Book Reflection: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

There is something in a good book that carries the reader away on a journey into goodness, truth and beauty, that leads out into an unknown and imaginative land where anything perhaps is possible. Sometimes this is fiction, the lie that tells the truth, after all as Neil  Gaiman says.  Sometimes however it’s autobiography mixed with remembrances that may or may not be fiction so long ago was the memory from the writer.  

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of those stories that our family has enjoyed twice in the last ten years, narrated wonderfully to us through the voice of Cherry Jones. The audiobook has twice carried us south to Kansas from South Dakota, to visit family, usually as the cold of winter sets in around Christmas time. Mrs. Wilder’s stories are always painted in the hues of Michael Landon’s television series, robbing our own imagination of creating the pictures, the faces and the landscape of the series. But we don’t worry about that too much. The TV series did the stories well.

The Long Winter is just as the title describes. The length and intensity of the winter is solemnly prophesied by both a muskrat and a stoic native American right at the outset and neither were wrong. The first blizzard storms across Dakota Territory in October and the snow doesn’t melt until May. Everything in between is snow and wind and blizzard and a desperate struggle to survive. It’s a mesmerizing story, surprisingly captivating seeing as how much of the story is trapped by snow inside the Ingalls home.  But there is something in it that captures the imagination, that draws the reader into a time and place, something about the experience of winter that slows a person down and causes one to take stock.  

Winter is that way, isn’t it?  Or at least it could be if only we’d lean in, shut off the TV and listen. The short days and cold weather drive us inside to books and to reflection. Annie Dillard put it this way: “It’s winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.” 

The Long Winter is an excellent choice of book to read in the cold of winter.  As the days grow shorter and then miraculously, slowly begin to lengthen again even as the temperatures drop, it’s a book that will help you slow down, take stock, and find the blessings of the year that has passed even as you begin to dream about the one that lies ahead.

by Aaron G Myers

Book Review: The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely

Synopsis

 When their Uncle Jim dies, leaving Becky, Dick, Phil and Joan Linville orphans, the only thing they have left is the land in Dakota Territory their uncle had claimed and his written instructions to lead them. Leaving their town in the east, the siblings, guided by Becky’s mothering instincts and Dick’s growing strength, set off to “prove” the land by living on it and improving it for fourteen months. When they arrive in Tripp County and to the home their uncle has left them, they are enamored by the beauty of the prairie. Things go well at first as they set to planting a garden, making a home in the barn and getting to know their neighbors. Soon however challenges begin to mount up.  Another family who has also laid claim to their land, squatting in a makeshift shack, begins to make trouble for the young settlers. A desperate drought sets in, destroying their crops and much of the food they had hoped to put up for winter. Life becomes a struggle to survive but with a little luck, a lot of determination and the kindness of neighbors, the Linvilles not only survive, they begin to thrive.

Review 

If you like the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll love this book. Written three years before the first Little House story, The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely is an adventurous and touching story of determination, grit and the kindness of good neighbors. The children are likable and refreshing as they mature and grow. The struggles they face – mean spirited and cruel squatters, the stone cold harshness of prairie weather and their own assailing doubts – ring true to the real life biographies of those early settlers making this a masterfully written piece of historic fiction. The story will leave you rooting for the Linville kids and hoping they will succeed.  The Jumping-Off Place is a great piece of historic fiction set in the last days of the settling of the prairie in the early 1900’s.  

  • Ages: 12 – 99
  • Awards: Newbery Honor Book (1930)
  • Pages: 319
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G. Myers

Book Review: Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Synopsis

Nan Sparrow is young, covered in soot and an orphan. She is a chimney sweep living in the Victorian London of the late 1800’s and five years ago her beloved benefactor simply known as the Sweep left, leaving her with but one gift, a small lump of coal.  With no one else to care for her, she finds herself working for a heartless chimney sweep overlord named Wilkie Crudd who regularly sends young children down dangerous chimneys. Through hard work, cunning and a little luck, Nan escapes one tight spot after another. But then one day, as she is cleaning the chimneys at Miss Mayhew’s Seminary for Young Ladies, Nan gets caught in a chimney fire and her luck runs out. In a fantastic miracle, her small lump of coal mysteriously transforms into an ash and coal monster who has carried her away to safety.  For the rest of the story, Nan and her monster who she calls Charlie make a way for themselves in this cruel world, protecting one another and helping other sweeps along the way.  

Review 

A Dickensian tale of adventure, fantasy and history, Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is a wonderful story of friendship, compassion and courage.  Auxier is masterful at creating characters rich with personality that readers will immediately grow to love.  The story itself is a mixture of historic fiction and fantasy and I thoroughly enjoyed the plot as it climbed to its climax. The description of the people and places of late 19th century Victorian London are masterful.  One reviewer wrote that the story was, “at once both magical and moralizing, hopeful and heartbreaking.” I couldn’t agree more. Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is a great book that I’ll be reading again soon.

