Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Growing Great Kids


As a mom of a child who would love to take to the stage as a career choice, I was interested in what Kate Battistelli, mother to Dove Award-winning recording artist Francesca, had to say in her book Growing Great Kids. I had many questions, such as how was she sure this was God’s purpose for her daughter and how did she guide Francesca in such goals?

The following is an excerpt from the introduction pages which sums up the general gist of the book:

Successful adults don’t happen by accident. It takes intentional effort to raise a child into an adult who has a strong sense of their destiny in God, a passion to serve Him, and a deep knowledge of His gifts and callings. Parents, we know our children better than anyone else. By partnering with God we can equip them to be all He called and created them to be. It’s up to us to equip (not push or apply undue pressure) our children to go after their dreams.

I learned a lot from Kate’s story, especially with her overall theme of the book of purposefully and intentional parenting and guiding. Much thought and prayer went into her guidance of her daughter and the focus was always on the greater plan. For example, when Francesca’s dream of becoming a dancer was thwarted because of scoliosis, years of dance lessons were not seen as a waste, but rather training for another purpose. Kate was also not afraid to have very large goals for her daughter and very specific prayers for those goals. It helped me see how focused Kate was, while at the same time her willingness to be redirected and reassured when a new path or obstacles came along.

Scripture relevant to the topics is used throughout the book. Also included are quotes from articles and research (those homeschooling will appreciate her comments on this) and well as comments and experiences directly from other parents. Each chapter, covering topics such as recognizing gifts, the power of words, prayer, and growing integrity, ends with a number of thought-provoking questions for reflection and a prayer.

Most people are not going to have the exact same set of circumstances in resources, number of children, or even talent in a particular area, but Growing Great Kids is not about duplicating goals of others. It is about helping your child discover his or her purpose. I needed reminding that both words and prayer are very powerful and most importantly, that God has a unique plan for my children. Rather than a book of “how to”, I considered this more a book of encouragement written from the heart.

I received a free copy of this book/Ebook/Product to review as part of the CWA Review Crew. I was not required to write a positive review nor was I compensated in any other way. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the FTC Regulations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

PhysicsQuest 2012 Registration!

It is PhysicsQuest time again. This year's program is titled Spectra's Turbulent Times. We order FREE kits every year and I have to say they are nicely done.  For those not familiar with PhysicsQuest, here is a description from the website:

PhysicsQuest is a story-based activity that exposes middle school students to the fun and relevance of science. APS provides a free PhysicsQuest kit to registered 6-9th grade physical science classes, home school groups, science clubs, and after-school programs. The kit includes a user's manual and materials for four physics experiments.
You can read more about the program at the PhysicsCentral website.

Registration is taking place now, but don't expect to see your kits until after the new year, usually around February if I recall correctly.  You will receive an email when your kit ships.

Since I've usually forgotten that I registered by then, it is always a nice surprise when they arrive.  Order your free kit now for some mid-winter physics learning!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gifts for Teen Boys to Make

Most kids like making gifts for their friends. My daughter usually comes up with something on her own. However, my son is a different story. The words "boys" and "crafts" typically don't go together, at least not in my house.  An upcoming group event with our homeschool group had me contemplating what sort of crafty, gift-giving, project would appeal to middle school boys without involving explosives.

It dawned on me that the answer was right under my nose...and on my son's wrist.  My mom had gifted him a "Survival Bracelet", also known a Paracord Bracelet, several months ago.  The bracelet is made of very strong parachute cord which could be used for a number of things in an emergency.  Mostly, though, it just looks cool.  As usual, I turned to Google and Pinterest to figure out how to make something.

My search turned up two tutorials.  The first is for paracord bracelets without buckles.These would be great for kids who are bothered by buckles next to the wrist, or if you simply had trouble locating buckles.  Also included in this tutorial are great instructions for making a two-colored bracelet. However, I was worried they might tend to fall off and get lost. I found this tutorial for making bracelet with side buckles.

Now that I settled on a project, I needed to find the materials, often an inconvenience when it comes to crafting.  I'm sure buckles could be purchased at the local craft store, but I turned to Amazon first. I hate driving around to local stores in search of materials and I figured I might find a better deal online. I found 50 - 1/2" Side Release Plastic Buckles for $5.49 and free shipping. For the paracord, I found 182 550LB DESERT CAMO NYLON 100 FT CORD [Misc.] also with free shipping. Obviously, this would be a bit overkill for one bracelet (each one requiring one buckle and 8 ft of cord), but since I was planning this as a group project and I'm too lazy to drive to the store, it worked well.
I'm not going to give you step-by-step directions and pictures since the linked tutorials do a fine job of that. 

My son, who isn't crafty at all, really enjoyed making the bracelet and now wears it proudly with the one that was gifted to him by his grandma.
We'll be making a trip to our local Army supply store, which has a great variety and the availability of paracord by the yard, to purchase some more colors.  We'll be trying a two-color one next.  I see plenty of girls wearing more feminine color versions of these as well.  With the total cost being slightly over $1, you can make a whole slew of them for Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers.

