Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sunday Scribblings: Toys

"The Living Doll": It was without a doubt the scariest episode of The Twilight Zone. Talking Tina haunted my childhood in an I-love-to-be-scared kind of way. "My name is Talking Tina, and I'm going to KILL YOU!" my friends and I would shriek and collapse in the curious, delightful mix of hilarity and terror.

My mother says I cried and hid when my grandmother brought me, age 2, the life-sized doll I later named Maria. I don't remember ever being afraid of Maria; I suppose I quickly grew taller than she. Maria was soon joined by a nearly bald baby doll, whom I named Betty Ann after the teenage neighbor who handed down her baby doll to me. And there was always Thumbelina, with the sweet, slightly dirty face and yellow hair.

Decades later my daughter finds Maria and Betty Ann in my mother's attic and brings them home. I dream of Maria that first night. She is life-size—taller than I am—and dancing stiffly. She holds her arms straight out, demanding that I join her dance. I wake up, a scream caught in my throat and heart pounding.

The Japanese doll gave me nightmares. A visiting professor brought her as a gift for me. Beneath her red kimono she was just a purple plastic cross, and her head popped off too easily off its stick neck. But it was her white face that terrified me, and the way her head rolled under the bed so alive. Sleeping, knowing that white head was under my bed, was impossible. But to get out of bed and find her was even more terrifying. She trapped me for a whole night. In the morning my brother fetched her head and stuck it on his finger, chasing me over shining hardwood floors, his socks skating and tiny teeth so white and clean.

More thoughts on "Toys" here at Sunday Scribblings.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review: Made in the U.S.A.

I was excited about reading this latest book by Billie Letts. I remember enjoying her Where the Heart Is, although it's been many years since I read it.

Honestly, I thought this novel was a disaster. Everything about it felt contrived; in fact, everything about it felt like it was written to be made into a Hallmark movie. Maybe it was.

Two kids whose guardian dies (of a heart attack in Walmart) go off to Las Vegas to search for their long-lost Dad. Dad, of course, ends up dead, so the 15 and 11 year old siblings have to fend for themselves on the streets of Las Vegas. Within a short amount of time, predictably, the girl poses for porno magazines and becomes a coke addict. What a surprise! Not only was the storyline predicable, but the whole porno episodes were handled much too graphically. I don't really have any desire to read lurid details about a young girl's experiences as a porn star. Seriously. It totally did not fit into this "feel good" book.

The Las Vegas scenes go on and on, and then enter another homeless guy with a strange Mexican accent, who brings the kids to his long-lost family of circus performers. (Strangely, none of them have Mexican accents. Yes, it's sort of explained but it was so lame.) The girl, of course, turns out to be a world-class aeralist. Seriously.

The writing was choppy. The characters were flat. The dialog was dreadful. Does anyone really start their sentences with "Say, …"

Say, I bet you can find something better to read than this. Please do.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Reading, Just One of My Father's Legacies

My childhood was rich in the cadence of words, both written and heard. There was always the sound of my father's voice telling stories, and the image of my father in the middle of everything, quietly reading a book.

My family had books everywhere. Bookshelves lined our den and bedrooms, corner shelves were stacked full with books in the living room and dining room, and books crept onto the polished tops of coffee and end tables. My father never used bookmarks or even turned down the corners of pages; he was—and still is—a spine-breaker. He left his trail face-down, books sprawled out on surfaces, waiting to be picked up again, their spines permanently arched and cracking.

My father could be alone in a house full of us. The bustle of the family could hum all around him while he sat, cross-legged, rubbing the corner of a page between thumb and forefinger. "Jim," my mother would say for the fourteenth time, and he'd look up, eyes mystified and foggy under his black-rimmed glasses. Any true reader knows that to swim to the surface and bob up into reality can be disorienting.

My father has never been a monogamous reader. He splits his time between his bedroom novel, his coffee table magazines, his scientific journals, his biblical texts, and whatever anyone else is reading. He reads every book my mother brings home from the library and cannot be in my house for 10 minutes without visiting the nearest bookshelf and pulling out a book. He's easy to find and predictable, there on the green couch with his legs crossed and his thumb and forefinger doing their page rubbing.

