Homeschool Discoveries

Sharing a few things I've discovered along the way…

Read-Aloud Wrap Up for May 2015 May 31, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:16 pm

We had a bit of an unusual read-aloud month.  Between my hubby’s travel schedule, family travel over Memorial Day, and lots of special end-of-the-year happenings (and birthday happenings for Miss M…who is now 11!) we had fewer nights of our usual routine.

I wrote about the highlight of our reading month already: The Tune is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace.

At the end of April, Miss M and I started Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry.  With few bedtime read-aloud nights for just Miss M and I, it took us pretty much all month to finish it even thought it wasn’t all that long.  The Grand Canyon will be among our vacation stops at the end of the summer, so I thought this would be a nice book to add to our reading list.   We both enjoyed it.  As with other books by this author, Brighty (a spunky little burro) is the main character, with humans playing a supporting role — an old prospector, an outlaw, a hunter, a boy working at a camp.  It was fun to see the history of the Grand Canyon “through the eyes” of an animal witnessing the changes as more people moved into the area of the canyon in the early 20th century.

We spent a lot of time with our friend Percy Jackson this month.  😉 I forgot to mention in April that we listened to the second book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Sea of Monsters.  We managed to listen to both books three and four in May!  We listed to book three, The Titan’s Curse, as evening entertainment a number of nights while my hubby was traveling.  We had about nine hours of time in the car over Memorial Day weekend, which was just about perfect for listening to book four, The Battle of the Labyrinth.  This is definitely one of those series that gets you “hooked”.  The kids just couldn’t wait to find out what would happen in the next book.  They are incredibly eager for me to get the fifth and final audio book in the series from the library.  I, however, am eager for a break from Greek mythology and intense battle scenes for a couple weeks…so shhh…don’t tell them that I might be dragging my feet in requesting the last one.  🙂

We wrapped up a science-related read aloud this month as well.  After enjoyed a short chemistry study with The Elements by Ellen McHenry, I thought The Mystery of the Periodic Table by Benjamin Wiker would be a great follow-up to end our year of science.  While the first couple of chapters were mostly review from our reading of Science in the Ancient World by Jay Wile, the rest was new material.  I thought it was interesting and relatively engaging.  A few times Mr K (age 6) even asked me to read more after I was ready to stop for the day. I was glad that we did this read aloud after a short study of the elements, otherwise I think a lot more of it would have gone over the kids’ heads.   I did decide to skip the last chapter since it was a lot more technical.  But the end of the second-to-last chapter was well set up to be an ending point, so the kids didn’t feel like they were left hanging.  After hearing about lots of ways that early scientists got things wrong about the nature of the world and what things are really made of, they were happy to hear about how finally, after a couple thousand years, scientists finally did get it right.  😉




The Tune is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace May 25, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:11 pm
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I’ve been waiting with eager anticipation for an opportunity to read The Tune is in the Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace for several years.  As a huge fan of her Betsy-Tacy book series, I’ve long been intrigued by the lovely-sounding title of this book.  Unfortunately it has been out of print for decades, and the copy my library holds of this book is in a special reference collection.  My first attempts to find in via inter-library loan had failed, and I thought I would have to someday sit in the library to read it.Tune is in the Tree selfie

After finishing What Cabrillo Found, I thought I would try again to locate a copy via inter-library loan.  And this time we were successful!  I’ve never wanted to take a book selfie before, but Miss M and I were so excited to pick it up from the library that we took a picture with the book.

Tune is in the Tree 1In some ways I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Tune is in the Tree.  I wondered if maybe it had been out of print for so long because it really wasn’t very good.  I did expect, however, that this would just be a sweet read aloud for Miss M and I.   I was wonderfully surprised when my boys ended up falling in love with this book too!