  • Ages: 8 – 99
  • Awards: 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award
  • Pages: 344
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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by Aaron G. Myers

Book Review: The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Synopsis

When a traveling circus goes under and is set to sell all of its possessions, including a large Asian elephant, a local gang leader sends in a young, mute street urchin under his power to scope out the hoard in search of clues to a rumored treasure that the past owner has hidden. For the boy, later named Danny, a chaotic turn of events leads him to the zoo keeper Mr. Jamison. Danny helps Jamison buy Maharajah the majestic elephant and discovers he has a bond with the animal. From there the story careens forward, Danny and Maharajah at the center of mystery, adventure and a race from Scotland toward England, all under the pressure of Mr. Jamison’s quest for publicity, a rival zoo keeper’s ploys to slow the journey down and Danny’s past. It is a topsy-turvy journey and will keep readers on the edge of their seats.  

Review 

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr is a wonderfully written historical fiction based on the very real Asian elephant, Maharajah, and its 200 mile walk to the Belle Vue Zoo after he refused to board a train. While the original trek seems to have been rather devoid of the adventure that Kerr brings to her story, it is still a fun fact of history and, if you are ever in Manchester, England you can see the skeleton of this great elephant, preserved since it’s death at the age of eighteen in 1890.  

As to the story itself, Kerr does a masterful job of adding adventure, mystery and great character development to the uneventful walk. The adventure is fast paced and exciting and throughout the journey the mystery of where the hidden treasure lies continues to surface. The character of Danny is wonderfully developed and the other characters are realistic and fun. All in all The Elephant Thief is a race through the English countryside even as it is a race against time and bad characters with nefarious intent. Our family each found ourselves racing through the story as it was hard to put down. We enjoyed it immensely and we think you will too.

  • Ages: 8 – 99
  • Awards: None
  • Pages: 325
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G Myers

Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

Synopsis

Twelve year old Deza Malone has a decent life in Gary, Indiana. Her mother and father love her. She has a great teacher who believes in her and a wonderful best friend in Clarice Anne Johnson. Her older brother Jimmie may be annoying but his singing voice is that of the angels. There is only one thing. It is 1936 and her family is dirt poor.  So poor in fact that her one pair of shoes are way too small and her decaying teeth are left untreated for lack of funds. Her decent life begins to fall apart when her father loses his job and finds that no one will hire a black man.  Her father decides to take to the road in search of a job. Shortly after that, her mother loses her job as a maid and together they make the decision to leave Gary and go in search of their father. The family travels north to Flint, Michigan, her father’s home town and ends up living in a hooverville on the outskirts of town because the family they had hoped to find in Flint were no longer there. They cannot find their father, Jimmie leaves to try his luck at making money with a band and the police raid the hooverville and burn their tent to the ground. By the end of the story, the family is reunited but it is not without tragedy, a deep look at the causes and effects of poverty and the kind of grit and determination that give a girl like Deza the nickname, the mighty miss Malone.

Review

While Curtis’ book Bud, Not Buddy is probably a better written story, there is something about the spunk, determination and hope of the Malone family that make The Mighty Miss Malone my favorite of all of his books. While the book stands as a sort of exposé on the ravages of poverty during the depression and the deep racism of the time that made it even harder on black families, Deza Malone is a masterful narrator who invites the reader to get to know the whole Malone family.  With twists in plot and a great attention to historic detail, the reader will be drawn into rooting for the Malone family to find their father and for the family to find its way back together again. While the plot occasionally wanders down interesting paths that don’t add a lot to it, the overall story is quite good.  It’s a great book to help readers enter into the challenges of the depression era. If you liked any of Christopher Paul Curtis’ other books, you’ll surely enjoy The Mighty Miss Malone.

  • Age: 10 – 99
  • Awards: None
  • Pages: 320
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron Myers

Book Review: The Tugging String By David Greenberg

Synopsis

Duvy Greenberg is the son of NAACP lawyer Jack Greenberg, the close friend of Thurgood Marshall.  But that doesn’t matter. While Duvy cares about what he sees on TV and what he hears whispered from his parents’ bedroom, he is far more interested in not making a fool of himself in Football than Civil Rights. In Selma Alabama, Dorthy Milton wants to vote, but as a black woman living in the segregated south, this is easier said than done.  When she fails the ridiculous test that racist voting officials make up for her, Dorthy is determined to see change. She is ready for action and lucky for her, the Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is coming to Selma and she might just be able to help.  An interesting blend of historical fiction and autobiography, this book alternates between the fictionalized childhood of the author, son of a prominent Civil Rights Lawyer, and the dramatized events that occurred in Selma Alabama, 1965.

