Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading to Your Children February 09

**I just checked the lists of the new Newbery, Caldecott & Printz books - last year I wasn't very excited about most of the books, but this year I could easily drop $150 on the ones that look like they might be really good!**

I recently heard part of an interview with Susan Jacoby, author of a book called The Age of American Unreason. I haven't read it, or anything by Jacoby, but some things from the interview rang true to me. One of them was that all of us, but especially parents, need to be careful how we spend our time. There is nothing wrong with occasionally relaxing by watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web, or whatever form of 'junk thought' (her phrase) you prefer. However, if we allow ourselves and our children to regularly spend a lot of time engaged in 'junk thought', we can't expect our children or our country to excel. If America is going to be a leader in science, innovation, the arts and business, we have to instill the habit of deeper thinking and a respect for learning into our whole culture.

Wisdom in picture books:
First, I want to mention two books many people love that I don't much care for: The Giving Tree, by Silverstein, and Love You Forever, by Munsch. Lots of people love them, and you might, too, so you might want to take a look at them. They just don't appeal to me. Following are some that do.
People, by Spier - A celebration of the similarities and differences among people, with small, detailed, colorful illustrations you could spend hours looking at - good for close-up viewing more than for showing to a large group. Short & simple enough for very young children, with enough possibilities to use with older kids, too.
The Treasure, by Shulevitz (Caldecott Honor book) - a story about traveling far to seek a treasure, and eventually finding it back at home. Lovely illustrations. Ages three and up.
Old Turtle, by Wood, illustrated by Chee - Almost any of the pictures in this book are beautiful enough to make me want to frame them and hang them on the wall to enjoy more often. The story starts as a sort of fable about the animals and elements arguing about what God is like. The message is one of love and responsibility for each other and the environment. Ages four or five and up.
Zen Shorts, by Muth (Caldecott Honor book) - three stories from Buddhist & Taoist traditions within a story of children meeting a bear who speaks with 'a slight panda accent' and carries a large umbrella - and tells stories. Beautiful, watercolor illustrations. Ages five and up.
The Three Questions, also by Muth - This is a more child-friendly adaptation of the ideas from a short story by Tolstoy, also with Muth's typical watercolor paintings. Ages five or six and up. It would be fun to read this and then the Tolstoy story with middle school or high school kids.
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, by Jeffers - Adapted from the famous speech by Chief Seattle, wonderfully illustrated by Susan Jeffers - maybe there are people who dislike 'environmentalists' who wouldn't like this book, but otherwise it's hard to imagine anyone not liking it - a message of caring for the land, and the inter-connectedness of all life. Ages four or five and up.
It Could Always Be Worse, by Zemach - I mentioned this one not that long ago, but it fits well in the 'wisdom' category - a Jewish folktale with funny, clever illustrations. Ages four or five and up.
The Story of Ferdinand (Leaf) and The Carrot Seed (Krauss), both of which I've mentioned before, can also fall into this category, and are short enough to read to very young children.


Reading the Bible

If you are a Christian, presumably you can think of many reasons to be reading the Bible to your children. Even if you aren't much for religion, there are good reasons to read the Bible aloud with your family. If you don't believe it is divinely inspired, it is still an amazing work of literature, full of spiritual wisdom. Most works of classical literature make allusions to the Bible, and Biblical stories and quotes come up constantly in our culture (for example, people who aren't familiar with the Bible couldn't have understood all the implications of the line in President Obama's inauguration speech where he said we need to 'put aside childish things').

For very small children, there are many lovely picture-book editions of Bible stories. As children get older, choose suitable sections. I wouldn't read young children the story of how King David commits adultery and then arranges the death of the woman's husband, and I can't see myself reading pages of genealogy to kids. But there are many 'kid-friendly' sections even for early elementary listeners - the creation, the story of Noah, and much of the Gospels, for instance - and more for older children. Choose a translation you like - I mostly prefer the King James for its beautiful cadences, even if it is sometimes a bit obscure. Take time to talk to your children about what you believe, and why.