Monday, October 29, 2012

It's a Potato Soup Kind of Day

Even though we aren't anywhere near the coast where Sandy is currently creating a mess, we are experience some of the effects of the storm with dropped temperatures and high winds.  It is just one of those days where you want to stay in, crawl under a blanket, and eat something warm.  It is a potato soup kind of day.

I thought I'd share my favorite potato soup recipe for Homeschool Mosaics' Recipe Carnival.

Best-Ever Potato Soup

6 bacon strips, diced
3 cups cubed peeled potatoes
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) chicken broth
1 small carrot, grated
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 T dried parsley flakes
1/2 t each celery seed, salt, and pepper
3 T all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
8 ounces precess American cheese, cubed
2 green onions, thinly sliced, optional

In a large saucepan, cook bacon until crisp; drain.  Add potatoes, broth, carrot, cnion, parsley, celery seed, salt and pepper.  Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (about 15 minutes). Combine flour and milk until smooth; add to soup. Bring to a boil. Boil and stir for 2 minutes.  Add cheese and stir under melted and the soup is heated through.  Garnish with green onion.

  • I tried skipping the celery seed once because I was out.  Don't!  It really is a critical ingredient in my opinion. 
  • I like this recipe even better with ham instead of bacon.  When I make a large ham, I always chop some up and put it in the freezer just for this soup.
  • I often use extra broth if I have it and just add a few more potatoes and seasonings.  I find the recipe very forgiving.
  • Usually I use Velvetta in this recipe, as much as it pains me!  I made it tonight with real cheddar cheese.  It still tasted great, but I find the Velvetta tastes better.
  • Sometimes I take a masher to the potatoes, but I often leave them in chucks.  It seems heartier that way.
Tonight I happened to have some leftover bacon crumbles from a salad and sprinkled those on top.  I paired this with a fresh loaf of bread make in the bread maker.  Very filling - and perfect for a cold evening.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: Wild Ink (Prufrock Press)

When my review copy of the updated and expanded Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley arrived in the mail, I was excited to dig in as soon as I had some free reading time.
Wild Ink is a guide for those wanting to break into getting published in the Young Adult market.  While I do not exactly fit the profile, I do enjoy writing and have a teen daughter who dreams of having a novel published.  I am always looking for constructive ways to guide her writing and move that dream a little closer to reality.  With that in mind, I approached Hanley’s book both as an adult writer and a parent of an aspiring writer.

In the first chapter the reader is introduced to an overview of the Young Adult genre, including target age range, approximate length, use of vocabulary, themes, and subgenres. Chapters two through six discuss novel development. Plots and settings, character development, and how to overcome obstacles specific to the genre are all covered.  The author even includes an exercise on how to find your “inner teen” for proper perspective and point of view when writing your novel. In addition, a complete chapter is devoted to writing teen nonfiction and another entirely to writer resources.

I really enjoyed the following section consisting of four chapters explaining how to get your finished novel published and marketed, whether you are seeking and agent or want to do the self-publishing route.  My shelves already contain several how-to books on writing novels, but the instruction stops there. As someone who has never published a book, I found this section on what to do once your novel is completed very helpful in understanding the process, what to watch out for, and the pros and cons of various options.

The last 80 pages or so of the book are interviews with Young Adult authors, both fiction and nonfiction. Hearing the background and experiences of these 33 authors is very inspirational and encouraging to the aspiring writer.

As I was reading through Wild Ink, I realized how appropriate this title would be for my teen daughter, even though the intended audience is for adults.  After finishing, I handed it over to her for her opinion.  She found Wild Ink helpful and commented that her original expectations of it being a “dry read” were unfounded. Since she is currently working on a YA novel, she was able to relate the concepts to her current work while reading, jotting notes along the margins.  I can see how this title would be a great resource and reference for older teens both prior and during developing a novel.  As for me, even through I have never attempted writing a novel, Wild Ink gave me the tools to make the idea a little less intimidating and obtainable.

Whether you are just beginning or an experienced writer trying to break into a new genre, Wild Ink is an excellent resource to guide you along the way. Available at Prufrock Press and other online and local retailers, Wild Ink retails for $17.95 and is available both in soft cover and digital versions.

Disclaimer/Disclosure of Material Connection: I received the book mentioned above from Prufrock Press for the purposes of review. All opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Yellow Star

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy (Marshall Cavendish; 2006; $11.32) is a book of free-verse poetry that tells the story of the author’s Jewish aunt in Poland in World War II when the Jews were forced into the Jewish Ghetto. Of the 270,000 people forced into the ghetto, only 800 survived until the end of the war and, of those, only 12 were children. Yellow Star is the story of one of those children.
I’ll admit; I dislike poetry. However, for me, this book is the exception. It reminds me of Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s poetry, which concentrates more on storytelling than imagery or diction or pentameter. The chronological poems tells protagonist Syvia’s story with clarity and brevity, which helps to maintain the childish perspective. At the beginning, Syvia is four-years-old. By the end, she is one day shy of her tenth birthday.

