The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Do you know the Herdmans?  Six unruly, unsupervised children who steal, smoke cigars, and set fire to small buildings?  If you’ve read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, then you’ll know that these mischievous kids are the unlikely messengers for the good news of the Christmas story. 

This year, for various reasons, I decided I needed to read the book, so each night this week I have settled my kids down from their holiday hyperactivity by gathering them together to listen to a chapter from Robinson’s comical yet touching novel for children.

When the Herdmans show up at church looking for free cake and kool-aide, they learn about the annual Christmas pageant and decide to bully their way into all of the main parts.  But once rehearsals begin, it’s obvious that the children have never heard the Christmas story, and that’s when the magic starts. 

As these brazen youngsters express profound compassion for Mary’s plight and outrage at King Herod’s deceit, they give pause to those of us who have heard the story multiple times and have perhaps grown complacent about its implications.  They make us wonder, what would have happened if the Wise Men had returned to Herod, as instructed?

And so, unexpectedly, by the end of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, the wild Herdman children make us see, in a new light, the beauty and miracle of the Christmas story as they discover its wonder for the first time.  As so often in the Bible, it’s the people who make us the most uncomfortable who have the most important message for us. 

At the beginning of Advent, my pastor encouraged the members of our parish to look generously for the good in others, as it would increase the good in each of us.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever illustrates, with simplicity and humor, how we can find beauty and goodness in the most unlikely places.  I hope you will find it, and share it, this holiday season.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Reading List for 2012

I confess that I have some type-A tendencies.  For example, I generated a grocery list on my computer, and I keep printed copies of it in the kitchen.  When I realize I need something, I circle the item on that week’s list- why reinvent the wheel every Thursday? 

So, when I sat down with my Book Club last week, and we decided on our ENTIRE Reading List for 2012, I felt ecstatic!   We’ve NEVER chosen for the whole year before, but we had so many intriguing book suggestions, we couldn’t stop ourselves!  I hope this becomes standard procedure. 

So, here’s our Reading List for 2012.   Please join us next year as we cover lots of historical fiction, a few classics, and an atypical Nicholas Sparks.  If you click on the title of each book, it will lead you to a page on the Amazon website where you will find reviews and purchasing information.

·         January:  Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.  Two sisters reunite after their father’s death to care for their difficult mother, and they learn new and startling things about her past in Russia.

·         February: Run, by Anne Patchett.  This novel covers 24 hours in the life of a Boston family after a heated argument and an accident in a blizzard.

·         March:  Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.  This is a true story about a delinquent turned track star turned Army hero and his amazing war time journey after his plane crashes over the Pacific.

·         April:  The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  Two magicians compete and fall in love in the dazzling setting of a night circus.

·        May:  The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom.  A white servant girl struggles to find her place in plantation society.

·         June:  Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.  An orphan mysteriously inherits a fortune, which dramatically changes his life.

·        July:  ”  “

·         August: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.  No one wants to say much about this book except that it involves an African girl, a wealthy British couple, and a brutal scene on a beach. 

·        September:  The Johnstown Flood, by David McCollough.  The story of the tragic flood in 1889 that killed 2000 people and caused a national scandal.

·         October:  Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.   The story of a courageous woman and her stormy relationship with the brooding Mr. Rochester.  The first feminist novel- before feminism ever existed!

·        November:  Three Weeks with My Brother, by Nicholas and Micah Sparks.  A memoir that chronicles a three week trip during which the brothers recall their childhood and learn what matters most in life. 

I’ll keep this Reading List posted as a separate page that you can refer to throughout the year.  You’ll find it next to the “About Me” tab at the top of the blog. 

I know we left off December; life’s too busy then.

And, if anyone knows of any potentially disturbing content in the Reading List, please warn me. Well ahead of time.
After my monthly book club meeting, I’ll post a review for each book.  Please add to the on-line discussion by posting comments and questions.  Happy reading!

The Pros and Cons of eReaders

The Pros and Cons of eReaders

Two summers ago, while we were on vacation in the Adirondacks, my tech-savvy friend Don sat me down with his latest gadget: an eReader.  “As much as you read, I think you’d like this,” he said as he demonstrated the e-reader’s features and quick downloading capability.  He nodded to the novel in my lap, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, a three inch thick volume.  “This is much lighter than THAT.”

I humored him, fiddled with the buttons, saw how I could read even in the morning sunshine without worrying about glare.  But in the end, I shook my head and told him, “I like the feel of a real book in my hands.”  He glanced again at Pillars, shook his head, and then turned to my then nine-year old son.  “Okay, how about you?”

“Yeah!” my son said, eagerly grabbing the eReader.

Well, our family purchased an eReader  this year, and I’ve used it enough to see the possibilities.

eReaders eliminate bulk. 