Review

The Tugging String is interesting because the author is the actual son of NAACP lawyer, Jack Greenberg.  Using memories from his childhood and fictionalization of historical events, Greenberg weaves a masterful piece of historical fiction that brings to life the troubling events of the Selma Montgomery marches and American life in 1965.  The book skips between Duvy and Dorthy’s perspectives and it is interesting because, unlike in most dual point of view (POV) books, the two main characters are completely different, both in their ages and their walk of life. On top of that, they never meet anytime during the story.  The stories do not connect very much and while they are somewhat parallel, it’s a crooked kind of parallel.  However, the dual POV sheds an interesting light on the riots in Selma, offering a close-up perspective with Dorthy while Duvy feels and sees the effects of the marches from afar.  The book perfectly captures a national struggle with racism, fear and freedom. It brings to life a period of American history clearly and honestly.  The book stays pretty close to history and is realistic in tone, yet the drama of the times is enough on its own to ensure a thrilling read. I would highly recommend The Tugging String by David Greenberg.  

  • Age:  9 – 99
  • Awards:  None
  • Pages: 167
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Malachi L Myers

Book Review: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Synopsis

Johnny Tremain is an apprentice silversmith and his career has nowhere to go but up.  Already the most valuable apprentice in his workshop, Johny even begins to rival his master in skill.  However Johnny wants more, things in Boston are brewing and Johnny can feel it in the air.  It’s 1773 and the Sons of Liberty and British regulars occupying the city are clashing at every opportunity, change is in the air, fresh and smelling of freedom.  On top of that, new revelations and old secrets surrounding the mysterious origin of Johnny’s family begin to resurface and the young silversmith is willing to do anything to get to the bottom of it.  All around him, Johnny sees people making choices, carrying secrets; everyone is somehow caught up in the tumultuous activities that are pulling not just Boston, but all of the American Colonies, closer and closer into conflict with King George.  As Johnny gets pulled deeper into the conflict he must question everything, his trade, his family, and his identity.  

Review

Johnny Tremain can take its place without question on the list of best historical fictions ever written.  It encapsulates the thrilling years leading up to the Boston Tea Party and Battle of Lexington, bringing historic figures like James Otis, John Hancock and John and Samuel Adams to life with perfect clarity.  The setting and characters are realistic, compelling, and relatable and the plot is fascinating and full of twists.  Without a doubt, it is the best historical fiction written about the American Revolution; not only does it bring to light the events and historical figures of the era as a main element of the plot, but it also has an independent and completely fascinating plot line that runs parallel to the historical events. The character of Johnny is particularly riveting.   Although advertised as a “children’s classic” the book in content and volume is probably more of a young adult read, with complicated plots and, as an older book, language that might be difficult for beginning readers to grasp.  I would highly recommend Johnny Tremain.  

  • Ages:  10-99
  • Awards: Newbery Medal
  • Pages: 320
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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By Malachi L. Myers

Textbook or Historical Fiction? The Genevieve Foster Collection

Genevieve Foster was a children’s author and amateur historian who wrote through the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies.  Her “Genevieve Foster Collection” is her most famous work, and her most intriguing.  The books included in the collection are George Washington’s World, Abraham Lincoln’s World, Augustus Caesar’s World, The World of Captain John Smith, The World of Columbus and Sons, and The World of William Penn.  

A fascinating mixture – one part textbook and one part fiction – the collection is written in the third person from the point of view of various historical persons all around the globe living during the lifetime of the title character.  

The books are divided into segments. For instance in George Washington’s World, the sections are:

  1. When George Washington was a Child
  2. When George Washinton was a Soldier
  3. When Geroge Washington was a Farmer
  4. When George Washington was a General
  5. When George Washinton was a Citizen
  6. When George Washington was President

The book covers the major historical events and figures that ran through Washington’s lifetime and draws connections and parallels between them. Some subjects are only brushed over, where more main events, including the timeline of the book’s namesake, are featured repeatedly.  

In terms of an educational viewpoint, the books are a fantastic idea. They show, much better than any textbook, the way events and historical figures are connected and demonstrate that history is a story, a stream of events rather than a never ending trail of unrelated incidents.  

The books also personalize historical figures in a way that makes them more relatable to readers.  For instance, Augustus Caesar’s World starts off with a scene of young Octavius (later to become Augustus Caesar) stargazing with his friends.  It’s a fictionalized account of Octavias showing him as a real person not just a colossus of history.  

