Thursday, August 19, 2021

June 2021 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge: The Great Outdoors

June's monthly reading motif was "The Great Outdoors," which required reading "a book featuring a garden, nature, country, or harvest setting or plot. I belong to a Facebook group for children's books (partly because I have a kid, and partly because I just enjoy children's books), and they had recently been talking about The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I realized it had been so long since I'd read it that I didn't really remember it all that well. Thus, when I saw this prompt, I decided it would fit the bill perfectly. (Yes, I read two middle grade books in a row.) I remember really enjoying it when I was a child, and I still enjoyed it, though the book, having been written in 1911, definitely shows its age in some ways.

This book is all about magic, and not the Harry Potter kind. It's about the magic of being a child and discovering the way things grow and how the natural world works. It's about how caring for something and someone other than yourself can make you grow in ways you didn't expect. Mary Lennox, the main character, through caring for a garden, spending time outdoors, and learning to care about two other children around her age, grows from a sickly little child into a healthy young lady. The book definitely insinuates that it is the running around outdoors and the English countryside air that brings about this change, but I would argue that learning to care for things other than herself are part of that change as well. Obviously, that's an emotional and temperamental change, but I firmly believe that emotional and temperamental changes can affect us physically as well. At any rate, it really is delightful to watch the children in the book learn to love one another and the magic of the garden and remember what it was like to see magic in all sorts of things. For anyone who has ever been into gardening, they will also recognize the excitement the chilren felt of watching the garden awaken from its winter sleep. That is definitely one of my favorite parts of spring - going out and seeing which little bulbs are going to sprout first and which perennial plants are sticking up some new leaf stalks.

Now I guess I'll touch on the whole concept of "cancel culture" here for a minute or two. There are definitely books, movies, music, and television that contain themes we consider unacceptable today, most obviously, and possibly significantly, overtly racist terms and viewpoints. The Secret Garden does indeed have some of that content in it. Here's the thing, though: the fact that these ideas are in these various types of media does not mean that we need to erase these things from history. There is valuable stuff in them; otherwise, they wouldn't have become classics in the first place. Even beyond the stories that made certain books classics, though, the themes that don't fit with our current thinking provide opportunities for discussion with one another and our children.

Most of the terms used to describe darker skinned people (generally referring to people from the Indian subcontinent, where Mary was born) in The Secret Garden are not really acceptable nowadays, but if/when I let Junior Mate read the book, we can (and hopefully will) have discussions about why that thinking is out of date and unacceptable now. The answer to these issues is not to erase them or pretend they don't (and never have) exist. The answer is to have conversations with your children about how and why some of these ideas were acceptable in whatever time the media is set and why we don't think the same way now. We give our kids a chance to make the world better by letting them understand the mistakes of our past, as well as the good parts of our past. I mean, running around outside and loving nature are definitely worthwhile things, that many of us may have lost in our currently tech-heavy society. Parenting, and being a good human, honestly, requires work. It's easy to just get rid of things that don't work with our current values, but it's more enriching and valuable to examine them and figure out their place.

Anyway, I think this book is a worthwhile read, and if you are concerned about some of the classist and racist expressions in it, give it a read yourself and decide if you feel comfortable letting your child read it. You can always have the discussions about why we don't think the same way anymore, and you can also have delightful discussions about which flowers pop up first in the spring and the joys of watching the earth come alive year after year.

(This is my copy of the book from when I was a child!)
Buy it on Amazon here

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

May 2021 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge: Magnificent Middle Grade

May's motif was "Magnificent Middle Grade," which is defined as "a book that is marketed toward ages 8-14." I'm not gonna lie - I really enjoy reading young adult and children's literature, so this was not a problem for me at all. I know that Louis Sachar has been on some reading lists for schools and is sort of considered classic for the newer generation (i.e. I'm pretty sure I've seen this on summer reading lists for kids these days), so I decided to go with one of his award winning books, Holes. I actually saw the stage adapatation of this book years ago at the university in my hometown, and they did a really good job with it. Thus, I knew the basic plot, but stage/film adaptations can never put in the detail that you find in the books. Also, it had been long enough since I'd seen the play that I didn't really remember it all that well.

