Lost in the Bayou, by Cornell DeVille

lost in the bayou

I love this cover. It sucked me in immediately. I’ve always liked survival stories, and this one looked intriguing. Whoa! It got intense in a hurry.

Andy and Robin are orphans, or so everyone “official” is telling them, even though the bodies of their parents have not been found. It’s a new role for them and they don’t like it. Not at all. Especially now that Uncle Conrad has come. Robin has no doubt, Conrad wants them dead, and he’s crazy enough to do it. With the children out of his way, Conrad would inherit their fortune.

So the kids take off into the swamp.

This one is fast-paced all the way through. The danger is immediate, and the setting is absolutely fabulous. Check this out:

To my left, the moon is breaking through the gray clouds now and frosting the landscape with a pale silver glow. It lights our way somewhat, but it makes the moss-covered limbs of the trees look like grotesque arms in ragged sleeves, beckoning as our shadows dance along beside us.

Now add to the foggy swamp alligators, the legend of an asylum escapee, and the mystery of the missing parents, and you have a real page-turner.

I do have a couple cautions: There are a few minor language incidences and some omg’s. And Uncle Conrads’ threats are pretty disturbing. He’s a real wacko who makes a game out of killing the children. It might be pretty freaky for younger readers, although I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it off to an eleven-year-old. There’s danger and some intense moments, but the outcome is quite mild. I read the whole thing in one sitting. I highly recommended it for adventure-loving boys.

Dream Warriors (Joey Cola, 1), by D. Robert Pease

joey colaI loved Noah Zarc, Mr. Pease’s MG trilogy. And I enjoyed his recent grown up fantasy, Shadow Swarm. But this is his best book yet.

Just as Noah was a loose parody of the Bible story, so Joey has similarities to the biblical story of Joseph. If you’re familiar with those old favorites, I’ll let you pick out the parallels–there’s a bunch. But Joey soon takes a dive into the fantasy world that’s full of originality, fun, danger, romance, and suspense. There are some great twists and turns in here that I never saw coming!

Joey’s father is a well-to-do former ambassador to Italy and the patriarch of a large Italian American family. Joey is the eleventh of twelve sons and routinely persecuted for being the favorite. But when his father gives him an amulet, a family heirloom that traces back to ancient Egypt, Joey suddenly finds himself in a position of strength–as a warrior in the world of dreams. The alternate world, however, is more closely linked to reality than he first assumed. And friends and enemies can’t be taken at face value.

This one is appropriately billed as YA. There is some violence, but it’s mostly, well, dreamlike. Dream warriors have some great gladiator scenes, but they can’t die. Mortal blows simply send them back to wakefulness. But they can be killed if they’re followed back to their physical bodies. Also, romance is sweet. There’s some very mild sensuality. Nothing I’d censor for my kids (and I’m pretty conservative), but it might be enough to gross out fourth or fifth graders. Language is 100% clean. I highly, highly recommend this one for anyone eighth grade or older.

Grab a copy from Amazon.

Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool

navigating earlyThis is a strange book, one that has beautiful moments I’ve come to associate with Clare Vanderpool, but it doesn’t always resonate with me. At times, the book even feels over-written and abstract with images that are too great a stretch. And I struggled to get a handle on Early.

Early Auden is a young boy whose behavior is sometimes simplistic, sometimes remarkably advanced. He kept me puzzled and guessing throughout the entire story. Only after I reached the end of the book did I realize the author had modeled his behavior on what we now define as autism. But as the story takes place at the close of WWII, it has no name or diagnosis. I sort of wish I’d read the author’s note first. It changed the whole way I think of the story…and the story did make me think.

Jack Baker finds himself miles from home at the close of the war and after his mother’s death, enrolled in a school for boys. There he meets Early Auden who has a fascination for the number pi. Early sees the sequence of numbers as landscape and color and tells an entire story about the character named Pi that closely follows the boys’ own real-life adventures. But when a mathematician suggests that the number pi might end, Early throws a tantrum. That’s when Jack realizes Early is suffering a loss of his own, a loss he just won’t accept.

