The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene

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Title: The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene

Notable: Book #1 in the Nancy Drew mystery series

Premise:

Nancy Drew, a young lady who lives with her lawyer father, has a penchant for sleuthing.  When an old man dies and leaves his entire estate to a family he disliked, Nancy wants to investigate whether or not a later will was written.

My thoughts:

Nancy Drew mysteries are what you would call old-fashioned and quaint.  I can just picture Nancy zipping around in her little convertible in her just-so prim dresses.  I’m not one for a lot of prim and proper damsel kind of garbage, but Nancy has enough spunk and daring that I’m willing to overlook her prissiness.

The mystery itself isn’t mind blowing or terribly complex, but it’s a fun story for a younger person who enjoys the genre.  If you want your kids to get started on a mystery series that isn’t morally objectionable in any way, you’ll want to check out this series.  Or maybe you read Nancy Drew as a kid and just want to revisit the books for nostalgia’s sake.  Whatever floats your boat, man.

I recommend The Secret of the Old Clock to those who enjoy tame mysteries featuring a teen/young adult protagonist.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

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The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

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Title: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum

Premise:

This is the life story of a man named Claus (later known as Santa Claus).  It starts with his baby years, when he was abandoned near the forest and a kind-hearted nymph named Necile adopted him as her own.  Claus grew up in an enchanted forest, but when he reached adulthood, he took his place in the world of man.  From his home in the Laughing Valley, Claus spreads happiness to the children of the world by making and delivering toys.  This story talks about his life’s work and how a few common Christmas traditions came to be.

My thoughts:

My son and I just finished reading this for school.  The first time I read it was several years ago and I was quite taken with it back then.  Though the language is quaint and a little old-fashioned, by son thoroughly enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait until we could read the next chapter.

Baum’s story about Santa Claus is more than just a jolly old elf who likes to eat cookies.  His is an active and philanthropic man who makes it his life’s work to bring joy to others.  I like how Santa serves as a middleman between the world of mortals and immortals in this story, drawing the immortals into helping humanity.  I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this book again in a few years so I can read it with my younger girls.  I know they will love the story and I think this is a great family read-aloud!

I recommend The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus to young readers, families and anyone else who wants to learn more about Santa’s history (at least according to Baum).

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Snowbound Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner

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Title: Snowbound Mystery by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Notable: Book #13 in The Boxcar Children series

Premise:

The Alden siblings go to a hunter’s cabin in the woods to spend a week out in the wilderness.  When a freak snow storm hits, they are stuck in the cabin, determined to make the best of it until their grandfather can send help.  A local family who runs the small store nearby treks out to the cabin to make sure the children are okay.  While they all await rescue, the Aldens help solve a mystery that the Nelson family has been trying to uncover for many years.

My thoughts:

I feel like the Boxcar Children books are pretty formulaic.  If you’ve read one, you know what subsequent books will be like.  This one is no exception.  Somehow these children end up fending for themselves or at least acting independently no matter what situation they find themselves in.  Their grandfather must feel pretty strongly that they should be encouraged to become independent.  Anyhow, he lets them go off to stay in a cabin in the woods for a week by themselves.  This mama objects!

The major event in the story is when the Aldens help solve a mystery for the Nelson family.  I don’t want to give it away, but the consequence is that it totally transforms their life.  They’re no longer stuck hoping for a brighter future, but can go ahead and realize their dreams.  It’s a feel-good ending.  🙂

I recommend Snowbound Mystery to younger readers who enjoy lighthearted mysteries.  It would also be a good book to read aloud to your kids.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

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Title: The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

Notable: Newbery Honor Book, 1979

Premise:

Gilly Hopkins is in foster care and about to enter a new home.  She wants nothing more than for her mother to swoop in and reclaim her, but alas, it’s not to be.  Gilly’s new home is with a large, motherly woman named Trotter and her foster son, William Ernest.  Gilly’s prejudices come to the forefront when she realizes that she’ll be expected to interact closely with African Americans, and when she passes judgment on Trotter and W. E.  Eventually though, Gilly realizes that sometimes our dreams aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, and making the best of our current situation can turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

My thoughts:

This is a really intense book!  Don’t expect to sit down and just float through it like you’re riding on a big, fluffy cloud.  Paterson doesn’t take shortcuts with her characters and she’s definitely not afraid of giving them flaws.  The main character, Gilly, is one of the most judgmental kids you’ll ever meet in a story, but it’s hard not to root for her.  She’s so miserably unhappy, that Gilly spews her vitriol on everyone around her, picking out traits in others to belittle and make fun of.