But my father has never been stingy with his love of reading. The earliest recording of my voice is me at about age three with my father. "What do you want me to read?" he asks in his gentle Southern Illinois drawl, like the rolling hills of an orchard. I answer back in the same accent, "Just any ol' thing, Daddy." Though my mother was my daytime reader, my father read to us each evening from the big white Pearl S. Buck story Bible.

After supper and on long car trips, he was a storyteller. He knew how—still does know how— to tell a story. He knew all about character development, plot, climax, conflict, and denouement, and he used those devices with skillful ease. He is a master storyteller, rich in language and suspense.

A passion for reading is certainly not the only gift my father has given to me, but it is perhaps the one that links my life so solidly to his. This we share more deeply than our delight in the perfect sail or a slice of the sweetest peach: a passion for words, both written and spoken, for the sound of language and the joy of a well-turned phrase, and for sheer delight of a perfectly good book.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sunday Scribbling: Vision


There was a vision he had once:
a grassy hill
me laying back in a white sundress
him resting his head on my stomach,
both of us facing upwards, eyes closed
hot sun pouring down,
blessing us.

Or was it a field of crimson and yellow
leaves sprinkled on grass,
me in jeans and a white t-shirt
resting my head on his thighs,
the late October sun
casting weak shadows?

We are steeped in shared memories,
long ago visions come true
more than we can count
and never enough,
cool mountains framing
our lives.

More scribblings on "vision" here at Sunday Scribblings.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Book Review: Things Fall Apart

Wow. I've had this Chinua Achebe's first novel on my TBR list for a couple of years, but when several people insisted that it must be included in a World Literature class, I decided I really needed to read it right away. This is another one of those astounding books, like James Agee's A Death in the Family (my review here), that I have to wonder: why did I never encounter this in any literature class—high school, college, or graduate school?

The novel centers on Okonkwo, an Ibo man in pre-colonial Nigeria. Okonkwo strives to be a successful man in his tribe, hard-working, well-respected, and unrelenting. He has no sympathy for weakness and fiercely upholds all tribal laws and traditions.

In matter-of-face prose, Achebe reveals tribal life in this Ibo village and Okonkwo's determination to maintain his sense of dignity and manhood in the face of whatever comes his way. From his exile to his son's betrayal to the coming of the white missionaries, Okonkwo continues to insist that his way—the old tribal way—is the only right way and the only way for things to stay together.

This is a short novel, less than 200 pages, but full of images and characters that will stay with me for a long time. Combined with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (my review here), and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, this would make a fantastic literature unit on Africa and the impact of colonization, tribal wars, and missionaries.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Book Review: Dear Mr. President: Abraham Lincoln--Letters from a Slave Girl

My younger (2nd and 6th grade) kids and I spent about a month reading about Abraham Lincoln this year, and we really enjoyed this epistolary work by Andrea Davis Pinkney. The fictional letters are between President Lincoln and a young slave girl, Lettie Tucker, who was secretly taught to read and write by her master's daughter. Lettie tells the president about her life, and in doing so challenges his views and perhaps influences his decisions. The President in turn shares his thoughts with Lettie, and together the mourn the loss of his young son and of Lettie's father.

We enjoyed the conversational tone of the book as well as the pictures. I liked how so many historical events were included in the letters, and my kids were familiar enough with the events of the Civil War to have some context. I did have issues, however, with Lettie's command of the written word and her constant profundity. I understand that it makes connections in the book, but it was all a little too blatant.

But my kids didn't notice that kind of thing. They were really enthralled by the story of Lettie and Mr. Lincoln, and the photographs were wonderful. I'd count this as a valuable addition to a study of Abraham Lincoln.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Books Read in May

Most of May was devoted to reading middle-grade readers in preparation for a literature circle class I'm going to be teaching at our co-op this fall.

Books Reviewed:
Epileptic by David B.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Middle-grade reader.
Ties That Bind, Ties That Break. Middle-grade reader.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. Middle-grade reader.

Books Read but Not Yet Reviewed:
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.
Sounder by William Armstrong.

I'm currently reading Things Fall Apart for a high school World Lit class I'll be teaching. I've got a bunch of re-reading to do in preparation for that class that will probably take up most of my June reading.

Perhaps in July I can start tackling my own TBR list!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

I found John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on one of those "listmanias" on, as I was looking for favorite middle-school readers. Of all the YA books I've read in the past month, this has been close to the top.