The Tune is in the Tree is, in one sense, a fantasy story.  But it is so much more than that with its beautiful and accurate nature setting.   In The Tune is in the Tree, a young girl named Annie Jo is unexpectedly left alone at home, for what turns into many days.  Her mom had left suddenly to look for Annie Jo’s missing aviator father, and a neighbor that is supposed to watch her is unexpectedly detained with an injury.   Both mom and neighbor assume the girl is with the other, and no adult is suspecting that Annie Jo has been left alone — an unrealistic premise in this modern age of mobile phones and helicopter parenting, but not so unreasonable 65-85 years ago! (This book was written by Maud in the 1930s and published in 1950.)

On her first evening home alone, a robin comes and speaks to Annie Jo, offering her comfort.  She invites the Robin family to come live with her, but R.B. Robin has a different solution — Miss Ruby (a hummingbird) will magically cause Annie Jo to shrink to bird-size and grow wings.  Annie Jo will visit the birds!  Thus begins a delightful adventure of Annie Jo visiting various bird families, learning of their joys and struggles.  The robins teach her to fly.  She learns of the “perfidious Mrs. Cowbird” from the robins and the catbird.  Annie Jo visits the oven-like nest of Mrs. Ovenbird (who, in a fanciful addition to the story, bakes cookies in her unusual nest on the ground).   She enjoys beautiful music with the thrushes, and has a ball given in her honor by the orioles, before having a happy return to full-size life with her parents.

If there is any antagonist in the story, it is the “perfidious Mrs. Cowbird,” who lingers at the fringes of the storyline, imposing her egg on unwelcome nests (just as the Cowbird does in real life):

“She’s so perfidiously clever,” said R.B., that she choses the nest of someone whose babies feed on the same sort of bird her babies like. ”

“And she usually picks on birds smaller than herself,”  added Mr. Catbird, “so the the Cowbird baby is always the strongest in the nest. It snatches all the food and crowds the others into a corner.  Sometimes it actually sits on them.”

“She’s clever,” said Mrs. Catbird. “But she’s no more clever than Mrs. Robin and I.  We refuse to be imposed upon.”  And so saying she nipped her beak into the strange egg, lifted it over the side of the nest and dropped it. It smashed to the ground below … “I do the same thing,” said Mrs. Robin. “I always hate to, though.”

“I don’t,”  said Mrs. Catbird smartly. And spreading her feathers in triumph she sat down on her own pretty eggs, while her mate, mounting high in the hawthorn bush began to sing.

Maud Hart Lovelace’s writing is beautiful and detailed.  We really enjoyed how she brought to life the habits and “personalities” of the various birds.  Equally charming are the illustrations by Eloise Wilkins.  The style really fits the story and helps us picture the birds in the story:

DSC_1380Tune is in the Tree 3 DSC_1379

As I mentioned, I planned this as a read-aloud for Miss M and I.  After Miss M and I read the first two chapters together, my hubby left on a work trip.   Work travel for hubby always disrupts our usual bedtime reading schedule.  One night in order to both satisfy the boys and Miss M’s desires to read, I offered to let the boys stay up extra late if they wanted to sit quietly for Miss M’s story as well.

I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but they enjoyed the story too!  Mr. K in particular fell in love with the story and demanded  that I go back to the beginning and read the chapters he missed (which we did the next day).  Meanwhile, Miss M grabbed the book and started reading herself.  While I normally ask her to wait and not “read ahead”, for some reason I didn’t this time.  I let her stay up to finish the book herself…and suddenly The Tune is in the Tree became a read-aloud for the boys and I!

Mr. K asked for it nearly every day until it was finished (we already had another book going as well, so that meant a lot of reading some days!).  Mr. K quizzed me about what else this author had written, if there were any more books about the birds or Annie Jo, and “why not?!?!” when he found out that this book is a one and only.  I think that is a true sign of love (coming from a six year old boy who often has a short attention span) to wish there were more books about the same characters.  We all found ourselves paying more attention to the birds around us and imagining just a little bit about their “personalities” if they were able to talk to us like the birds talked to Annie Jo.

We loved this book so much and I am so sad that copies of it are so rare, leading to exorbitantly high prices.  I would love to see this book reprinted! I think it would have a real audience among homeschoolers who are often eager for “living science” books (because, while it is a fantasy, it is packed full of detail that would appeal to anyone doing nature study or ornithology in particular), and I’m sure that if fans of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series knew how lovely this story is, they would want to add it to their collections.  Maybe someday! It’s a gem that more people should have the opportunity to read.


