The War that Saved my Life

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Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker (2015). The War that Saved my Life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

This is one of my middle daughter’s all time favorite books. It is the story of a ten year old girl who is evacuated during the bombings in World War Two London, and how it changes her world forever. In addition to receiving the Newbery Honor, The War that Saved my Life was a New York Times bestseller, a Schneider Family Book Award Winner, and awarded for being one of the best children’s books of the year by the Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Ada is an unusual character for children’s literature, the object of intense abuse by a mother who embarrassed by her clubfoot, never allows her outside of their London flat.  She knows nothing about the world except what her younger brother has shared with her. Secretly teaching herself to walk, Ada escapes the city with her brother, Jamie, and hundreds of other children. When they finally disembark the train, they are the only ones not chosen to be housed by the villagers.

Under much protest, Susan Smith is forced to take them in. Living alone and grieving the loss of her best friend, she is forced to admit that she doesn’t “know a thing about taking care of children” (p.38). Susan learns not only how to care for and teach Ada and Jamie, but to love them as well. Ada, who finds it safer not to rely on or love others, finds healing she never realized she  needed.

The changes in Ada and Susan couldn’t be more beautifully portrayed. It’s a page turner filled with surprises including an extremely late climax- ending unexpectedly and with a punch.  Were the kids and I ever thankful when we discovered that a sequel, The War I Finally Won was being released in October 2017. Together we began reading it aloud the day it arrived, scarcely able to put it down.  The following is from the sequel’s flyleaf:

“This masterwork of historical fiction completes Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity that began with The War That Saved My Life, and shows us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.” (2017)

We only wish it didn’t conclude the story of the characters we have truly come to love. While the heroines do have some misconceptions about faith and salvation, there is nothing objectionable and so much to learn from both novels. Together The War that Saved my Life and The War I Finally Won are a perfect introduction for upper elementary and middle school readers of the history of World War II England, but both are worth the read even if you’re not teaching this time period. As I mentioned in an earlier post (May 5th, 2017), Bradley is also the author of Jefferson’s Sons and Weaver’s Daughter, among other titles.

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Favorites for Preschoolers

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This is by no means an exhaustive list, but today I would like to share with you some of our family’s favorite books for young audiences. More to follow another time.

 

Barrett, Judi (1970). Animals should definitely not wear clothing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Who would have thought wearing clothing could be so challenging? It is when you’re a porcupine- or any other animal for that matter. Simple and the illustrations tell it all.

 

Becker, Bonny (2008). A Visitor for Bear. London: Walker Books.

Bear always thought he preferred being alone to having company. He even has a sign: “No Visitors Allowed”. But one persistent little mouse is able to show him just how enjoyable having a friend over can be. My preschoolers have never tired of waiting for the “small and grey and bright-eyed” mouse to reappear somewhere in Bear’s kitchen. I myself have always enjoyed reading it to them, showing Bear’s increasing frustration with every flip of the page.

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De La Pena (201     Last Stop on Market Street. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

It’s not every year that a picture book takes the Newbery. While personally I would have chosen The War That Saved My Life (which took a Newbery honor the same year), Last Stop on Market Street is still a book not to be missed. CJ and Nana ride the bus across town every Sunday after church. CJ sees all the things they don’t have… but not Nana. Nana sees the beautiful: in the people they meet on the bus, in the contrast of the “graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores”, against the rainbow in the sky. For young children who don’t live in the inner city, this book is a perfect introduction to a different lifestyle. And to all of us it is a wonderful lesson in contentment and perspective. Christian Robinson won a Caldecott Honor for his wonderful illustrations.

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Ernst, Lisa Campbell (1992). Zinnia and Dot. New York, NY: Viking.

This is one of my all time favorite picture books. Two vain hens spend their hours boasting about their eggs: until a weasel crashes into the henhouse and leaves only a single egg behind. Can they stop bickering long enough to save it? And who will it look like when it hatches? It’s a blast giving voices to these memorable animal characters and not a single word of the text is wasteful. Love it!

 

Feiffer, Jules (2003). Bark, George. Weston, Conn.: Weston Woods.

