help give your kids a firmer grasp on her characterization, and will provide an opportunity to discuss the two issues Erskine is addressing more directly.

This National Book Award winner is a valuable book for teaching about perspective, disabilities, and empathy.

Stepping Heavenward

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Prentiss, Elizabeth (1998). Stepping Heavenward. Barbour Publishing, Inc. Uhrichsville: Ohio.

Sharing this brief excerpt from Stepping Heavenward today as an encouragement to all those who truly embrace the blessing of motherhood. While the world sees the work, the inconveniences, and the expense, we see the joy…

The following is the book’s protagonist, Katy’s, heart response to comments about the inconveniences of having more children, and is found on pages 228-229.

“Well! This is one side of the story, to be sure, but I look at the other. Here is a sweet fragrant mouth to kiss; here are two more feet to make music with their pattering about my nursery. Here is a soul to train for God; and the body in which it dwells is worthy of all it will cost, since it is the abode of a kingly tenant. I may see less of friends, but I have gained one dearer than them all, to whom, while I minister in Christ’s name, I make a willing sacrifice of what little leisure for my own recreation my other darlings had left me. Yes, my precious baby, you are welcome to your mother’s heart, welcome to her time, her strength, her health, her tenderest cares, to her lifelong prayers! Oh, how rich I am, how truly, how wondrously blest!”                                                                                                                                                                               From  Stepping Heavenward, published by Barbour Publishing, Inc. Used by permission.

Originally published in 1869, Stepping Heavenward is a treasured classic. With its timeless wisdom, and realistic understanding of what being a young wife and mother is all about, it makes a wonderful gift for a new bride. May our kids always be welcome!

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great

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Morris, Gerald (2008). The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great. Houghton Mifflin: New York.

How do you introduce a modern-day ten-year old, who isn’t all that keen on reading to begin with, to the legends of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot? For starters, take thirty minutes and the read them Gerald Morris’ The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great while they follow along in a copy of their own. (Or give Dad the opportunity. He will love narrating these humorous chapters in an English dialect he didn’t know he had!) Offer your kids their first tastes of Camelot, King Arthur, and the Lady of Shalott; of armour, tournaments, and “recreants”; of rescuing damsels in distress and dragon slaying. And all the while you’ll be able to reinforce the importance of afternoon naps and keeping one’s armor shiny!

This title is a perfect read aloud for grades one and up, and an excellent reader for fourth graders. Kudos to Gerald Morris for this little gem of a book.

A Grain of Rice

Pittman, Helena Clare (1996). A Grain of Rice. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

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Humble farmer Pong Lo longs to marry the beautiful Princess Chang Wu, and the feeling is mutual. Unfortunately the Emperor finds the request outrageous,

“Prince!” shrieked the Emperor. “A peasant cannot be a prince! A prince must come from noble blood!” His moustache twitched madly.  (Pittman, p.4)

With his daughter’s coaxing, the Emperor concedes to the farmer’s working in the palace. The clever, cheerful, and hardworking Pong Lo more than proves himself- but it is still not enough to become the son-in-law to the highest in the land. When her father invites all of the young nobles of China in hopes of finding a suitable match for the princess, Chang Wu becomes gravely ill in her sorrow over not marrying Pong Lo.

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“With no hope of marrying Pong Lo she grew sadder and sadder until at last she only stayed in bed. Her black eyes lost their sparkle and her cheeks became pale.” (Pittman, p.20)

With his knowledge of herbs Pong Lo creates a potion to save the princess. He tells the Emperor, “It will cure the disease if the heart is willing. But you must tell the Princess that it comes from me.” The Emperor promises the farmer anything he wants if his daughter lives, but when her health is restored, and Pong Lo again requests her hand in marriage, the Emperor still will not budge. And so the clever Pong Lo requests… a grain of rice.

“But if His Majesty insists, he may double the amount every day for a hundred days.” (Pittman, p.32)

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And a lesson in multiplication is born! Pong Lo becomes the richest person in the land, and deemed acceptable to provide for the Princess Chang Wu.

A Grain of Rice is a simple, humorous story incorporating some wonderful character qualities, while making mathematics meaningful at the same time. Reading level is 4.0, but this title is very appropriate as a read aloud for early elementary students, and just plain fun for the entire family to listen to. I would recommend it as one resource for learning about Asian cultures to use with six and seven year olds, while older siblings are enjoying Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

Jefferson’s Sons

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2011). Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

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This book fascinated me. While it is far from the first children’s book I’ve read on slavery, the uniqueness of it’s plot: what would become of the “secret” children of one of our founding fathers, coupled with the question of how a man remembered for penning the phrase “all men are created equal” did not recognize the atrocities of slavery on his own plantation, had me spellbound.

Jefferson’s Sons takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century and it’s setting is almost exclusively at his farm in Monticello. Following the death of his wife, Jefferson fathers several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. (In this time period it would not have been legal for him to marry Sally, however their relationship is only portrayed positively). Four of their children survive, and the story is told in first-person narrative through the eyes of two of the sons, Beverly and Maddy, and later another young slave named Peter.

This is a serious subject, and not a light-hearted story. Bradley eases the brutality for young readers by reserving the worst atrocities it depicts for the more minor characters. Just the same the main characters are witnesses to cruelty, injustice, and pain, and express what it feels like to not be free.

As a homeschooling mom I would not recommend this book even as a read-aloud for children younger than fifth grade. Slavery is hard to understand- especially when it’s nature contradicts the rights we have to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But this contradiction is thought provoking, offers an excellent written response opportunity, and fits in beautifully to any pre-civil war American history curriculum. We even connected it to Mendelian genetics, if you can believe that!

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a wonderful writer and the author of one of my all time favorite books, The War That Saved My Life (soon to be featured on “The Homeschooling Mom’s Guide to the Best in Children’s Literature” as well). Other excellent titles by this author include Weaver’s Daughter, Ruthie’s Gift, and Halfway to the Sky.

A Gathering of Days

Blos, Joan W. (1979). A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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I almost titled this post “Homeschooling in Literature”, as my purpose in sharing the following excerpt with you is simply to bring a smile to your face. It is the best depiction of homeschool/homemaking multitasking I have seen in a children’s book. The following is from p. 134 of A Gathering of Days.

     “One would think it a school house-ful instead of just two girls. Mammann announced, when breakfast was cleared, that she will set the lessons for us every morning early. Then we are to have two hours to study. After that she will hear us, and provide correction. Today’s attempt- perhaps being the first- was surely comical. ‘At what age, (Catherine, my scissors, please!) was Pocahontas when Captain John Smith fell into the Indians’ hands?’ And scarcely had I answered ‘Twelve,’ but that she turned to Matty with the Moral Catechism. ‘What is justice?’ (It is giving every man his due.) ‘What is generosity?’ (It is some act of kindness performed for another which strict justice does not demand.) ‘What is gratitude?’ (Gratitude is a thankfulness of heart for favours received.) Today, however, the familiar words were mixed with exclamations. ‘Dear child, do raise up the pot!’ ‘Matty, that sauce is going to scorch!’ ‘Catherine, watch your stitches!’

Joan Blos was awarded the Newbery for her depiction of a fourteen year old New Hampshire girl’s journal in the early eighteenth century.

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