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The Magic Finger

The Magic Finger
by Roald Dahl

Today, I met with one of my third grade book clubs.   They are my youngest readers and we are still getting to know each other, not to mention how to approach book club.  One of my goals with the readers in my groups is to help them learn to "read between the lines."  It doesn't take my readers long to figure out that when I ask them, "What is the book about?"  I am not interested in plot points.  Because I work with 3-8th graders, we do begin with the plot, but the older the reader, the faster they can move to what a book is really about.

Roald Dahl's novels are a great training ground.  Think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Even if you didn't get explicit information about the moral from the umpa lumpa's songs, you can come to understand the life lessons contained on its pages by the actions and attitudes of the children.  Mikey loves TV so much he finds his way into the TV.  Augustus loves food so much he falls into the river of chocolate.  That darned gum chewer, Violet Beauregarde, just blows herself up!  Now, I would guess, that these particular habits of children drove Mr. Dahl mad.  But, I would further assert that he is reminding us that too much of anything is not great.

The Magic Finger, also by Dahl, teaches the lesson of empathy.  The plot points go a bit like this:
  1. Girl with a magic finger gets mad at her duck hunting neighbors.
  2. Girl points said finger at the neighbors, making them trade places with the ducks.
  3. Neighbors shrink and grow wings.
  4. Ducks grow and get guns.
  5. Ducks throw the humans out of the house and begin to hunt them down.
The spell wears off in time and the characters are returned to their original bodies.  Though they all look the same on the outside, they are changed on the inside.  The Gregg family, the duck hunters, change their name to Egg and become advocates for ducks.

When first asked what Roald Dahl means for us to learn from this novel, my youngest readers usually say, "He is against duck hunting!"  Though this is possible, I have know idea what his ideas about hunting are, with a little pushing, it doesn't take them long to understand a bigger theme: we ought to think about how others feel.  Or, Learn to walk in another mans shoes.

As with all of his novel, The Magic Finger offers the reader many new ways to think of themselves and new ways to live life.  I highly recommend this book.  It is only 64 pages and a great place for a new reader to discover this masterful writer on their own.


Just a bit of News

Hey Everyone!

Congratulations to Rachel Gammill!  She is the winner of the boot give away.  I want to say a big thank you to Country Outfitters for the generous gift.  Whenever you need some boots, you ought to check them out. (Thanks to Whitney Loibner for the great pic!)

This month, I started contributing to the Central Arkansas Library's Website.  I am writing recommendations for them about the books in their collection.  You should check it out!  

Back to the books tomorrow...


Winnie the Pooh

by A.A. Milne

Today, I found myself alone in my house on a rainy afternoon.  As I sat down to contemplate what books would be worth discussing today, Christopher Robin, dressed in raincoat and hat, moved into my mind and refused to budge.  Now, I realize that many of you know Pooh, Christopher Robin and the rest of the gang, but do you remember the details of the original story's chapters?  The more I focused on Christopher, outfitted for the rain, the more the wheels of my memory set to work and finally, I was delighted to remember the boy and the bear floating down the creek in an up turned umbrella on their way to save Piglet.

With this memory in tact, I headed to the bookshelf.  From it, I pulled my childhood copy of Winnie-the-Pooh and began to read; both book and story are treasures to me.  I smiled as I reconnected to the love shared between all of A.A. Milne's characters.  My heart sang as the memories of time spent with my son, sitting on my lap as we rediscovered Pooh day after day, came rushing back to me.

So, for today, no matter how old your reader is, or the kind of weather you are having, I challenge you to step carefully into Christopher Robin's umbrella and help he and Pooh rescue Piglet.  I think we just might read aloud chapter nine of Winnie-the-Pooh,  "In which Piglet is entirely surrounded by water," tonight. Hopefully it will act as a time machine and transport us back to our days of snuggling and reading.


