Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Underneath

by Kathi Appelt
Overall: 2 out of 5 stars

This book is very well-written but was not my cup of tea, hence the two stars. So much so that, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I did not finish it. One of my coworkers was trying very hard to convince me to stay with it since it’s one of her favorite children’s books. It starts out as the story of a dog and cat who become friends and live underneath an old house in the Louisiana Bayou. However, it quickly becomes frightening since the house (and the dog) belong to a very mean man who drinks a lot and mistreats both animals, plus the kittens the cat gives birth to. I don’t think of myself as overly sensitive, but I just could not handle the cruelty in this book, so I decided to put it away. What rang in my head was a sweet, naive second-grader I once knew who made a beeline for this book because “it’s about a puppy and a kitty!” I couldn’t shake the image of her reading this and being upset, which upset me even more. There is a secondary storyline that I think eventually delves into fantasy and possibly even magical realism (admittedly one of my least favorite genres, so take that with a grain of salt) involving Grandmother Moccasin (snake) and the Alligator King. (I found this out when I asked my coworker to ruin the ending for me so I could determine if I wanted to keep going, which I decided was not worth it for me.) I had this book on CD and I actually thought the narrator did a good job, though my coworker didn’t like her at all. I do feel that I know enough about the content of the book to speak to parents who ask about it and want to be talked out of it, or refer them to my coworker if they want to be talked into it!

Double Review: American Revolution Easy Readers

I live and work in Massachusetts, where Patriot’s Day (and all things American Revolution) is alive and well. Over the past year, I’ve heard my colleagues recommend two particular books on a number of occasions, and I decided it was finally time to read them.

Sam the Minuteman by Nathaniel Benchley, illustrated by Arnold Lobel (of Frog and Toad fame)

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Sam lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and gets swept up in the Battle of Lexington. The text is copyright 1969 and refers to the war being “about 200 years ago.” It explains the origin of the term Minuteman (being ready at a minute’s notice to fight the British), a brief glimpse at everyday colonial life, and how drastically outnumbered the rebel colonists were. I had to ask my colleagues, who were mostly locals, to fill in some of the gaps since it is billed as fiction, but all the facts were the same (only Sam did not exist). There is a reenactment every year in Lexington that I was trying to reconcile with the description of the battle in the book, but they’re both pretty close to truth. It’s an I Can Read book, level 3, and includes long words like awakened and frightened, plus a few contractions.

George the Drummer Boy, also by Nathaniel Benchley, illustrated by Don Bolognese

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Same deal, only the story of the battles of Lexington and Concord are told by a British boy, who also reminds us that “one of by land, two if by sea” turned out to be two lanterns in the church tower, so the soldiers went by boat. It presents facts like the people of Concord had hidden their battle supplies elsewhere, and the British set fire to some buildings. George seems more clueless than Sam, though his story doesn’t involve as much waiting around. Each boy has a friend his own age who gets hit, so the danger is there but not the blood and pain. This is also an I Can Read book, level 3.

Books about Early Puberty for Girls

My cousin’s daughter just turned ten and I realized that now is the perfect time for a general book about how to take care of your body, with some light “here’s what’s coming down the pike” puberty stuff, but not so much as to overwhelm her if it’s not happening yet. (I asked my cousin and her husband if it was okay with them, of course, and they said yes.) With that in mind, I perused my library’s 612.66 offerings and pulled what looked like the best for review. In the end, I went with the American Girl book The Care and Keeping of You, but here are the other books I looked at and why I didn’t choose them:

Girl Power in the Mirror by Helen Cordes (1999). I like the overall message but it’s very much focused on body image and I wanted one that covered more topics. It’s also dated (in terms of appearance – the information’s fine though websites 15 years old might not still be around), and out of print (though alive and well at the library!).

