Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Sara’s Ancient History: Cycle 1

This article has been updated and enhanced. Please find the new post here.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Miracle of St. Nicholas

“Why can’t we celebrate Christmas tomorrow in St. Nicholas?”


Set in a small Russian village, young Alexi asks his babushka (grandma) why they cannot celebrate Christmas in their village church of St. Nicholas. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, the communists vigorously worked to eradicate religion because it threatened the Russian people’s dependence on the State. In this story for children, the babushka doesn’t go into the political details, but merely explains that the government closed the churches and “all of the things inside disappeared.” This Christmas, however, there is no prohibition against worship so Alexi takes it upon himself to clean out the church and get it ready for Christmas Day mass. What Alexi does not know is that all of the villagers have a happy secret.

We cried through this book by Gloria Whelan: twice. A play on the loaves and fishes idea from the Gospel, the village does celebrate Christmas Day mass in St. Nicholas Church because God works a miracle through each little family in the village. Even the unmarried cobbler has a central role to play. This story is grippingly beautiful.


Gorgeously illustrated by Judith Brown with egg tempera paints, the art is an homage to the Russian work of iconography.

This is not a story about the Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas. If you are looking for a traditional account of the 4th century inspiration for Santa Claus, this will disappoint. If you are looking for a gorgeous Christmas story set in Russia, I emphatically recommend this one.

The traditional religion of the village of St. Nicholas is Russian Orthodox (a sibling church in the family of Catholic traditions). Although, there is not much detail about the actual religious practice, it is interesting and beautiful context.


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Happy Times in Noisy Village


In another post, I commented that my first exposure to Astrid Lindgren was through Pippi Longstocking and I wasn’t terribly impressed. Along the way, however, I was persuaded to try some of her other work. I read Children of Noisy Village and fell in love. In my review of that book, I note a Santa Claus spoiler, but other than that, I think that it is a wonderful book for children.

In a recent Bethlehem Books sale, I discovered that there was a sequel to Children of the Noisy Village. Unlike other sequels which have earned the old adage “taking advantage of the sequel,” Happy Times in Noisy Village may actually be better than the first book. Happy Times is just as charming as Children but our family found it to be even more funny.

In Noisy Village, children from three inter-related families are growing up in a nearly idyllic setting, a village called Noisy Village. They live close to the earth, have traditional and extended families that are centered on hard work and great love, and they enjoy the traditional freedoms of old-fashioned rural life. Our family deeply appreciated the traditional values of Noisy Village and the authentic childish antics of the children.


In some ways, we think that this book has more personality than the first. The chapter on the loose tooth was absolutely hysterical, and the creative techniques were duly noted by my tooth-losing seven year old. The chapter on the lamb going to school was a perfect mixture of tender, sweet, and spunky. The chapter that takes the cake, however, was “Anna and I Are Going To Be Baby-Nurses – Perhaps.” Oh how we laughed at the trouble they had!

While this book is clearly a sequel and probably should be read following Children of the Noisy Village, it absolutely could be loved just as well if read out of order. Like the first book, this one is a collection of vignettes loosely assembled. Instead of following a story arc, we follow the children through their seasonal play.

The reading level of this book is appropriate to confident new readers. The chapters are relatively short in most cases, the language is accessible, each chapter is self contained, and it would help newly independent readers build confidence. Also, it is a delightful read aloud. In fact, it would make a brilliant child-led read aloud – something that an older sibling could read to younger siblings. Bethlehem Books says that it is a reading level 4.0 for ages 8 and up. They also indicate that it is read-aloud appropriate to ages 4 and up. I would completely agree.

Republished by Bethlehem Books, the printed book is slightly larger in size than Children of the Noisy Village. It seems as though it was formatted to be consistent with Bethlehem Book’s generous printing size. Decorated with pen and ink illustration throughout, it is gift-worthy book.


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Old Sam Dakota Trotter

“It was this way with many things, for there was no sure guide to go by. It was the beginning of experience. Of course no two settlers were working under the same conditions, and their methods differed… as they learned to overcome their own difficulties in their own way, uncertainty gave way to a good deal of confidence and self-reliance.”