The book is truly an example of where less is more, where what is left unsaid is more powerful than what is said. The poems speak in vignettes, such as this one after six-year-old Syvia’s friend Hava disappears while out for a walk:
Itka comes over to my apartment,
but we don’t say much.
Our dolls do the talking for us.

Itka’s doll: Where is our friend today?
My doll: I don’t know.
Itka’s doll: Perhaps she had another engagement.
My doll: More important than our weekly tea? (Roy 39) 
Overall, Yellow Star is a gentle introduction to the Jewish Holocaust. While there is talk of hunger, starvation, beatings, “the trains,” and death, the adults in the story attempt to shield Syvia from the worst of the experience, which means the reader is spared much of the raw violence and anguish as well. At the beginning of each section, two pages from the narrator’s perspective describe the historical setting and the events surrounding this portion of the narrative.

I recommend this book for upper elementary, middle schoolers, and youthful high schoolers. It is a quick read—even at 230 pages, I read it in a few hours. I give it four stars (out of five) for its Hemingway-esque brevity; insightful, child perspective; and historical accuracy.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

All About Spelling Level 7 on SALE!

As many of you know, I am quite the fan of All About Spelling.  It has been a wonderful program for my dyslexic son.  Level 7 has been recently released and is currently on sale at 15% off through August 6th.  Sales are pretty infrequent for this program, and if you are interested in getting the next level, now is the time!  See All About Spelling for more on the program.

*contains affiliate links

Monday, July 16, 2012

Free Maker Camp for Teen Inventors

Do you have an inventor in the house? We attended a local Maker Faire a couple of years ago. We definitely saw some unusual things.  Unfortunately I can't find my pictures from the event or I'd share them, including the car covered with synchronized Big Mouth Billy Bass!

Regardless, if you have a D.I.Y teen in the house, they might be interested in the FREE virtual Maker Camp.  It started today and runs through August 24!

This looks like it will keep your resident inventors busy for the rest of the summer.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Article 5

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Article 5 by Kristen Simmons begins promisingly enough ($10.98; Tor Teen; January 31, 2012). The author sets a dystopian scene reminiscent of The Hunger Games with the “Federal Bureau of Reformation” and the “Moral Statutes of the United States of America,” which among other proclamations, includes Article 5, “Children are considered valid citizens only when conceived by a married man and wife.”

Sadly, the book goes downhill from there...quickly. The story is about seventeen-year-old Ember who is seized by the totalitarian government for noncompliance of Article 5 (her mother is a single mom) and taken to a reformatory where her one-time boyfriend-turned-soldier, Chase, breaks her out and begins their fugitive trek cross-country to find her mother, who has also been abducted.

There are so many things I disliked about this book that it is difficult to know where to begin. First and foremost, I was strongly offended by the way in which the book slams Christianity. The totalitarian government is enforced by certain branches of service including the “Sisters of Redemption,” which sounds eerily like the nuns of Catholicism: “The Sisters did to women what the MM [Moral Militia] did to men: tore away the soul and brainwashed what was left” (Simmons 53). Later, the protagonist, walks by a nurse reading a Bible, and the way in which it is described it is clear that the reader is supposed to think this is bizarre and “brainwashed.”

Secondly, the protagonist is naive and ignorant. She continually questions Chase’s motives and loyalties long after he has proven his reliability through his actions. The reader just wants to shake her. She makes foolish, rash decisions, and the reader wonders what on earth Chase sees in her. For example, Ember runs off several times and gets herself into trouble. A girl with any sense at all would not do this. Chase is an admirable character, but Ember is brainless and irritating. In addition, the whole “conflict” and “sexual tension” gets old really fast.

Thirdly, the story is often implausible. Spoiler Alert! Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers. For example, during the climax of the book, Ember steals a gun from a soldier while his back is turned and then is able to “sneak” it back to her cell under a piece of clothing. There is no description of how she accomplishes this, and the result is that it sounds completely unbelievable. Later in the book, she and Chase “convince” a hard-core soldier to simply give up, walk away, and let them go. Seriously? Moreover, the big “twist” in the story is that Ember’s mother has been dead all along and Chase hasn’t told her because he is afraid she might not go to the safe house with him if she knew. I knew the mother was dead from the beginning, and I can’t help but think that other readers would, too. After all, this book is intended for high school level readers, not elementary. The condescending plot structure gives the reader the impression that the author has no experience with teens.

Lastly, the book is poorly written. I understand authors can demand some creative license when writing, but the number of sentence fragments in this text are excessive. It makes the reader wonder if the author even realizes she is writing sentence fragments. It is like the difference between a novice painter and a master: Picasso could paint abstract cubism because he knew how to paint realism and had made a choice to paint abstractly. An amateur who paints cubism because he cannot paint realistically is just a mess. The same is true here. Aside from the two main characters, the rest are just flat stereotypes. The plot is drab and has few subplots.

