The Valentine Cat


Bulla, Clyde Robert (1959). The Valentine Cat. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, Inc.

One of the blessings of having half a dozen kids is that you get to enjoy certain read alouds time and time again. The Valentine Cat by Clyde Robert Bulla is one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I’m sharing this post in advance in hopes that you may be able to get your hands on a copy before February 14th.

When Tell, who makes his living as a shoemaker’s assistant, takes in a half-starved, little cat with a white heart marking his black head, it not only brings companionship to his lonely evenings, but awakens the painter he once was. Brushing off his old paints he covers the walls of his flat with paintings of the cat playing and exploring. One day the cat is stolen by the local chimney sweep, Ketch, who hides him and uses him as a “magic broom” to clean tight spots in chimneys. Word of his cleaning success reaches the palace, and he is called to sweep out a chimney for the red room, where Princess Florinda is excitedly planning a Valentine’s Day party.

While completing the assignment, the evil chimney sweep slips on the snow covered roof. Down the chimney plops the cat, terrifying the palace staff below. Princess Florinda gets a new pet- until the Valentine Cat escapes during the holiday parade, and finds his way home to Tell. The guards are just about to arrest the humble Tell for stealing the royal feline when the princess notices the paintings, and defends his innocence:

“I believe him,” said the princess. “It’s plain to see the cat once lived here. There are pictures of him all over the walls.” She said again, “What a beautiful room!” She asked, “Could you paint my room like this?” (Bulla, p.50)

And so Tell finds himself living in the palace, doing what he loves best, and reunited with the stray he had found. Good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Clyde Robert Bulla wrote more than fifty books for young readers, among them A Lion to Guard Us, Viking Adventure, The Sword in the Tree, and Daniel’s Duck. His titles also include several excellent historical fiction resources for young readers.


Apples to Oregon

Hopkinson, Deborah (2004). Apples to Oregon. New York: Scholastic.

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This modern-day tall tale introduces young children to some of the trials and tribulations experienced by the early American pioneers. Fictional eldest daughter “Delicious” narrates the story and in page after page, humorously implies that her father’s fruit trees are more important to him than his own children. They face many of the same hardships you would find in books for older readers: crossing rivers and deserts, facing storms and freezing temperatures, but without the harsh realities kindergarten through fourth graders could wait a little longer to learn. Ingenious and determined Delicious comes to her daddy’s rescue time and time again.

The book includes a map of the United States clearly marking the Oregon Trail and it’s landmarks from Iowa (where the family’s journey begins) to Portland, offering an excellent lesson in geography. Apple facts help to incorporate science (did you know that fresh apples float because 25 percent of their volume is air?) Numerous plays on words and the example of a tall tale provide English lessons. Nancy Carpenter’s art work is hysterical, showing the precious fruit being protected by the passel of kids at all costs.

Incidentally, the first apple trees in Oregon really did come by a wagon with pioneer Henderson Luelling, his wife Elizabeth, and their eight children. Apples to Oregon was an ALA Notable Children’s Book as well as a School Library Journal Best Book in 2005 and a SCBWA winner in 2004.

Red Sails to Capri


Weil, Ann (1952). Red Sails to Capri. New York: Viking.

It isn’t surprising that contemporary middle grade fiction would contrast starkly with books written for this age group sixty-five years ago. Today’s books for ten to twelve year olds reflect themes formerly only seen in young adult fiction. Most reflect our culture in ways that we, as homeschooling parents, would prefer to shield our kids from- if only until they are old enough to be firmly rooted in the truth, and capable of deciding for themselves what is “true, noble, right, and pure” (Philippians 4:8). Finding chapter books that capitalize on a fourth grader’s newly acquired fluency in reading, and which will develop their understanding of characterization, plot, and dialogue, can be challenging. Red Sails to Capri does a beautiful job with all of these, free of the concerns of adolescence. It is usually the first book I recommend to those looking for literature for fourth grade boys.

Fourteen year old Michele helps his parents run an inn on the island of Capri. It is 1826, and they are eking out an existence on this “mountain island” when three visitors arrive in search of beauty, truth, and adventure respectively. Michele takes on the role of valet and guide to these gentlemen and in this fictional rediscovery of “The Blue Grotto of Capri”, experiences the adventure of a life time.