My house has many overflowing bookshelves.  An eReader can store thousands of volumes in the space of one thin chapter book.  And as my friend Caroline pointed out, “Think of all the trees we aren’t killing!”  Since they minimize bulk, eReaders also eliminate weight; it’s much easier to travel with an eReader than multiple hardback novels and self help guides!  They are also easier to hold in bed at night (the Kindle turned my hubby into a more willing bedtime reader).

eReaders make reading more cost effective. 

With an eReader, you can sample before you buy.  Or you can sample, and then look for the book at the library!  Also, more libraries, including the one in my little town, now offer eBooks for lending through the library system to patrons with eReaders.   And lending isn’t limited to libraries.  Owners of eReaders can share books with other eReaders, and Amazon just introduced its Kindle Lending Library; Amazon Prime members can borrow one book a month from an “eLibrary” filled with present and former best sellers. 

But I still have reservations.

Sharing eBooks isn’t always easy.  There are time limits (Kindle = two weeks) and financial restrictions (most cost at least $100 and an Amazon Prime membership costs $79 per year).  According to the local librarian, a lot of the patrons she sees do not have the computer knowledge or equipment to borrow the eBooks available.   I believe everyone should have access to literature, and I worry that eReaders exclude significant segments of our population.   

My final holdout:  traditional books please the senses so much more than their digital counterparts.  I love the feel of a smooth cover, the colors and designs that reveal each book’s personality.  I like folding down corners, underlining sentences, and knowing, by thickness, how much of a book I’ve read.  I enjoy handing a favorite book to a friend and saying , “You’ve got to read THIS.” 

And, I like to take my novels into the bathtub. 

So, I think eReaders are a great option for book lovers, but they shouldn’t be the sole source of literature.

Do you agree?  Have I missed something?  Share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below. 

Book Gift Ideas for the Holidays

Any word nerd worthy of her name will want to give or receive books this holiday season.  And I’m proud to say that my kids follow my example, as books, or requests for money for books, have made every child’s gift wish list.  (Except for the five-year-old’s , but he isn’t reading independently, YET, so he doesn’t count).  Here are some gift ideas for word nerds of all ages!
For Young Children:

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.  This picture book earned my love years ago for its sparse , but moving/poetic language (Max “sails in and out of weeks…to where the wild things are”) and most importantly its ending: Max stands up to those wild monsters. 

Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems (see also Knuffle Bunny Too and Knuffle Bunny Free).  Willems combines humor, irony, and a unique style of illustration (cartoon mixed with photograph) to entertain kids and adults alike.  Have you experienced a toddler going “boneless”?  You’ll love these books!


For budding, but hesitant readers:
 The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.  This VERY thick chapter book might cause alarm, but if you can get a child to flip through the pages and see that detailed drawings comprise half of the book, I’m sure he or she will immediately begin to pour over the fast paced story told with words and pictures.  The movie based on the book comes out over the holidays, making this a timely gift.

Igraine the Brave, by Cornelia Funke.  Igraine’s family expects her to be a princess, but she wants to train for knighthood.  This book was perfect for my daughter as she emerged from her Disney induced princess haze.  

Middle Grade:

The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan.  These books follow the adventures of Will and the rangers, a group of shadowy characters who secretively combat evil in a medieval / fantasy setting.  My 40 year old husband enjoys these stories as much as my 11 year old son! 

Peter and the Starcatchers series  by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.  My daughter has loved these books that expand on the Peter Pan and Neverland myths. 

Young Adult:

Matched by Ally  Condie.  This dystopian fantasy explores the underlying conflicts in a society where the government efficiently directs everything for the good of its citizens, right down to the food delivered each night for dinner.  Word nerd alert: “dystopian” comes from ancient Greek words meaning “bad place;” it describes  a society under repressive government control, usually in the guise of “utopia.”

Adult:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley.   Flavia, a precocious and headstrong  young lady, finds a dying man on the grounds of her father’s estate and immediately launches an investigation.  Suspense and humor color this classic “English countryside mystery.”

The Blueberry Years by Jim Minnick.  This award winning memoir recounts, in lovely, descriptive prose, Minnick’s years running a “pick your own blueberry farm” in Virginia.  Minnick has also published books of poetry, so you can expect vivid, colorful details. 

Please also see my previous posts on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Last Days of Summer. 

Can you add to this list of gift ideas?  If so, please do!  Post your comments by clicking the comment link below, and thanks for contributing!

Who Should Read The Hunger Games?

Everybody is talking about Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games, but I have to admit, when I first heard the premise of the book, I didn’t want to read it.  Apparently most other people have the opposite reaction.  As of today, it’s ranked number five on Amazon’s top sellers list. 

