Monday, July 17, 2017

Great Read-Aloud Recommendations for Kids [Updated!]

[Note: This was originally posted on January 23, 2015, and has since been updated for content.]

Every day I read aloud to the five Podlings in my care. This group currently ranges in age from sixteen down to six. Since more than a few people have asked how I choose the books to read aloud (or have asked for lists/recommendations), I thought I'd share what we've read together so far and where I plan to take them in the future.

But first, some disclaimers.

How I Choose Read-Aloud Books 

Since I read a lot anyway, having access to an ever-expanding list of possibilities isn't really a problem.

When the time comes to start a new book with the kids, my decision process goes something like this:

1) Have I read it and enjoyed it? I can't over-stress the importance of this step. I don't care how lauded or "important" or "valuable" the book is. If you don't care for it, they won't either.
2) Will the kids understand it and like it? I balance toward the older ones. The littles get what they get -- which is a lot. 
3) What does the author do well? Humor, drama, storytelling, characterization, suspense, research, etc. I require at least one standout category, but don't expect perfection in all areas from each book. 
4) Does the book match the season? I'm all about reading the right book at the right time, which is why - as you'll see below - we sometimes take a break in the middle of a series to read something that matches the season.

How You Should Choose Books

1) Take advice of the readers in your life. Take recommendations under advisement, but don't take them blindly. Not every book is for every person. 
2) Read the book first. Don't skip this step. No matter how highly the book has come recommended or how much your friends or their kids may have liked it, that doesn't ensure that 1) you will like it (which is so important, since your enthusiasm can make or break the enterprise), or that 2) you will find it appropriate for your bunch. So be responsible about this. Nothing's worse than stopping halfway through a book and not finishing it. That breaks a child's trust. 
3) Don't worry too much about whether the book is important or educational or valuable. Just pick a good read and get cracking. Reading aloud to your kids has great value in itself.

Books I've Read Aloud to the Podlings

Bear in mind that we've been at this for a few years but that I didn't start keeping a master list until partway through the venture. I'm pretty sure I've forgotten a few along the way. [Also, this list doesn't account for the books I study with each child individually. This list is read-alouds only. If you want individual book report recommendations, you'll have to message me.]
  1. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck
  2. Derwood, Inc., Jeri Massi
  3. A Dangerous Game, Jeri Massi
  4. The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare 
  5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
  6. Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
  7. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis 
  8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
  9. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (unabridged)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
  13. A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein 
  14. Summer of the Monkeys, Wilson Rawls
  15. Summer of Light, Dennis M. Van Wey 
  16. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle 
  17. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck (again by request)
  18. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  19. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  20. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (take two)
  21. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  22. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien 
  23. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
  24. The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
  25. The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
  26. C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia, Sam Wellman
  27. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, William F. Russell
  28. Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park (pairs well with the documentary On the Way to School, still on Netflix at the time of this update)
  29. Long Way from Chicago, Richard Peck
  30. The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis
  31. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  32. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare 
  33. A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park
  34. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck 
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  36. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  37. Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo
  38. Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
  39. Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
  40. Peace Child, Don Richardson (Note: Get the updated anniversary edition. Trust me.)
  41. Legends in Sports: Babe Ruth, Matt Christopher
  42. The Velveteen Rabbit and Other Tales, Margery Williams
  43. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Timothy Keller
  44. The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, Book 1), T.H. White
  45. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
  46. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (yes, again)
  47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  48. The Sugar Creek Gang #1: The Swamp Robber, Paul Hutchens
  49. True Stories of the Second World War, Paul Dowswell 
  50. The Force Awakens: A Junior Novel, Michael Kogge 
  51. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness, Janet & Geoff Benge
  52. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  53. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing
  54. The Kite Fighters, Linda Sue Park
Still on the list:
  • Red Scarf Girl, Jiang Ji-li 
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
  • Hatchet, Gary Paulsen 
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry 
  • Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne
  • Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski 
  • Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
  • Once / Now / Then / After, Morris Gleitzman 
    * * * * *

    Have some great read-aloud suggestions of your own? 

