Category Archives: Juvenile Fiction

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

I brought home Gary D. Schmidt‘s Newbery honor winning book The Wednesday Wars on a whim last week from the library.  I really needed to turn my attention to Jane Eyre, but I was in the mood for something short and easy, and after a while I really miss reading middle grade or YA fiction.  I LOVED Okay for Now when I read it this time a couple of years ago, so The Wednesday Wars has been on my radar since then.  I loved this one every bit as much as Okay for Now, which makes sense since the books are very similar in theme and tone and voice, and have a few characters in common.  (This also makes me wonder if these similarities are the reason that Schmidt was “robbed,” as Sherry puts it, of the Newbery back when Okay for Now was published.)

The Wednesday Wars is the story of Holling Hoodhood (yes, you read that right) and his seventh grade year.  The year is 1967, and Holling is simply trying to survive seventh grade.  The only son of a prominent but neglectful architect, Holling’s main distinguishing characteristic is that he’s the lone Presbyterian in a classroom full of Catholic and Jewish kids who depart school each Wednesday afternoon for religious classes at their respective places of worship.  What follows then is primarily the story of Holling’s relationship with his English teacher, Mrs. Baker, under whose care Holling is left each Wednesday afternoon.  Mrs. Baker’s exasperation at having the one seventh grader who hasn’t any place to be each Wednesday is almost palpable at the beginning of the story–she gives him inane tasks, like taking the blackboard erasers outside and clapping them.  She finally settles on a more appealing activity (at least for her initially):  she and Holling will study Shakespeare together.  The unfolding of the plot is then driven by Shakespearean themes.  This former English teacher absolutely loved being privy to the conversations between Holling and Mrs. Baker.  I love the relationship that develops–reading this caused me to look back at my own teaching years with fondness on a few students with whom I developed a similar relationship.

If the story sounds high-brow, it certainly isn’t.  Holling’s voice is that of a fourteen year old boy.  I found myself laughing aloud on more than one occasion.

The next afternoon, after everyone had left for Temple Beth-El or Saint Adelbert’s, and after Doug Swieteck and Danny had waited around until the last minute in case Mrs. Baker had arranged for Whitey Ford to show up, Mrs. Baker handed me back my Macbeth test.

“Macbeth and Malcolm are not the same person, though their names share an initial consonant,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“Nor are Duncan and Donalbain, who also share an initial and, for that matter, concluding, consonant, the same person.”

“I guess not,” I said.

“Malcolm and Donalbain are the king’s sons, not. . .”

“You know,” I said, “it’s not so easy to read Shakespeare–especially when he can’t come up with names that you can tell apart.”
Mrs. Baker rolled her eyes.  This time I was sure.

“Shakespeare did not write for your ease of reading,” she said.

No kidding, I thought.  (108-109)

Despite Holling’s adolescent attitude and bravado, though, this is a very poignant tale.  It brings together very tough, very real issues–the Vietnam War, immigration, family difficulties, first love–and measures out the problems and sometimes even the solutions through the beautiful sieve of a teacher/student relationship and Shakespearean genius.  This book will definitely make my best picks of 2014 list.  Highly, Highly Recommended.  (Clarion, 2007)

Read Aloud Thursday–September 2014

read-aloud21I am very happy to report that since last month’s Read Aloud Thursday, we have fallen into something of a read-aloud routine at the House of Hope.   We usually read our history-related chapter book during or after lunch, and then we share our just-for-fun read-aloud at bedtime.  I admit that this causes me to get in bed later than I ought since our bedtime routine isn’t exactly a well-oiled machine, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice for more read-aloud time.  On Fridays we also read another schoolish read-aloud as per the Sonlight schedule, though since I’m not exactly following the Sonlight schedule anyway, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to stick to that.  We’ll see.

Since last month, we’ve finished Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright and Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark.   Then There Were Five is the third book of the Melendy Quartet, and I’m not sure we’ll ever recover when we finish with the Melendys.  We–all of us–love them that much.  Secret of the Andes was a very engrossing little novel for us to read in accompaniment to our study of Native Americans.


Currently we’re reading the fourth (and final!  sniff, sniff) Melendy story, Spiderweb for Two.  Our lunchtime read is The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, a new-to-me book by an author I really, really like.  So far, so good!  We’re also still reading our Friday story, Lawn Boy, and I’m ready to finish it up.  It’s really good, as one would expect from Gary Paulsen.


 

The boys are “reading” anything and everything we take the time to read to them.  I try to share some of what I’m reading to the DLM in my Odds & Ends posts.  I’ve been doing something of a letter-of-the-week with him, so I try to stick to a theme per letter:  r is for robot; m is for monster, mouse, and moose; t is for tree.