Read-Aloud Wrap-Up for April 2015 April 30, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:12 pm

It’s been a busy month for read-alouds at the Hill Family Homeschool (links to my blog posts reviewing each book):

Miss M and I finished Secret of the Andes for the Newbery Through the Decades Challenge and we also read What Cabrillo Found by Maud Hart Lovelace.   Our current read aloud is Brighty of the Grand Canyon — we’re about half-way through, so I’ll be reviewing that one in May.

With the boys I also selected a book for the Newbery Through the Decades Challenge — we read Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil.   Prior to Red Sails, the boy and I had a lot of fun reading Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfield.  We liked it so much that we just started the sequel (The Mystery of the Roman Ransom) today!

I’ve read to Miss M at bedtime for many years (Daddy is the bedtime reader for the boys unless he is away from home), and this year I’ve made it my habit to start nearly every school day reading with the boys (ages 6 and 8, with the 3-year-old sometimes listening and sometimes not).

We start out with Bible reading, and most of the year I’ve just read from a standard NIrV Bible, taking turns with having Mr E (the 8 year old) reading some as well.  Mr K (the six year old) would often wander off during Bible time.  Inspired by a friend’s facebook post, I decided to pull out the Action Bible (see it here on Amazon) that I bought for the boys for Christmas.  I originally bought it thinking that Mr. E would be reading it to himself — he is really into graphic novels these days.  But the reality is that it has mainly sat collecting dust.  I generally have a strong dislike for reading comic/graphic novel style books out loud.  But with a year of Beast Academy for math under our belts (a math text written in a comic/graphic style), I decided I could probably put up with the Action Bible, especially if it draws in Mr. K.

We’ve been reading it for a few days now and it seems to be doing the trick.  Mr. K is riveted and the boys are asking, “Can we read just a little more Bible?”  I prefer to have the Word of God more directly communicated, rather than the Bible stories retold — but I think there is room for both in the lives of some young boys. 🙂

After Bible time, our morning reading time usually consists of a chapter or two from our current read-aloud, and then maybe a shorter picture book selected by Mr. J (the three year old).   Some days I ask the boys to bring me books from our “history book basket.”  I pick out a variety of non-fiction books related to our current history studies and keep them all together in a basket (well, really a crate).  I find the boys don’t pick them on their own very often, so I need to encourage them to pick something during our morning read aloud time.  Their favorite series is probably the “You Wouldn’t Want to…” series from Scholastic (see a list of 75 of them here).  This month we read You Wouldn’t Want to Be A Roman Soldier, You Wouldn’t Want to be a Roman Gladiator and You Wouldn’t Want to Live in Pompeii.  This series never fails to include all the “juicy” parts — like what weapons the soldiers used, how people died, and so on.  That, along with humor in the text and illustrations make this series a favorite with my boys.

Book-of-the-month award from Mr. J goes to Super Truck by Steven Savage (here on Amazon). This cute picture book about a truck with a secret identity that saves the town during a snow storm was requested nearly daily when we had it checked out from the library.  And Mr. J is still asking where he could find this book, and it’s been close to two weeks since I returned it to the library.  I think we’ll have to check it out again — or maybe buy our own copy!

Linking up with Read-Aloud Thursday @ Hope is the Word.


Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey April 29, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:56 pm
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I find the art of sentence diagramming to be strangely appealing, while simultaneously wondering if it is a waste of time.  My grammar education in school was mediocre — I seem to recall that each year we never got beyond learning to identify subjects, predicates, nouns and verbs. I got by in upper level college English classes with an intuitive sense of grammatical correctness. It wasn’t until I began doing freelance editing, and later homeschooling my own kids, that I felt a pull to improve my grammar education.

