Category Archives: Best Books

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken for this month’s Read to Know Bookclub, and I am so glad I did!  I chose to not read this one aloud to my children because I thought it might be scary, but it turns out that think this is one that we would’ve all enjoyed as a read-aloud.   Although this book has been on my radar for a while (after all, it was published in 1962!), it’s not one I’ve ever been inclined to pick up on my own.  I steer a pretty wide path around anything that seems like it might be scary or have questionably evil undertones, and for some reason that’s the impression I’ve always had of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.  While this story does contain a trio of dastardly villains (not to mention some pretty creepy wolves!), there’s nothing in here that I predict would cause my ten and eight year olds to have trouble going to sleep at night.  What is does have is adventure aplenty, with a duo of spunky heroines and a helpful gooseboy who comes to their rescue.  What I particularly love are the Dickens-esque characters and characterization and the delightfully descriptive writing:

“So I should hope!  Am I right in supposing that you are Miss Green?  I am Miss Slighcarp, your new governess.  I am also your fourth cousin, once removed,” the lady added haughtily, as if she found the removal hardly sufficient.

I was pretty sure from the outset that having a governess named Miss Slighcarp couldn’t be good.

Cold in spite of their furs, the children were glad to be sat down before a glowing fire in the night nursery, while Pattern scolded and clucked, and brushed the tangles out of their hair, brought in with her own hands the big silver bathtub filled with steaming water, in which bunches of lemon mint had been steeped, giving a deliciously fragrant scent, and bathed them each in turn, afterward wrapping them in voluminous warm white flannel gowns.

Next she fetched little pipkins of hot, savory soup, sternly saw every mouthful swallowed, and finally hustled them both into Bonnie’s big, comfortable bed with the blue swans flying on its curtains.

Doesn’t that make you want to curl up in Bonnie’s cozy bed and take a nap?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is described as an “alternate history” of England, though I didn’t really notice anything terribly amiss in this particular story.  (Read more about this in Carrie’s post about the author, or on the author’s website.)  It did make me think about the steampunk genre, something I admittedly know next to nothing about but have been intrigued by.

I loved this story of orphans and near-orphans, villainous governesses, courageous girls, and one heroic gooseboy.  The only thing that seemed a bit off to me was the title; wolves enter the story only peripherally, so the title seems odd.  I can overlook that, though, and it makes me more eager to read more of the series.  I’d like to check out more of Aiken’s works, particularly her Jane Austen sequels.   I give The Wolves of Willoughby Chase a Highly Recommended, and I offer an enthusiastic thank you to both Carrie and the bookclub hostess for the month of May, Tammy of Bluerose’s Heart.

Reading to Know - Book Club

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

The Saturdays is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time.  It’s even on my Classics Club list!  Sherry recommended I read it and The Book of Three this year in her annual reader advisory post, so this year I decided to do it early before I forgot.  To give myself extra incentive, the girls and I volunteered to host our library’s mother/daughter bookclub and chose this novel as our book for March.    I actually read Enright’s 1939 Newbery Medal-winning novel Thimble Summer when I was a child and then re-read it a few years ago.  I was pleased that it stood the test of time for me and that my fond memories of it weren’t disappointed.   Thus, I approached  The Saturdays with some expectations–that it would be an episodic sort of story that treats the interior lives of children with great respect.  This is certainly true–the Melendy children have some mild adventures on their Saturdays in this novel, but it’s more about their relationships and the way they experience their world.   The Melendy children form the I.S.A.A.C.– the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club–to give themselves something special:  the opportunity to go out independently for their own adventure, a treat unheard of for children with three siblings and a motherly housekeeper/nanny.  Randy, whose idea it is to begin with, chooses a trip to the art museum because she loves art.  Rush chooses a trip to the opera.  Mona goes to the hair and nail salon all by herself and spends her money on a hair cut and a manicure, neither of which she asked permission for before leaving home.  Little Oliver takes off by himself for the circus.  What they actually get, in addition to the experiences they anticipate, are side adventures:  Randy runs into a family friend who takes her to tea and tells her a story; Rush finds a dog; Mona meets interesting people at the hair salon and also hears a story; Oliver gets lost and is brought back home by a mounted policeman.   They also have a few family adventures, including narrowly escaping asphyxiation by coal fumes and a small house fire.  The story ends happily with them spending their summer at the seashore at the invitation of the friend who took Randy to tea on the First Saturday, and so the story comes full circle.