“Connecting the dots. That’s what Mom said stargazing is all about. It’s the same up there as it is down here, Jackie. You have to look for the things that connect us all. Find the ways our paths cross, our lives intersect, and our hearts collide.” Taken from the epilogue, that’s a pretty good summary of the message of this book.

I give this one a recommendation with a minor caution (not against content). While it’s deep and beautiful and a “thinker”, this book is a little slow, and Early is hard to relate to. Great for diehard  readers, but I’d probably point less motivated kids in another direction.

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz

splendors-and-glooms

I liked this book far more than the cover and title made me think I would. (The title comes from an old Percy Shelley poem, which is not my forte, and the cover is downright creepy.) I grabbed it simply because it took Newbery honors last year, and when it comes to the Newbery award, I have more hits than misses. This one was a definite hit.

This is a difficult book to summarize. There is much more going on and much deeper characterization than I can explain in a paragraph. So I’m going to do something I rarely do—cheat. (It’s okay, I have an excuse. I’m camping.) This is the blurb taken from Goodreads:

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini’s act and invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack — adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara’s life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall.

As they seek to puzzle out Clara’s whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini’s criminal past and wake up to his evil intentions. Fleeing London, they find themselves caught in a trap set by Grisini’s ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance to shed before it’s too late.

See? A lot going on. And this summary doesn’t come close to doing it justice. It’s a mixture of sweet, sad, and plain old creepy. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It had almost a Dickens feel to it, with its rich characters and Victorian London setting. I loved, loved the two orphans, especially Parsefall, who’s a tough street kid with motives that are never sugar-coated. Ms. Schlitz did a fine job of never compromising his character and yet was still able to make him so likeable. The book prompts no content warnings. I give this one a high recommendation. 10+

Grab Splendors and Glooms on Amazon.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

where the mountain meets the moon

This was a sweet little story that took Newbery honors a few years ago. Minli lives in a small, poor village in ancient Asia with her Ma, who has become bitter at their poverty, and Ba (father), who tells stories to lighten it. After a visit by a traveling peddler, Minli sets out to change her family’s fortune—which she does, but not in any way she might expect.

This was not a terribly compelling tale. Rather, it’s sweet, unhurried, and magical. I really enjoyed the magic: dragons, goldfish who talk, an evil magistrate whose spirit still haunts the earth, and the Man of the Moon who ties together each human’s destiny with red thread. The sacrificial friendship that evolves between Minli and a flightless dragon is just as magical. But what I loved most was the way Ba’s stories come full circle and wrap around the entire adventure. By the end, all is well but nothing is the same. Minli, her parents, her town, her neighbors, and even the dragon, are all different as a result of Minli’s courage and choices.

I’d rate this one an easy 4 star. The adventure really didn’t grip me—it’s pretty tame—but the style is engaging. I was equally intrigued by the Asian setting, having just finished Fire on the Mountain. Coincidental timing. A great read for ages 9-12. It would also be a super accompaniment to a unit on China.

If you do pick this one up, be sure to read the afterward that tells how the tale came to be. It made the story even more interesting to me to hear the author explain how she came to embrace her own Asian background.

Grab Where the Mountain Meets the Moon on Amazon.

 

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

flora and ulysses

This is not my favorite work by DiCamillo. It often seemed silly and repetitive, annoying even. I certainly would not have awarded it a Newbery. But by the end, it had a sweetness to it, a completeness. A feel-good-ness.

Ulysses is a squirrel that was accidently vacuumed up by Mrs. Tootie Tickham. After receiving CPR, Ulysses finds he has super powers. He can fly, type, and understand human speech. He’s even acquired super strength. (Are you catching on to the randomness?) Enter a neurotic nephew, an eccentric romance novelist, a cynic who learned all her coping skills from comic books, and a few more questionable characters, and you have the most bizarre tale I’ve read this year. Yet out from this mess rings a loud and hopeful theme—love, between friends and neighbors, between a girl and a squirrel, and between family members.

I have to include the epilogue because it’s my favorite part of the book. This is poetry written by a squirrel. It touches on all the weird things that happen in the book. It also illustrates the book’s redeeming quality.

Words for Flora

Nothing
would be
easier without
you,
because you
are
everything,
all of it—
sprinkles, quarks, giant
donuts, eggs sunny-side up—
you
are the ever-expanding
universe
to me.