I’ve looked forward to learning to diagram sentences along with my oldest child.  We’ve already parsed sentences — labeling the parts of speech and other aspects of the sentence — and the ideal time to learn diagramming seems near.  Yet among all the other school subjects that beckon our attention, I have to wonder what we’ll gain by doing it.

I found Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Sentence Diagramming by Kitty Burns Florey while searching our library catalog looking to see if they hold copies of a few diagramming instructional books I’ve seen mentioned recently.  Being that it is one of the only books in the library catalog on the topic, I requested it immediately.

Florey writes in a very entertaining style, mixing her own educational and professional experiences into her narrative of diagramming’s history. I was surprised to learn that diagramming only appeared on the scene in 1877 — and as an improvement of an 1860 sentence classification system involving bubbles! Diagramming was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century, and nearly dead by the 1960s.  Homeschoolers, along with a few private and public schools, carry on the banner of sentence diagramming today.

With complex sentence diagrams sometimes taking up nearly an entire two page spread, Florey ponders the style and complexity of the sentences of various authors.  Did the diagramming instruction (or lack therof) of these authors make any impression on their later style as a writer?  Florey tends to think not. She argues that diagramming sentences doesn’t necessarily make one a better writer, or even a better student of grammar.

“Few people would deny that students need to master grammar in order to write decently. But there are other places to acquire it than sixth-grade grammar classes. And where brilliant writing “comes from” is always a mystery — the simple answer is that it comes from the deep psyche of the writer who perpetrates it– but there’s a lot more to it than correct grammar. The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else…” (p. 110).

While Florey doesn’t see a lot of direct value in teaching diagramming, the book concludes with warm thoughts about its practice: “The teachers I’ve talked to who teach diagramming seem to have found a nice balance: the kids are free to express themselves, but they’re being taught the skills they need–and diagramming is one aspect of that teaching–to express themselves not only clearly but also in correct, intelligible English that’s a pleasure rather than a chore to read” (p. 154).

Tonight my daughter saw Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog sitting out while I was preparing to write this review.  We looked at a few diagrams together, and had fun trying to make out a few semi-complex diagrams in the book.  We laughed together over the diagram of Chomsky’s famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”  She admitted to be intrigued by diagramming as well.  I’m leaning toward thinking we’ll give it a try in the fall.  🙂


Logic of English Foundations: A Great Start in Reading and Spelling April 26, 2015

Filed under: Curriculum,Spelling — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:55 pm

We’ve been using Logic of English products in our homeschool for about three years now! I’ve written mostly about my experiences using Logic of English Essentials, a program that’s generally best for Ages 7 and up.  Today I’m excited to share about my experiences using Logic of English Foundations with Mr. K, who is currently 6. DSC_0694

I’m actually using the Foundations material for the second time.  I purchased a beta-test version of the Foundations curriculum when Mr. E was in Kindergarten.  I didn’t get in on the first round of beta testers in the fall of Mr. E’s Kindergarten year, and purchased it about half-way through that year.  The Foundations lessons weren’t in their final form yet, everything was in PDF (so workbook pages had to be printed out), and I had already been teaching him reading using standard phonics and some Logic of English methods for almost an entire year before we even began Foundations — so I didn’t feel my experience was “typical” enough to really write about it.

Mr. K is my first child that I have taught to read entirely using Logic of English materials (not counting adding in additional easy-reader/phonics books)!  I began Logic of English Foundations A very slowly when Mr. K was about 4.5, and we continued through his whole PreK year.  Since I felt pretty comfortable with teaching the initial 26 phonograms, we used the program pretty loosely, and mostly when he felt like working on it.  By the end of the last school year, he was reading most any CVC word, and knew all the sounds of those first 26 phonograms.

I waited until this fall to teach him lower case letter formation — he really just wasn’t interested last year as a pre-K’er.  He had taught himself how to make upper case letters, and was content with that.  So, after an initial couple weeks spent on letter formation, we started Logic of English Foundations B near the beginning of this past fall when Mr. K was 5.5 and a Kindergartener.