Article 5 contains some violence, including references to torture (“One of the soldiers was already preparing the fire hose inside. Beside him, a pair of leather cuffs were chained to the floor beside the baton” Simmons 94). The romance is focused mainly on kissing and bodies touching through clothing, but the descriptions are steamy. I would not give the book to a student under fourteen years old. Honestly, I had to force myself to finish reading this book in order to write the review. I give this book one star (out of five). If you are looking for a dystopian novel, look elsewhere.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*contains affiliate links

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Moon over Manifest

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is a complex historical novel that bounces between two time periods: 1917-1918 and summer 1936 ($7.99 paperback; Yearling; December 27, 2011). Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker has been riding the rails with her daddy for as long as she remembers, but when she scratches her leg and it becomes infected, he sends her to live in Manifest, Missouri with some of his old friends. The story is told through Abilene’s 1936 observations of the town, through letters from Ned to Jinx in 1918, and through a fortune-teller’s stories.

The novel is well-written and exceptionally well-plotted. The book has several big twists and reveals, which I am loathe to give away here. The characters are realistic and lively, and the description is detailed and interesting. For example,
You’d have thought I’d be used to this by now. Being the new kid and all. I’d been through this umpteen times before but it never gets any easier. Still, there’s certain things every school’s got, same as any other. Universals, I call them....My one consolation was that I knew these kids. Even if they didn’t know me. Kids are universals too, in a way. Every school has the ones who think they’re a little better than everybody else and the ones who are a little poorer than everybody else. And somewhere in the mix there’s usually ones who are pretty decent. Those were the ones who made it hard to leave when the time came. And sooner or later, it always came (Vanderpool 26).
As the book progresses, Abilene learns more about her father and his past in this town, as well as all of the secrets lurking in a small town. There is no romance and very little violence with the exception of some fistfighting, a Klan cross burning, and a murder which is entirely “off stage” and not actually seen. There is some bootlegging during Prohibition and discussion of strong drink, but only one character is ever “seen” drunk and the irony is that she does not realize she has been drinking alcohol until it is too late. A small scene in the beginning has a fortune telling. Overall, though, there is little here that most parents would find offensive.

I have only two minor criticisms of the book: the pace and the complexity. First, the pace is a bit slow in the beginning. The latter half of the book is exciting and page-turning, but the first half meanders for a long time, setting the stage. I maintained interest, but a young reader might become bored before reaching the thrilling parts.

Second, the complexity might confuse young readers. Overall, I am pleased to see a young adult novel with substance. Too often books for the YA audience are shallow, and Moon over Manifest is definitely not that. Still, the bouncing between two time periods can create confusion and the vast number of characters to keep straight—with names like Callisto Matenopoulos and Nikolai Yezierska!— might overwhelm even strong readers. The author includes a list of characters at the beginning of the book, which helps considerably, but it is still difficult to keep everyone straight. Moreover, without some historical background (such as a cursory understanding of WWI and the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918), the book would lose some depth. I would not recommend this book for a reluctant or struggling reader for the reasons mentioned and because it changes font in each chapter, although he or she may enjoy it on CD.

If you have a strong reader who is ready for substantial plots and complicated characters or if you are studying Prohibition, the Great Depression, or WWI, this is an excellent book which both boys and girls in 5th – 9th grade will like. I can see why it won the Newberry Medal. I give Moon over Manifest five (out of five) stars.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Kids Love Their Garbage Picking Mom

What can I say? I'm not ashamed to garbage pick. It is frugal.  And green.  It also gives me Cool Mom points.


This Factor X Micro Ramp (Black)is $41.27 at Amazon.  I like FREE better. Much better.


Of course, any injuries could land (get!) me some hefty doctor bills.  Hmm - perhaps I have a clue on why this perfectly good ramp was in my neighbor's garbage. I choose not to think about that at the moment, and will bask in my Cool Momness instead.
*affiliate link

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Grave

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
The Grave by James Henegan ($9.99; Laurel Leaf; June 11, 2002) is an historical fiction story inside an historical fiction/science fiction story. That is not as tricky as it sounds. The book begins in Liverpool in 1974 when a neglected thirteen-year-old foster boy, Tom Mullen, goes poking around a mass grave site near a church where a new school is being built. He feels drawn to the pit of coffins and eventually falls in— into Ireland in 1847 during the Irish Potato Famine. Thus, the historical fiction story (1847) is inside the historical fiction/science fiction story (1974).
 The premise is clever and based on real events, including the mass grave unearthing in Old Swan in 1974 and the Irish Potato Famine. Tom is a likeable character, although he has bad habits of lying and stealing food (“nicking,” as he says). The historical details of the area and time period are solid and detailed. Sadly, the book suffers from a lack of depth and plotting. Mainly, the story lacks credibility, especially in how the characters behave. It is just too simplistic.

