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.

 

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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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Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze

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Lewis, Elizabeth Foreman (1932). Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is a must read for any literature based history unit on the Eastern Hemisphere. As the fortieth anniversary’s book jacket describes, “Elizabeth Foreman Lewis has vividly portrayed the turmoil of Chinese life during the 1920’s”- and she has. Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1932, and translated into more than a dozen languages, this book is a perfect example of how to make learning history fun.

It is the story of a changing period in the city of Chungking as seen through they eyes of a teenage boy experiencing adventures with bandits, fire, flood, and uprisings. This book keeps moving. Through page turning historical fiction readers learn about the Chinese fears of angering spirits, and of western ideas. They learn about social classes, customs, lifestyles, foot binding- even Marxist philosophy and drug abuse. As is common in Asian children’s literature there is an emphasis on the values of humility and diligence. Following the story are additional historical notes to fill in any gaps,

Young Fu is a likeable protagonist, as is the coppersmith, Tang, to whom he is apprenticed. Fourteen when the story begins, and eighteen when it’s finished, this book is perfect for fifth through eighth graders. Young Fu’s heart is one of integrity and kindness, and young readers (and listeners) will be blessed that while he makes his share of foolish mistakes, he always learns from them.

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.

Thanks, Mike!

Farris, Michael P. (2003). The Spiritual Power of a Mother. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.

With the gracious permission of Mike Farris, current President and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom and former President of HSLDA and Patrick Henry College, I am sharing his list, “The Top Twenty Advantages of Homeschooling“. It can be found in chapter four of The Spiritual Power of a Mother, pp.33-35, which I described to you last week as being one of my favorite books for homeschooling moms.

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“The Top Twenty Advantages of Homeschooling”

20. Your kids never tell you that their teacher is smarter than you are.

19. If you can’t find matching socks for your child first thing in the morning, who cares?

18. You never have to cancel school for snow days.

17. Your kids have good reason to think they might get spanked in school but no reason to think they might get shot.

16. If the principal gives the teacher a bad evaluation, she can stick her icy feet against his legs at night.

15. You can post the Ten Commandments on your schoolroom wall without getting sued.

14. You never have to drive your child’s forgotten lunch to school.

13. Your child will never go to their twentieth high school reunion, meet an old flame, and recklessly abandon his marriage.

12. You get to change more than diapers. You get to change their minds.

11. Your child never brings the flu home from school.

10. It’s better to be a little concerned about socialization rather than really concerned about socialism.

9. When your children talk about New Age issues, they are referring to their birthday party.

8. Since becoming a homeschooling mom, you now have the legal right to throw a blunt kitchen object (slightly grazing, but not bruising, your husband’s forehead) if he ever asks, “Why is dinner late?”

7. You never have to face the dilemma of whether to take your child’s side or the teacher’s side in a dispute at school.

6. If your child gets drugs at school it’s probably Tylenol.

5. The teacher gets to kiss the principal in the faculty lounge and no one gossips.

4. Your kids recognize that this list is numerically in reverse order.

3. Your honor student can actually read the bumper sticker that you have on your car.

2. If your child claims that the dog ate his homework, you can ask the dog.

1. Some day your children will consider you to be a miracle-working expert and will turn to you for advice.

Thanks, Mike!