All in all, I think the book is well constructed. It tells a story in an interesting way, using some flashbacks to previous eras. There's an interesting mystery and survival skills and redemption and all kinds of good stuff. It also pretty strongly suggests that hating or treating people poorly based on something they can't really control (e.g. skin color) is stupid and wrong. I mean, I think this is an extremely important thing for kids to learn, especially as middle grades are when they really start to absorb the culture around them (outside of their home). This book does a good job touching on the subject in an interesting and somewhat relatable way. I think the book deserves the Newbery medal it received, and it's worth a read, even if you're not middle grade aged. There is some mild abuse in the book, but nothing too graphic. It's enough that I would be cautious about letting someone younger than, say 10?, read it. It's possible 8-9 year olds would do okay with it, too, but I would call it an individual decision based on the sensitivity and maturity of the kid.

So I'm going to say something that sounds kind of silly here, but it actually made me happy. Stanley, the main character, is a fat kid. I love this because it's so hard to find fiction where a fat person is actually the protagonist, and even harder to find fiction where the fatness is not the main thing about who that person is. I mean, there is definitely mention of his size and its impact on him, but it is not what defines him in the book. I love this, and I love it for kids who may read it and see themselves in it, and see that they don't have to be defined by their size. I mean, maybe this newer generation of kids has already figured that out, but it took me years, and I still struggle with feeling judged and defined by my weight.

I also like that Sachar has several middle grade books all set in different parts of the South (US). I spent a large portion of my childhood in the South, and I have to say - there was a dearth of children's books set there to which I could relate. I mean, so much children's literature was set in a place with snow in the winters and Northern culture, which was great to read and learn about, but there was so little to read that reflected my own experience. Sometimes, I just wanted to read about a character who had never experienced a snowy winter and had to say, "Yes, ma'am," to her adults. It's nice to see a little more variety in setting for children's books now. Also, even though I now live in a different area of the country, there's still a bit of nostalgia for the place where I grew up, which is a nice itch to scratch with books every once in a while. (My December challenge book for 2020 actually scratched that itch, too.)

So there it is. Do you have any favorite middle grade books?

Buy it on Amazon here

Thursday, July 22, 2021

April 2021 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge: Books on the Menu

I really enjoyed my April book for the monthly motif challenge (and I did, in fact, finish it in April, despite not getting to this blog post until July). The motif was "Books on the Menu," and the description said to "Read a book that features food, restaurants, cafes, cooking, or baking, on the cover or in the story." I chose the book Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jaber. Though the book is set in the United States (in LA), this book could have counted toward my March motif, Countries and Cultures, as it delved deep into the expatriate Arabian community in Los Angeles. There have been few times in my life when I've had the opportunity to live near Arab and Muslim populations, so I have never had the opportunity to learn much about them. So this book sort of introduced me to lively characters and their lives in an engaging and interesting way.

I took an english elective class in college that was called "Soul Food," and it focused on the ways in which food and dining together play important roles in our bonding as families/friends/cultures. We had three units, focusing on three different cultures within the US - the African-American culture, the Asian-American culture, and the Latinx culture. All of the books/writings we read were written by women, and they all focused on the importance of food in each culture. It was one of the most memorable classes I took in college, and it enriched and expanded my reading and author repertoire. I share this small anecdote because I think Crescent could easily and beautifully fit into that class. The writing is good and engaging, and it's easy to invest in the characters. I think I particularly felt an affinity with the main character (Sirine), as she was around the same age as me.

I enjoyed journeying with Sirine as she truly fell in love for the first time and experienced all the ups and downs of that time of life. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of cooking and how Sirine found herself and her culture in cooking, learning new recipes, and sharing them with the customers/friends in the restaurant. It really highlighted how food plays such an important role in connecting with others and in evoking home for people. All Arabian expats who visited Nadia's Cafe (the restaurant at which Sirine works) found both community and a taste of home there. There's a bonus in the book, too, as there are recipes to try out at the end of the book! I may be keeping this one, rather than passing it on, so that I can try them out! All in all, I would definitely recommend this one if you like romance stories, if you like and/or want to read more about expat Arabian culture, and/or if you like a good story.