    Please share in the comments here or on Facebook. 

    I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.

    Monday, July 10, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 5: Oh, Say, Can You See Me Pinwheeling Through the Air?

    Once, I took a trip that broke me.


    It's sort of a long story, but I used to spend a lot of time taking jump shots, mostly with my sister Bethany.

    Officially, however, it was our sister Lisa who started it all one summer day when we ran out of things to do in her town and amused ourselves by jumping off stumps.

    Because we liked to Jump Off Things in public, preferably with recognizable landmarks in the background, we did some of our best work while traveling.

    If you're thinking that this looks like fun, you're right. If you're thinking that it was just a matter of time before I hurt myself, you're also right.

    Ten years ago this week, I sustained my first (and worst) Jumping Off Things injury. (And if you've been hanging around long enough to remember this actually happening, congratulations. We've come full circle.)

    Here's the story.

    Bethany and I were visiting my friend Lucy in Baltimore, and we'd made our way to Fort McHenry National Monument in order to visit the spot where Francis Scott Key penned "The Star Spangled Banner."

    We were also excited at the possibility of some historic jumps.

    These possibilities quickly became apparent at the information center as, along with a good-sized teenage tour group from Spain, we sat through the inspirational video about Francis Scott Key. The excitable young tourists oooh'd and aaaaah'd over the dramatic moment when they roll back the heavy curtains to reveal Old Glory flying high over the fort.

    You couldn't blame them, really. If you've been there, you know it's a dramatic moment.

    And that's when I had my brain wave: We would take jumping photos with the iconic flag itself. Just the flag and the sky and nothing else.

    At least, that was the theory; however, given the set-up of the fort, the crowds of other tourists, and my general ineptitude, getting the right perspective for the shot proved tricky.

    Somehow, we thought it would be a fine idea for one of us to run through a former cell block of the fort, leap over a shallow set of stone steps, and launch ourselves over the camera person--who would lie flat on her back, camera up--thereby gaining enough lift so that we would appear against a backdrop of clear blue sky and billowing American flag.

    We'd have to be careful, though, because the perfect angle to frame this shot just happened to be perilously close to a small drop-off. If we overshot the landing at all, we'd tip over a shallow ledge and land on a rough cobble-stoned walkway five feet below.

    Bethany, of course, nailed it in one jump (despite the fact that back then, I was shooting with a basic point-and-click camera that operated on a 3-second delay).

    While the results weren't exactly what I'd envisioned, they were the best we could do under the circumstances.

    Then it was my turn.

    Bethany took the camera and lay on the ground while I skipped to the back of the cell block for my own run at glory.

    But I just couldn't get it.

    After four unsuccessful attempts, I was ready to give up, but I decided for one more try. Throwing caution (and reason) to the wind, I gave it my all.

    I took a long running start through the cell block and flung myself up and out over the stone steps. In my blissful nanosecond of pure flight, I shot a crazed grin down at Bethany as I soared over her.


    (Well, sort of. I mean....look.)

    You know what comes next.

    I came down awkwardly on my left foot and stumbled, body twisting. My right toe jammed hard against the stone ledge, acting as a pivot to propel me forward. Thus I wheeled over the ledge, arms windmilling for what felt like hours, and slammed heavily against the cobblestone walkway below.

    Lucy, who'd been standing to the side observing these shenanigans, reported that the teenage group from Spain rounded the corner just in time to witness me hurtling through the air.

    "That lady fell down!" one of them cried loudly in Spanish, while others took pictures.

    Meanwhile, I lay breathless on the cobbles, uncertain as to whether or not I was dead, but pretty sure I wanted to be.