Mr. K absolutely loves “doing dragon” as he calls Logic of English Foundations (the workbook covers have cute dragon illustrations).  He loves that the lessons have a lot of variety, including games and movement activities.  This year we’ve shot at phonograms with a nerf gun, drove toy trains around a track to “follow the directions,” crawled through the tunnel of a “silent e machine,” as well as plenty of hopping, skipping, slapping and tossing baskets as we practice words and phonograms. Mr. K also loves the satisfaction of writing words and reading interesting books that are included at the back of the workbook.

LoE Foundations 2014-2015

There are a lot of things I love about Foundations — the teacher manual is well laid-out and easy to understand, it’s easy to keep the attention of even a distractable kid, and the prep-work for me is minimal. Lessons typically include a short phonogram and/or spelling rule lesson, sometimes a phonemic awareness activity, phonogram practice (usually a game or active activity), a couple of interesting workbook pages (they might be matching, reading, rhyming, or writing) and five spelling words to write down.  After each five regular lessons, there’s a review lesson.

For us, an average pace of about three lessons per week has been just about perfect.  We finished level B in January and moved right on to level C, which we should finish up right as we end the school year at the end of May.  Early on we may have done closer to four lessons per week, and it has been a bit more of a challenge to complete three lessons per week in the second half of level C as the lessons get a bit longer.

It’s hard to think of very much I don’t like about Foundations! Perhaps the one thing I’ve noticed is those pacing differences as we progress in C.  I feel like the last handful of phonograms are being presented a bit more quickly and there is more material to cover.   I know Mr. K needs more time to learn all these new phonograms — and with so many new phonograms he as started to confuse some “old” ones he had previously mastered! So, I’m not really expecting mastery of all the more obscure phonograms.  While I have followed the teacher manual for Foundations a lot more closely than I follow the teacher manuals for a lot of programs, if there is one thing we’ve slacked on a bit, it is probably phonogram games —  certain games take longer than others (card games in particular), or introduce extra distractions as our three-year-old thinks he should play too (it’s tough to tell the toddler that he can’t have a turn to shoot the phonograms, so we usually just let him have a turn too).  We’ll play extra phonogram games all summer and review them next year as well in Level D, which should hopefully make up for this shortcoming.

Mr. K is a pretty good reader for a six-year-old Kindergartener.  While we haven’t done a lot of reading outside of Foundations lessons lately, I am excited for a break from new lessons in the summer just to read! With having had at least exposure to all the basic phonograms by the end of the school year, he’ll be ready to dive into plenty of real books.

Overall, I highly recommend Logic of English Foundations if you have a 4-6 year old who is ready to learn letters and letter sounds.  With the variety of activities, it should be adaptable to the needs of children with many personalities and learning styles.  If you are hoping for a quick “sit for ten minutes a day and get it done” sort of program with no other activities or extras, you might not enjoy Foundations as much.   But if you want to tackle teaching reading and spelling in a fun, multisensory approach, then Foundations is definitely a curriculum you should consider.


Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil April 24, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:59 pm

I selected Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil as a read-aloud for my boys (ages 6 and 8…with the three-year-oldnewbery-through-the-decades sometimes listening in) as a part of the Newbery Through the Decades Challenge.  Red Sails to Capri was an honor book in 1953 (The same year as the last Newbery title I reviewed!).

Taking place in the early 19th century, Red Sails to Capri is a a story of adventure, mystery, and relationships. Michele is the 14-year-old son of inn keepers on the island of Capri.   Three unexpected off-season visitors reach the island in a sailing ship with distinctive red sails and take up residence in his parents’ inn.  One visitor is in search of beauty, one is in search of adventure, and the third wants solitude, room to think, and ultimately truth.  Michele and his family aren’t exactly sure how their visitors will satisfy their desires,  but they intend to work as hard as possible to keep their guests happy.

One thing leads to another and as Michele asks one visitor what this strange word “philosophy” means, a discussion breaks out that eventually turns to a cove that Monsieur Jacques, the guest in search of adventure, had seen on a sail around the island.  Everyone on Capri is afraid of the cove.  Stories have been passed down for years of horrible creatures or awful pirates that might dwell in the cove.  Tales are told of people dying who tried to visit.  No one really even dares mention the cove any longer for fear that bad luck will come just from talking about it.