She doesn’t like Trotter because she’s overweight; she doesn’t like W. E. because she thinks he’s stupid; she doesn’t like her neighbor or new teacher because they’re black.  In all of these relationships, we see Gilly gradually progress into a new understanding about who they are.  She comes to value each of them and realizes that love and acceptance are possible with people who are different, and not part of your nuclear family.  She never thought she’d come to love these people, but they found a way to infiltrate her heart.  There is no easy fairy-tale ending to the story, but readers are left with the message that we should make the best of our situation in life and look for joy and contentment in what we have today.

As a parent, I have to warn you about the offensive bits in this story.  I wouldn’t want my younger child picking it up and thinking that it’s okay to copy Gilly’s language.  She uses totally inappropriate phrases to talk about Trotter, W. E., Mr. Randolph and Ms. Harris.  In one part the n-word is very clearly implied.  By the end of the book, Gilly’s language has become much tamer, but a child has to be old enough to realize that Gilly’s language is not something to emulate.

I recommend The Great Gilly Hopkins to those who enjoy coming of age novels which tug at your heart strings and are kind of edgy.

Possible Objections:

  • Offensive language (degrading those who are obese, African American, have special needs, etc.)
  • Mild epithets (d-word & hell)

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

The Mystery in the Snow by Gertrude Chandler Warner

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Title: The Mystery in the Snow by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Notable: Book #32 in The Boxcar Children series

Premise:

The Alden children visit a ski resort with their grandfather and get to enter a winter event competition.  When it seems like the contest is being sabotaged, it’s up to the Alden children to figure out who is ruining it and why.

My thoughts:

You can count on The Boxcar Children for innocent and simple mystery stories for kids.  While there’s nothing profound in this book, it keeps kids engaged by presenting a mystery which they try to unravel.  When I was a kid I loved this series and it still holds somewhat of a magical, mystical quality for me.

The story itself is pretty simple.  The kids enter a contest which features skiing, ice skating, sledding, snow sculpture and ice sculpture.  Two teams compete and at the end they hold an awards ceremony.  From the beginning though, the competition seems to be experiencing an awful lot of misfortune, from a missing key to other peoples’ work being ruined.  This would be an especially appropriate story during the Christmas season, or for kids who enjoy outdoor winter activities.

I recommend The Mystery in the Snow to children who enjoy mysteries without any objectionable material.  It would also be suitable to read aloud to your family.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #5 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

This story picks up a short while after the previous one left off.  Jack is now a toddler/preschooler and acts just like his grandpa, John.  Cassie has come to terms with the family’s new addition and she can’t help but love her little brother.  Anna and Justin finally marry, which necessitates a visit from the Maine relatives.  The joyous mood is short-lived, however, when tragedy strikes.

My thoughts:

Well,  I finally finished the Sarah, Plain and Tall series!  It’s a bittersweet ending because I always feel sad when a story featuring some of my favorite characters comes to an end.

In this book, little Jack fairly worships the ground his grandfather walks on and tries to emulate him in all he does.  Poor grandfather is finding it harder and harder to keep up with the rest of the family because of his failing health.  Each family member has to confront the prospect of a future spent without their father/grandfather, and come to terms with that eventuality.

This is a good story for introducing kids to mortality and helping them see that death is an unavoidable part of life.  For kids who might be facing the loss of a grandparent, I think this could be a very cathartic read.  I’ll confess–it made me cry.

I recommend Grandfather’s Dance to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a touching family read aloud.

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

More Perfect than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: More Perfect than the Moon by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #4 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

Cassie Witting is now the family member whose responsibility it is to write in the journal.  Cassie enjoys observing others and writing make-believe stories about them.  When Cassie finds out that Sarah is going to have a baby, she thinks the baby will come between herself and her mama.  She hopes that if she makes up her own story about the baby, perhaps nothing will change and that Sarah will still love her best.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed this book as a continuation of the previous three in the series.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t my favorite in the series.  I think it was because there was so very little that actually happened in the plot line.  It’s basically about Sarah getting pregnant, the difficulties she has as an older pregnant woman, and Cassie’s resentment about the new baby.  It’s a nicely done story, and I can see it being a good read for a child who isn’t thrilled with the idea of a new baby being added to their family.

Probably the most satisfying part of the story for me, was in seeing Grandfather’s role in the family expand.  In the last book he had just been fully admitted as a member of the Witting family, but in this book he has really found his position in the family.  He’s a confidant and mentor to the children, a helper to the adults, and a patriarch to the whole Witting family.

I recommend More Perfect than the Moon to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a touching family read aloud.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

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The Littles Go to School by John Peterson

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Title: The Littles Go to School by John Peterson

Premise:

Lucy Little is worried about going to school for the first time.  Her family reassures her that she will enjoy it, but she’s still scared.  When Tom and Lucy find themselves accidentally transported to school in the gerbils’ cage, Lucy gets a chance to explore the school and find out how fun it really can be.