    My immediate injuries included horrible bruises along the right side of my body, brush-burns along my palms, forearms, and shins, and a broken toe on my right foot--immediately swollen and gloriously purple. Eventually, I suspected that I'd likely fractured my ribs as well. Weeks later, I was still bracing myself to stand up and sit down; and months later, it still hurt to cough or sneeze.

    We'll never know for sure, however, because I never got myself checked out.

    No need to lecture me about any of this now, Internet Moms. It all happened a decade ago, and I can assure you that the next time I fell and broke a bone, I definitely went to the hospital.

    But that's another story.

    * * * *

    This concludes Lost in Any Language, my short series

    about traveling the world and embarrassing myself.

    I hope you enjoyed it!

    Be sure to click back through the blog and catch

    any posts you may have missed.

    * * * *

    Monday, July 3, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 4: Ruth's Highland Fling

    It happens to every traveler at least once.

    In September of 2012, I visited Scotland with my friend Jodee and my sister Bethany. Our primary objectives were to attend the wedding of some good friends and do some sightseeing. We were staying down near Glasgow, but toward the end of the trip, our friend K. graciously offered to drive us into the Highlands.

    The schedule for the day included Fort William, Glencoe, and a stop near Lock Shiel to see the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first raised his standard. We would also tour the 19th century chapel and climb the lookout to view the Glenfinnan Viaduct (which some of you would recognize as the "Harry Potter Bridge").

    Unbeknownst to my friends, I had a third objective while on this trip: to collect samples of different types of Scottish leaves. (I'm sure you're wondering why, but the explanation is long and boring and would detract from the current narrative. I had my reasons. That's all you need to know.) 

    My leaf collecting was unbeknownst to my friends when our journey started. By the time we climbed the hill to overlook the Glenfinnan Viaduct, they'd resigned themselves to traveling with someone who would routinely leap from the trail to pounce on unsuspecting Scottish shrubs. Which is exactly what I was doing as we climbed the hill to the overlook. 

    The view at the top was lovely, if cold, windy, and misty with rain. But that's Scotland for you.

    We snapped some pictures, chatted with some other tourists, and just generally enjoyed ourselves.

    Suddenly, I became uncomfortably aware that I was about to have a bathroom emergency. In fact, it was imminent.

    "Guys," I announced, "I HAVE TO GO."

    Based on my tone of voice (and perhaps the swirl of my eyes), they knew exactly what I meant. Doubtless, so did the rest of the tourists at the top of the hill. I didn't care. We were all travelers up there, and we all know that when faced with the rigors of international travel, digestive systems are not to be trusted. So I doubt anyone looked at me with anything other than sympathy.

    But if anyone did give me a funny look, I wouldn't have noticed.

    One problem and one problem alone occupied my full attention.

    Our friend K. mentioned that there were toilets in the visitor center near where we'd parked, which was all I needed to hear. Without checking to see if anyone was following, I bounded down the trail, heedless of the damp conditions and rocks slick with moss. 

    At the bottom of the hill, I skidded to a stop, suddenly aware that clutched in my fists like pom-poms were two bunches of Scottish leaves. 

    Not wanting to lose all the hard work I'd invested in gathering them, I turned and thrust them toward my sister, who was ambling along behind me, looking around as if this were just another ordinary tourist moment. 

    "Take the leaves," I panted, flapping the handfuls up and down.

    Jodee, who was standing nearby trying to be helpful, squinted toward the information center. "I think the toilets are just over--"

    "TAKE THE LEAVES!" I all but screamed, flapping my hands one last time and releasing my treasures to the breeze.

    Where they landed, I don't know. I had more pressing problems. Long before the leaves had fluttered to the ground, I'd sprinted up the steps of the information center and launched myself toward the hallway clearly marked TOILETS

    My trials, however, were not quite over. 

    These were paid toilets. In order to make it past the hall, I'd have to find 20p and insert it into a tiny slot.

    Hopping from foot to foot, I frantically scrabbled through the coins at the bottom of my travel bag, clawing through the mix of American and UK change and cursing the laziness that kept me from being more organized with my various monies. (A first-world problem if there ever was one.) All I knew was that if I had to detour to the gift shop to make change, I was doomed. 

