Thursday, March 27, 2014

The "Who Was. . . ?" Series

We were shopping at Ollie's when we came upon these neat-looking biographies in the "Who Was... ?" series published by Grosset & Dunlap.  I was excited to find them at bargain prices since my boys love biographies. 

However, even though the back cover of each book tells us they are written at the 3rd grade reading level, I'm not so certain all of them contain appropriate material for your average 8 or 9 year old. While there's bound do be disagreement, I just don't think that children need to know that Louis Armstrong's mother had "lots of different boyfriends," each one of whom he called step-father or that he was married four times. They also don't need to know about Sally Ride being in love with another woman. Yes, these are all facts about the lives of real people, but they are facts that can wait until children are older. 

Some of these books also have more editorializing than I think should be in a biography aimed at young folks. These little ones are not yet discriminating enough to recognize a writer's bias and easily mistake opinions for fact. 

For example, in the book about Abraham Lincoln, we learn about the Civil War, "The war did not end quickly. On both sides, soldiers died in bloody battles that didn't accomplish anything." Is this a fact? Or is the author just adding in a personal belief about the meaninglessness of war?

In the book about Jackie Robinson, we read about young Jackie and his friends, "They'd swipe fruit from local stands. They'd throw dirt at passing cars. Sometimes they'd take golf balls from a golf course, then sell them back to the players. It wasn't right, but the boys never did anything violent or got into big trouble." I don't really want my sons to read this and think it isn't really a big deal to behave in these ways; boys will be boys-ha! 

Overall, I cannot either recommend or denounce the entire series because I haven't read all of the titles. From the ones I have read, the books are interesting and have extra historic tidbits to further explain the time period. Many of them also do have some degree of bias, some minor, some not so minor. I would say that if you are concerned, you should read a specific title before handing it to your boy. They are not all written by the same author, and some are simply better than others.

Except for the above quotation, I really liked the "Who Was Jackie Robinson?" book, written by Gail Herman. The book showed Jackie to be an excellent role model who practiced self-control and was a hard worker. It was an enjoyable read.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Attack of the Killer Potatoes by Peter Lerangis

Yep. This book is really about killer potatoes. This is another book I just let my son pick up and read because from the cover, it looked pretty harmless and funny. After he giggled through the reading, I thought I should check it out, too. I soon realized I wish I had read it first.

Attack of the Killer Potatoes by Peter Lerangis is about a 7th grade boy, Arnold, who, along with his best friend,  finds a whole lot of trouble when they steal a scientist's secret formula--a growth hormone derived from dinosaur DNA.

I would file this book in the obnoxious category. The main characters are all rude to each other and seem to think only of themselves. Arnold and his sister show absolutely no kindness toward one another. Arnold and his best friend Max openly disobey parents and authorities with no remorse. This book shows how to be the most obnoxious middle-schooler possible--the exact opposite of what I'm shooting for with our children.

Additionally of interest to parents of boys is the fact that, while the two boys are the protagonists of the tale, they are not the heroes. The author allows the male main characters to be nothing more than screw-ups; from the two boys to the mad scientist to the police officer, no male is admirable or good. In the end, Arnold's interfering sister and his mother save the day. Let me clarify that I am totally okay with female characters saving the day, but it is not okay when all the boys in a book aimed at young boys are no-good idiots who mess everything up.

Gee, and the title was so promising.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

John's Story: 1775 by Joan Lowery Nixon

We've been studying the American Revolution for history this year. When I pulled out all of the books we've accumulated on that topic, I found one I'd picked up used-- John's Story: 1775 by Joan Lowery Nixon.  It is part of the Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg series, and is about an 11-year-old boy (just a year or so older than my older sons) who is witness to events unfolding in Williamsburg. I figured it would be a good supplement to our history text and that the boys would gobble it up.

I was wrong about the boys gobbling it up. Usually I just have to set a book out, let them know it's there, and within a day or two it's read. A few weeks after the book was out, I asked if they liked it. One had looked at it but wasn't interested in it. The other said he read it but wasn't too impressed. I was surprised and decided to read it to see why it wasn't a hit.

I read the book and wasn't enthralled by it either. It was just sort of stilted, wooden, boring. I don't think the Prologue helped either; a group of friends in a class visit a booth at colonial Williamsburg where a women sets the stage for the story of the rest of the book. It really made for a slow start. 

There was nothing really objectionable in the book. I did like that the historical aspects of the book seemed well-researched; I came away from the reading with a better understanding of Virginia's involvement in the colonies' fight for independence. However, the story of the book seemed contrived just to relate the historical events in a specific formula. Nothing in the writing made it enjoyable to read.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend it as a good read, but it's pretty safe for the boys--if they can stay awake while reading it. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Gruffalo Crumble

The title for this post will really have you scratching your head unless you've had the fortune of reading a delightful picture book my husband brought home from the library last week. The kids simply couldn't stop reading/talking about/reciting The Gruffalo written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. I think all of my talking children memorized the entire book just for fun!

In the book, a mouse scares off a big monster-- a gruffalo to be exact-- in quite the clever way. In the process, he mentions his favorite dish--gruffalo crumble. If you're trying to convince your boy that brains can trump brawn, this is the book for you. 

The children and I decided to create our own gruffalo crumble--best served with owl ice cream. We had fun planning our own recipe based on the book. 

We started with a granola base for the crumble part. Next we tried to add ingredients that matched the description of the gruffalo. We used dried apricots for the orange eyes, slivered almonds for claws and/or tusks, white chocolate chips for terrible teeth, raisins for his black tongue, pumpkin seeds for the poisonous wart, dried mulberries for knobbly knees, and purple sprinkles for the purple back prickles. It tasted great on our "owl" ice cream, and they're hoping to have it on yogurt for breakfast sometime soon. We did decide, however, that we need to find something else purple because the sprinkles just settled to the bottom and didn't have much of a taste anyway. If you come up with something better, leave a comment so we can try it, too.

In fact, feel free to use the following recipe, but your children would probably like brainstorming their own add-ins from the book. This is an extremely kid-friendly recipe because it's just measuring, dumping, and stirring. The measurements don't even need to be exact. 

Gruffalo Crumble

4 cups granola (store-bought or homemade)
1/2 cup dried apricots, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup dried white mulberries
1/4 cup purple sprinkles

In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients. Serve on ice cream, yogurt, or with milk--or grab by the handful for a quick snack.