For upper elementary or teens:
Breaking Through, by Jimenez - a memoir of the author's teen years, this tells the story of a Mexican immigrant family. Francisco's family had been migrant farm workers when he was in elementary school, but this book picks up with the family settled, though still doing low-wage farm labor and living without indoor plumbing. In a simple, straight-forward first-person narrative, Francisco paints a picture of what it was like to grow up working hard for everything the family had. He captures the innocence of youth along with the frustrations, and the tone is not bitter - no whining here! The family is briefly deported (his father has a green card, but his mother doesn't, and he and his older brother were born in Mexico), but is able to complete the paperwork to come back legally fairly soon. His dedication to studying and success in school eventually get him scholarships to attend college, and his younger brother agrees to take over the job Francisco had been working to help support the family. A glimpse into another way of life, and a portrait of a realistic, loving family. Grades four or five and up.

Shabanu, by Staples - this is a powerful book, and a peephole into a very different world - the traditional, nomadic culture of Pakistan, where marriages are still arranged by the families, and women have little power. Shabanu is the second daughter, and already, at age twelve, betrothed to a distant cousin, though she is a bit of a tomboy and has a rebellious spirit. When her older sister's betrothed is killed, the family's plans have to be changed, and Shabanu faces marriage to a middle-aged man who already has other wives. There is no magical happy ending to this story, though there is some sense of hope as Shabanu accepts that she will not shame her family, but her husband cannot touch her spirit. The story touches on rape and sex, but doesn't dwell on any details. Nothing would shock a child over ten who has watched primetime TV. Still, I would probably read it to kids of twelve or over. It would be interesting to pair it with Catherine, Called Birdy, by Cushman, about a girl facing an arranged marriage in medieval times, which has a lighter feel and is appropriate for younger children; or with Julie of the Wolves, by George, about an Eskimo girl forced to marry at thirteen, which is also more for teens, and has an ambiguous ending.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

January 2009 - Books about play and families

From "Taking a Reading on Literacy" in The Times of Trenton - see the whole article at http://www.nj.com/living/times/index.ssf?/base/living-1/1226984741286110.xml&coll=5
"Those of us parents who are lifelong readers know how much reading for pleasure can enrich your life. But there are practical reasons for parents to want kids to become readers as well. Kids who read every day for pleasure get better grades in school and earn higher salaries once they're out in the working world, according to the federal Department of Education."
A year ago I started this blog, and I have enjoyed having a reason each month to think about the children's & YA books I loved as a child or parent, and to search out good new books. Last month I became a grandma for the first time, so I have another reason to stay on the lookout for good books!
I think most of us who have managed to raise a child for at least sixteen years or so would agree that when the children were young, we were so busy with the day-to-day issues of work, family, survival, and fun that we felt our children would be children forever. Then, suddenly, one day we realized that this kid was about to be legally an adult, and, for better or worse, loose in the world without our constant oversight. I remember feeling a pang for all the things I meant to teach them or places I meant to take them but never quite got around to.
There is really quite a short window in which you have the chance to help your child establish the skills and habits for success in learning (and thus, opportunities in the working world). By the time s/he is fourteen or fifteen, the demands of friends, hobbies, sports, school, work, and boyfriends/girlfriends will be filling every moment of the day. Make the most of those years between infancy and high school. Turn off the televisions, movies, electronic games, and cell phones. Play games like dominoes and cribbage that teach number skills; sing and play musical instruments; dance, hike, bike, and play soccer; and, of course, read!

Picture books
Not a Stick, by Portis - my older son just gave me this book for Christmas. The text is very short and simple. Pages that show only a child (well, a very simple, line-drawing young pig) holding a stick, and an admonition a grown-up might give a child about a stick ("Be careful with that stick") alternate with pages that show what the child is imagining - stick as paintbrush, stick as baton, stick as spear, etc. Simple and short enough to read with a very young child, but also a good book to read with elementary-age students as a starting point for talking about imaginative play. Ages two and up.

Bedtime for Francis, Bread and Jam for Francis, by Hoban, illustrations by Williams - these books (and a couple other 'Francis' books) were written about fifty years ago, but children really haven't changed, and Francis, who doesn't want to go to bed, and doesn't want to try new foods, still seems very real today. Ages three or four and up.

Only Opal, by Whitely, Boulton & illustrated by Cooney - selections from the diary of an orphan girl living in lumber camps in Oregon about 1905. She refers to her foster mother as 'the mama' and her late parents as 'Angel Mother' and 'Angel Father', and records events in her daily life - chores, her pet mouse, the names she gave her animal friends. In places, the language usage is non-standard because she was very young when she kept the diary. Cooney's trademark lovely watercolor illustrations capture the beauty of the Oregon forest. Ages four or five and up.