(Spoiler Alert! Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoiler.) For example, when Tom tells adults how he has fallen into the past and returned to the present, they do not question him, but accept it outright. I’m sorry, but if a child tells me that he has time-traveled to another century, I’m going to be a bit more skeptical than that. I’m going to ask a lot of questions. It will take time for me to believe it. I know it is fiction, but even fiction needs to have a grain of reality in order to be believable. I just can’t suspend my disbelief that much. Moreover, the author alludes to the existence of Shee-ogs, Irish goblins, but never resolves this plot line (Tom sees a green goblin man every time he passes through the time traveling grave.)

Despite these drawbacks, The Grave is entertaining and might be a good book for an eight- to twelve-year-old boy who is studying the Irish Potato Famine. All of the good historical fiction stories about the Irish Potato Famine that I have read have girl protagonists (such as Nory Ryan’s Song and Greener Grass – see review on this site), so this is a nice change. There is very little romance (a kiss from a young crush) and violence is primarily limited to fistfights and billy clubs. Of course, the book describes some gruesome details related to starvation and illness, but I did not find it to be excessive.

 Unfortunately, the ending is terribly cliché and wraps things up so neatly as to be completely unbelievable. (Spoiler Alert! Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoiler.) The reader learns in the beginning that Tom was abandoned as a baby in a department store. At the end, Tom and the reader discover Tom’s real parents are actually his football coach and his wife. Instead of having them give a believable explanation for abandoning their child (unmarried, too young to handle a child, depressed, poor, etc.), they tell him that he was abducted by the babysitter when he was an infant and then the babysitter later abandons him. What?!? Moreover, if this were the case, wouldn’t the football coach and his wife be searching everywhere for their baby and check out a child abandoned a few months later? It’s just too far-fetched ending in an already far-fetched story. The ending ruins the rest of the book.
I give The Grave three stars (out of five) for the historical accuracy, promising premise, and unique perspective from a male protagonist. If you need a book about the Irish Potato Famine for a young boy, it might fit the bill.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Berlin Boxing Club

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
I do not like boxing, but I enjoy World War II stories and I liked the movie Cinderella Man, which is about boxing, so I thought I’d give The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow a try ($11.91; HarperTeen; April 26, 2011).

The historical novel is a coming-of-age story about fourteen-year-old Karl Stern, a blond, blue-eyed Jewish boy living in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power who likes to draw cartoons. Karl’s father is an art dealer whose friendship with the World Champion of Boxing Max Schmeling results in boxing lessons for Karl, who has suffered a beating at the hands of some Hitler Youth at school. While boxing is important to the plot, it isn’t necessary to appreciate boxing in order to understand the book.

The plot and characters are well-developed, and the stories concerning the real-life boxers, such as Schmeling, seem well-researched. At the beginning, I liked the way in which Karl treats his sister and the funny cartoons he draws, but as the book progresses, I grew to dislike the protagonist Karl, which made me dislike the book overall. Karl is a self-absorbed boy whose Aryan looks save him from much of the hardships Jews suffered at that time. He seems almost completely oblivious to the sufferings of others.

For example, when Karl and another Jewish boy, Benjamin, are running from thugs at school, Benjamin falls behind, which results in a gang beating. Even though Benjamin calls for help—and Karl has been training as a boxer with men for almost three years!—Karl refuses to stop and help him. He, instead, runs away and justifies his actions by saying he would have simply been beaten as well. That may be true, but it does not endear him to the reader. He is ashamed of his sister’s “Jewish looks,” as he calls them, and says that he does not like Jews in general. In summary, Karl posses few admirable qualities—he is self-centered, cowardly, and quick to anger. The reader wants a noble protagonist. The protagonist can have flaws, but overall he should be praiseworthy. Karl isn’t.

His parents are worse. His mother is constantly depressed and useless to her family. His father is emotionally distant. Aside from Karl’s sister Hildy, it is difficult to find anyone in the story to like. Other parts of the book bothered me as well. First, there is a scene where Karl drinks excessive amounts of beer to the point of passing out. This might be realistic for the time and European children tend to have lower drinking ages and cultural expectations than Americans, but I don’t think it sets a good example, even if Karl regrets it. Moreover, it seems downright moronic in light of the potential risks for Jews at the time.

Secondly, Karl’s cartoons become bizarre as the book progresses. He draws a new cartoon “hero” called “The Mongrel” who comes from a Nazi experiment: “We will mix the blood of all the mongrel races—Jew, Gypsy, Negro, Indian, and Chinese—and perform a transfusion on a baby and create a monster to prove their ultimate inferiority” (Sharenow 315). While the cartoon shows the “experiment failing” as the baby gets “stronger and far more intelligent than a normal baby,” which advocates that the so-called “Mongrel” races are not to be despised but admired, the whole cartoon rubs me the wrong way. And, it is not something I would want my children reading. It continues that the Nazi doctors order a nurse to kill the baby with poison. The nurse cannot commit the “heinous deed” and instead, in the tradition of Moses, sends him down the river in a basket. It could be that I am just unfamiliar with superhero cartoons, but for me, the cartoon is just too dark and subtle, even for a perceptive student.

