Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Black Stallion

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What is it about gorgeous black horses that draw men in, set their imaginations on fire, and steal a bit of their hearts? As a child, I knew that horses were regal creatures. Because they are gorgeous, capable of intelligence, posses affection, and have a certain nobility, I was always smitten with horses. Nearly all horses have something to recommend them, even Seabiscuit with his knobby knees, too-big head, and short legs was a hero. Black Arabians, however, are the stuff that dreams are made of.

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I grew up watching Ben-Hur and thinking that Judah’s white horses were a disappointment. In both the book and the movie, they are described as being near goddesses. And yet, their imperfectly white coats and grey-peach colored noses always seemed a bit unimpressive to me. Instead, I dreamed of gorgeous dark colored Arabians. Tall, strong, fast, and midnight-colored coats seemed, to me, to be God’s perfect expression of the horse. The standard by which all other horses would be judged.

Strangely, my childhood was devoid of horse books. I knew that Black Beauty existed, but I never read it. I think that we had an abridged copy in my family library, but I didn’t know that authors could describe horses well enough to rival the beauty that movies could show. My love of horses came from movies, I think. T.V. series’ and movies like “Ivanhoe,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Irish R.M.,” and “Horse Masters” had me dreaming of falling in love with my own magnificent steed.

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The Black Stallion
by Walter Farley has to be one of the most famous horse books ever written. And yet, this bibliophile, had never read it until a month ago. I can say with all honesty, that I was missing out. I am sad that I did not have this beautiful book in my vernacular and imagination many, many years ago. Thanks to my book club, I am catching up on all of the worthy books I missed out on. We are chasing our own classics education, one book at a time.

The Black Stallion is a triumphant and marvelous story. A young boy, Alec, is on a transatlantic steamer preparing for his return journey from visiting his uncle in India. His parents are waiting for him in New York and he is making this journey alone. As he contemplates the journey, he studies a beautiful pocket knife that his uncle gave to him before he left. Young readers, boys especially, will find it hard not to be intrigued immediately. Well-read readers will quickly guess that that pocket knife will not only prove to be essential but also representative of some central theme.

In case the prospect of following a boy through an independent sea voyage from exotic India isn’t enough to arrest the attention of the reader, Farley invades the scene with a tempestuous and exquisite black stallion who is being put aboard the boat. Fierce and powerful, this force of nature is not coming willingly. His mighty legs kick while his head thrashes and he destroys nearly everything in his path. Clearly this beast was captured from the wild and he has no intention of “settling into” captivity. All on board give the horse wide berth. All, that is, except Alec. Alec is enchanted by The Black. Without much than a hint of success, Alec tries to tempt The Black into friendship with sugar cubes. The horse is not friendly, but he is not too opposed to Alec’s presence near his stall.

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In the first chapter, we have a fairly perfect opening to what promises to become a story about a boy and his horse. All of that is put into question in chapter two, however, when a storm causes the ship to wreck. Lost at sea, Alec feels the whip of a rope and grabs hold of what is, in fact, part of the horse’s bridle. Together, the pair swim all night until the horse scents land and drags Alec onto the shore of a deserted island.

Reminiscent of Kipling’s romantic and alluring style, Farley delights us with several chapters of survivalist and boy-tames-the-wild-beast narrative. The writing is poetic and musical. The details are fascinating and imaginative. A little bit Swiss Family Robinson and a little Ralph Moody, these chapters detail twenty days of creative survival.

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When Alec and The Black are rescued, they make the long sea voyage to New York via Rio de Janeiro. Along the way, we watch the friendship between Alec and this untamed wild horse grow. Despite their growing love for each other, The Black remains terrifyingly wild when interacting with anyone or anything else. Alec must call on all of his own intelligence, courage, and patience to whittle away at The Black’s skittishness and break the horse’s wildness.