It Could Always Be Worse, by Zemach - re-telling of the classic Jewish folktale about the difficulties of a large family living in a small hut - funny, and so, so true! Expressive illustrations with lots of action. Ages three or four and up.

My Great-Aunt Arizona, by Houston, illustrated by Lamb - A little girl is born in the Blue Ridge mountains, and grows up dreaming of the faraway places she reads about in books - but lives her whole life there, becoming a teacher in the one-room schoolhouse, and telling her students they will go to the faraway places she has not seen. Interesting to pair with Miss Rumphius (Cooney). Ages four or five and up.

Albert's Toothache, by Williams, illustrated by Chorao - young turtle Albert tells his mother he has a toothache and needs to stay in bed. No one in his family will believe him (after all, turtles have no teeth) till finally his grandmother arrives and saves the day. The worried mother, the cocky older brother, the smug older sister - like the 'Francis' stories, these are all recognizable family members. Ages four and up.

Also see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, by Viorst/Cruz, Ox Cart Man, by Hall/Cooney, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, by Steptoe, One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, and Time of Wonder, by McCloskey.

Elementary
Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, by Milne, illustrations by Shepard - if you've only known the Disney animation Pooh, you may be surprised at the old-fashioned charm of the original stories. The book contains ten chapters, each of which is a self-contained little story, but they do require a child who has enough listening experience to sit still for a while. Ages five and up.

The Indian in the Cupboard, by Banks, and The Return of the Twelves, by Clarke - Stories of children whose toy people (what we might now call 'action figures') come alive. Banks' book is more recent and much more widely known; Clarke's book is one of those forgotten classics for children, based on the stories the Bronte children wrote about their toy soldiers, and might be for a slightly older audience (starting in fourth or fifth grade, rather than third). Both are delightful stories.

The Penderwicks, by Birdsall - just published in 2005, you would think this might have been written thirty years ago. Subtitled 'A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy', this is an old-fashioned story in the sense that it is focused on the three-week summer vacation doings of basically happy, healthy children having children's adventures. This is not to suggest that it is stodgy or preachy or stiff. Each of the children has a distinct, vivid personality, and the story moves along nicely in chapters. The point of view switches from sister to sister without being confusing, and is charming and sweet without ever becoming sacharine. Terrific read-aloud, probably for third grade and up.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Juster - this classic is sort of a fantasy and sort of a parable, full of wordplay and puns. It starts out with a boy who is BORED with everything - so, of course, he gets pitched into a series of quirky, impossible, bizarre adventures (at one point, he asks for a "light meal" and is treated to a sort of laser show, though the book was written before such a thing existed). Some children will catch on to all the word play, and some won't, but there is enough action to carry the story along anyhow. Try it with fourth graders or so.

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, by Sanderson - I would be really curious to hear what kids think of this new fantasy, which is sort of a tongue-in-cheek cross between A Series of Unfortunate Events (Snickett) and Harry Potter. In places I thought the author overdid it, but it improved as it went along, and probably some children will find it very funny. I might try it with fourth graders or above.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, & sequels, by Taylor - the story of a black family in the mid-1900's, and growing up in the still-segregated South. Newbery winner. Third or fourth grade & up listeners.

See also classics Pippi Longstocking, by Lindgren, Little House in the Big Woods & sequels, by Wilder, and The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Burnett.

Middle School
Dark Angel, by Kirby - a story of a Mormon pioneer girl and her sister, and a strange, grim man who saves them from being assaulted by three irresponsible soldiers in the first chapter. The narrator is the younger sister, a bright, sassy, and innocent little girl, but this is not a typical sugar-coated Mormon pioneer story. Polygamy is neither idealized nor demonized. Some readers may be offended by the fact that the little girl makes reference to times when her parents 'make the bed squeak', but that is as close to dealing with sex as it gets. This is a book I think deserves to be more widely-read - an unexpected, vivid, well-told story. Sixth or seventh graders and up.