Thirdly, Karl does not embody the typical Jewish experience in Germany in WWII. While this could be a plus since it makes the story different from many Holocaust tales, in this case, it just makes the book seem unrealistic. Instead, Karl has all of the minor characters embody the “common Jewish experiences,” and he simply watches. For example, Karl’s uncle Jakob is sent to Dachau Concentration Camp because of his Communist activities where he allegedly dies of dysentery. The Jewish shopkeeper where he buys his art supplies cannot earn enough to feed his family and sees his shop smashed. Karl’s father has trouble selling his art and is eventually attacked and sent to prison. The only things Karl experiences for himself as a result of his Jewish heritage is being kicked out of school, disqualified from a boxing tournament, and forbidden from dating a Catholic girl. These seem so mild as to be trivial, compared with the experiences of others.

Lastly, there is a lot of discussion of homosexuality and cross-dressing. A major character is a man in drag. Interestingly enough, the man turns out to be the most admirable character in the entire book in terms of his integrity and courage. However, the cross-dressing underworld is not necessarily the type of fodder most parents want their teens and tweens contemplating. The book might be acceptable for a high school boy who is interested in boxing, but I do not recommend giving it to a student under fourteen years old. In conclusion, The Berlin Boxing Club has a complex plot and well-crafted characters, but there are too many elements that detract from the story. I give the story three stars (out of five).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

There's a Par-Tey in the Choir Room

Our days of the Public School Experience are slowly winding down.  This past Friday, my daughter took her final for choir, which involved singing at our local senior center.  I thought this was a much more worthwhile experience than taking a multiple choice test.  However, the worthwhile experience category has sort of diminished entirely since.

The choir class at our fine local school is pretty much doing nothing productive for the remainder of the school year, which continues through the end of next week.  Tuesday my daughter announced that they ate cake.  Today involved karaoke and socializing.  I wonder what tomorrow brings? A pinata?  A little Limbo, perhaps?

Since my daughter has used almost all of her allotted absences with other commitments and I really don't want to risk any chance of needing to petition for the half credit of Fine Arts she will have earned, she'll continue to show up for the Choir Par-Tey each morning until the official end of school.

Is it really too much to ask the choir to sing in the final two weeks of school? Oh, wait. Silly me.  Karaoke, anyone?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Trapped

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
There’s something about reading about winter in summer and vice-versa that is appealing to me. I guess it is the great contrast between looking at leafy, green trees and feeling the warmth of the sun while living in my mind with snow and wind. It fascinates me that I can “live” in both places at once.

In general, I don’t like “school stories.” That is, stories set inside schools with “schoolly” plots filled with bullying, cliques, teenage angst, and the like. However, even though Trappedby Michael Northrop is set in a school and has some “schoolly elements,” such as worries about geometry tests, hot chicks, and pimples, it is, in essence, a survival story ($10.98; Scholastic Press; February 1, 2011).

Fifteen-year-old high school sophomore Scotty Weems is stuck at a rural school during a blizzard in New England. He and six other students who, for various reasons, miss the last buses are forced to survive for days on Oreos and PB&J stolen from the cafeteria. The snow piles up— foot by foot until they can barely see out of the second floor windows—and so do their problems, as the lights go out, the heat turns off, the pipes freeze, and the roof shudders from the weight of the snow. Meanwhile, no one knows to look for them at the school because everyone thinks they are on the last buses, which may still be trapped on the country roads somewhere.

The writing is sharp and funny and the plot dances along at a good pace. For example, this paragraph from Scotty’s time in geometry class where students are not allowed to have cell phones at school:

I was more concerned about indirect proofs at the moment, but the room was quiet and every now and then you could hear a cell vibrating in someone’s backpack, like a fist-sized bug trying to get out. Kids would cough or scrutch their chairs back to cover it up, but let’s be honest—if you’re smart enough to teach indirect proofs, you’re smart enough to figure that out.... When I was a little kid, I had a dinky round cell phone with one button so that I could call my mom or she could call me. It had some embarrassing name, like Doodlebug, but it really should’ve been called Leash (Northrop 14). 

The survival elements are plausible, although I am surprised by the students’ lack of sense in some respects, such as wasting the batteries on their phones by playing video games and having thoughts about “Internet withdrawal.” Still, the students learn how to manage and survive, so the book might provoke some discussion with parents for “what if” situations. What if you were home alone when a tornado struck? What would you do if your car broke down on a deserted road and your cell phone were dead? What if you were at work during a blizzard?

The characters are flat stereotypes—the hot chick, the jock, the average kid, the camo sniper, the goth dude, the bad boy, etc.—but there is enough depth to the main character to distract the reader from these shortcomings. Violence is limited to the occasional fist fight and, overall, the sex is limited to a few unsavory comments and the occasional daydreams of one boy’s overactive hormones. I enjoyed Trapped, and I give the story four stars (out of five) for the humor, snappy writing, and realistic survival elements.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 15, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Heritage History

Ever since purchasing a Kindle, I’ve been looking for ways to utilize it in our homeschool.  Of course, as many e-reader owners have discovered, there are plenty of free resources out there.  Websites such as Project Gutenberg keep e-reader users happily loading up their device with free reading material.
I now have many classical histories on my Kindle that could easily be integrated into our history studies.  The problem is, I don’t always know the best way to go about that.  Heritage History, a history curriculum using classical titles, has taken much of the legwork out of utilizing these great resources in your homeschool.