I just love stories that are rich in characterization and in which one might argue not a whole lot actually happens.  Well, plenty happens in this story really, but everything that happens isn’t outside the realm of normal childhood adventures (normal for 1940s era New York City children, that is), but Enright writes in such a way that even the most humdrum of adventures is wonder-full, which is just as childhood should be.  This story is in the same vein as the Eleanor Estes books (we love both the Moffat stories and the Pye stories), and my girls even noticed that like the Moffats, there are four Melendy children, two girls and two boys (and they also only have one parent living).   This story is also very similar in spirit to the Penderwick stories and even some of the E. Nesbit stories just a little bit.  What I love most about them is Enright’s wonderful ability to describe mundane events in the most beautiful way–she truly paints word pictures!  I shared a couple of her descriptions here; here are a few more:

This from Mona’s Saturday at the salon:

 Cascades of warm water and foaming suds of perfumed soap flowed over Mona’s scalp.  Miss Pearl’s fingers were light and dexterous.  This was something entirely different from Cuffy’s brand of shampoo.  Cuffy scrubbed as if her hope of salvation depended upon it.  When she was through, your eyes were red and smarting from all the soap that had got into them, and your whole skull was throbbing as though it had been beaten with a mallet.  The Melendy children dreaded shampoo days as they dreaded few things, and Oliver had once been heard begging Cuffy to use the vacuum cleaner on his scalp instead.  (Saturday Four)

This lovely description is from the final Saturday when the Melendys vacate their city home for the seashore:

At least it was Saturday.  The express men, smelling of crates, and wearing caps on the backs of their heads and pencils behind their ears, had taken away the trunks.  The taxi drivers and Father and Willy Sloper and Rush took the rest of the luggage down to the waiting taxis.  It was interesting luggage.  Besides a rare accumulation of elderly suitcases and hatboxes, there were several cardboard boxes, a duffel bag, a tricycle (Oliver had won on that but lost on the rocking horse), two umbrellas and a walking stick bound together, some steamer rugs, and the special suitcase with a window that contained the melancholy Isaac [Rush's dog].  (Saturday Eight)

Rush’s first glimpse of what he’ll have at his disposal in their summer home:

“Look at that!” said Rush, standing still; both his arms pulled down by suitcases.  He was staring at a piano.  It was the real McCoy all right:  a Steinway parlor grand, black and shining as wet tar, with all its ivory keys gleaming in a sort of elegant smile.  (Saturday Eight)

The Melendy children explore the seashore upon their arrival.  (It reminded us of Pagoo.):

Randy walked along the rocks exploring.  Her knees and elbows were lavender, her teeth chattering, and she was covered with gooseflesh; but as long as Cuffy didn’t know it Randy could ignore it.  She came to a little pool full of sea water and kneeled down shivering, to examine it.  She saw barnacles, and seaweed, and blueblack mussels, and some tiny turreted shells that wobbled decorously across the floor of the pool.  When she reached down and picked one up to find out what made it wobble all she could see was the tip end of a minute pink claw.  She dropped it back again, and lay down on her stomach to get a better view of this small busy world.

She saw a big crusty old villain of a crab waltzing sideways through the weeds, and some little fish that would hang motionless and nearly invisible in the water for minutes at a time and then dart quickly as if pulled by threads.  The longer she looked the larger the world of the pool became, until it was a jungle ravine full of wild beasts and sudden dangers. (Saturday Eight)

And one more, just because I love it so much.  This exchange is from their first supper at the lighthouse:

The older ones had supper on the terrace later with Mrs. Oliphant.  They looked very clean with their wet hair and salt-scoured faces.  A whole flock of freckles had already alighted on Randy’s nose, and Rush said he thought he must be sunburned because he could feel his back; usually he hardly knew it was there.  (Saturday Eight)

We wracked our brains to come up with some sort of activity–usually it’s some sort of craft–to do at our bookclub meeting.  This book didn’t seem to lend itself to anything crafty, so we settled on a tea party, complete with petit fours, in honor of Randy’s tea party with Mrs. Oliphant.  It was a lovely evening, and all of the mothers and daughters in attendance enjoyed the story immensely.  We all give it a Highly Recommended, we here at the House of Hope are looking forward to picking up the next novel in the Melendy Quartet.  (Henry Holt, 1941)

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A couple biographies by Bryant and Sweet

Confession: the real reason, the primary one, that I want to mention these books here at Hope Is the Word is because I am completely taken with Melissa Sweet‘s illustrations.   Her illustrations alone would make these books worth a second glance in my opinion.  However, when you combine Sweet’s detailed and beautiful collage-style illustrations to Jen Bryant‘s storytelling, what you have then is a very winning combo of story and pictures and the perfect way to introduce elementary aged children (well, anyone, really) to an artist and poet they might otherwise not learn about until much later.