Homecoming, Dicey's Song, A Solitary Blue, Come a Stranger, Sons from Afar, and Seventeen Against the Dealer, by Voight - I've mentioned the Tillerman books before, but these are all wonderful books about families and growing up - not idealizing, but showing characters who face problems with courage and love for each other. The story starts with Homecoming, and, as with the Harry Potter books, the content and complexity of the later books are more for slightly older audiences. I've read Homecoming to third graders, who liked it, but the others are probably more for fifth graders and up.

The Glass Castle, by Walls - see my last month's notation - for a look at a very dysfunctional family!

Wild Roses, by Deb Caletti - Caletti is a current author popular with teens. This is contemporary realistic fiction, with a mystery subplot, and might be classed as a 'problem' novel, as it deals with both divorce and mental health issues. The main character is a teenage girl whose parents are divorced, and whose mother (a cellist in an orchestra) has re-married, to a famous composer and violinist. Cassie has a pragmatic view of her parents' divorce and a healthy sense of humor, but things begin to get complicated when she falls in love with a boy being coached by her stepfather, who is mentally ill and has gone off his medications because he feels they prevent him from composing.
The teen romance consists of hand-holding and kissing, and one line worded something like '...and what we did there was nobody's business but our own.' I suppose one might take that to suggest they had sex, but nothing else in the book supports that conclusion. If you have teenagers, especially teen girls, they would probably enjoy this book either as a read-aloud, or to read on their own.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What to read to your children December 2008

My family's most lasting Christmas tradition? Each child always gets at least one book.

So why are fewer parents reading to their children?

[ From Echo News, 8:40pm Tuesday 28th October 2008 - See whole article at http://www.echo-news.co.uk/news/3795033.So_why_are_fewer_parents_reading_to_their_children_/ ]

"READING aloud to children is seen by many as a parent’s duty. But sadly, in today’s time-pressed world it’s one that’s increasingly taking a back seat. Just a third of parents now read aloud to their children every day, with 35 per cent of those who don’t saying they have too much else to do, with 30 per cent saying they’re too tired.

New research by the Book Trust found daily reading aloud with children has decreased over the past two years from 43 per cent of parents of young children in 2006, to just 33 per cent in 2008. In addition, 23 per cent of parents never or rarely read aloud with their children.

Not surprisingly in this modern age, the average four to five year old spends twice as long watching TV as he or she does reading with parents. Yet, one in five children say they don’t read enough with their family. "

Another study recently out associates time children spent with 'media' (TV, video games, internet, etc) with higher rates of obesity, smoking, and early sexual activity. The evidence is fairly clear - it's better for children to have LESS time in front of the TV or video games, and MORE time doing things with their parents.

Picture books for December reading:

Christmas, by Pienkowski - the text for this book is from the King James Bible. It begins with the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, continues through the birth of Jesus, and ends with Joseph taking the family to Egypt. The distinctive illustrations look like black paper cut-out silhouettes of the people, animals and places, set against colorful backgrounds. My favorite may be the one of Mary hanging out laundry when the angel appears to her! The text has initial letters illuminated on each page, like an old Bible, and is decorated with a different symbolic plant on each page: holly, ivy, mistletoe, oak, rose, etc. In our family, we read this book and The Night Before Christmas just before bed on Christmas Eve.

Christmas in the Manger, by Buck, illustrated by Bond - a board book with sweet, simple illustrations, this is a good one for the youngest listeners - age one and up.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale, by Waddell, illustrated by Cockcroft - a kind of 'always room for one more' retelling of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of the animals in the stable, with slightly old-fashioned-looking painting illustrations. Age two and up.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Houston, illustrations by Barbara Cooney - One of my favorite Christmas stories - Ruthie and her father pick out a Christmas tree for the church in the spring, and then he is sent off to fight in the war. The war ends, and they get a postcard saying he will be home by Christmas, but on the day before Christmas Eve he still isn't there, so Ruthie and her mother go up the mountain alone in the snow to cut the tree, and then, since there is no money for presents, her mother cuts up her wedding dress to make a doll for Ruthie, and her angel costume for the church Christmas pageant. For four or five year olds and up.

The Mousehole Cat, by Barber, illustrations by Bayley - I mentioned this book with other cat stories a few months ago, but it is set just before Christmas. Winter storms have prevented the fishing boats from going out, and the village people have run out of food. An old fisherman and his cat risk going out in the rough sea to bring in fish for their starving neighbors. Although it is not very "Christmas-y" in the usual ways, it is a story of unselfish heroism, and ends with a joyful feast. Four or five year olds and up.