The entire book will bring smiles, but my favorite scenes are those where Signora Pagano is in the kitchen:

“There, there!” The words came from the kitchen along with a wonderful odor. “There, there! Cook slowly now. Do not hurry yourselves. The men have not arrived.”

Signor Pagano looked at Michele and smiled. “Your mother,” he said, “is a remarkable person. Does she cook by recipe? No. Does she cook by taste? No. Does she cook by smell? No. Your mother, Michele, takes a few fish, and she talks to them, and argues with them, and scolds them, and flatters them, until finally she talks them into cooking the way she wants them.”     (p.21)

With a cast of eight unforgettable characters and in ten simple chapters, Weil’s book humorously depicts the quests of  Lord Derby, Herre Nordstrom, and Monsieur Jacques. Superstition is overcome, reason and courage prevail. And Michele learns to appreciate beauty, the value of friendship, and to let his mother continue to sing the soft boiled egg song. This is one of my favorites to take turns reading with my eight and nine year olds, and a truly well-crafted novel. It’s no wonder it shared the accolade of being a Newbery honor in 1953 alongside Moccasin Trail, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, and Charlotte’s Web. (Secret of the Andes took the Newbery itself).

Santa Claus is Coming to Town


It’s been nearly one year since I began this blog in my desire to share my favorite book titles with fellow homeschoolers. Today, however, I am going to write not about one of our family’s treasured pieces of literature, but instead of a holiday classic movie we all enjoy: the Fred Astaire narrated, Mickey Rooney performed, Rankin-Bass production of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.

Our children know that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. They also know that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” (James 1:17, NIV)- including those beneath our tree. Nevertheless, Santa Claus is a beloved character in American culture (and around the world). Stories of St. Nicholas aside, it is just fun to imagine how related traditions came about, and this 1970 film did a wonderful job at this.

But it also did something more. While if you watch it on television you will find the film now edited (leaving out songs, scenes deemed too frightening, and religious references), the original movie did not neglect a Christian message. One could argue with some of Winter Warlock’s pleas for magic late in the film (or is he praying for Holy Spirit power?), but can lyrics such as “You mean that it’s just my election to vote for a chance to be reborn?” mean anything other than repentance leading to salvation? Or when Kris and Jessica “because no town would have them … stood before the Lord” to proclaim their wedding vows, be anything other than a direct acknowledgement of our Savior? Or that Kris would choose Christmas Eve as the one night of the year he would deliver gifts, because it was “the holiest of nights, the night of profound love”?

Winter Warlock’s icy heart is melted because of what? Love. Undeserved, freely given, love. Kris Kringle is an outlaw… for being kind. Marriage is valued, helping others encouraged. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” provides a fun explanation of where Santa got his name, why toys are found in stockings, and what makes reindeer fly, but even more importantly it reflects traditional Christian values.

So don’t be afraid of allowing your little ones to watch this one. It is a story. Just like Jack in the Beanstalk and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They are going to be curious about who Santa is. Allow them this fictional explanation that does not ignore that it is a Christian holiday. (Although be with them during the early Winter Warlock scenes. I can still remember hiding behind our living room recliner during these when I was little!)

Hoping you will continue to share my love of children’s literature in 2018.

Blessings this Christmas!


Christmas Day in the Morning

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Buck, Pearl S. (1955). Christmas Day in the Morning. New York: Harpercollins.

Pearl S. Buck, best known for her 1932 Pulitzer prizewinning novel The Good Earth, is the author of more than one hundred stories for both children and adults. Many homeschoolers are familiar with her title The Big Wave, which tells the story of a tsunami in a poignant children’s novella. In 2002 Harpercollins decided to release Pearl Buck’s short story Christmas Day in the Morning as a picture book with original illustrations by Mark Buehner. Since we discovered it several years ago it has been as much a tradition for our family to read this story, as to hang stockings and decorate cookies. I’m sharing it today in hopes that you can find a copy through your library or bookseller in time for this year’s celebration of Christ’s birth.