Eventually, the truth must be sought out.  The guests each find what they were looking for, and the locals finally learn to face their fears.  This book seems to be very loosely based on a true story, at least from what I gathered in reading an article on wikipedia.

The boys and I enjoyed this book quite a bit, though it was a bit slow at the start while the relationships were developing.  Once the action picked up a bit mid-way through the book, the boys were eager for me to read as much as I had time for each day. I found it a bit hard to read out loud, as their are many chunks of back and forth dialog that are not “attributed” to each speaker…like this:

“One could easily get in, Herre Nordstrom.”

“And why not out again?”

“That would depend on what you find inside the cave.”

“Find? What could I find?”

“Many things, perhaps.”

“What things?”

“There are many stories.”

“I am all ears, Angelo.”

While it is pretty obvious while you are reading which line belongs to which person, I am not so awesome at varying my voice between two men talking to make them sound distinctly different.  I think the boys followed what was going on anyway, despite the lack I was perceiving in making the characters voices sound distinctly different from one another.

Overall, I recommend this title — I think it will especially appeal to boys who like stories with a bit of intrigue and adventure.


What Cabrillo Found by Maud Hart Lovelace April 19, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 4:49 pm
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I find it quite exciting to read a book by one of my most favorite DSC_1214authors, even when the book itself turns out to only be so-so.  That’s how I’m feeling about What Cabrillo Found by Maud Hard Lovelace.   Maud is one of my all time favorite children’s book authors, and I adore her Betsy-Tacy series.  We’ve visited her childhood home on more than one occasion.  When Miss M was little, I even created a lapbook from scratch about the first two books in the Betsy-Tacy series.  April is a great month to read one of Maud’s books in honor of her birthday on April 25th.  🙂

It’s been on my “to-do” list for a while to finish reading the three children’s books written by Maud Hart Lovelace that I haven’t yet read.  Since we are planning a trip to California later this year, What Cabrillo Found seemed like a great choice.  I also just realized recently that our library does, in fact, own circulating copies of this book (I had it confused with another book that our library only holds a reference copy of).

What Cabrillo Found is a fictionalized biography of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to navigate the coast of what is now California.  Lovelace’s account of Cabrillo begins when Cortes first sails for Mexico, and Cabrillo joins in with that expedition a year or more after Cortes would have first arrived.  After Mexico was subdued, Cabrillo was sent on an expedition to Guatamala.  Years later, he was part of an expedition traveling north to explore along the coast of North America, where he and his two ships finally pass the furthest point where European explorers had previously ventured, into what is now California.

Miss M and I found the style of What Cabrillo Found to be a bit unusual.  Paragraphs of historical narrative that could have come out of a nonfiction book about early exploration and conquest were mixed in with stories and dialog (clearly imagined by Lovelace).   In her author’s note, Lovelace says she tried to make her story as accurate as possible, and I am sure it was as accurate as it could have been when she wrote it in 1958.  A quick check of other sources shows that some elements of her story don’t reflect what is currently known about Cabrillo — such as the fact he was very rich, when is portrayed in the story as being more of an “average joe” who was somewhat successful in his military achievements.

Of course, opinions about how the Conquistadors acted in Mexico and Central America has changed for the worse over the years.  I thought Maud Hart Lovelace’s presentation of the actions of Cortes and the other Conquistadors was fairly balanced — almost surprisingly so for a book written nearly 60 years ago. I thought perhaps this book was old enough to be from an era in which explorers were universally glorified.  She definitely condemns the cruelty of the Spanish, while also portraying that, besides greed, the Spanish did have some noble motivations of wanting to put an end to human sacrifices and share Christianity.   I can see why, perhaps, What Cabrillo Found has yet to be reprinted — I’m not sure many of today’s readers would appreciate Maud Hard Lovelace’s perspective on the Conquistadors.