Growing Up: It’s a Girl Thing by Mavis Jukes (1998). Again, in general I really liked this book, and even learned a few things from it! (Such as, specifically how bra cup sizes work – I’m sure I knew vaguely at some point but hadn’t thought about it in ages.) This book touches on topics like molestation (“Most adults will protect children and never harm them, ever… If someone tells you to keep a secret from your parent, it is a signal that the person may have done something wrong.” It’s not your fault, tell an adult, call the Child Help USA Hotline – all good things. If I were to tweak that section, I’d maybe explicitly say that the molester could be your parent, though I understand not wanting to freak out the vast majority of kids who can 100% count on their parents’ protection, there are always going to be kids who are molested by a parent and don’t know it’s not okay.

Jukes also talks about how, even once puberty starts, you’re still a kid for a long time, not a woman, which I liked. However, she spent a while describing watching her mom do all sorts of grownup body care in front of her, which made me squirmy. I’ve never watched anyone else change a pad – it sounds unpleasant and I’d never want to watch my mom do it, or bathe herself, or shave. But maybe that’s just me – if you’ve got a girl who’s really curious, and you’re not comfortable letting her watch, consider this book and she can be a voyeur all on her own. Again, though, this book is 15 years old and there are no website resources listed at the end (or any resources for quick reference, actually).

The Care and Keeping of You 2 by Dr. Cara Natterson (American Girl, 2013). Hooray, a puberty book that’s been updated! I had a little trouble determining if this was actually an update, or for older girls, or both (turns out, both). So I don’t think my cousin’s daughter is actually going through puberty yet, or thinking about sex or relationships, so this book seems beyond her at this point. But when it sounds like she’s thinking about those things, I wouldn’t hesitate to get her this. It can be hard to tell what ages these books are good for. The first book in this series (below) is billed as for “ages 8 and up” but some 8-year-olds are light-years away from needing this information. This book was billed in one places as for “ages 8 and up” and in another as “ages 10 and up,” but again, it depends on the reader. Some girls start menstruating early, and become sexually active early, and therefore would need this book at the lower end of that range, and some won’t need it until high school. Which leads me to…

The Care and Keeping of You by Valorie Schaefer (American Girl, 2013). This book goes through taking care of every part of your body from hair to toes, and emotional health as well as getting enough sleep. I would have liked more about emotional health, friendships, bullying, and the tendency of women to compete instead of creating an atmosphere of sisterhood, but this is a great overall book about all kinds of health and body maintenance, with a painless, non-scary look at the beginning of puberty. Bingo!

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

by Paula J. Freedman

Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

As you might imagine, this is the story of a girl whose mom is Indian (and converted to Judaism) and dad is Jewish. Tara is in seventh grade and she and her classmates are preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (or “B’nai Mitzvot” if you want to be technical about it). Though Tara has to contend with a snooty girl who claims Tara’s not really Jewish (Jewish heritage is matrilineal but conversion before the child’s birth is equivalent to the mother being born Jewish, a fact which should take snooty Sheila down a peg), the book is really about Tara’s “crisis of faith” (as her Rabbi puts it), her feelings about her upcoming ceremony, and her feelings about her best friend, Ben-o, wanting to date her.

This book caught my eye because my oldest friend from growing-up time is Indian and I’m Jewish. Freedman writes in such a way that by the time I finished, it made the most sense in the world to come from a combination of those two cultures. In fact, I started having trouble telling apart her main character, seventh-grade Tara, from the main character in the middle-grade novel I’m writing, a fifth-grader named Lily. But I digress.

I loved this book once I got into it. I especially loved being able to learn about Indian and Hindu culture and religion by comparing it to Judaism. The climax of the story didn’t come exactly where I thought it would, and that threw me a little off-balance, but ultimately I liked the ending. I LOVE that Tara’s in Robotics club and not afraid to be geeky – I like knowing about those characters for making book recommendations for kids. I also liked Tara’s relationship with her paternal grandmother, who essentially calls her a “rotten kid” with a smile and a twinkle in her eye, like my Jewish grandmother did. I also liked reading about a half-Jewish girl that my own 13-year-old self could relate to.