When Alec and The Black disembark in New York, we meet Alec’s parents. Farley does a beautiful job sketching these characters. He does not give us much detail about them, but what he does draw feels quite authentic and renders them noble in their own way. They love this son whom they thought that they had lost. They want to support him. They are anxious about the wildness of The Black. They are deeply respectful of the experience their son has survived and they seek to honor his crisis-honed maturity.

Once Alec is resettled into “normal” life and The Black has moved into the stables of a neighbor, the story shifts gears and becomes something akin to Come On, Seabiscuit. I won’t give any details but, suffice to say, Farley built The Black to be a great race horse.

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All of my children loved this book. My youngest (6) wants to be a cowboy when he grows up and he could not get enough of The Black. My middle child (7) loves good writing and enjoyed the adventure of it all. My oldest (9) is all boy and loved everything about Alec. As a parent, I loved that Alec is worth emulating. He loves and respects his parents. He is resourceful, courageous, and loyal. He is a willing student in the hands of an excellent old mentor. And, Alec is principled.

The copy we have is illustrated by Keith Ward and it is magical. The audible narration is expertly done. The movie… well, let’s not talk about that disaster except to say that it is not The Black Stallion, it is something else with the same name and a few of the same characters.  

This is a book which more than delivers on its reputation. And, delightfully, this is the first book of a series! I haven’t read the others and suspect that they aren’t quite as good, but Farley has earned my respect and I think that any book he wrote probably has some merit. 

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar

I have been packing around a paperback copy of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar for almost 50 years now.  The title is from a Disney movie that came out in 1967.  I may have watched the movie on a Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney.”  Perhaps at a drive-in theater!  In 1968, Scholastic Books published a book based on the screenplay.  I loved getting those Scholastic book orders every month or so, and I loved books about animals.  The book is only 78 pages long.  I probably paid a precious quarter for it.

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When the book came to mind recently, I wondered if I should risk ruining it for myself by reading it again.  My desire to know whether it is good stuff or junk was stronger than my wish to let the book and movie remain pleasant memories.   My conclusion about the book is that it’s sweet and wholesome.  The story is light with plenty of humor.  Animal-loving children can enjoy imagining having a cougar for a pet.  Adults will be aware that that can come to no good, but will fall in love with Charlie anyway.

Jess is a young man who works for a lumber company in the Pacific Northwest.  One day, while out marking trees in the woods, he discovers a tiny cougar kitten that has somehow been abandoned outside the den.  The baby’s eyes aren’t even open yet.  Who could leave the helpless kitty there to starve?

Mark Van Cleefe, the author who converted the screenplay to book form, writes some endearing descriptions of the kitten learning about his world.  Everything is new to Charlie, the cougar.  A blowing leaf crumbles under his paw, a fuzzy dandelion makes him sneeze.   If he hadn’t tumbled down the hill when coming face-to-face with a growling badger, that encounter could have ended badly.  When he starts a game of tag with a squirrel, he gets himself stuck in a tree and Jess has to rescue him.  Van Cleefe also periodically reports on Charlie’s age and growth so we get a picture of how quickly he grows into a huge cat.  At two years old he is 7 feet long and weighs over 160 pounds.  Charlie is no longer a housecat.

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The best parts of the story are when Charlie roams in the wild. Charlie’s interactions with the lumber men have more of a feel of set-ups for short, funny, or heart-racing scenes that build toward the inevitable parting of the man and the wild animal.  When Charlie accidentally wanders off into the wilderness, we see him face the challenge of surviving on his own.  He has to become a wild cougar rather than a pet that takes his daily food for granted.  We see how much of the life of a wild animal is taken up with self-defense and finding food.  For children who may not yet be interested in studying animals, I think his encounters with other creatures could open a door of investigation.  With great interest, Charlie watches as a bear catches fish.  He doesn’t learn how to fish for himself, but he becomes adept at stealing fish from the bear.  Then the bear moves on and Charlie is on his own again.