The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux
by Kate DiCamillo

Today is Thanksgiving and most of my girlfriends are working feverishly, and with joy I might add, to create spellbinding meals for their families.  I have been checking in with many of them through their social media, and it is amazing how much love Pioneer Woman is getting out in the blogosphere.  Between the cinnamon rolls and the perfect pie crust, I must admit I have been looking longingly at the Kitchen Aid mixers door buster specials in the Black Friday ads.  I am, instead, listening to some of my favorite radio shows from the past, writing, and thinking about what books I get to read next.  Don't get me wrong, I do love food and eating, but I luckily have a mother who also loves to prepare meals for her family.  I am a grateful benefactor of her passions and it frees up my time so I get to spend some quiet time dwelling with mine.

Clearly, I prefer a day spent with a story over a day spent with food and it brought to mind a delightful scene in Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux.  Despereaux, a small mouse whose siblings have taken it upon themselves to educate him in the ways of being a mouse, accompanies his sister Merlot into the castle library for a lesson in eating paper.

      "Here," said Merlot, "follow me, small brother, and I will instruct you on the fine points of how to nibble paper."   
      Merlot scurried up a chair and from there hopped onto a table on which there sat a huge, open book.     
     "This way, small brother,"  she said as she crawled onto the pages of the book.
      And Despereaux followed her from the chair, to the table, to the page. 
      "Now then,"  said Merlot. "This glue, here, is tasty, and the paper edges are crunchy and yummy, like so."  She nibbled the edge of the page and then looked over at Despereaux.  
      "You try," she said   "First a bite of some glue and then follow it with a crunch of paper.  And these squiggles.  They are very tasty." 
       Despereaux looked down at the book, and something remarkable happened.  The marks on the pages, the "squiggles" as Merlot referred to them, arranged themselves into shapes.  The shapes arranged themselves into words, and the words spelled out a delicious and wonderful phrase:  Once Upon a Time. 
     "'Once upon a time,'" whispered Despereaux. 
     "What?"  said Merlot. 
     "Eat," said Merlot. 
     "I couldn't possibly," said Despereaux, backing away from the book.
     "Um," said Despereaux.  "It would ruin the story."

This interaction just confirms Merlot's belief that Despereaux is unusual and helps the reader understand that Despereaux's tale will be interesting at least.  The narrator tells us directly, "Reader, you must know that an interesting fate awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform."

This novel has everything we have come to expect from Kate DiCamillo.  The plot is original,  lively, and twisted.   It tells the story of the underdog and assures the reader that justice does exist.  You and your reader will come to love both the heroes and the villains   And, the adventure draws you down the staircase to a remarkable end. "What happens in the end?" you might ask.  Well, Ms. DiCamillio would respond,  "Reader, it is your destiny to find out."

Help!  I am looking for some current realistic fiction for my 8th grade book club, which is made up of girls.  Everything I pick up is filled with sex and/or booze, which they are not up for (at least no yet) or has a historical angle.  They just finished Sarah's Key and loved it.  But, now they want to try something without "a history lesson." What would you recommend?


I am grateful for Frog and Toad

Frog and Toad...
by Arnold Lobel

On my Facebook page and my twitter feed, I keep seeing people posting the things for which they are grateful .  As you might imagine, I am grateful that someone thought it was important for me to learn how to read.  I am grateful that those same someones, continued to support me as a reader.  I am extremely grateful that I have been able to share my love of reading with my son.  And finally, I am grateful to the authors whose engaging words keep me coming back for more.

One of my first reading memories includes the library's bookmobile and all of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books.  In my day, the books were published in hardback and the books were not leveled.  The simple friendship shared between these dapper amphibians made me smile and kept me reading.  I love how every book contains multiple short stories on a theme- just what an early reader needs to help transition to chapter books.  The adventures of these characters helped me explore true friendship, the seasons and the simple pleasures and fears of life.  It is likely that you are familiar with the titles, but just in case, here is a list:

  • Frog and Toad are Friends
  • Frog and Toad Together
  • Days with Frog and Toad
  • Frog and Toad All Year.
They are also available in an audio collection.

If you love these boys as much as me, keep an eye out for the stuffed animals in their likeness.  I found them for my son when he was about 4 years old.  They make me happy.

What book(s) are you grateful to have found in your life?

Just a reminder...
you can still register for the Country Outfitter Boot Giveaway.  Click here for the details.