In 1882, eight year old Don Alonzo Taylor’s family moved West. The Taylors joined twenty other families on the first train ever to go to North Dakota. In fact, the track terminated before they got all of the way into the area that they would settle. In his famous story Old Sam: Dakota Trotter, Lon (Don Alonzo) tells a fictionalized account of his real life childhood among the first North Dakota pioneers.

While this story prominently features a thoroughbred trotting horse who has had a career-ending injury, this is not exactly a horse story. It is more Little Britches than Come On, Seabiscuit. More Year of the Black Pony than Black Beauty. Horse lovers will probably appreciate the story, but even those who don’t care much about horse stories will probably appreciate the pioneering spirit of this book.


When John and Lee Scott’s family settles into their new Western life, the brothers have unparalleled freedom that does much to help shape their good character and ingenuity. Because their family was among the first to move to the area, there was no school and little by way of organized society life. The young boys would frequently leave the house after morning chores and not return until dinner. Hunting and hauling buffalo bones, they become intimately familiar with the charms and dangers of the still wild prairie. Modern readers may be shocked by the dangerous independence that the boys enjoyed but it is undeniable that it did much to serve the boys well.

This story was very good for family read aloud. There was just enough of something in it for everyone. The story is told as a first person account by John Scott. John and Lee are very likable characters who come off as being very authentic. My boys clearly identified with them and loved reading of their adventures. The story also gave our family more unique insight into the challenges of pioneer life and husbandry. While Mr. and Mrs. Scott are minor characters in the story, they are easy to like.

“We read everything we could get hold of. The train didn’t run for months, so our reading was confined to the books we and the neighbors had, but as most of them had brought along their best books, we had quite a circulating library. Of all of the famous authors, I like Sir Walter Scott the best. I didn’t care much for Dickens.”

The writing style of this story sounds like a coarse Louis L’Amour or an unpolished Ralph Moody. It has the tone of a cowboy but it lacks some of the beauty or musicality that L’Amour and Moody were famous for writing. For that reason, there were places where I found it challenging to read aloud with real excitement. On the other hand, there were places where the storytelling was so exciting that we couldn’t stop for breath. Perhaps a bit uneven, it is a highly entertaining story.

This is a great book for boys. My daughter enjoyed it (as did I), but it is just begging to be read by boys. We are regaled with details about hunting, guns, camping, trapping and other classic boyish fare. Bethlehem Books rates its reading level as a 4.4 (ages 10 and up) with a read aloud interest level of ages 6 and up. I think that is well scored. The chapters are long, the writing is mildly complex in places, the content is enjoyable, but takes some stamina to follow. My five year old son had no trouble appreciating it, but he is always “reading up” with us.


For parents who are concerned about violence or sadness, be at ease. The horse, Old Sam, is spared from a humane killing in the first few pages. There is a chapter in the middle of the book in which the boys shoot a wolf as it is attacking an antelope. Consistent with pioneer and prairie stories, hunting is a way of life and the chapter is descriptive without being graphic.

Horse lovers will delight in the final chapters. I won’t spoil except to say that I felt like I was reading something out of Ralph Moody’s Come On, Seabiscuit or Man of the Family.

I think that this book would be a great living book for anyone studying the pioneers. I also think that it would make a great gift or stocking stuffer for 8-12 year old boys. Wholesome, adventuresome, entertaining, and educational, this is a great book for families.


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The Red Falcons of Tremoine

The Red Falcons of Tremoine by Hendry Peart opens in the middle of a complex story. It took this reader more than a few pages to feel at home in the text, partly because it felt as though I had walked into the middle of a conversation, and because I was met with a lot of details rather rapidly. Once I settled in, however, it proved to be an exciting and morally sound adventure.

Not unlike William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this 12th century story tells the tale of feuding families, love, honor, duty, and courage. Like Romeo and Juliet, it involves a pair of starcrossed lovers.  However, when we enter this story they have already been dead for more than a decade. If Romeo and his bride Juliet had had enough time to run away, start a family, and hide from their fate, this is what it might have looked like. They could only run for so long and, as in Shakespeare’s play, it would still have ended in tragedy.