The lumber company Jess works for floats logs down the river to the mill.  A floating bunkhouse and kitchen raft follow.  Charlie accidentally sets the kitchen raft free of its mooring with Jess asleep inside.  The raft drifts into a log jam where the men have just lit a fuse for the dynamite set to break up the jam.  Charlie rides a log down the river, disembarks onto the log jam, and picks up the dynamite, attracted to it by the long “string” attached.  Will he respond in time to Jess’s hollering for him to drop it?  Of course he will. It’s Disney. Everything is going to be fine.  But chaos and much damage will ensue.

It is the company manager who finally tells Jess that he will have to stop bringing Charlie to work.  So, Jess has to cage his cat.  One night Charlie scents another cat, a female.  He escapes, goes for a romp, can’t find his way home, and spends the winter learning to fend for himself in the wild.  When he finds his way back to the lumber camp the next spring, there is more chaos in the camp and  everyone thinks Charlie has gone bad.  Jess shows up just as the manager is about to shoot the cornered cat.  I remember this scene being very intense when I was a child, but it isn’t drawn out too long, and it is very satisfying when Charlie remembers Jess and lets himself be led out of danger.

The next day, Jess takes Charlie to a wildlife refuge where he sets the cat free to live happily ever after.  Charlie meets up with his girlfriend and they amble off into the sunset.  The scenario will sound familiar to lovers of such stories as Gentle Ben and Rascal.  Though the pet will be missed for a long time, the wild animal really will be happier in the wild.  

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I was concerned that the movie I loved as a child would seem silly now; a string of slapstick situations with a giant cat living out of his natural element.  It was not.  The scenes of confrontation between cat and man’s world might seem a bit contrived to movie-savvy adults, but it turns out that most of the time is spent showing Charlie in the wild.  The thin plot almost seems more of an excuse to follow a cougar around with a camera than a real attempt to show what life would be like with a gigantic housecat.  Animal experts may find plenty of diversions from the realm of possibility, but I find the nature scenes wholesome and lovely.

There is an extended scene near the beginning where Charlie has wandered off to survey his neighborhood.  He encounters a raccoon cub, a fox kit, and a young pine marten.  Then he plays with a bear cub until the sow has to rescue Charlie and her cub from a male bear.  Mama wins the fight with the male when Charlie and the cub break the tree branch from which they’ve been watching the battle and land on the male bear’s head.  It’s a bit silly, but mostly fun, and the scene with Charlie and the cub napping together in a hollow log is darling.

Charlie’s foray into the wild after becoming lost in the wilderness is a large chunk of the movie.  It is more like one of Disney’s nature films than a regular movie.  Charlie and the female cougar romp and slide in the snow.  Charlie roams through some stunning scenery.  As Charlie has never had to hunt for food, he has to learn by watching other animals.  When the female cougar catches a rabbit, he expects her to share.  She does not.  The rabbit killing is done off scene, as is the killing of a deer later, once Charlie becomes an accomplished hunter.

My dad and his dad were loggers in Oregon, so I enjoyed watching the lumber company prepare for the spring log drive down the river.  They are shown breaking up log jams, the narrator explains how the cookhouse raft and bunkhouse raft (wanigans) follow the lumberjacks, and there is a short birling competition which Charlie joins.  When Charlie is chased by a bounty hunter with his dogs, Charlie escapes by doing a log-riding trick from his kittenhood, this time down a flume.

I am quite pleased that I can recommend this book and the movie for children of any age.

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Incredible Journey

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Today I am bawling into my laundry. My son read The Incredible Journey by Shelia Bunford a few weeks ago and begged me to read it. As I am writing this, I am ignoring the stack of notes I have from ten other books which I have read and need to review. I was worried about reading another book that I don’t have time to review, but I could not miss the opportunity to read something that my son was excited about. Given the volume of housework I have to get done, I opted for the Megan Follows audiobook from Audible. (Yes, THAT Megan Follows from Anne of Green Gables. She does audiobooks? Who knew?!) As I cleaned out closets in preparation for warmer weather clothing this weekend, I cried over the beauty of this story.