I was sent the Ancient Rome Classical Curriculum on CD for this review.  Adaptable for most ages, this history curriculum includes 45 completely illustrated books, over 60 maps, timelines, battle dictionaries, reading recommendations, geography terms, short biographies, historical era summaries, and study guide resources.

All of the books are available in their entirety for viewing and reading on the Heritage History website, though there is a small fee to individually purchase titles as a download. While all of the titles included are public domain and available for free elsewhere as well, the value in this curriculum is in both the Study Aids and the convenience and organization of the titles, which are provided on the CD in two downloadable formats.

The titles in the library are easily organized by reading level.  Included are 8 introductory, 16 intermediate, and 21 advanced level titles.  Titles can also be organized by genre, summaries, and series to help users locate appropriate titles to read. For example, the genre categories include: Comprehensive History, Episodic History, Biography, Christian Antiquity, Legends and Literature, Historical Fiction.

Once I found the title I wanted, getting the e-book on my Kindle was very easy. Directions for transferring the available MOBI or EPUB files (both are included on the CD) to various devices are provided. If you don’t own a reader, titles can be read on the computer or printed.


Worth mentioning is the easy navigation of all the resources on the CD. While you do not need an internet connection to use the CD, web browser tools are utilized to organize all of the information in a familiar website presentation.  One of the things that frustrates me about digital products is I always feel like I’m scrolling through pages trying to find information.  I really appreciated having a sidebar menu with categories and use of familiar browsing tools.

The curriculum does not provide an assignment schedule of readings nor learning activities, but rather groups related readings, characters, and events and provides age specific core reading recommendations. This falls in line with the interest-driven history study approach of the curriculum.  The Curriculum User Guide provides detailed information on Heritage History’s particular living books approach, their philosophy and structure of the curriculum, and recommendations for history study. Below you will also find samples of each of the Study Aids provided to users.
While the curriculum as designed to serve the needs of a wide age range, the focus is on intermediate and general-interest readers.  There only a few titles below the 4th grade level and no analytical texts at the college level. However, younger children could be read the titles aloud, and overall the program is designed to be quite flexible to work for many ages and approaches.

The recommended weekly time to go through the program is 3 hours per week.  There are worksheets,  busywork projects, or concrete assignments. The guideline is to have each student read the core selections, at least three supplemental books for depth, and three or so substantial free-choice books over the course of the year.

Developed with a focus on providing a strong library of resources rather than another core curriculum, Heritage History encourages use of their program as a resource for other traditional history programs. Some of those specifically mentioned that would work well with Heritage History include Ambleside, OId Fashioned Education, Living Books, Tapestry of Grace, Story of the World, and Veritas/Omnibus.

The Study Aids on the CD are also available separately in both printed and downloadable versions as a Study Guide.  The PDF version of the Study Guide is identical to the resources on the CD, so there is no need to purchase a separate Study Guide if you own the curriculum CD.  Its availability is for those families who would prefer to read the recommended books directly from the Heritage History webpage or purchase individual books.

Overall, I feel Heritage History is a well-organized, easy-to-use, and value-priced history curriculum. I love that everything comes on a CD, rather than being required to download to my hard drive. My son enjoyed taking my Kindle off to a cozy corner for his history studies, so there were no complaints on the student end either!

Heritage Classical Curriculum CDs are available for $24.99. The Study Guides are available in color print for $24.99 or as a download for $12.99. Also available are Heritage Classical Libraries, which are collections of related titles, for $19.99.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result of my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool. You may read more reviews on this product by visiting here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Visually, Breaking Stalin's Noseby Eugene Yelchin is wonderful ($10.87; Henry Holt and Co.; September 27, 2011). Pencil drawings every few pages bring to life Russia’s people under Stalin’s reign in this chunky-shaped book. The story, too, is accurate and interesting, so it’s no wonder that it is a Newbery Honor book. The author is from Russia and lived many of the elements described therein. The historical novel focuses on the life of ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik, a boy on the verge of joining the Young Pioneers, the communist youth group. But, just as his long-awaited admission arrives, his father, who works for the State Secret Police, is arrested. Sasha’s eager admiration and loyalty to Stalin and communism begins to change as he is left alone to deal with the aftermath.

With all of these positive qualities, it is regrettable that the story is fatally flawed: it is not age appropriate for its target audience. The novel is simply too subtle and mature for the average elementary-aged student. It certainly is too difficult to understand for a nine-year-old, the youngest age for which the book claims to be intended.