What Cabrillo Found (If you can find a copy of it) might make an interesting addition to a study of early explorers or California history — as long as you balance it out with more modern resources as well.   Miss M and I are now anxiously awaiting word from the Interlibrary Loan deparatment of our library as to whether they can locate for us a circulating copy of Maud’s rarest children’s book, The Tune is in the Tree.  Up until recently, my searches of the ILL database were not fruitful, but I tried searching a bit differently this time and I think I found a couple possibilities.  Our fingers are crossed! We’re also looking forward to reading more historical fiction set in California in the coming months as we count down to our vacation!




Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld April 15, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 4:38 pm
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Some books in the “historical fiction” genre seem meant to take seriously, while others are just fun books that happen to be set in a historical time period.  I read Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld out loud to my boys (and Miss M read it to herself), and I think we would put it in the latter category.

Detectives in Togas revolves around a group of Roman boys who attend a small, prestigious  school. The boys tease one another and get into petty fights, as schoolboys tend to do.  It was one thing for Rufus to write “Caius is a dumbbell” on his tablet at school…but is he the kind of boy to write it on the temple wall outside Caius’s house as well?  The authorities seem to think so, and Rufus is thrown in jail.  The same morning as the writing is discovered on the temple wall, the boys discovered their teacher has been robbed, bound and gagged, and thrown in his closet.

The boys want to get their friend out of trouble, and find out who robbed their teacher as well.  It is a bit of a madcap story as the boys explore possible leads, sneak around, consult a fortune teller, consider a letter to the emperor and visit various offices and officials.  I’m not sure it’s very historically realistic behavior…but unlike my expectations of The Thieves of Ostia, I didn’t really expect a humorous book to include characters that acted exactly inline with what their historical counterparts might have done.

Overall this was highly entertaining for all of us (I think the three year old was even listening in, given some of the things he said to me after we read it).  If members of your family are prone to name calling, you might want to know that calling someone a “dumbbell” is an event repeated several times in book — even by the boys’ teacher at the end of the story when he decides that Caius might really be a dumbbell after all when he gives a rather unintelligent answer to a question.  Luckily I was able to break my boys of the idea pretty quickly that it’s a word that would be allowed in our house.   Now if only I break my three-year-old so easily of the habit of using bathroom-humor sorts of words when he is mad at us! 😉

I was happy to find a copy of the sequel (Mystery of the Roman Ransom) at a recent library book sale, and we’ll probably be reading that at some point in the near future.


Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark April 13, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 5:07 pm
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I’ve already read seven of the ten Newbery Award winners from the 1950s, so I had only a few options to pick newbery-through-the-decadesfrom if  I wanted to read at least one award winner for the Newbery Through the Decades challenge for this month.  After perusing the descriptions of the three 1950s award winners I had not read, Miss M and I chose, Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark, the 1953 Newbery winner.

Secret of Andes is a coming of age story.  Cusi, an Indian boy in Peru of Inca decent, is a shepherd living high in the mountains in the care of Chuto, an older shepherd.  The story takes place in modern times, at least modern enough for a brief mention of a truck.  Other than that one clue as to the time-setting of the story, the rest of the story easily could have taken place long ago, as Cusi is living just as the Andes shepherds have for centuries.

As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about his life (as he learns more about himself).   This short (128 page) novel is a bit slow moving. It’s full of beautiful descriptions of mountains, valleys and llamas.   But it wasn’t exactly a page-turner that kept us coming back to read it each night.

There’s a big “reveal” in the last couple chapters about Cusi’s identity and the future the lays ahead of him, as well as a beautiful relational scene between Chuto and Cusi.  The last chapter almost made the rest of the book feel more worthwhile, but overall it wasn’t a favorite for us. I think had we already been studying Peru or Incan history, we might have appreciated it more.  🙂


Read-Aloud Wrap-Up for March 2015 April 8, 2015

Filed under: Books — kirstenjoyhill @ 10:55 pm
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Besides our two “Newbery Through the Decades” challenge titles for March that Miss M and I read (21 Balloons and Strawberry Girl), a lot of our read-alouds and audiobooks lately have been related to our ancient history studies.