Buy it on Amazon here

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

March 2021 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge: Countries and Cultures

(I started writing this entry back in early April, but I only finished it in July.)
I finished my book for March only a day or two before the end of March. The prompt for March was "Countries and Cultures," asking you to "Read a book set in a country, or about a culture, that’s different than your own and that you’d like to learn more about." I chose to read The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. It is set in India in the 1960s/1990s, flashing back and forward between the two time periods. To be honest, I found it a little slow at the beginning, but the pace definitely picked up. It was also...kind of hard to read, not because it's a bad read, but because it's kind of sad and deals with some difficult topics. The style of telling is also a little different, but I think it fits the characters.

It's certainly an interesting read for someone not really aware of the social class/caste system in India, as an important part of the book is one upper class Christian family's interaction with a young man in the Untouchable caste and how that association affects all their lives. This really had me thinking about why humans (and maybe all animals?) seem to have this need to separate ourselves into classes, and particularly why we not only separate ourselves in such a way but actually completely demonize some other classes. I kept thinking about how poor people all over the world are blamed for things and dehumanized. Roy does a great job of really illustrating how unfair this sytem is and how the prejudices associated with caste systems ruin not only lives in poverty but the more wealthy lives as well. The book is well-written, though it is a tough read at times. There are some sexual themes in it and moments of child abuse that can be tough to read. However, I think it does a great job of psychological exploration. In general, I would recommend it, though if you prefer lighter reads, this may not be the book for you.

Buy it on Amazon

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

February 2021 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge: Laughter and Love

I just finished my February book for the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge by GirlXOXO. This month's motif is "Laughter and Love," with a further description to "Read a relationship story, romance, comedy, or feel good contemporary." I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a choice which may or may not have been influenced by the fact that there is now a Netflix movie based on the book. ;)

In short, I liked the book. It has an interesting format, in that the entire story is told through letters and other writings. That particular element of it reminds me of a book I read last year for another motif, 84 Charing Cross Road. That one is short and full of actual letters written from a book lover in the US to a seller of old books in the UK. It is also from the same time period in which Guernsey Literary Society is set. This one contains fitional letters, but they still transport you to a time when letter writing was the norm for communication with people who weren't living near you. I can easily imagine a woman, particularly a writer, as is the main character, Juliet, in this book, sitting down at her writing desk to write to her friends and familiars about all the goings on since their last letters. Phone calls were expensive, so letter writing was the way to go most of the time. Thus, the book does a good job of evoking time and place.

The characters are also quirky and dear. It is easy to fall in love with the characters of the Guernsey Literary Society, as Juliet does in the book, and it is also sobering to read of their experiences during the WWII German occupation of their island. I think it's especially helpful during this pandemic to remember that many of our grandparents had to live through a difficult time in their lives, too, and it eventually ended. Yes, life was never quite the same afterwards, but they still found joy in living. Author Mary Ann Shaffer did a good amount of research to really understand and convey what life was like both during and immediately after WWII, both in Guernsey and the UK and France. Having grown up in the US, which was thankfully largely removed from bombing and active fighting on its soil, I really had no idea of the continuing impact of the war on Europe. Reading this book gave me a bit more of an idea of what it would have been like to be living in a society that was rebuilding and to find happiness within that time. Honestly, I think we could use a little more appreciation of simple things in our modern life.

I've made it sound like it's all about war and its aftermath, but there is definitely relationship, romance, and feel good in this book as well. As the letters progress, you start to suspect that Juliet is falling in love with another character, and you wait to see what will happen. The ending is satisfying, though I won't deny that I wouldn't mind reading about what happens after the events of this book. For all of the heavy subject matter of the war and its aftermath, there is lots of love and laughter to be found in this book. I would definitely recommend it as a relatively quick and enjoyable read. I'm now off to watch the movie and see if it lives up to the book. :)

See the book on Amazon