Fifteen year old Rob wants to show his dad how much he loves him, but how can he, as poor as they are? But an idea comes to him…

Then Jesus had been born in a barn, and to a barn the shepherds and the Wise Men had come, bringing their Christmas gifts! The thought stuck him like a silver dagger: Why should he not give his father a special gift, too, out there in the barn?                                                                                                                                                                  (Buck, p.16 )

Rob decides to get up even earlier than four a.m. to get the milking chores done as a gift for his dad… and then he climbs back into bed so that his father gets a surprise when he heads to the barn ahead of him, (or so he thinks!). Rob’s act of service gives his dad an opportunity to see the younger children’s reaction to the tree Christmas morning for the very first time. It also gives Rob and his dad a reminder of their love for years to come.

Be blessed and enjoy this family read aloud this holiday season!

The War that Saved my Life


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.

Favorites for Preschoolers


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.


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!

Out of My Mind

Draper,Sharon M. (2010). Out of My Mind. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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Sharon Draper and her books have won more awards than I can possibly list. Out of My Mind itself spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller’s list and has been translated into no less than ten languages. Draper, whose writing I was not familiar with before Out of My Mind, (probably because most of her works are classified as young adult, and my favorite books to read tend to be middle grade fiction) is a five time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and won the Jeremiah Ludington Award for her lifetime contributions to children’s literature in 2012.

Not only is she an excellent writer, Sharon Draper is also a former National Teacher of the Year. This entitles her to speak honestly about the good and not-so-good special education and inclusive regular education teachers. As the parent of a child with a developmental disability she has experienced in a personal way the joys and the heartaches that occur in the lives of families with special needs children. As a special education teacher and parent of a child with a disability myself, I wholeheartedly agree with her perceptions. It’s no wonder teachers everywhere are including it in their required reading lists.

Eleven year old Melody has cerebral palsy. She isn’t able to express herself, walk, or take care of her personal needs. Most people assume she is intellectually as handicapped as her body is, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Melody has a photographic memory, loves words, and is a keen observer of the world around her. Her mother, sitter, and classroom aide can see the intelligence in her eyes. When Melody points to a classmate’s new laptop, they realize she wants a computer herself to communicate. When she finally gets one, it opens a whole new world- but will the other fifth grade students and teachers finally see beyond her physical limitations?

I’m not exactly sure why Out of My Mind is marketed as young adult fiction, and not middle grade. Perhaps Draper’s other works are more appropriate for older teens. But my twelve year old is loving this title, and the book itself is recommended for ages 10 and up. It’s a thought provoking story, and a wonderful way to teach your kids not only about disabilities, but that they are loved for who they are, and not simply for what they are able to do.

The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad

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Greenwood, Barbara (1998). The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Scholastic: New York.

While there are many excellent resources for teaching children about the Underground Railroad and slavery,  the majority are geared toward upper elementary readers, and can be overwhelming in their intensity. Those geared toward younger students are often well written fiction, but leave out much of the historical knowledge we want our kids to learn. If I had to pick only one title for literature based instruction on this subject for an audience of second through fourth graders, it would be The Last Safe House. Barbara Greenwood’s story of a young girl whose family is hiding an escaped slave is beautifully interwoven between chapters with descriptions about the African-American experience in the mid-nineteenth century.

Suitable as a one to two-week unit study, nearly all curriculum areas can easily be incorporated with this one title. Students will learn several of the code words used in the Underground Railroad such as parcel, conductor, and stations. A map of North America in 1856 depicts the major escape routes and which states were slave or free. The origin of slavery in America, with the captivity of men and women on the west coast of Africa is explained. Historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Ross, Levi Coffin, and Mary Ann Shadd are introduced. Detailed illustrations of cotton plantations are provided as are what the roles of African-Americans on these were. The implications of the invention of the cotton gin and Lincoln’s  Emancipation Proclamation are discussed. Science can be incorporated through the finding of Polaris (The North Star). Projects include a recipe for gingerbread cookies and instructions on making a lantern out of a tin can. Additional reading skills which can be taught with this resource include using a glossary, an index, and a bibliography.

Canadian Barbara Greenwood also collaborated with illustrator Heather Collins on A Pioneer Sampler, A Pioneer Christmas, and Gold Rush Fever.

Cornelia and the Outrageous Escapades of the Somerset Sisters


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!