If ever a story was more aptly named than this one, I am not aware of it. To steal from Bunford, this story was incredible. A number of animal stories have some hefty sadness in them, and I respect why that it is.  This one, however, plays much more in the camps of perseverance, loyalty, healthy fear, and triumph. It is a glorious story of friendship and adventure. Animal lovers and naturalists will find much to love in Burnford’s storytelling.

When my nine-year-old son was reading this book, he would not come up for air. The story was gripping in places, hilarious in other places, and generally very intriguing. At mealtimes he would pepper the family conversation with tidbits he had learned from The Incredible Journey, like why Siamese cats have a crooked tail – so that they could safeguard the rings of Egyptian princesses who were bathing in the Nile river. The story is written in a friendly voice, it tells of an arduous and dangerous adventure, but it is also chock full of the kind of naturalist facts and legends that so often impress little boys.

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When the story opens, Luath (a young labrador retriever), Bodger (an old English bulldog), and Tao (a regal old Siamese cat) think that they have been abandoned by their human companions. Consequently, they embark on a three hundred mile journey across treacherous Northern Ontario in a search for their humans. Their journey is, as the name implies, nothing short of incredible.

During the journey, the pets experience some perilous encounters in which they accumulate scars and suffer life-changing injuries. Throughout, the reader experiences some genuine fear for the safety of the animals. While this may be emotionally difficult for a young reader, Burnford’s writing offers us a good amount of solace and helps us to focus on the triumph rather than the hurt. Each challenge renders the animals stronger, more loyal to each other, and more noble. We learn that as the animals persevere through the obstacles, their friendship with each other becomes more central to their individual identity.

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While the animals make this remarkable trek, they are helped along the way by kindly humans. Burnford builds this natural charity into the story in a way that is utterly real. It does not feel fabricated or forced in the least. The animals were pets, after all. They understand their role in the company of humans and they enjoy the comforts that human companionship provides. When the journey is still new and the domesticated animals haven’t found their primal hunting instincts yet, they enjoy the campfire and dinner scraps of Indians who take their visit as a good omen for the harvest. When the animals are truly down and out, they veer off of their path to stop at a hospitable farmhouse. When Tao is backed into a corner by a lynx, it is a hunter who saves him. When Luath’s jaw is infected and nearly swollen shut from porcupine quills, it is a gentle old farmer who lovingly treats the sick dog.

In this story, Burnford captures the intrinsic beauty of domesticated animals who are capable of living two kinds of lives: the primal and the companionable. She based this fictional story on her own pets, and her experience with their vivid personalities makes these characters perfectly real.

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In 1963, Disney made a marvelous movie out of this book. While the movie producers made minor alterations to the story (presumably to remove some of the animal violence) they captured the spirit of the book. The book and the movie rely on non-verbal interaction between the pets. The use of a narrator gives the story an observer’s perspective. When the animals interact with the humans, we listen in on their dialogue in much the same way that they animals are doing. Watching the movie with my kids, I realized that the book and the movie remind me of the book and the movie versions of How The West Was Won. Perhaps it is a silly comparison, but for me, both had the same general tone – a narrator telling of motivated characters who are embarking on a dangerous westward adventure that would require great fortitude, courage, tenacity, and community building. Also like How The West Was Won, these sweeping North American epics are told by narrators who stand at a distance, and in awe of the central characters.