    I'll spare you further details. Sufficed to say that I found the proper change in time, and all was well.

    When I emerged from the information center some time later (at a much more relaxed pace), I found Bethany, Jodee, and K. calmly chatting with yet more tourists.

    In Jodee's hands, carefully gathered and reorganized, was a neat cluster of Scottish leaves. Whether she caught them when I threw them or gathered them after they'd scattered, none of us can recall.

    "You did throw them," said Jodee when I asked her about this recently. "I can't remember much after that." 

    It says a lot that these two ladies both agreed to travel with me again after this incident.

    I'm very grateful, because more than anything else, what makes or breaks a trip is not the weather, the location, or the food. 

    It's not even the coffee.

    It's the people. 

    The people make or break the trip every time.

    Monday, June 26, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 3: City of Lights (and Late-Night Plights)

    Our long day in Paris was about to get longer.

    It was August of 2016, and I was traveling with my friends Jodee and Tim (or, as they suggested when I asked if I could use their names on my blog, "The Most Amazing Couple You Have Ever Met").

    They also brought their kids.

    We were quite a crew.

    We'd been warned against visiting France; but so far, everyone's worst fears had proven exaggerated. Despite international tensions, the city was still packed with tourists, and although the very obvious anti-terrorism security did nothing to decrease our travel stress, we'd actually been having a fairly smooth trip.

    Our time in Paris was brief, and we were trying to pack a lot in--too much, perhaps. On this particular day, we'd hit Eiffel Tower Park (a truly horrible experience) and canvassed two museums--Musee d'Orsey and Musee Rodin

    It had proven too much for the younger members of our group, who were clearly flagging. 

    They weren't the only ones.

    We'd walked too much, eaten too little, and not had nearly enough water (or coffee). Despite Jodee's daughter E. trying to talk us into staying out late enough to see the Eiffel Tower light show, the rest of us just wanted a quiet evening in.

    By the time we dragged back to our lodgings on Île Saint-Louis, we were ready to trudge up the winding stairs, break open the snacks we'd picked up at nearby mini mart, and fall into jet-lag-induced stupors.

    When we arrived at our building, however, all was dark--and I mean dark. The entire building had lost power. Which would have been a minor inconvenience, except that the glass door that opened to street was operated by electronic keypad.

    "It's fine," Tim said. He'd made the travel arrangements, and he would take care of it. Once he placed a call to the owner of the building, he told us, all would be sorted quickly. Never mind that he'd been using his cell phone for navigation all day and the battery was at 5%.  

    Of course, it wasn't just one call, and it wasn't sorted quickly.

    As Tim's phone battery rapidly depleted, however, a plan slowly developed. The building manager wasn't in the city for the weekend, but he agreed to send a workman--a workman who was currently off duty and would have to be contacted and dispatched to our location in central Paris. 

    Which meant a wait. 

    But no worries: we were in Paris. We were encouraged to enjoy the night life. Go, relax at a cafe along the Seine, have dinner and a bottle of wine--or six. Never mind that half our group was underage. Plus, we'd already eaten. 

    The children collapsed on the sidewalk.

    I joined them. 

    While Jodee and Tim conferred in low tones, I let the kids take turns telling me things--who knows what. They were just talking and talking. 

    Then I remembered the snacks. I pulled out a bag of fromage-flavored chips, flopped backward with my head resting against my bag, and stared up at the dark Parisian skies, mindlessly snacking. I offered to share my chips with the kids--half out of generosity, and half hoping that they'd talk less with their mouths full.

    So there we were, lying on the sidewalk like homeless people, sharing a bag of cheap chips while tourists and sophisticated Europeans in their on-the-town finery quick-stepped around us, heading off toward glamorous evenings while we huddled under the eaves, hard-core jet-lagging and praying for salvation.