Especially appreciated by five-year olds, Bark, George is the simple, humorous tale of one very hungry dog. George swallows multiple animals whole, making it impossible for him to produce the beautiful bark his mother is so proud of. Ending is a hoot!

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Hoberman, Mary Ann (1997). One of Each. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.

Oliver Tolliver learns the joys of friendship and sharing. I enjoy Hoberman’s rollicking rhymes even more than those of Dr. Seuss. Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Marjorie Priceman’s pen and ink drawings add the finishing touch. One of our favorites for years!

 

Jorgensen, Gail (1989). Crocodile Beat. New York: Simon & Schuster.

“Down by the river in the heat of the day                                                                                            the crocodile sleeps and awaits his prey.”

So begins the rhythmic tale of the jungle animals, and how led by King Lion, they solve the problem of a mean crocodile looking for his supper. Filled with rhymes and animal sounds, Crocodile Beat is just plain fun to chant, and perfect for early readers to practice with on their own.

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Masurel, Claire (2002). Big Bad Wolf. New York, NY: Scholastic Cartwheel Books.

A great introduction for preschoolers about making assumptions. The villagers immediately thinks of the wolf whenever something scary happens: after all, he does have sharp teeth and a piercing howl. But is Papa Wolf really something to be afraid of? Not when he’s kissing all his little wolves. I love Melissa Iwai’s illustrations. Kids love the cut-out eyes in the cover and pages. A gem!

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.

 

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.

The Great and Terrible Quest

DSC_0003Lovett, Margaret (1967) The Great and Terrible Quest. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

For years this was my daughter’s favorite book, and sadly I was too busy with my own reading list to get to it. The Great and Terrible Quest is the story of a ten year old orphan’s adventures as he sets out to assist a wounded knight. Suffering from amnesia, his companion is plagued by knowing something of utmost importance must be done, but not knowing what that something is. Young Trad determines to protect and help him, and along the way learns about love, determination, and courage.

I love certain passages in this book especially. Huon’s adage, “What must be done, could be done” (p. 120, among other places), and the following reminiscent of Proverbs 17:22, among them:

“Trad came to believe that the times when Huon gave himself up wholly to those deep roars of mirth were like medicine, each one helping to strengthen and steady his mind,” (p.85).

And when Trad comes to the realization that  not everyone is good, Huon’s understanding and wisdom:

“His blue eyes were dark with a knowledge and grief Trad had only begun to glimpse, but steady too with courage and determination. ‘Yet you helped me, child, and the Wise Woman helped us both'” (p.73).

Trad and Huon are examples of compassion- a Christ-like character quality if ever there was one. Also, perseverance – not giving up in spite of obstacles. This is also a book about self-sacrifice. Trad, Huon, Marlo, and the Wise Woman all willingly risk their own safety, and give of their own meager possessions, to protect and help others. Finally, and not in the least, The Great and Terrible Quest is the triumphant story of a king restored, and good defeating evil: a story that shows that hidden among a despairing land are servants who persist in their hope of the true king’s return. While this book is technically not classified as Christian fiction, you’d be hard pressed to find one with a more Christian message.

For reasons unknown, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston did not reprint this masterpiece, and for a long time it was somewhat difficult to find. Rediscovered by Sonlight, it was reprinted with permission by the heir to the Margaret Lovett estate in 2008 by Avyx Inc. And I, for one, am really glad it was.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble

Dalgliesh, Alice (1952). The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

Dalgliesh, Alice (1954). The Courage of Sarah Noble. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

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Rarely are two of my favorite books for an age level by the same author, but Newbery honor books The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh are the exception.

In The Bears on Hemlock Mountain eight year old Jonathan isn’t so sure about going over the hill to fetch an iron pot from his aunt, as it is early spring:

 

“Me?” said Jonathan. “All alone? They say there are bears on Hemlock Mountain.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said his mother. “Many’s the time I’ve been over Hemlock Mountain and not a bear did I see.”