My thoughts:

My son and I just finished this chapter book for school.  I think we may have made it through all the Littles books we own!  For some reason this wasn’t my favorite Littles book.  I think it may be because the action and adventure was very tame, apart from their being transported to the school by mistake.

My son enjoyed it and got a kick out of the silly things Tom and Lucy did while exploring the school, so I suppose it’s a bit more appealing to kids.  It may have also sounded similar to our homeschooling experiences.  Just like us, Tom and Lucy do the majority of their school work at home through mostly child-led activities.  They go to the “big school” for one week per year to meet with their classmates and teacher, Ms. Beta Gogg.

I recommend The Littles Go to School to those who are already fans of the Littles.

Rating: 3 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Caleb’s Story by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Caleb’s Story by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #3 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

Anna has now left home to finish school and work in town.  It is Caleb’s turn to write in the family journal and the new topic is the appearance of a mysterious stranger named John.  When the family finds out who he really is, it causes some major consternation and Jacob must learn to forgive if their family is to survive.

My thoughts:

The third book in the series is right in line with the previous two in terms of style and subject matter.  In this volume we get to see Cassie (the youngest daughter) as a young girl and Caleb has taken on a much more mature role in the family.  I loved the part that he had to play in teaching John a new skill.  Seriously, if I tell you want it is, I’ll spoil the book for you.

The same overarching theme of family is explored in this book, with the emphasis being on forgiveness and fresh starts.  I still don’t know how MacLachlan does it, but she packs very moving stories into small packages.  Bravo!

I recommend Caleb’s Story to young people who enjoy stories about early American settlers.

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

 

Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Skylark by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #2 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series

Premise:

Sarah and Papa have been married a year, and Anna and Caleb have come to know Sarah as their mother.  However, hard times hit when there is a drought on the prairie.  Can Sarah cope with the difficulties of prairie life, or will she return home to her beloved Maine?

My thoughts:

Like the first book in the series, this one is also short and to the point.  Through a relatively simple story, MacLachlan goes straight to the heart in examining the topics of family, hardship and commitment.

Life on the prairie ends up being harder than Sarah ever imagined, and she’s not sure if she can cope with the prolonged drought which threatens their home, livestock and very existence.  I enjoyed seeing the children’s relationship with Sarah’s relatives develop.  Even though they left the prairie to visit Sarah’s family, they felt secure in the knowledge that Sarah saw them as her children and didn’t simply leave them behind.  The development at the end cements their status as a family even more.  No spoilers!

I recommend Skylark to young people who enjoy stories about early American settlers.

Possible Objections:

  • One of Sarah’s aunts goes skinny-dipping

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

The Littles and the Perfect Christmas by Joel Peterson

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Title: The Littles and the Perfect Christmas by Joel Peterson

Premise:

It’s Christmas at the Biggs’ house, but things aren’t so merry when Mr. Bigg loses his job!  Despite the depressing situation, Mr. Bigg works on a homemade gift for his son, which ends up being the answer to his employment problem.  The Littles are instrumental in helping to make sure the gift is perfect for when Mr. Winters, the toy company owner, comes to take a look at it.

My thoughts:

My son and I read this book together for school.  We didn’t like it as much as the other Littles books we’ve read.  It was probably because there was very little action in this story.  Mr. Bigg loses his job, the Littles fix a mistake on the toy Mr. Bigg made, and Mr. Winters comes for a visit.  The pace of the story is a bit slow, especially when reading it with a young-ish boy who wants a bit of excitement.

The story is cute and I like the angle they took with Mr. Winters, but I feel like the book would have been better if it were a little shorter.  It would be a fun story to read aloud to your kids during Christmas.

I recommend The Littles and the Perfect Christmas to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a cute family read-aloud.

Rating: 3 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

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Title: Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

Premise:

Sadako is a young girl who lives with her family in Hiroshima, Japan.  She dreams of running on the school’s relay team.  Though she was only a baby when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during WWII, she later contracts leukemia.  Sadako’s best friend, Chizuko, tells her of a legend that says that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will grant your wish to get better.  Sadako makes it her goal to fold 1,000 cranes and tries to come to terms with her own mortality.

My thoughts:

I think this may have been the first book I read as a child that made me cry and made my heart ache.  Sadako’s story is so tragic and it’s simple enough that it’s a good way to introduce kids to the concept of death.  It also serves as an age-appropriate introduction to WWII and some of the lasting effects that it had on everyday people.  The book is based on a true story.

A few years ago, my husband read the book at my suggestion.  I didn’t tell him how sad it was, and he came to me after he had finished, with tears in his eyes, and asked why I didn’t warn him.  Oops–I didn’t know it would affect him quite so much.  So, be prepared for some weepiness if you or your child chooses to read the book.

