Cornelia and the Outrageous Escapades of the Somerset Sisters

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Blume, Lesley M.M. (2006). Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

The title sounds like a bit much, but Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is so good it deserves to keep every word of it. The story of a lonely, eleven year old who strikes up a friendship with “the Scheherazade of Greenwich village” is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read.

Cornelia is the daughter of famous pianists. Not wanting her daughter’s childhood to be reminiscent of her own, her mother Lucy leaves her in their New York City apartment under the care of Madame Desjardins while she flits around the globe from one concert to another. When she isn’t traveling, Lucy is closed in her music room practicing. Cornelia, who loves to deter Madame Desjardins and others with words they wouldn’t possibly understand, hides in her room with dictionaries, and explores her familiar neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

A chance meeting with new neighbor and famous writer Virginia Somerset opens an entirely new world for Cornelia. For the first time someone is interested in her for herself, and not just as the daughter of a renowned musician. Virginia, who has elaborately decorated the rooms of her apartment to reflect the various foreign places she spent time in as a young woman, tells Cornelia story after story of the adventures of herself and her sisters. Gradually Cornelia begins to see the value of words in storytelling, not merely as a way to get people to leave her alone. At the same time she slowly begins to allow the walls she has built to protect herself to come down, and begins to chance relating to others.

Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters is a wonderful book to integrate into curriculum for upper elementary homeschoolers, especially 10-12 year old girls. Not only does author Leslie M.M. Blume weave Virginia’s tales into Cornelia’s story, traveling to Morocco, Paris, India, and England, and introducing young readers to customs and history around the globe, she easily provides two weeks of vocabulary instruction. Even if the book is read aloud, students can record Cornelia’s high school and college achievement test level vocabulary and definitions, most of which even Mom would need to look up (if Blume hadn’t provided the meanings)! Copywork of descriptive passages, and creative writing of descriptive paragraphs will round out language arts completely.

Blume’s descriptions of characters and places is hard to rival. Should I ever teach a class on writing for children this book would be required reading. It’s another story where not a word is wasted, where the writing is so well crafted a reader can’t help but enter into the scenes. It plays out like a movie and I am stumped to not find any awards for it. Not a title to overlook!

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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.