The Long Winter

The Long Winter
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I got in my car this morning to find a little frost and a ton of leaves on the windshield.  I wasn't in a rush, so I decided to let the defroster handle the ice.  As I sat in the car, listening to NPR's Morning Edition, a story about the super storm Sandy began to play.  Waiting for my frost to melt, I couldn't help worrying about all of those families, struggling with no heat as winter continues its slow march toward us all.

Now, I live in the south, so we will have many more days of no frost before we settle into winter for good.  Our winters tease us, and, quite truthfully, rarely cause a big fuss.  But for the Ingalls family in South Dakota, the teasing blizzards quickly turned into the long winter that is described in this book from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This enduring collection of novels has allowed many children to understand America's Westward expansion.  Laura makes the life seem romantic.   She reminds us of a time long past, while giving us clues about the social realities of the time.   This novel is particularly poignant in that it speaks to the isolation found in the newly-forming communities of the West.  I also like this book for children because it gives their imaginations a chance to work.  This novel is not set in the town of Walnut Grove, which is described in detail in the television show.  Often, children will give this book a chance because they believe it to be a new look at Laura's life.  I just reread it myself with a class of adults, and its lessons about interpersonal relationships made for a lively discussion.  I recommend this classic novel to anyone who is interested in the growth of America, child or adult.

Don't forget the boot giveaway. Click here for the details.


The Misadventures of Maude March ( and a boot give away!)

The Misadventures of Maude March
by Audrey Couloumbis

I have long been fascinated with the West.  I guess it started with Laura Ingalls' travels to Wisconsin and just kept going westward.  The stories of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and all of the characters who found their way to Deadwood, SD, fill my imagination still today.  I really love it when I find a story of a girl who braved the west.  I read just about any legend, historical fiction or non-fiction that concerns the 19th and early 20th Century and American's westward expansion.  I was thrilled to find this novel by Audrey Couloumbis a few years ago for my 4th grade book club.  It was a club filled with adventurous young girls, and this story filled the bill.

This is a true romp through the west.  The narrator, Sally, is an eleven year old girl.  She is a voracious reader of dime store westerns. She idolizes the heroes and is thrilled by the villains   When Sally and her sister, Maude, are orphaned for the second time, they find themselves in the custody of a family that essentially sentences them to a life of indentured servitude.  Unwilling to stand for the abuse, Maude and Sally, break into their old home, pack what are their belongings, and make their way alone to find a long lost uncle in Independence, MO.  To improve their chances of safe travel, the girls disguise themselves as boys and set out.  Along the trail, though, there are scads of mishaps and scrapes, and soon they are being pursued for bank-robbing, horse-thievery, and murder. 

In honor of the girls' disguises and their adventures in the West, I want to offer you a chance to win a pair a boots! 

So, Now for the fun part, Country Outfitter is giving you a chance to win a $150 gift certificate to go shopping on them! You could choose a lace-up style or more of a work boot.  I found a square-toed work boot with red stitching and a pink lining by Ariat that I love.  They are very comfortable and work beautifully with jeans- my favorite thing to wear. 

We are making it soooo simple for you to enter in just two little steps.

1. Click Here & submit your email address to Country Outfitter (you may receive occasional emails from them).
2. Leave a comment here on the blog letting me know you submitted your email to Country Outfitter.

A random winner will be selected in two weeks (November 26, 2012 after 9pm EST).

Good Luck!

A Break for Technical Interuption:
DISCLOSURE: CountryOutfitter, a retailer of Ariat, gave me a pair Women's Ranchbaby Square Toe Brown Rebel Boots to review.


Looking Glass Wars

The Looking Glass Wars
by Frank Beddor

And now to the other book for sixth grade book club this month...
Strange as it may seem, each of the sixth grade book selections for the month paid homage to Alice in Wonderland.  My last post was about Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, a novel inspired by Lewis Carroll's classic.  Frank Beddor has created a novel that asks us to consider that Alyss, we have been spelling her name wrong, is a true creature of Wonderland.