The story takes place in Auschwitz, where nine-year-old Bruno moves with his parents and sister. Unlike most stories of the Holocaust, however, Bruno is on the other side of the fence: his father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. After months of wondering who all those people in striped pajamas are at the camp (he can see one small section from his bedroom window), Bruno sneaks over to the fence and meets a boy his age. They strike up a friendship that Bruno knows must be kept secret, even though he doesn't understand what is happening. The story, of course, has a devastating ending.

The book is flawed historically for various reasons. By age nine, for example, Bruno surely would have understood the word "Jew." Perhaps if he were 5 or 6 in the novel, his innocence would be believable; but a nine-year-old is old enough to really be taught to hate. And surely the son of a Nazi officer would have been fed a steady diet of hatred.

But I didn't care. I liked believing that a child could be so pure and innocent that he didn't know what was going on. I liked how he calls Hitler "the Fury" and Auschwitz "Out-with." My own eight-year-old still has moments when he realizes that a word he always thought was pronounced one way is really wrong ("Grape-Grandpa" instead of Great-Grandpa).

I love the perspective of the Holocaust from Bruno's view. This was so different from any other Holocaust novels I've read. I'd recommend this to ages 12 and up, only because the ending is so devastating. I think it would be a great introduction to talking about the Holocaust.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Dragon of Trelian Tour, Day 2

As I said in yesterday's post about Michelle Knudsen's new novel, The Dragon of Trelian, my nearly 12-year-old daughter is not a huge fan of the fantasy genre. My older son loved stories of castles and kingdoms, but she's more of a realist. Still, this novel grabbed her. Here's what she had to say:
"It's not exactly like any of the usual books about princesses. The princess isn't at all girlie—she's kind of tomboyish."
And, she tagged on, she really liked all the twists and turns and the bit of romance. She didn't actually use the word "romance," but I know she liked the little bits of it here and there. Just enough—but not too much— for a nearly 12-year-old.

So the story goes: The Princess Meglynne is 14-years-old, and she has a very big secret. After an accidental meeting, she impulsively decides to tell the mage's apprentice, Calen, her secret: she has found a baby dragon. The dragon is, at first, in the background of the story. The main action is happening at the kingdom, where Meg's older sister, Maerlie, is about to be married. The scenes go between Meg's kingdom life, Meg's life with the dragon, and Calen's experiences as a mage's apprentice.

Eventually, Meg and Calen's fates are intertwined. And that's all I'm saying today.

These bloggers are also talking about The Dragon of Trelian:

A Christian Worldview of Fiction, Abby the Librarian, All About Children's Books, Becky's Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Homeschool Book Buzz,, Novel Teen, Reading is My Superpower, Reading to Know, The 160 Acrewoods, Through a Child's Eyes, Through the Looking Glass Reviews

Kidz Book Buzz Tour: The Dragon of Trelian

My daughter and I have enjoyed reading Michelle Knudsen's The Dragon of Trelian together these past few weeks, in anticipation of joining in another tour at

I was a little hesitant to participate in this particular tour. My daughter, who is nearly 12, has never been particularly interested in stories involving dragons, princesses, magic, and kingdoms, etc. She is generally more interested in orphans, pioneers, and contemporary girls. But she was hooked right from the beginning of The Dragon of Trelian. I think it's because one of the main characters, the Princess Meglynne, is a very accessible, likeable, and unprincess-like character.

But more about that tomorrow.

Michelle Knudsen, who blogs here, is the author of this novel and 40 books for children. Her best-known title is Library Lion (Candlewick Press), which was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. The Dragon of Trelian is written for the middle-grade audience, which I think is entirely appropriate. There's too much romance for it to appeal to kids much younger than 11 (at least the ones I know, and especially boys), but I think slightly older readers would enjoy it, too.

Tomorrow I'll talk more about some of the things we really loved about this novel, and a couple of things I wasn't crazy about. To read what others are saying, visit any or all of the links below:

A Christian Worldview of Fiction, Abby the Librarian, All About Children‚s Books, Becky‚s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Homeschool Book Buzz,, Novel Teen, Reading is My Superpower, Reading to Know, The 160 Acrewoods, Through a Child's Eyes, Through the Looking Glass Reviews