What is interesting about this story is that this isn’t really about Romeo or Juliet type characters at all, nor is it about romance. It is about the cast of characters who surround our lovers and what happens when the lovers are no more. I found this to be interesting because so many stories today focus on the romantic ending but give little thought to life “after” the romance has been resolved. This story has the power to shape the expectations of young people towards more noble and realistic conclusions.

In this children’s story, love is pure and sacred – and we see many different forms of love. Like a good Shakespearean play, this story gives us many variations on the theme of “love”. In addition to the off-scene lovers who shaped this situation, there is an arranged marriage of other characters which blossoms beautifully, there is love between grandfather and grandson, love between different friends, estranged love, love that has been weakened by pride and selfishness, and love of God which triumphs over all and mandates a certain standard for behavior. There is nothing blush-worthy, but there is plenty to chew on. The main characters in this story work out the suffering and redemption of two families who have been torn apart by war and prejudice.

We follow the story of an orphan and the discovery of his birth, his relations, and his responsibilities. We see inside two family castles, and through the eyes of our little friend we compare the strengths and weaknesses of each family, their estates, and how they submit to the chivalric code.

By the end of the story we have had a marriage, a war, a reconciliation, an acknowledged heir, and, ultimately, a redemption.

This story is set in medieval England and features a monastery and traditional Catholic attitudes and commentary. It is not offensive or evangelistic. It is very moral, very traditional, and pretty well told.

My nine-year-old enjoyed the story immensely, and absorbed some of the goodness. I suspect, however, that in a few years he will get much more out of it.

For a family studying Romeo and Juliet this might be a nice supplemental reading. While the author never references Shakespeare, I see a very natural connection and a great opportunity for discussion.

For families studying Ivanhoe, this might be a good entree to that style and theme. It would also be a great offering to a younger reader who is not ready for the size and texture of Ivanhoe but is ready to think on these kinds of things.

Overall, this is an excellent story for our young men and women to feast on. Our main character has to make many difficult decisions about moral issues and he is often required to behave nobly while suffering painfully. Excellent for the moral imagination of young readers, and well enough written that it is also a feast for their intellect.

The audiobook is beautifully narrated by John Lee.

**Interesting note from Bethlehem Books regarding the author:

Hendry Peart is a pseudonym for the real name of the author of Red Falcons of Tremoine. The editors of Bethlehem Books have so far not discovered the author’s actual name or any information about her apart from the following short paragraph on the dust jacket of the first publication of the book in 1952:

“Hendry Peart, who is English by birth, has always been fascinated by the Middle Ages. Red Falcons of Tremoine grew out of an idea which came to her many years ago, and some chance reading about English castles and abbeys made it spring to life again so that it just demanded to be put down on paper. Miss Peart moved to Canada as a child and later to the United States, and now lives in California near Monterey Bay. An American citizen since 1934, she says it is ‘a very rich experience to have the heritage of both countries.’ Miss Peart has worked in the juvenile department of a publishing house and also as a children’s librarian, so it is not surprising that her first book should be for boys and girls.”


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Good Old Archibald


When Bethlehem Books was having their big summer sale, I combed through their catalog for books that would captivate my reluctant boy reader. My nine-year-old son is a much better reader than he gives himself credit for, but he is easily intimidated by long or text-heavy books. I knew that Bethlehem Books would have some books that would be appealing to boy interests, be short enough to not be terribly intimidating, and potentially have some illustration to aid the reader. Good Old Archibald was highlighted in their catalog as being just such a book. Absolutely wholesome but totally hilarious it was enjoyed by everyone in our family!

I purchased Good Old Archibald to put in my son’s independent reading basket. I thought that to get him interested I would read a chapter or two aloud and then put it in the basket in the hopes that he would go to it himself. A funny thing happened, however. No one was content for me to put it down – including myself. Good Old Archibald started off with some engaging humor and an intriguing story line. Within two chapters were we on the hook. Within five chapters we were finding excuses to pick it up whenever we could and sneak in a few more pages.

Smart, creative, funny, wholesome, and interesting, it is a fair bit like Henry Huggins or the Ramona books – just more 1950s than 1980s. 