As I said above, my nine-year-old son read this as part of his daily reading with no preparation. I followed up by reading with my ears via Audible. I decided that the book would be a stretch for my seven year old to read independently and a little too scary for my six-year-old to listen to via audiobook. If I had been reading this one aloud, I think that my littlest guy would have been just fine. Our reading stack is just too tall right now for us to sneak this in. So, instead of waiting to read the book, I decided to show the movie on a sick day. I am really glad I did! The movie producers opted to reduce some of the animal violence and they chose to film the scary parts in bright daylight – making them less scary. The movie producers also did such a lovely job filming the human vignettes, that no viewer was permitted to be in doubt of the ultimate happy resolve of the story. It was as if those human characters were serving as cheerleaders, rooting for the animals and promising us that Burnford wasn’t going to let them come to permanent harm. In this way, I can now give the audiobook to my six and seven-year-olds and know that they will enjoy it without fear. They will still have to grapple with the challenges that the animals undergo, but they will not be in doubt of the outcome. That reassurance will help them to love the story and appreciate the heroic struggle of Luath, Bodger, and Tao.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Henry Reed, Inc.

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“According to Uncle Al the Princeton area is filled with all sorts of research centers. I didn’t know that the big companies had separate buildings and places where their scientists developed new products, but apparently they do. I guess that’s an example of free enterprise, and I am going to learn more about these research places in order to tell my class about them.”

And that is exactly what Henry Reed did.

In 1958, Keith Robertson created a quirky, smart, friendly, respectful, and inquisitive character named Henry Reed. Henry and his neighbor friend Midge are the thirteen-year-old central characters in a 5-book series. Henry Reed, Inc. is the first book and it is one of the best of its kind that we have read. Everything that we have loved about Homer Price, Danny Dunn, Good Old Archibald, and Alvin Fernald is present in Henry Reed, Inc.. The scrapes that Henry and Midge get into are side-splittingly funny. The intellectual curiosity of Henry and Midge is wonderfully inspiring to my science-minded kids. The writing is complex and sound while remaining boyish. The characters hold very traditional values. The story arc is a compilation of delightful vignettes. Like the other books I mentioned, this one is wonderful for read-aloud, and would be excellent for helping a young reader develop confidence and stamina.

“This is a journal, not a diary. Diaries are kept by girls and tell about about their dates and what they think of their different boyfriends. My mother says that men deep diaries too, that the most famous diary in the world was kept a long time ago by an Englishman named Pepys. That may be so, but when I read about pirates and explorers and sea captains they always kept journals, so this is going to be a journal. It is going to be a record of what happens to me this summer in New Jersey.”

Henry is the son of foreign diplomats. He lives in Europe and has spent very little of his life in the United States. The story is told entirely through journal entries that Henry keeps for a class project. Henry is spending the summer with his Aunt and Uncle in Grover’s Corner right outside of Princeton, New Jersey. The teacher at Henry’s Italian school asks Henry to study American free enterprise and report back to his class when he returns in the fall. Naturally inquisitive, Henry spends the summer learning the art of free enterprise through a research and development firm that he and Midge develop.

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Parents of boys and girls will find much to love in this book. Henry’s uncle is quick to point out that his sister, Henry’s mother, was a budding naturalist and that Henry’s love for animals, nature, and science come from his mother. It is very clear that Henry’s parents, and Henry’s aunt and uncle, are all very intelligent and very curious people. This gives the story a really beautiful intellectual quality to it. I found it particularly satisfying that the themes throughout emphasized a love of ideas, a love of nature, and a love of scientific experimentation.

It becomes very clear that Grover’s Corner is a bedroom community for Princeton University professors and scientists. This gives the story a really neat setting. Nestled into farm country, populated by free thinkers, and maintained with traditional values, Grover’s Corner seems to be an ideal place to turn a boy and his friend loose for the summer so they can explore their world, test their theories, and practice a little enterprise.

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Robertson understands boys. Presumably because he was one. But more than that. His story celebrates the boyishness of boys. As a mom, I found myself cringing while my boys were rejoicing! I will never look at a wasp’s nest the same way again!

It is early March in NE Wisconsin as I write this. There is snow on the ground and the trees are still bare. Nearly two months after having read Henry Reed, Inc., my kids and I were on a nature walk yesterday and discovered a large paper wasp nest. I hate those things. Almost instantly, all of us cried out, “Do you remember when in Henry Reed….” What a joy! Now when we see a nest like that, we will always think of a construction truck knocking the power out in an entire neighborhood. I will let you read the story to get the details for yourself. 