The Polar Express, by Van Allsburg - after The Night Before Christmas, and possible Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this must be the best-known children's Christmas story in the country. Van Allsburg's illustrations are not all black and white (as in Jumanji), but the colors are soft, muted, with a night-time feel. A boy travels by train to the North Pole, and when Santa asks what present he would like, chooses just a bell from the harness on Santa's sleigh. When he wakes up on Christmas morning, he finds the bell missing, and thinks it must have been a dream - till the bell reappears mysteriously, but is silent for those who no longer believe. Age three or four and up.

Laughing All the Way, by Sam, illustrated by Sophie Soprano - Just published, this has a story in the tradition of the Grinch, but the pictures are what really shine. Colorful, whimsical, joyful - just plain fun. Age three and up.

by Tomi de Paolo: The Legend of the Poinsettia, The Legend of Old Befana, The Night of Las Posadas, The Friendly Beasts, An Early American Christmas, The Story of the Three Wise Kings - I think there are even more Christmas books by de Paolo, who creates beautiful, stylized illustrations and writes lovely, understated text. These books are good for three or four year olds and up, and the stories come from various folk traditions.

Christmas in Noisy Village, by Lindgren, illustrated by Wikland, translated by Lamborn - a traditional Christmas celebration in Sweden, as told by the author of Pippi Longstocking. Three or four year olds and up. Lindgren's The Tompten, which I think I mentioned in a previous post, is also a nice bedtime story for reading around Christmas.

Christmas Day in the Morning, by Buck, illustrated by Buehner - Buck's classic story about the teenage boy who gets up early, early in the morning to do all the farm chores so his father can sleep in has wonderful pictures in this edition. Read to five or six year olds and up.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Wojciechowski, illustrated by Lynch - A Scrooge-like man is transformed after a widow and her little boy ask him to carve a creche. For five or six year olds and up.

For Elementary School Age Children:

The Long Winter, by Wilder - I find this to be the most memorable of all the "Little House" series - a prototypical 'pioneer winter on the Great Plains' story, with danger, privation, blizzards, heroism, and family love. Laura is a teenager, and they are living in the "Little Town" on the prairie. Almanzo is one of the daring young men who venture out for supplies when everyone is running out of everything. Second or third grade and up.

Why the Chimes Rang, by Alden - an old classic Christmas story with a message, longer than most picture books but still short enough to read in one sitting. First or second grade and up.

A Christmas Carol, by Dickens - Dickens' writing is well worth reading aloud, long, long after he wrote this icon of Christmas tradition. Movies and abridged editions aren't bad, but none of them capture the complete flavor of the original. Third or fourth grade and up.

For Young Adults:

The Glass Castle, by Walls - This is an autobiograhical story about growing up (childhood through young adulthood) in a family with (to put it mildly) unconventional parents. Jeannette is the second of four children born to an irresponsible, brilliant, alcoholic father and a self-centered (possibly bipolar) artist mother. You will want to bang the parents' heads together before you are three chapters into the book, and you will marvel at how the children survived. Practically the ONLY things Jeanette's parents did right were to instill a love of reading in the children and give them a chance to be out in nature. Walls writes with almost no self-pity or bitterness, and her sense of humor and the love the four children have for each other helps keep the book from becoming too bleak. I would probably consider reading this to fifth or sixth graders or above, or giving it to high school readers to read themselves (especially if they are feeling like their lives are pretty tough!). There are at least two Christmas chapters - one from when the children were still very young, and their father takes each, individually, out into the night and tells them they can choose any star as their present - and then tells them all about that particular star; and one later, when their father's drinking ruins what might have been the nearest-to-normal Christmas they ever had.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Books to Read Aloud - November 2008

With all the bad news these past few weeks on the economy, reading is looking even better - it is cheap, fun, educational, AND offers you a temporary escape from current events. Reading aloud doesn't require higher processor speeds, additional memory, a more expensive video card, or a new flat-screen. As days get shorter and colder, it is cozy to sit together on a winter evening and enjoy a good story. If you haven't already got one, give yourself the gift of a library card.