If you were to take Cheaper By the Dozen (book or original movie) and merge it with a more wholesome version of The Sandlot into a book for middle grade readers, you would get something like Good Old Archibald. Set in mid 20th century Middle America, it has a timeless small town feel, a huge boyish family with endearing parents, a smart and sweet great aunt, a baseball subplot, and a happy ending. The story is very predictable in some places and quite unexpected in others. A little Frindle, a little Homer Price, a lot Henry Huggins, and all delightful, it is ideal for the middle school boy crowd or a family read aloud. The principle characters are in 5th and 6th grades.

Ethelyn Parkinson, the author, is from Oconto, Wisconsin which is just 30 minutes from our home. It was no leap at all for us to see that she was writing about 1950s Green Bay, Wisconsin. For us, it was a delightful series of rabbit trails to see how she got her names for things. For example, in one scene the boys are going to Sensenbrenner Grocery. Probably no one but a local would know that Sensenbrenner is an important name. Frank J Sensenbrenner (1864-1952) was a major player in the paper industry that defined northeast Wisconsin economy for a century. What is interesting is that Sensenbrenner’s first job as a teen was in a grocery store. Parkinson was clever!


At the opening of our story, good old Ralph, the star of the baseball team and an all-around good guy has left their economically depressed town just a few weeks before their annual rivalry baseball game. The new kid, Archibald, is the exact antithesis of good old Ralph. Ralph’s family moved due to lack of industry in the town. Archibald has moved to town to live with his great aunt while his mother is in long term medical care and his wealthy father is out scouting locations for a new factory. Ralph arrives at school in “best” clothes, a gold watch, and highbrow manners and vocabulary. When Archibald occupies “Good Old Ralph’s” seat, the boys of the sixth grade class are distraught.

The story is classically boy: wrestling in the backyard, sliding down clothing chutes, and lots and lots of baseball. This girl and my daughter, however, loved it just the same.








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Reading aloud is hard. It is work, it requires focus, it demands stamina, and it usually requires good habits. Reading aloud, like almost anything truly valuable, is hard to do.

Over the years, I have heard great mentors give the same piece of advice: choose a book you love. Read aloud can be much easier and more fulfilling if the person doing the reading chooses a book that she personally enjoys reading aloud.

This year, our family participated in the Read Aloud Revival May “31-Day Read Aloud Challenge”. By the grace of God, my son Michael’s name was drawn for the “5 books from Bethlehem Books” prize. We, as a family, had a pact that if any of our children’s names were drawn, that the prize would be a family prize. We had a lot of fun going through the Bethlehem Books catalog and we selected four books that we were reasonably certain we all would love. We took a chance on the fifth: Philomena. We had never read anything by Kate Seredy before, but my husband is the grandson of Czechoslovakian immigrants so this one seemed like a good opportunity to connect with our cultural family roots.

When the books arrived, Philomena grabbed the attention of us all. Paging through the book, we were enchanted by the illustrations and were eager to incorporate it into our morning symposium.

Kate Seredy writes with so much beauty. She tells a very interesting story, incorporates beautiful moral lessons, and writes with wit and joy. Philomena was an absolute joy to read out loud. We laughed, we cried, and we marveled at Philomena’s tenacity, goodness, and optimism.


In this old-fashioned story, Philomena is a country orphan living with her ailing grandmother, Babushka. When  Babushka dies in the first chapter, Philomena must go to Prague to do as girls of her village have always done; go into service so that she can learn excellent housekeeping and earn her dowry.

Philomena is challenged deeply by things that happen to her, but she thrives. Her good country upbringing coupled with her wholesome character serve her well.  Throughout the story, it is obvious that Divine Providence is taking care of her in the best possible ways.

At just under 100 pages, this can easily be read over a week of morning read alouds. The old world charm and the religious undertones give it a timeless fairytale feel. The practical explanation about country and city life may put it into the category of early elementary school living history books. The religious themes are old-fashioned Czech-Catholic – a bit mystical and a bit childish. While the character is Catholic, Philomena is not a Catholic book and is not overtly evangelistic.