With this balance between fact and fiction some historic accuracy is undoubtedly lost but the main facts and dates of the era are accurate and the creative elements are informed by historical knowledge of attitudes and customs of the times. In this way, historical figures are shown to be real, tangible people, with some of the same problems all everyday people face.

The Genevieve Foster Books unlock history in a way that is interesting, fascinating, and very informative, not only picking up on main events but also on some lesser-known peoples, places, and incidents that are harder to find in mainstream textbooks. Each book is also filled with regular drawings and diagrams to help bring the content to life. In this way, the Genevieve Foster collection creates an avenue for learning history not often considered, but in my opinion, just as educational and much more engaging than the conventional textbook.

The Genevieve Foster Collection is a fantastic addition to any homeschool library and the perfect gift for any child who is a budding history lover.

  • Ages: 8 – 99
  • Awards: Four time Newbery Runner-Up
  • Pages: 300 – 400 pages
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Collection

By Malachi L. Myers

Book Review: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Synopsis

After his father takes a job as an electrician and guard, Moose Flanagan and his family find themselves living on the rock, the famous island home of the even more famous prison of Alcatraz. While Alcatraz is home to famous prisoners like Roy Gardner,  Machine Gun Kelly, and Al Capone, Moose soon discovers that his biggest problems will come from his friendship with the warden’s conniving daughter Piper.  Her scheme to charge students at their on shore school for the opportunity to have Al Capone wash their clothes is soon discovered by the warden thrusting Moose into the complicated and confusing realities of friendship.  His other challenge is his mom’s quest to find the very best help for Moose’s older sister Natalie who today would probably be diagnosed with autism.  As Moose is forced to watch over his sister while simultaneously trying to win and keep friends, he battles to maintain perspective, understand his friendships and care for his sister who has unwittingly become friends with one of the convicts. In a last ditch effort to help his sister get into the Marinoff P. Esther School for people with special needs, Moose, with the help of Piper, writes a letter to Al Capone asking him to pull some strings to make the school accept her. 

Review

Al Capone Does My Shirts is a fantastic story that I really loved.  The pacing of the plot is perfect – never too fast and never dragging. The characters are well developed so that I grew to despise Piper and even struggled to allow her grow through her immaturity and become a true friend for both Moose and for Natalie. The myriad of themes that Moose has to wrestle throughout ring true to the life of any pre-teen working to fit into a new school and neighborhood – even if Moose’s neighborhood includes maximum security convicts like Al Capone.  As a historical fiction, the story was well researched and I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s note at the end which included three interviews with people who were children on the island during the era of the story. Themes of friendship, family dynamics, right and wrong are all interspersed with a healthy dose of humor making this a rich tale that was touching and fun to read.  

  • Ages: 8 – 99
  • Awards: Newbery Honor; California Young Reader Award
  • Pages: 215
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G Myers

Book Review: The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher

Synopsis

After an accident on his Wyoming farm that leaves  twelve year old Johnny Littlehorn on crutches, his French mother decides to send him to France, where hopefully better Doctors and fresh air can cure him.  Johnny is not happy to go to France and even less happy when he finds he must spend the summer with his Uncle in the sleepy little village of St. Charmant. However, once he gets there things soon begin to change.  Johnny is fascinated by the “Automatic Airplane ” his Uncle is building, and begins to grow suspicious when mysterious strangers from Paris seem to have followed him to the village.  With the help of his new friends, Johnny begins to uncover what might just be a Nazi plot, and learns how to overcome his injury and the impossibility of the French language.  The Avion My Uncle Flew is a fun, fast paced story of spies, secrets and sabotage set in the French countryside in the years following the Second World War.  

Review

This was one of my favorite books through middle school. The story was exotic and fresh, yet captured my imagination with the same themes of boyish adventure that can be found in classics like Tom Sawyer or Treasure Island.  The themes of overcoming adversity, friendship and discovery run thick through the pages of this book, and set against the backdrop of a serene Alpine village, the book creates a story world that is hard to get out of.  I thought the characters were all exceptionally well developed and the plot, although breakneck and at times somewhat “coincidental”, was well woven and kept me at the edge of my seat.  I found the elements where Johnny had to learn French particularly interesting.  Along the way you might just pick up a few French phrases yourself.  The parts of the book where Johnny is injured and must push through his pain towards recovery could be encouraging to those battling an injury of sickness.  While the main plot is serious, the author maintains a strong thread of humor through the entire narrative.  Overall this book had the makings of a classic – timeless characters, unique setting and a fascinating plot.  I would highly recommend it. 

  • Ages: 9-99
  • Awards: Newbery Honor
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Malachi Myers