.                                                                                               (Dalgliesh, p. 15)

 

And I’m sure you can guess what happens…

This book is just plain fun to read. Based on a Pennsylvania “tall tale”, it depicts early American culture with humor and charm, and rewards both ingenuity and bravery. With unforgettable rhythm, Jonathan and his mother keep up their courage by telling themselves, “THERE are NO BEARS ON HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN, NO BEARS, NO BEARS AT ALL”, over and over, until young listeners are reciting this along with the story. Simple, and full of faith, I never tire of reading this to my kids.

The Courage of Sarah Noble is based on the true account of an eight year old girl who came with her father into the Connecticut wilderness in 1707. Far from her mother and her large family of brothers and sisters, Sarah must face fears of wild animals, Indians, and being separated from those she loves. In just fifty-five pages Alice Dalgliesh shows young readers that “To be afraid and to be brave is the best courage of all,” (Dalgliesh, p.36).

I love how this third person narrative shows not only a child’s perspective, but a loving father’s as well. And I especially appreciate the way it shows the love of a Christian home by contrast of another:

 

“Soon we shall have a fine house like Mistress Robinson’s.”

“No,” said Sarah. “Like our own.”

“And why not like Mistress Robinsons?”

“Because there is no love in that house,” said Sarah.

“You are too wise for your years.”

(Dalgliesh, p. 14)

 

Both The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble are sure to continue inspiring Christian families for years to come.

 

 

Little Blue Truck

Schertle, Alice (2008). Little Blue Truck. Boston: Harcourt, Inc.

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At first I was remiss that I’d left Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck off of my “Top Ten Picks for Toddlers” post, but then I realized that with three sequels, it has probably earned a post all to itself. Filled with two of little boys’ favorite interests, trucks and animals, this story of a friendly truck helping others, and being helped himself, is a favorite among my early intervention students. The premise is simple: after helping out a self-centered dump  truck who gets himself in a fix, Little Blue Truck, likewise, needs a hand. Because he is well-loved by his many animal friends, they work together to come to his rescue. In the end the big, yellow dump truck learns a valuable lesson.

Sequel Little Blue Truck Leads the Way teaches about taking turns and putting others ahead of oneself, and Little Blue Truck’s Christmas is just pure, counting backwards fun- complete with twinkling lights adorning the final page. Illustrator Jill McElmurry also deserves praise for her colorful, engaging drawings.

Marketed as a preschool book, this series is especially appropriate for ages 2 1/2 to 4 years.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Lin, Grace (2009). Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. New York, NY: Little, Brown, & Company.

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In this middle grade fantasy author Grace Lin does an outstanding job of weaving Chinese folktales into an original, engaging story. Living beside “Fruitless Mountain”, Minli’s hard life working the rice fields alongside her parents, is brightened by only one thing: her father’s stories. When a talking goldfish provides her with directions to “Never-Ending Mountain”, Minli sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon and change her family’s fortune. Like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a dragon who cannot fly joins the heroine in her quest when he is freed. Together they embark on a journey of courage and self-discovery, meeting more than a few interesting characters along the way.

This book is phenomenal for character studies and comparisons: Ba’s contentment versus Ma’s discontentment, Magistrate Tiger’s selfishness versus Jade Dragon’s children’s and other characters’ self-sacrifice, and Minli’s courage, to name a few. It is a perfect introduction to Chinese folktales, and a wonderful way to capture student interest when studying this culture. Opportunities to incorporate geography (the origins of the Jade, Pearl, Yellow, Long, and Black rivers, as given in folklore, are included), technology (Minli must make a compass for her journey), creative writing (they can attempt to write their own folktales), and history, abound. Grace Lin’s website offers a reader’s guide with ten questions that make excellent writing prompts. (These can also be found at the end of the Little, Brown, and Company 2011 edition of the book).

And the best news is Lin doesn’t stop here: sequels Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver are nearly as good as the first book of the series. The books are quite intricately woven, and I would suggest students journal or illustrate the story as they read to aid in following them, especially the last in the trilogy.

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Recommended for ages eight to twelve, (grades three to seven), this Newbery Honor Book and New York Times best seller is too good to be missed, so if your teens haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy it, use it as a family read aloud. It is one of the finest works of children’s literature published since the century began, and I expect will remain in my top five favorites for upper elementary fiction for years to come.