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Benny’s interest and attention span have really increased over the past month.  At almost eighteen months, he cries for books and will sit and read through a nice little stack of board books.  One book both boys have repeatedly asked for this week has been Freight Train by Donald Crews.  This 1979 Caldecott honor book is sparse of text–usually one to three words per page, mostly just phrases to identify the various types of train cars.  (The DLM has a great Need to Know when it comes to types of vehicles and pieces of equipment, so this is perfect for him.)  The illustrations, of course, are exemplary–very graphic and colorful against a stark white background.  I think we might need to add Inside Freight Train to our Christmas wish list! 

DSC_0014I feel like we’re in a read-aloud sweet spot right now with the Melendys and Benny’s new-found love for books.  I’m just so grateful that I have the opportunity to pass down this book-loving lifestyle to my children!    

What’s in your read-aloud basket?  Please, do share in the comments or link up your blog posts below!

Happy Read Aloud Thursday, my friends!

 

 

 



WWW: One more from the Melendys

WWW ladydusk

Will you indulge me in just one more shared excerpt from Then There Were Five?  This caused me and my girls to laugh aloud.

Randy said, “What’s your favorite color, Mark?”

“Green is.”

“Well, you know what?  I’m going to knit you a green sweater.  A good warm one.”

“Gee, that would be wonderful.  But I don’t want you to bother.”

“Yes,” said Randy.  “Green.  With a neck and everything.”

This was no mean contribution.  Randy hated to knit and did it badly.  She had never knitted anything except staggering, uncertain scarves, and the prospect of a whole sweater, with a front and back an a neck, seemed as tortuous and difficult an undertaking as a journey through the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

“By Christmas it ought it be ready,” Randy said, and couldn’t help sighing.  “Anyway, sometime before spring.”

“Gee, that would be wonderful.”

“Wait till you see it first,” cautioned Rush.  “It’ll probably have three sleeves.”  (151-52)

 

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this:

Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright

It goes without saying that we love the Melendys here at the House of Hope.  Then There Were Five is the third of the Melendy Quartet, following The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake.  This was our bedtime read-aloud for the past month or so, and it really makes a perfect bedtime read, excepting the fact that most chapters are pretty long.  It’s another episodic story, revolving mostly around the things the Melendy children do as they’re left alone without Cuffy or father for several summertime weeks.  The benignly neglectful (overgrown adolescent?)  Willy Sloper is the only adult about the place, so Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver do pretty well as they please, which makes for some very entertaining times.   This novel does have more of a cohesive storyline because of the introduction of an extra child–the fifth one indicated by the title–into the story.  Randy and Rush meet Mark Herron when they’re out collecting scrap metal for the war effort one day and immediately strike up a jolly friendship.  Mark’s a stolid, hard-working, yet jovial fellow, and the Melendys can’t help but love him.  His situation in life isn’t good; his guardian is a relative, a mean old cuss named Oren, who works him hard with little to speak of in return, and certainly no warmth or affection.  Due to a surprising turn of events in the story, Mark comes to live with the Melendys and is eventually adopted by Mr. Melendy at the very end of the tale.  Thus, the very, very heart-warming and touching theme of family love is beautifully explored in the story.  Given the light touch Elizabeth Enright employs through most of her stories, this unexpected (yet entirely appropriate, given the children’s ages) revealing of some very important issues in life is lump-in-the-throat inducing.  I can’t say when I’ve enjoyed a story more, and I think my girls would agree.

I’ve shared one quote already, but as usual, I can’t resist sharing a few more:

This, from Mr. Jasper Titus, another friend Rush and Randy make on their scrap metal drive, reminds me of something out of a L.M. Montgomery novel.  (In fact, the whole scrap metal drive reminds me of the episode in Anne of Avonlea (?) when Anne and co. are canvassing newspaper or magazine subscriptions.)  :

Before they left Rush and Randy learned a lot about Mr. Titus.  They learned that he was a bachelor whose only sister had kept house for him until her late marriage nine years before.  Up to that time he had been a farmer, but now he rented his barn, meadows, and pastureland and lived contentedly in his own house, with his pets.