I recommend Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes to kids in elementary or middle school, or as a poignant family read-aloud.

Rating: 5 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

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Title: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Notable: Book #1 in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series; Newbery Medal winner, 1986

Premise:

Anna and Caleb live on the Great Plains with their father.  Their mother died after Caleb’s birth, and their father has never quite recovered from the loss.  One day, Papa informs the children that he has advertised for a wife and a lady named Sarah has responded.  Sarah agrees to visit them on a trial basis to see if things will work out.  Anna and Caleb become attached to Sarah, but they’re terrified that she will decide to go back to her brother’s home in Maine.

My thoughts:

I read this book when I was a kid and it’s just as good today as it was back then.  It’s amazing how such a touching story can be contained in such a short book.  My copy is a mere 58 pages.

I feel so sorry for poor Anna and Caleb who are pining for a mother’s love and for their father to recover some of his joy again.  When Sarah sweeps into their lives, she’s like a breath of fresh air.  She tells them about her beloved far-off sea and the creatures who live there.  They go swimming in the cow pond, slide down a hay “dune,” and Papa teaches Sarah to ride horse and drive the wagon.  But when Sarah visits town by herself, the children worry that she won’t return.

It’s that climactic final scene when Sarah returns and reassures the family that she intends to stay, when your heartstrings are tugged the most.  I just love this touching story about loss, hope, family and new beginnings.  It’s a beautiful story.  🙂

I recommend Sarah, Plain and Tall to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a poignant family read-aloud.

Rating: 5 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

OTHER SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL SERIES POSTS:

The Littles Take a Trip by John Peterson

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Title: The Littles Take a Trip by John Peterson

Premise:

The Little family decides that it is time to make a trip to meet up with some other tiny families.  They believe that their children are a little too socially isolated, and they hope that this will help them make some friends.  Cousin Dinky scopes out the route, but when their ride (Hildy, the cat) gets injured and is taken home by Henry Bigg, the Littles find themselves stranded in the woods.  Will they make it to the tiny family gathering?

My thoughts:

My son and I just finished reading this as our homeschooling chapter book.  This book is much like all the other Littles books, so if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it.  I’ll confess that it wasn’t my favorite book in the series.  The story and dialogue were just average, with nothing that really stood out as remarkable.  My son really enjoyed it, though!

I think that a child would get a bit more enjoyment out of the book than an adult would.  They can daydream about what it would be like to ride around on a cat in the middle of a giant woods, and later to ride a tame skunk!  In case you’re worried about the Littles getting stuck in the big, dark woods–don’t fear!  It turns out there are actually tiny people living in the woods whom the Littles never even knew about.  Phew!  You can stop sweating now.

I recommend The Littles Take a Trip to kids who are reading beginner chapter books, or as a fun family read-aloud

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Until next time…

Lori

The Blind Colt by Glen Rounds

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Title: The Blind Colt by Glen Rounds

Premise:

A blind colt is born to a mare who is part of a herd of Mustangs in the American West.  Whitey, a young boy, and his uncle Torwal own a nearby ranch, and watch over the animals within their domain.  Uncle Torwal is in favor of shooting the colt, but Whitey pleads for his life.  He would love to own a horse like that someday.  Against all odds, the little colt survives the winter but gets lost and separated from his band.  He finds his way to the ranch’s other horses, and Whitey finally gets his chance to prove that his faith in the blind colt’s abilities has not been misplaced.

My thoughts:

I’ve had this book since I was a kid and I remember being enamored of it back then.  Though I never had a horse, I dreamt of getting one and even wrote a story in first grade about a horse that was mine (in reality it belonged to my cousins).  So yeah, horses have always fascinated me.  Interestingly, this book is based on a true story!

It’s a bit short for a chapter book, so a child could read it in a day or two.  There really isn’t much to the story.  A blind colt is born and survives in the American West with his mother and the rest of the Mustangs.  However, one day he slips down a ravine and can’t get back to the other horses.  In his wanderings, he finds his way to the ranch’s work horses and sticks with them until he is discovered by Whitey, the boy who kept him from being shot in the first place.  Whitey then gentles the colt and Uncle Torwal says he can keep him.  That’s it!

The writing itself is quality and I think that’s what makes the story enjoyable.  There is a lot of description about the wilderness and the discoveries that the colt makes while he tries to get by in the big, mysterious world.  He faces some perils along the way, such as a rattlesnake, mudhole, blizzard, etc., but with his heightened senses of hearing and smell, and the help of his mother, this tough little guy makes it through.

I recommend The Blind Colt to kids who are just beginning to read chapter books or as a cute family read-aloud.  It would particularly appeal to horse lovers!

Rating: 4 Stars

Until next time…

Lori