Picture books:

The Thanksgiving Story, by Dalgliesh & Sewell - this book was published in 1954, and is the traditional story of the Pilgrims. It follows one family as they leave England, cross the ocean, and begin a new life, surviving the difficult first year. I am particularly fond of the picture of the ship on the dark green ocean - as a child I always thought it looked just like the ocean I knew (in the Pacific northwest). (Age three and up)

Two very different takes on the Bible verses from Ecclesiastes, both beautiful:
Turn, Turn, Turn by Seeger & Halperin - The text is just Pete Seeger's folk song, and the illustrations feature the round earth, and emphasize the cyclical nature of things. It includes a CD with both Pete Seeger's banjo-accompanied version of the song, and the Byrds' rock version.
To Everything There is A Season, by Leo & Diane Dillon - the text is straight from the Bible, and the illustrations show off the Caldecott-winning artist team's skill with different styles, all lovely.

My Grandmother's Journey, by Cech & McGinley-Nally - The story of a grandmother who grew up in Russia, survived the revolution, and walked through World War II, pregnant and then carrying a newborn, to finally immigrate to the US. The pictures are colorful and have a Russian flavor - reminiscent of those nesting dolls. (age four and up)

Grandfather's Journey, by Say - About a Japanese-American family, their love for both their countries, and the feeling of not quite belonging. The illustrations are in soft, faded tones like old photos. (Caldecott award winner - age four and up)

For elementary school or older readers:

My Diary From Here to There, by Perez & Gonzalez - a Mexican girl's experience with moving to the US, brightly illustrated; any child who has had to move to a new place could relate to this story. (Written in both English and Spanish - age five and up)

Fire on the Mountain, by Kurtz & Lewis - a wonderfully illustrated version of the story of the boy who stayed all night on a cold mountain, looking at a candle across the valley (age five and up)

Elijah of Buxton, by Curtis - (historical fiction; Newbery honor book) this is in many ways an "old-fashioned" story about the life of a twelve-year-old boy in the mid 1800's, with touches of humor (Elijah is gullible), but Elijah is a free black, growing up just over the Canadian border in a community of escaped slaves and their children. Elijah is afraid of snakes, and timid about a number of things, but his courage is tested by the end of the story. Don't let the humorous tone of the beginning fool you - the last quarter of the book deals with some of the grim realities of what happened to runaway slaves, or even free blacks, in pre-Civil War America. It is not generally graphic (the violence is mostly "off screen"), but there are scenes of death. Elijah manages to bring one small triumph out of tragedy in an ending that definitely isn't "and they all lived happily every after". Probably fourth or fifth grade and up, though some middle school-age kids may initially feel that the book is "too young" for them. I highly recommend this one as a family or classroom read-aloud - it is the kind of book not many kids might pick up on their own, but it is a story that will stay with you.

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynn Jones - (fantasy) Just out, this book says it is a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, but it can easily stand on its own, and most of the characters from the previous book don't even show up till the second half. The two main characters are a boy and girl who are very realistic early teenagers, flaws, talents, and all. Like many of Jones' books, this one has a humorous tone and gives some twists to the conventions of fantasy. It should appeal to fans of the early Harry Potter books. Fourth grade and up.

For teens:

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Speare - (historical fiction) This book is a classic now. It is the story of Kit Tyler, who has been raised and spoiled by her grandfather in the Barbados, and must, on his death, go to Puritan Massachusets colony to live with her aunt, uncle and cousins. It is a story that works on several levels - Kit's adjustment to the different culture, her coming of age and learning to work hard and care for others, some mixed-up romances that work out for the best, and a look at prejudice, religious intolerance, and the witch scares of the times. Memorable, distinct characters, a window into Puritan life, and well-crafted writing make this one worth re-reading. Fifth grade and up.

Chalice, by Robin McKinley - (fantasy) Joy! Robin McKinley has a new book out! This is classic McKinley - a well-written fantasy with a heroine who is trying to save her "prince", and a happy ending. In some respects, you might almost see this story as yet another "Beauty and the Beast", but it is an original "fairy tale". The main character is an ordinary young bee-keeper who has suddenly been thrust into a position of great responsibility in the governing of her country, at a time of upheaval and looming disaster. Bees and honey play an important role in the story, which is laced with a sort of earth magic. There is a creepy villain (or two), and true love (but no sex), and not much violence. I think I would try this one with fourth graders or up, certainly with sixth graders or higher.