Illustrated by Robert McCloskey, the sketches are dynamic. They capture the spirit of the book perfectly. I thought I loved McCloskey’s work in Homer Price but it pales in comparison to Henry Reed. These pictures tease us into laughing before we have read the punchline. What a great way to encourage a young reader who is trying to learn how to read better and faster!

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One small word of warning. There is one scene of mildly questionable decision-making on the part of Henry and his aunt. When I read it, I was worried that there would be more and that it would spoil the book. I do wish that scene could have been resolved without a lie. I am very glad, however, that that was a one-time occurrence and nothing came of it.

This is a series that I would love to own in hardbound. I believe that you can buy all of the books in paperback reprints, but the hardcover books are more substantial in size.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint

In 1956, Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams published their first young reader science fiction book: Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint. Penned almost fifteen years before Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon, the science in this series is dated but still magical and full of wonder. Nearly seventy-five years after H.G. Wells’ publication of War of the Worlds, this brand of science fiction is about possibility instead of terror. At a time when science fiction was exciting and the thing that many little boys dreamed of, the Danny Dunn books are a snapshot of 1950s American childhood with all of its hope and traditional values.

Typical of boys of that era, Danny is smart, curious, respectful of his mother, and famous for getting in and out of trouble. While Danny’s age is never really mentioned, it can be presumed that he is in the 10-14 age range throughout the series.

Danny’s father died when he was a baby. To provide for her little family, Danny’s mother became the live-in housekeeper for an eccentric but wise physics professor at the local university. Professor Bullfinch serves as a loving, kind, and invested father figure in Danny’s life. The home life in this book is heart warming, traditional, and fun to read. Danny’s mom has a good bit of personality, Professor Bullfinch is reliably strong, and Danny could not love and admire both of them more. Through a combination of natural aptitude and the influence of an excellent mentor, Danny desires to be a scientist when he grows up.

In this first book, Professor Bullfinch discovers a substance which they dub “Anti Gravity Paint.” While the science is really unclear, it doesn’t resort to cheap magical tricks. There is a sincere effort to use scientific reasoning and what little information they knew about space to make this plausible. What we know now probably makes it harder to accept the ideas as credible theories, but it really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story line. Perhaps a little bit like watching old Doctor Who or Star Trek, we just laugh at their misunderstandings of rockets and outer space.

Thanks to an emphasis on STEM and the celebrity status of scientists today, there are a number of science-themed children’s series’ available. Many, however, are not that great. This series was created in a time when traditional values promoted a culture of respect and optimism which is sadly missing in storylines today. Highly creative and moderately old-fashioned, I would say that this series is more wholesome than the Lucy and Steven Hawking, “George and the Secret Key” series or the Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, “Nick and Tesla” series, but less “perfect” than Homer Price. I do recommend this book, but I want to highlight a couple of reservations. 

The first book of the series was published in 1956. Danny’s teacher (and the childhood teachers of the others scientists in the story) are unimaginative, small minded, and rather punitive when feeling challenged. Despite the private agreements between Danny, the professor, and his mother that these teachers lack vision, Danny is respectful and compliant when being corrected by the misguided adults. Refreshingly, Danny’s mother and the professor each support the teachers’ corrections despite disagreeing with them; a wonderful classic example of old fashioned parenting.

Sadly, however, Danny has a habit of bending the rules – even when he knows it is wrong. When required to write 500 sentences as a correction from his teacher, Danny accepts the help of a friend after first articulating that it would be wrong to do so. Shortly after that, when Danny has a secret, he tells lies of omission to his mother, whom he otherwise respects and honors. In both cases, Danny rationalizes these decisions and justifies them to himself. I wasn’t impressed with this turn of events.