    It was like something out Dickens, only with snacks. 

    At length, E. pointed out that if we walked to the Seine, we could catch the Eiffel Tower light show after all. While Tim stayed behind to wait for the workman, the rest of us ambled down to the river. Along the way, one member of our group was nearly run down by an irate cyclist while another had a shifty-eyed stranger try to sell her beer out of an oversized murse. 

    Marveling at these diversions, which seemed all in a night's work for Paris, we lined up along Pont Marie, watching the Eiffel Tower light up the sky.

    In a small piece of luck, we arrived back just as a workman showed up. 

    He pulled up to the curb and hopped out of his minivan, smiling and chatting in French. After the quickest assessment I've ever seen, he popped open the back of the van, and--with absolutely no warning--pulled out a buzz saw and started sawing directly through the door. 

    Photo Courtesy of Tim
    And so it was that we witnessed two light shows that night, neither part of the plan.

    I have other memories of Paris--the beauty, the grandeur, the history, the food, the lights, the architecture, the stained glass, the café au lait, the church bells, the art--and of course the Eiffel Tower, lighting up the night.

    All of that is Paris. 

    But that's everybody's Paris.

    It's not mine.

    My Paris will always be cheese-flavored chips, the sidewalk beneath me, the lights above, and the kids on either side, talking the night away.

    Monday, June 19, 2017

    Lost in Any Language, Part 2: See Rome and Die (of Embarrassment)

    All I wanted was to see the Colosseum. 

    It was June of 2009, and I was in Italy primarily because I'd had a stressful school year and toward the end of May, I knew something drastic had to be done before I completely lost my will to live. So late one evening I came home from work, plopped in front of the laptop, googled "cheap airfare," and snapped up the first result. Knowing that I had a round-trip ticket to Europe in the offing helped me tunnel through the final weeks of the semester.

    Which is how I wound up in Rome.

    When I told my friend Lucy what I'd done, she decided to join me--thank God. Because clearly I was in no frame of mind to waltz around the world making independent decisions.

    Although I hadn't given this trip the sort of care and preparation I usually invest in overseas travel (generally there are charts, graphs, lists, timetables, and post-its), I still devised a loose plan for each day.

    As did Lucy.

    On this particular day, my plan was to see the Colosseum, while Lucy's plans involved taking photos with "Fabio," a third-rate Gladiator impersonator she'd spied the day before.

    Once she had him in her sights, there was no turning back.

    "He looks like a creep," I told her, but Lucy disagreed. She thought he was hilarious, and she gladly tipped him a couple of Euros to pose for some photos. He picked her up in his arms, nibbled her cheek, and soaked in her adulation. 

    Safely on the far side of the lens, I found the whole thing a little silly; however, given my track record in the areas of ridiculousness and public embarrassment, I was really in no position to judge.

    Then he came after me.

    Hair fluttering in the warm Italian sun, he strode over the cobbles, plucked the camera from my hands, passed it to Lucy, and wrist-dragged me across the street. Flapping my free hand and gobbling like a turkey, I found myself snapped into position and tugged forward.

    He leaned close.

    Only then did he sense how uncomfortable I was--not that it phased him.

    He leaned closer.

    "Don' worry," he murmured, "I no kees you!"

    Across the street, cackling away, Lucy snapped photos.

    Fabio eventually dropped his arms, stepped back, and studied me for a minute.

    "Ah," he said. "This."

    I'm sure he thought there was something wrong with me: this awkward, sleep-deprived female sporting the sallow skin and hollowed-out eye pits that only the tail end of a school year can produce.

    I can't say I'd blame him for worrying. I mean, look at me. I'd obviously let myself get into quite a state.

    Fortunately, there's no balm quite like ten days in Italy with Lucy. I flew home happy, tanned, well-fed, and well-rested.

    Best of all, I was ready to regale everyone with a string of mild disasters and embarrassing encounters experienced along the way.

    Because this was just the first of many.

    * * * *