We first meet Alyss at her 7th birthday celebration.  She is the heir to the throne, but is driven away from Wonderland as she flees from her murderous Aunt Redd.  With the knowledge that her parents are dead, she emerges from the portal she escaped with into Victorian London.  She falls in briefly with a motley crew of orphan's, Dickens anyone, but is quickly captured and sent to a proper orphanage.  She is adopted by a minister and moves to the country.  She is considered by everyone to be mad as she tells the story of her home and her ordeal.  One day, she shares her adventures with Charles Dodgson (aka Carroll).  He is fascinated by the tale and promises to tell her story.  He writes a book, weaving in the details of  "Alice's" past, but, as you may recall, it is filled with rabbit holes, tea parties and magic potions.

After reading the book, Alyss understands that Dodgson doesn't really believe her story.  Frustrated, she decides to comply to the expectations of her new life, refusing to talk about her past.  Eventually, she begins to doubt that Wonderland exists.  She slowly melds into her new life, until it comes back to claim her.  Aunt Redd is intent on killing Alyss.  She sends her greatest fighter, known as "the Cat", to kill her in the other realm.  Instead, Alyss makes her way back through the portal to fight for her throne.

I liked the story.  I mostly liked that the Queen's power came from her ability to be wildly imaginative. If she could image something, it could become so.   It will be that imagination that saves her life and Wonderland.  If your reader enjoys this novel and/or Gregor the Overlander, it may be time for them to try the original.

Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander
by Suzanne Collins

So, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has finally arrived at my house.  I had read it before, but Friday, my son had it in his hands.  He had finished The Odyssey in class and made his new choice from his teacher's library.  Today, he made it home with Cathching Fire and I am sure Mockingjay won't lag too far behind.  This series and the phenomenon it has created has been discussed here and in many other places.  Today, I thought I would tell you about another series written by the same author.

Gregor the Overlander is a story about a boy and his adventures in a place known to him as the Underland.  We first meet Gregor as he is reminiscing about his father, who has been missing for over two years, and the life he had before he went away.  For Gregor, there were good times spent with family, fewer responsibilities and a chance for summers spent as a child.  But, times have changed, and he will be watching his baby sister for the summer while taking on the role of a caregiver.  While doing laundry one day, Boots, Gregor's sister, finds her way into a vent on the wall.  Gregor tries to catch her but instead they are both now falling down the hole.  Perhaps a rabbit hole.

Underland does remind me a little of Wonderland.  Gregor, like Alice, finds himself a reluctant hero, and the Underlanders need help fending off the Rats who wish to take over.  The adventure begins with a prophecy told by the founder of Underland.  Gregor is not convinced of his roll in the goings on of Underland, but he knows he has to get home with his sister.

The tale is a satisfying one.  What I like best is that it ends in such a way as to make clear that Gregor's travels were no dream.  If you have a fan of The Hunger Games series, give this series a try.  The stories are not alike, but the writing is creative and original and well worth any reader's time.


When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

With all of the news focusing on New York City, I thought it might be nice to think about a book set there.  This novel, When You Reach Me, popped into my head because I've been thinking about time travel, too.

This week in the calendar year is always a busy one around my house.  We like to have a mini family celebration to close the book on a year well spent by my son.  Monday night was to be our time to usher out age 11.  But, life happened and our small evening exploded out of our control. To restore order in our universe, last night I turned our front door into an ancient portal to the past and we re-lived October 29.  It was every thing we had hoped for.  And, the concept of an ancient portal thrilled my son.

You will find no time machines or ancient portals to the past in Rebecca Stead's award winning, When You Reach Me, but you get a hint about the plot outcomes when you learn that one of Miranda's compasses in life is the novel A Wrinkle in Time (props for the classics). The intrigue begins with Miranda and her best friend Sal aptly navigating the neighborhoods of New York City.  They are familiar with the landmarks, the safe places to go, and the people who regularly decorate the streets.  But, like my week, Miranda's life gets interrupted when Sal quits talking to her, the emergency apartment key is stolen, and Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper: 

"I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter."

Notes keep arriving, and the contents reveal that whoever is writing them knows Miranda well.  They even suggest that the author knows details about the future.  Miranda gets drawn into the mystery and is convinced that she has a part to play in it.  

I would recommend this book for anyone over 9 years old.  And, if you were a lover of A Wrinkle in Time, you just might enjoy this one yourself.