Spoiler Alert! [Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers.] First, when Sasha’s father is taken away, Sasha is kicked out of his home by the neighbors who accused his father of conspiracy. Then, when he goes to his aunt’s house, he is rejected and abandoned, left to sleep on newspapers in the cellar. While this may have been the case for many children, this utter, immediate abandonment by every adult in this child’s world is simply too raw for a nine-year-old reader. Second, strangely, Sasha hallucinates that he is talking to Stalin’s nose while the nose drinks and smokes. Most elementary-aged students, who are not too far off from reading about talking pigs and spiders in Charlotte’s Web, would think this was part of the “real” story and not in Sasha’s head, which would be completely confusing, if not utterly bizarre. Thirdly, Sasha’s father has told him that his American-born mother died in the hospital, but in the latter part of the book, there are innuendos that his communist-devout father turned her in and she was executed. Elementary-aged students will not be able to discern this is what has happened from the few throwaway comments. Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, the story focuses on the ways in which children and adults are manipulated by the state, encouraged to tattle on their friends and relations. While this is accurate for a communist regime, it is incomprehensible for the average fourth or fifth grader. Even sixth graders would have trouble understanding the intricacies of who is guilty or not guilty.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose might be a good read-aloud for a parent who is willing and prepared to discuss the unsettling elements and explain the harsh realities of a totalitarian regime, but I would not give it to a child under thirteen to read on his own. Sadly, while the content may be appropriate for a thirteen year old, most teens will reject it because of its “picture book” qualities. It is one of those books that claims to be — and initially looks like — a “children’s book,” but is actually a story for adults, dressed in a picture-book wrapping. Thus, I give the book three stars (out of five) for its failure to meet the understanding of its target audience.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*contains affiliate links

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Revolver

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.

My first thought, upon reading Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick is that it reminded me of Jack London’s short stories, in particular “How to Build a Fire.” Revolver ($8.99 paperback; Square Fish; September 27, 2011) is a mystery set in the Arctic Circle where it is so cold that pulling one’s hands out of one’s gloves to strike a match to make a fire can cause them to freeze within minutes. Fourteen-year-old Sig Andersson has been left alone in the family cabin with the body of his father, who froze to death only feet from their cabin after falling through the ice, while his older sister and step-mother have gone for help with the sled dogs. Meanwhile, a giant, rough man appears at the door. Cabins in the Arctic Circle do not regularly receive visitors, and Sig is afraid.

The story is extremely suspenseful and well-crafted. However, it can be confusing to follow because chapters alternate between the present (1910) and the past (1899). After the initial few chapters, though, these flashbacks stop and the story continues in 1910. The description is extraordinary and reminiscent of Ernst Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, in that more is concealed than revealed. For example, here is the author’s description of how a Colt pistol works:

“Well, when the hammer hits the percussion cap, the fulminate of mercury explodes, for it cannot tolerate being struck. You see? Once the cap explodes, it sets fire to the gunpowder inside the case, and instantly the temperature inside the case rises to a couple of thousand degrees, as hot as the smelting works at the mine, but all inside that tiny brass case. 

Now, Sig, the brass case, being so hot, there and then expands, and swells to press against the inside of the chamber, and now it releases its grip on the lead bullet. This bullet is sitting at the front of the miniature fire in the case, with gases that expand and send it out of the chamber and off down the barrel. And this is the most remarkable thing of all. For the barrel down which the bullet must travel is, by a fraction, smaller than the bullet.” 

“But you said everything was measured to perfection.” 

“And so it is. Because inside that barrel is a series of three grooves, set out in a spiral down its length. The bullet, which is lead, and with the hellfire of that explosion behind it, is now both hot and soft. It’s forced into those spirals. They bite into it, so that as it makes its way down the barrel, it spins...” (Sedgwick 92 – 93). 

Revolver is a great book for middle school and high school boys. It’s a relatively easy read with page-turning interest and so it might hold the attention of a reluctant reader, if he can keep track of the flashbacks. Violence is more implied—such as a puddle of blood— than described outright. There are no romantic scenes, but there is an innuendo of intended rape (to Sig’s sister Anna): “Oh, I’m not going to kill you. Not yet. I want something for my trouble” (Sedgwick 181).

The book also presents a few interesting questions for discussion, such as in this passage: “Does God turn his eyes away when bad things happen? Or does he watch, wondering at how his creation unfolds? Does he shake his head in sorrow? Or does he smile?” (Sedgwick 180). For the expert plotting and great twists, I give the story five stars (out of five).

In addition to being a psychological mystery, it is also a morality tale, as Sig wrestles with the lessons of his father, a practical and shrewd man, and those of his mother, a pious, God-fearing woman. Sig is forced to choose between faith and functionality. And, here is where the story is fabulous. It ends on Sig’s brilliant epiphany: “You know, I understand it now. There’s always a third choice in life. Even if you think you’re stuck between two impossible choices, there’s always a third way. You just have to look for it” (Sedgwick 199). Good advice, indeed.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

*Contains affiliate links