Since I am still getting back in the habit of chronicling our reading here on the blog, I am going to back up to February momentarily.  We spent most of January and February, as well as part of March studying ancient Greece.  No study of ancient Greece would be complete without a reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey, right?

After a brief try at reading Black Ships Before Troy (Rosemary Sutcliff) with Miss M,  we decided to go with a bit simpler version.  Black Ships Before Troy was just a bit too complicated to start out with, given a limited background in greek mythology.  I picked up a copy of the Classic Starts version of the Iliad and this was just perfect for a quick read alone by Miss M (who honestly wasn’t very interested in the story!), and for a read-aloud to the boys.

I spent most of March reading the Mary Pope Osborne retelling of the Odyssey to the boys.  Osborne’s Odyssey is told in six short books (combined into just 2 volumes in some editions).  Miss M easily read them to herself at the pace of one book per day, but it took much longer for me to get through reading all six volumes aloud to the boys at a pace of two chapters per day! Luckily, they are exciting and the boys definitely wanted to find out if and when Odysseus ever made it home, so we persevered through the whole six volumes.   I enjoyed this too, having forgotten most of the details of the story of the Odyssey.

In February and into March we also listened to a much more modern mythological story — Percy Jackson and The Olympians Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  The kindle + audiobook prices for this was pretty reasonable, and I thought it would be a fun way to get the kids more excited about mythology.  I have to say, it worked pretty well.  🙂  We listened to the audio book on various car rides and occasionally in the house as well.  The Percy Jackson books are built around the premise that the gods of Greek mythology are real, and that they move their presence periodically to the strongest country in western civilization.  Of course that means that the home of the gods is currently New York City.  Percy is a demi-god, or half-blood, who must save the world from a potential war between the gods.

The Lightning Thief is quite entertaining, and I think I enjoyed it as much as the kids. It is definitely full of magic and mythology, and the descriptions of Hades and the underworld were borderline scary to me.  Interestingly, this didn’t seem to bother the kids at all — even my six year old! (It was way over the head of the 3 year old, of course).   I wouldn’t necessarily suggest this series of books to kids who are easily scared or who don’t have a firm grasp of the line between fiction and reality when it comes to talking about mythological gods.  Kids who can handle Harry Potter should do just fine.  My kids are comfortable pretending and reading stories “about those fake Greek gods,”  and it doesn’t seem to shake their genuine beliefs at all.

Miss M and I had our own audiobook in March as well.  We had a long-ish drive to and from a family event by ourselves, and I wanted to have something to make the time pass quickly in the car.  I decided to try and match up with our history studies a bit, and I chose The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence to download from the library. This is the first book in a series called “The Roman Mysteries.”

In The Thieves of Ostia, a group of children need to solve a puzzling mystery of who has been killing some of the neighborhood dogs.  It’s an exciting “whodunnit” that pays a lot of attention to Roman customs and details of life in the first century AD.   This is definitely more appropriate for older elementary ages and up — in fact, I later realized that the paper copies of this book are shelved in the teen section of our library!  The book contained some rather vivid descriptions of the poor treatment of slaves, and graphic depictions of the beheading of the dogs.  Drunkenness and suicide are also touched upon in the course of the story.  Miss M (age 10.5), was not bothered by this…but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable listening to it with the boys (ages 8 and 6).

While interesting and full of detail, I did feel like The Thieves of Ostia fell into the trap that many historical fiction novels fall into of projecting modern views onto people from a different era.  I didn’t find it very believable that the daughter of a well-off sea captain, a slave girl, a Jewish-Christian boy, and a mute beggar boy (the main characters of the story) would really have become friends and share in the solving of a mystery in Roman times.  In general, it was hard for me to picture kids from Roman times “searching for clues.”  There was practically even a “I would have gotten away with it if it wouldn’t have been for you meddling kids” line from the culprit when he was caught.

Overall, I don’t think we’ll be seeking out any more books from this series, though perhaps it is someting Miss M will pick up and read on her own at some point.