A Splash of Red is the life story of Horace Pippin, an American folk artist whose life and art were hidden in obscurity until the artist N.C. Wyeth brought it to light.   (Visit the book’s website to learn more about Horace Pippin.)  What I really appreciate about Pippin’s life as communicated by this fabulous book is how he persevered in his art even after a war injury could’ve sidelined him permanently.  This is such an interesting, inspirational, and beautifully rendered story, certainly worthy of the  2014 Schneider Family Book Award and the Sibert honor it received.  Highly Recommended.  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Art and poetry are two of my favorite things, so I was completely tickled to bring home another Bryant/ Sweet book from the library, this one a 2009 Caldecott honor-winning picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams.  A River of Words relates the life of Willie Williams, the young dreamer who spent hours outdoors just listening to the rhythm and cadences of the Passaic River tumbling over rocks and ultimately cascading in a waterfall.  Although he loved poetry, Williams ultimately became a doctor because “no one paid much money for poetry.”  Of course, the urge to write was so strong in  Williams that he often jotted down his thoughts on his prescription pad and wrote poetry late into the night.  My girls were familiar with Williams’ poetry, specifically his poem “This Is Just To Say” thanks to Gail Carson Levine’s inspired-by collection, Forgive Me, I MeanTo Do It which we had read before during a poetry tea time.  Both of these Bryant/Sweet books made a great addition to last week’s tea time, and I give them both a Highly Recommended.  (Eerdmans, 2008)

I shall certainly have my eyes peeled for more books by this dynamic duo!

Journey by Aaron Becker

Journey by Aaron Becker is a wordless picture book that was recently awarded a Caldecott honor and has been nominated for a Cybils Award in the picture fiction category.  All of these accolades (and then some!) are deserved.  Although I usually say I am not a fan of wordless picture books, I’ve about decided I need to quit saying that because I’ve read several that I’ve enjoyed.  This one communicates the story so well that I “read” it aloud to my children with no problem at all.

Journey is the story of a little girl who is lonely–everyone in her family is too busy to play with her, so she picks up a magic red crayon from her bedroom floor and draws a door in the wall that leads her into a magical world. She uses the crayon to draw various conveyances that take her into different worlds or settings:  a red boat, a red hot air balloon, a red flying carpet.  Several settings look a teeny bit like real places in the real world:  a huge castle with canals for roadways; a Middle Eastern city.  Others are fantastical.  The common thread from setting to setting is the little girl and her red crayon.  The story ends very pleasingly with the little girl being led through a purple doorway back into her world. There she finds a friend with a purple crayon.

Obviously, what makes the story in this wordless picture book so wonderful is the pictures.  The girl’s world is boring–sepia colored–until she finds the magical crayon.  The worlds she enters thereafter are lush and colorful.  The watercolor, pen, and ink illustrations are highly detailed and invite closer study.  I can definitely see why this one won a Caldecott honor, bested only by Brian Floca’s Locomotive.  I couldn’t help but be reminded a little bit of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and the DLM serendipitously picked it out of our huge picture book anthology to read the very same day we read Journey.  Journey gets a Highly Recommended from the House of Hope.  It’s one I’d love to add to our collection.  (Candlewick Press, 2013)

I had friends tell me, “You’re crazy to do this in watercolor.” But all my favorite books for kids are in watercolor.  –Aaron Becker

(I couldn’t agree with Becker more.)

Here’s a wonderful little video about Becker’s journey making Journey.

Related links:

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Our first chapter book read-aloud of 2014 is one Sherry recommended for us in her annual reader advisory post, and it’s one I’ve had on my radar and on my Classics Club list for a while.  The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, which is based partially on Welsh mythology, is the story of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper who goes on a quest to find the oracular pig, Hen-Wen.  On his journey he is joined by several unlikely companions, including a mouthy enchantress-in-training who rescues him when he is captured by the evil Achren; a hyperbolic king-turned-bard named Fflewddur Fflam; and a wolfhoundish creature named Gurgi who’s most interested in “crunchings and munchings.”  Together they search for Hen Wen and seek to warn the Sons of Don of impending evil.

Although I added this book to my list several years ago, it’s not a book I’d normally gravitate towards (especially were I to judge it by its cover).  I’m not really a fantasy person, despite the fact that I love all things Narnia and I finally did manage to read and enjoy The Hobbit a few years ago.  The Book of Three is an easy book to enjoy, though, even for those of us not well-versed in the tropes and symbols of fantasy.   First, there are a limited number of characters, so even though they have names which are at first unpronounceable (hint:  check the back of the book for a pronunciation guide), there aren’t so many that they’re easily confused.  Second, it’s a work of juvenile fiction, so it’s not so long that the plot meanders or we forget where we’ve been and where we’re going.  What we have, then, is a book in which good and evil are very carefully delineated, and Taran’s whole quest is easy to take in.  I love that one of the predominant themes–courage in the face of overwhelming odds–is so easy to discern.  This is from the author’s note at the beginning of the story:

The geography of Prydain is peculiar to itself.  Any resemblance between it and Wales is perhaps not coincidental–but not to be used as a guide for tourists.  It is a small land, yet it has room enough for gallantry and humor; and even an Assistant Pig-Keeper there may cherish many dreams.

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy.  Such things never hapen in real life.  Or do they?  Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do.  Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared.  To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers.

To me, that’s an irresistible introduction.

We all loved this book.  It’s suspenseful and humorous and just an all around great story.  The characterization is wonderful.  My girls never wanted me to stop with just one chapter.  We give this one a Highly, Highly Recommended and can’t wait to read the next book in The Chronicles of Prydain.  (Henry Holt, 1964)