Because of the lying and cheating, I decided to purchase the two audiobooks, but declined to purchase the spines of any of the fifteen books in the series. My concerns are small ones, but until I have time to preview more of the books, I don’t like the idea of small, poor choices compounding over many books and subtly teaching my son that lying and cheating are an acceptable way to get things done.

 

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Alvin Fernald: The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald

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I have an engineering-type kid. My nine year old has loved all things engineering since he could stack blocks. Trying to feed his imagination with books that explore that interest, I asked friends for recommendations. Some wise friends recommended the Homer Price books by Robert McCloskey and we loved them. Homer is sweet, wholesome, and respectful of others. If he were a real kid, I would love for him to be my son’s best friend. We will do a review of the Homer Price books this winter.

Other friends recommended The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald and we were unimpressed. In The Great Brain, my husband, son, and I all felt that the characters were a little bratty, a bit manipulative, and not entirely honest. I realize that many read these books in a different tone than we do. I respect that. For us, however, they were not a great fit and that made me sad because there are eight of them and they are written for my son’s reading level. We will not be reviewing The Great Brain books.

My husband remembers loving Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol at this age. I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books by their many writers (just be careful to get the really old books with 25 chapters, not the rewrites with 20 chapters). We will be reviewing Encyclopedia Brown this winter.

While looking for things like Homer Price, Twenty One Balloons, Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, and Good Old Archibald, I discovered The Mad Scientists’ Club books by Bertrand Brinley. Michael devoured The Mad Scientists’ Club books which Purple House Press has brought back into print. We will be writing a review of those books this winter.

While trying to understand The Mad Scientists’ Club better, I discovered the Alvin Fernald books by Popular Mechanics Editor in Chief, Clifford B. Hicks. Previously out of print, Purple House Press reissued four of the nine original Alvin books: The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, Alvin’s Secret Code, Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure, and Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day. Bethlehem Books has reissued Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader.

Hicks is a WWII veteran, a father of three inventor-type sons, and a long time editor for Popular Mechanics. His Alvin books are set in the nonspecific 1960s and feel a lot like the Homer Price books or Good Old Archibald. Classic good fare for young boys who are reading independently and who, like Alvin, have minds that are “continually working on some kind of a problem.”

In this series starter, Alvin, his sister “The Pest”, and his best friend Shoie work together to solve an interesting mystery. A little bit Hardy Boys, a lot Homer Price, the kids must summon courage, creativity, and teamwork to solve a crime that is actively being committed. Of course the kids are the heroes of the story. Of course the kids sneak out at night. Of course Alvin is rude to his sister. Like Beverly Cleary in the Ramona books, Hicks keeps kids very kid-like – warts and all. However, also like Cleary, Hicks writes his characters with good values, sincere respect for right and wrong, and true love between siblings. These characters have imagination, courage and good character.

“Shoie and the Pest looked at him. There was surprise in their eyes. There was admiration, too.”

Written in the sweet spot for 8-12 year old boys, this book is interesting enough to please just about any independent reader who is beyond Nate the Great, Frog and Toad, and Henry and Mudge. Moms of inventors may want to be warned that this is likely to stimulate all kinds of “creative” problem solving from their kids. I shuddered as I read, knowing all too well how many of these “inventions” are likely to show up in my kitchen at some point.

Safe. Well written. Wholesome. Creative. Entertaining. A wonderful series to help readers transition out of “I Can Read” books and into short novels.

“Finally he said, ‘Both of you should be spanked within an inch of your lives. In the first place, you’ve been told many times to stay away from the Huntley house. In the second place, Alvin, you sawed off your mother’s broom handle, took one of her mirrors, and used the garden hose without permission. In the third place, both of you sneaked out at night. We want no sneaks in this family. In the fourth place, you know better than to take the chances you did with two dangerous men…in the fifth place, your mother and I are the proudest parents in the whole wide world. We’re proud that we have children so brave. And we’re proud that we have children with imagination, who can use their heads to solve problems. Children, you’ll never know how proud we are.’”

Posted in Book Lovers Community

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.

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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.

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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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