Santa Claus is Coming to Town

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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!

Tara

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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

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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.

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!

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

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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!

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.