Here’s the premise: In a futuristic, dystopian society, 24 children, two from each district of what once was North America, are chosen to fight to the death to earn glory for their home district.  Curious about the hype, my book club read The Hunger Games over the summer, and when we met to discuss it, I seemed to be the one most disturbed by its content.  But then again, I’m usually the one most disturbed. (I refused to read The Lovely Bones and was appalled by the intimate encounter of two sisters in Into the Forest). 

I can see why kids enjoy the fast pace of The Hunger Games.  Katniss, the  protagonist, tells her story in easy to read prose, and the plot unfolds much like a video game, as Katniss faces one trial after the next and the stakes get increasingly higher.  But she also deals with some grave moral and emotional dilemmas.  Should she obey the authority of a corrupt government?  Should she sacrifice her own life to save one of her peers?  Is she justified in taking another life to save her own?  Unlike the evil forces in other popular kid lit stories like Harry Potter, the evil in this story is ambiguous, and Katniss’s enemies constantly shift. 

My oldest son is 11 and more than intellectually capable of reading The Hunger Games, but I don’t think he has the emotional maturity or life experience to fully understand Katniss’s predicament.  Nor do I want him to take the loss of life described in this book too casually.  One of my friends who read The Hunger Games with her 14 year old daughter said, “It’s not so bad, as long as you forget that the kids are actually dying.”  Katniss herself makes a similar comment in her narrative.  But, the fact remains, the kids do die.

I know some of you are out there are thinking, “Relax Julia, it’s just a book.”  But I believe that a good novel should do more than just entertain us.  It should inform, inspire, remind us of what we hold dear, or cause us to think about the beliefs that guide our lives.  For the right reader, The Hunger Games will definitely do that.  And when my son is older and ready to read the book, I look forward to a prolific discussion with him about the themes, dilemmas and characters of The Hunger Games.  

Now it’s your turn to contribute.  When do you think kids should read The Hunger Games and what kind of conversation do you think the book requires, if one at all?  Post your comments below.  Thanks!

Confessions of a Twi-Mom

I admit it; I’m a Twi-Mom.  I’ve devoured all the books of Stephenie Meyer’s Saga multiple times, often staying up later than advisable to do so.  I follow a fan site, Twilight Source, and it’s associated podcast, Imprint.  I own and frequently listen to all of the movie soundtracks.  (“Is that your vampire music again?” my husband groans.)  And I’ve been counting down the days until the latest movie in the franchise opens- today! 

I know I’m not alone.  I’ve heard plenty of stories about midnight runs to Walmart for the next book in the series.  Or of hungry children standing in the kitchen asking, “Mom, are you gonna cook dinner tonight?” while their mother poured over the last chapters of Eclipse.  And I’ve seen the faces of many perplexed husbands who all ask something like, “You’re middle aged women- what is wrong with you?”

There’s nothing wrong with us!  We’re drowning in laundry, frantic with scheduling, and overwhelmed by the minutia of motherhood.  Of course we’d love to escape in the story of Bella, a socially awkward, yet bright young woman who falls for a smart, handsome guy who happens to be a vampire.  The story carries us back to our youth, and, if we’re lucky, reminds us of the intoxicating feeling of first love.   

But what else generates such huge appeal?  For me, Edward does.  It’s not the superficial stuff (good looks, fancy cars, and money) that grabs me.  Rather, Edward enthralls me with his brilliant mind, his witty humor, his fierce devotion, and his moral principles.  When my daughter gets older and I let her read the series, I will be torn between telling her that she should never expect to find a guy like Edward OR that she should wait until she does. 

My favorite book in the series, Twilight, is filled with witty exchanges between the flustered Bella and the always cool Edward.  Here’s one of my favorites, from the chapter “Invitations”.  Edward, after avoiding Bella for days, has just offered her a ride to Seattle.

“My truck works just fine, thank you very much for your concern.”  I started to walk again, but I was too surprised to maintain the same level of anger.

“But can your truck make it there on one tank of gas?”  He matched my pace again.

“I don’t see how that is any of your business.”  Stupid, shiny Volvo owner.

“The wasting of finite resources is everyone’s business.” 

So what about you?  Why do you love the books?  Which book do you like most?  Who is your favorite character?  Share your thoughts and favorites by clicking on the “comment” button below.  If you’re NOT a fan (gasp!!), tell us why.  And if you haven’t read any of the books yet, just try one.  I dare you to put it down after 15 minutes. 

Twi-Mom tip:  You can find excerpts from Meyer’s novels at her website, including an extended prom outtake and the first half of Midnight Sun, a draft of a novel that follows the plot of Twilight from Edward’s point of view.  Check them out.