Silly? Yup. Random? Strange? Yup. Yup. But sweet. Recommended for ages 8+.

Grab a copy here.

Struggling Readers

As I’m preparing for the upcoming homeschool year, I’m going to take a break from book reviews to touch on a related literary subject–struggling readers. I have one of these. In fact, I have two. The younger one is a typical boy who’d rather spend time outside and therefore commits way less than his full abilities to the school subjects at hand. As a result, he’s a moderately low reader. My older son is highly motivated, yet he’s extremely low–even after years of personalized, one-on-one instruction.

Though I hold a teaching degree, I do not have specific training in reading disabilities. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. And it is a little embarrassing for a teacher/author to have a child two grades behind in language arts. I’m supposed to have all the answers, right? NOT! Occassionally, I wonder if I should let the state take over. They have trained professionals. They can diagnose disabilities. (I strongly suspect dyslexia.) But then I think, this child would never keep up in a regular classroom. He’d be labeled a “dumb kid” and would most likely fall through the cracks of an already overburdened system. So I plod on, celebrating each miniscule victory, and doing a lot of reading on the side.

Yeah, sometimes I feel like this guy! (Courtesy of PhotoXpress.)

Yeah, sometimes I feel like this guy! (Courtesy of PhotoXpress.)

I recently read Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties, by Jerome Rosner. It’s a bit dated, but it had some really good stuff in it. Like most of the books I read, it bolstered my confidence, assuring me that I am cut out for this job–the teaching tips and methods given are always instinctive to me. This particular book didn’t add anything new to my repertoire of reading activities, but it did recommend three ways to deal with a child with a learning disability that I found extremely helpful and reinforcing, because I’ve done them all at one time or another: wait, remediate, or accommodate.

Waiting means not progressing with a grade, subject, or concept until the child acquires the developmental skills required for mastery. Example one, story problems. My son couldn’t do them independently to save his life. So we’d work them out together. Then one day–a year or two later than it was “supposed” to happen, they just clicked. Example two, grammar. This requires abstract thinking. We put it off till he was ready and didn’t worry about what the “experts” said. For reading, however my son is way past the age of waiting. We need to move on to another option.

Remediation means to fix the problem. Relearn. Redo. But remediating in the standard classroom means that while the child is relearning, he’s not keeping up with his classmates on new information. In other words, he’s destined to fall behind. This book recommends not remediating with a child in third grade or beyond. I agree for subjects that don’t require systematic accumulation of skills, like health or history. But for reading? No way. In fact, we’ve been remediating for years. That’s why he’s so far behind. We’re reading and spelling at his level, not pressing on before he’s ready. It’s a slow process, but I see steady progress being made, especially when I reread the notes I’ve made along the way. And we’ll continue to remediate. I’ve got the time and the motivation to keep plodding along. And who can judge mastery and readiness better than me?

Along with remediation comes acccomodation. This means changing something in the child’s instruction so it departs from the standard. Well, isn’t homeschool the defintion of accommodation? Instructor, classroom, and curricula are all modified in the child’s interest. Within our homeschool framework, we’ve also modified our methods. For example, instead of using books to suppliment the concepts he’s learning, we often watch videos. As an auditory learner, it’s amazing what that child can glean from a documentary! We also do a LOT of hands on work (build models, create charts, etc.). And when written work is required, I can modify the rubric to target exactly the skills I expect mastered, and we can learn new skills incrementally. We also team read text books. In other words, by designing his schooling around his strenghts, I’m helping my son succeed in his courses instead of setting him up for failure.

In conclusion, I often get down when I think about just how slowly my son is progressing and just how much work it involves. Though it was not my original intention, he will probably homeschool all the way through graduation. That means I’ll have to research and advocate to make sure he has opportunities I can’t give him, like shop class, or sports teams, or admission to the county technical/skilled trades academy. Sometimes it’s plain overwhelming. Sometimes it feel hopeless and unending. I have to remind myself often that that’s not the case. If any of you are dealing with a similar situation, I’m hope this post reminds you of the same thing. Slow and steady (homeschool, in our case) really is in a child’s best interest.