Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Little House Series (9 Books)

Titles: Little House in the Big Woods; Little House on the Prairie; Farmer Boy; On the Banks of Plum Creek; By the Shores of Silver Lake; The Long Winter; Little Town on the Prairie; These Happy Golden Years; The First Four Years

Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Rating: *** (3 stars out of 3 possible) "A"
Highly Recommended

Audiences: K-6th Grade

A review of these classics seems almost moot, but as I begin the series a second time with my 6 year old I realize again the value of this uniquely American collection.

We are all aware in general of these pioneer stories detailing the struggles and joys of our austere American history. Many families are tempted to doubt their application to a fast-paced, entertainment-oriented generation. Can these simpler, slower-paced, coming-of-age tales really captivate our modern kids?

I have an energetic 6 year old daughter who's internal computer is automatically programmed to "play" and "entertain." She is not like her 9 year old sister who can read 3 hours a day. If any kid would find Laura and Mary's life in the Big Woods dull, it would be my 6 year old. Surprisingly, she cannot get enough of Laura and now has me reading Farmer Boy while I simultaneously read The Long Winter with her big sister. How does this work?

It is simply the definition of "classic" put into action. A classic never goes out of style and has components that remain applicable to any given age. You will not find yourself lecturing or preaching to your kids as you read Little House books; the stories make their application all on their own. Kids love to hear how other kids live and easily pick up on the work ethic, contentment and family dedication inherent in these books.

Curiously, every time we work through a Little House book, my kids automatically become more content and less demanding! Of their own volition, they will say things like "I don't really need anything for Christmas" or "I'm going to skip candy for two weeks" or "Please read another chapter!" Now, they don't have the will power to follow through on such rash promises, but they do at least consider it!

But that is not really why I treasure these books with my kids. More than that, it is the American spirit that shows through: starting out with nothing; building your family and livelihood from the ground up; knowing when to cut your losses; starting over with a good attitude; trusting a good God; redeeming the time; persevering through adversity; using lessons from the past as strength for the present, hope for the future. These are themes our kids need. These are themes I need.

When I read these books I find myself complaining less about the weather, colds, laundry, other mundane chores. I look for opportunities to share work with my kids and encourage their efforts. We revel in simple pleasures like popcorn and tea shared under blankets. Sometimes we even play "mad dog" or "kittens in the corner."

One way to enjoy these books is to read one or two a year, starting in Kindergarten or first grade. If you don't think boys will be interested in this series try Farmer Boy and The Long Winter. These books feature strong male characters overcoming challenges. Of course, Pa is an outstanding role model in any of the books.

These are books from a simpler time, but they are not simplistic literature. Wilder is a master at storytelling from a young person's point of view and writes fine description. She possessed a remarkable memory for events as well as emotions. The books' style matures as the characters age. Foreshadowing is subtly employed and events are revisited in future books. Another mark of quality: five of the nine books received Newbery runner-up honors. Garth Williams masterfully illustrated many events in the series that might otherwise remain archaic: threshing machines, maple sugaring, hay racks, even covered wagons.

If you are hoping to develop relationship with your kids, reading is a great starting point for many conversations and experiences. As with most habits, beginning early is half the battle. Don't wait for passive entertainment to capture all their attention, and don't overlook this series as you read with your kids!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Underland Chronicles (5 Book Series)

Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Middle-schoolers, ages 11 and up

After enjoying Collins' Hunger Games young adult trilogy, reading this middle-schoolers' series was the next natural step.

Gregor the Overlander was Collins' first published book, and a solid accomplishment. Collins creates a unique setting and a compelling plot line, then mixes in some humor and relational characters to explore themes of family, sacrifice, loyalty, just war and civil rights. Quite a statement!

Gregor is an 11-year old boy in New York City babysitting his little sister one summer. They unexpectedly tumble down into The Underland, a vast land of several kingdoms below the earth. Here Gregor meets unique humans who align themselves with giant bats ("flyers") in order to keep giant rats ("gnawers") at bay. Lower caste inhabitants include giant bugs ("crawlers") and mice ("nibblers") while giant spiders ("spinners") tend to manage their own political affairs. Proper allegiances must be formed among all these species in order to prevent the loss of Underland's fragile peace. Gregor and his baby sister are the lynchpins to hold unstable alliances together. Along the way they hope to solve their own family mystery.

If this sounds dark or bizarre, don't worry. Baby sister provides plenty of light-hearted moments of humor and innocent play. Language is clean and while Gregor speaks like a casual 11-year old boy, the ancient human race uses a more formal dialect with some vocabulary challenges for the reader. There are a few fights or battles, but peace and diplomacy are highly valued commodities. Wisdom and maturity win out over youthful impulse.

Naturally, as you progress through the series, Collins ups the ante. In book four, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, she explores a Holocaust theme when poisonous volcanic gas kills nibblers deceived and trapped by an unstable and evil gnawer. Thus, these books are appropriate for middle-schoolers who are ready for discussions about serious topics such as the Holocaust, just war philosophy, civil rights.

My other caveat concerns the tendency in "animal" books for animal characters to embody souls or spirits of their own. It's valuable to talk with children about what's real in such books (ideas of equality, kindness, justice) vs. what's fiction (giant cockroaches saving our lives). One can almost sense a Buddhist philosophy in such writings. For instance, Gregor appreciates the giant cockroaches so much he promises himself never to kill another roach in the Overland (New York City)! I think a simple reality check with your child is reasonable compromise.

It's encouraging to find a contemporary author dealing with intelligent themes and historical references. Suzanne Collins has given older kids a smart read with this series.