“Always was lazy, always will be,” he said.  “Never did like heavy chores.  Just did ‘em ’cause my conscience drove me.  Yes, sir, drove me.  And then one day it quit, just laid down quiet and gave up the struggle.  Since then no more cows!  No more hosses!  No more blame chickens, only just enough to lay me a soft-boiled egg or two.  No more hawgs!  Nothin’ but small-fry pets to keep me company.  No more long rows to hoe!  No more corn!  Just grow enough garden truck so’s when I want a mess of peas for supper I can pick me a mess of peas.  Same with all the rest.  Always did like fussin’ in a kitchen, too.  Like to bake.  Used to be ashamed of it when I was younger.  But I ain’t ashamed no more.  One of my marble cakes took first prize over to Braxton Fair last year.  Yep.  That’s what I like.  Pets, and fussin’ in a kitchen, and goin’ fishin’.  And by golly that’s what I do!”  (34)

Cuffy gets all in a dither over how things will go to pot while she’s away:

“It’s not anything happening to you that I’m worried about,”  sniffed Cuffy.  “I’m only thinking of the state the house’ll get into with me gone.  Rush will step out of his clothes every night, leave them on the floor, and step into clean ones every morning till they’re all gone and he has to go without any.  Randy will leave paint water around in glasses till they make rings on the furniture, or someone drinks one of ‘em by accident and dies of paint poisoning.  Mona will forget to make her bed day in and day out till I get home.  She’ll get talcum powder into the rug, and her shoes will collect all over the house.  She’s always taking them off and going barefoot nowadays.  Shoes on the mantelpiece, windowsill, piano, everywhere.  I know her.  And nobody will wash the dishes!” (124)

One of Oliver’s passions is moths–catching the caterpillars, raising, them, and releasing them:

When the caterpillars had eaten several hundred times their own weight in greenstuff they began making cocoons.  In each glass jar Oliver had put some earth or a strong twig, depending on whether the creature in question was a burrower or a weaver.  Even Cuffy and Mona found themselves interested in the progress of the cocoons:  they were so ingenious, beautifully knitted, and in some cases lovely to look at.  The monarch caterpillar, for instance, contrived a waxy chrysalis of pale green, flecked with tiny arabesques of gilt.  It hung from the twin on a little black silk thread, like the jade earring of a Manchu princess [. . .]

The nice thing about the monarch chrysalis was that the creature which emerged at the end of two weeks was as beautiful as his case.  Orange-red and cream and black, like the petals of a tiger lily, he clung to the twig till his wings dried and widened, and then Oliver took him to the open window and deposited him gently on a leaf.  Watching the butterfly fluttering away in the sunshine Oliver could not help feeling a little like God releasing a new soul into the world.  (82-83)

Now for just one more, this time one that encapsulates in an exquisite word-picture the theme of home and family that is so beautifully depicted in the Melendy stories:

That night Mark got his wish.  He slept in the cupola.  The rain beat down on the little metal roof.  It spattered against the four windows, and ran down in a long stream from the spout.  The gutters tinkled and hummed.  The thunder sounded as if it had been cut up into squares.  It tumbled down the sky like giant blocks tumbling downstairs.  Mark snarled himself into his favorite sleeping position an felt as if he had come home at last.  [. . .] the violence of the last few hours [. . .] were thoughts too dreadful to contemplate now.  A safety door in his brain locked himself against them, and soon he was asleep.  (142-143)

Come back on Wednesday for our favorite excerpt from the whole book, one that made us laugh out loud.  :-)

So, what are you waiting for?  Get thee to the library or the bookstore and bring the Melendys home with you.  You’ll be glad you did!  Highly, Highly (Highly) Recommended.  (Macmillan, 1944)

“A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Poetry Friday ButtonFor our first six weeks school term (or more), we are memorizing “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  So far as I know, his works have passed into the public domain, so I’ll share it here in its entirety:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real!    Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;–

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

I have fond memories of learning about Longfellow as a high school junior.  He was the subject of my first literary research paper.  I recognize the fact that his poetry has really fallen out of fashion these days, but I still like it a lot.  My girls and I were practicing it in the van the other day on the way to Bible study.  This week we’re supposed to know down through the fifth stanza:

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

What a wonderful four lines!  Of course, our recitation necessitated a discussion of the word bivouac, one of the few words I specifically remember learning the meaning of at some point during my education.  This, then, made me think of the Apostle Paul’s enduring words from 2 Corinthians 5:1:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

This passage of scripture has doubly special meaning for me because it is the passage a beloved pastor used at my papaw’s funeral.  Sharing it with my girls–the literary connection between bivouac and tent–and then the connection to the previous stanza–this encapsulates one of the things I love about homeschooling.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.


I also love that Louise pointed out, after considering stanzas four and five together, that Randy Melendy from our current bedtime read-aloud, Then There Were Five, has a particular affinity for funeral marches.

How sweet it is when it all comes together.

:-)