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

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review and Giveaway: As One Devil to Another

As One Devil to Another is an astonishing debut work that C. S. Lewis’s biographer and foremost Lewis authority Walter Hooper calls “a stunning achievement, the finest example of the genre of diabolical correspondence to appear since this genre was popularized by C. S. Lewis.” Enter into this chilling and diabolical tale, one that reveals the very tricks and strategies of Hell. 
Through a series of letters between devils created by Platt, senior devil Slashreap trains his young protégé, Scardagger, to win an individual soul away from Heaven and into their clutches. As the devils plot their way to triumph, they reveal the spiritual dangers and risks we face in today’s society. Their frighteningly accurate perspective on issues such as contemporary technology and sexual mores is interwoven with timeless matters such as the power of prayer, the purpose of suffering, and the promises held out by Heaven . . . and Hell.(publisher's book description)
Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis has been on my to-read list for many years.  In fact, the very book has been sitting in my nightstand drawer for about a year.  So, when I had the opportunity to review Richard Platt's As One Devil to Another, written in the style of C.S. Lewis, my interest was piqued.

I actually started reading Screwtape Letters in anticipation of the arrival of Platt's book.  I wanted to have an idea of the comparison of the two.  Part of my concern is that Platt's book would seem unoriginal and too much copy of Lewis' unique style in Screwtape Letters to the point of annoyance.  I needn't have worried.

I found the tale woven among the letters between senior devil Slashread and student Scardagger thought-provoking and interesting.  I enjoyed the little nods to C.S. Lewis or the original Screwtape Letters.  For example, Slashread is Screwtape's brother.  Slashread warns Scardagger that the "client's" aunt has titles by "a pestilential writer named Lewis" and later references a lion and children (from the popular Naria Series, for those unfamiliar).

The "fiendish correspondence" gives the read a glimpse into all the tricks and strategies of Hell in order to turn one away from the "Adversary" (Slashread's address of God) all with a modern twist of issues of today.  Political correctness, homosexuality, reality TV, the sexual revolution, and the Internet are all topics addressed.  Also addressed are those issues and questions with which humanity has always struggled: competition, sufferance, pride, humility, good works, and more.

While there was at least once I questioned some theology as presented, overall I found it was good read.  At just under 200 pages, it won't bog you down, but it also has enough meat to it to make you think. I'll likely require my high school student to read this title, after reading Screwtape Letters first, especially since the "client" is a young woman at the university pursuing an English degree, an area of interest for my daughter.

Giveaway! (Closed)
Congrats to commenter #5, Julieanne!

I have one certificate for a copy of As One Devil to Another to giveaway to one lucky U.S. reader. See below for how you can enter.  Please make sure to leave your contact info in each comment.

Mandatory entry:
  • Do you have a favorite C.S. Lewis book?
For additional entries (leave a comment for each):
  • Follow this blog through Google Friend Connect
  • Subscribe to this blog (rss or email)
  • Like Chatter, Clatter, and Things That Matter on Facebook.
  • Follow Chatter and Clatter on Twitter
  • Leave a comment on another post on this blog. Let me know which post.
  • Post about this giveaway on your own blog, Facebook, Twitter, or others (please specify in your comment).  This will count for two entries for each! Make sure you leave two comments.
The giveaway will end on May 25th at 6 p.m. EST and will be chosen by a random number generator. 
Disclaimer/Disclosure of Material Connection: I received the book mentioned above for free from Tyndale Publishers in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. 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, May 8, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Books with Gentle Themes for Advanced Readers

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
This week, I wanted to do something a little different with my book reviews. Usually, I review one or two books or a series. Today, I am responding to a friend of mine who has asked that I “just make a list” to make it easier for her to order good books. Thus, I will be “making a list” periodically, instead of reviewing one book in depth.

This week’s list is for advanced elementary school readers who are not quite ready for more “mature” themes, like death, disease, war, etc., such as students in second grade who are reading at a fifth grade level. The vocabulary in these books is more challenging, but they have either gentle stories, such as farm or prairie tales, or serious historical stories addressed with a light touch.

The Freddy series by Walter R. Brooks
Freddy the Detective, Freddy Goes to Florida, Freddy and the Bean Home News, Freddy the Cowboy.... My children loved these. We have them both in book form and on tape. My early-advanced reader could read them in 3rd grade and my struggling reader listened to them on tape for hours. Originally published in 1927, these books have solid themes such as friendship, loyalty, and honesty. The pen and ink drawings are simple and the vocabulary is challenging, reminiscent of a time when children’s books were not “watered down” for sound-byte attention spans: “They were getting much too bold, and some of their exploits were decidedly foolhardy” (Brooks Cowboy 135). Freddy the Pig always gets his man.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muňoz Ryan

I reviewed this in depth here:

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Esperanza Rising
All-Of-A-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor 
My daughter adored these stories of a Jewish family at the turn of the 19th century in New York City. The vocabulary includes Yiddish words (with explanations through context), but the situations the family faces are commonplace and gentle: childhood illnesses, chores, lost library books, and stolen candy. The family faces every obstacle with grace and compassion.

The Borrowers series by Mary Norton

You may have seen the movie based on this series, but the book is always better. Arrietty is a little person who lives beneath the floor with her mother and father and who “borrow” what the big “human beans” carelessly discard. This series is full of suspenseful tales of dodging cats, birds, and human boys with pet ferrets. Norton was an English writer, so the vocabulary is decidedly British, such as “hat pins” and “blotting paper.”

The Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynne Reid Banks
While one would think boys would be especially drawn to this tale of a boy whose plastic Indian and cowboy come to life, my daughter loved them, too. These books address every child’s belief that his toys are alive when he is not present. The stories discuss friendship and the responsibilities of caring for another.

Little Britches series by Ralph Moody
A story of an eleven-year-old boy on the American West who must support his family after his father dies of Tuberculosis. Filled with tales of breaking colts and selling baked goods door to door, my son loved these novels. The vocabulary is sometimes challenging because Moody describes processes most people no longer do and words for farm equipment we no longer have, such as “hackamore rope” and “lariat,” but the meaning is fairly clear from context.

R My Name is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff
A detailed review can be found here:

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: R My Name is Rachel

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.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Guiding Your Gifted Reader

Are you looking for strategies to keep your advanced reader happily engrossed in reading material this summer?  Check out my column today at Homeschool Mosaics.

Also, this week's Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks column here at Chatter, Clatter, and Things that Matter will offer up book series suggestions for young advanced readers.  Stop in tomorrow to check it out.

Next month at Homeschool Mosaics I plan to talk about how to encourage your bright but struggling reader. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bread Machine Fail

It was still surprisingly light and yummy!
For more Wordless Wednesday pictures, click here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Year We Were Famous

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
Have you ever considered walking across the United States? It sounds like an impossible feat, right? Well, mother and daughter, Helga and Clara Estby, did it in seven months in 1896 to win $10,000 from a book publisher in an attempt to save their farm in Washington state. The resulting book, written 115 years later by the great-grand-daughter and great-grand-niece, is The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg ($12.74; Clarion Books; April 4, 2011). The book details their adventures through lava fields, over mountain ranges, in flash floods, and blizzards, with highwaymen and American Indians.

Sadly, The Year We Were Famous starts slowly, so slowly, in fact, that I almost didn’t keep reading until I got to the “good part.” The beginning is a dull portrait of a dysfunctional family, and the action does not pick up until page 70. The book would have benefitted from starting in a different point, introducing the reader to Clara and getting the reader to love her before introducing the unlikeable mother. After the beginning, there is a good deal of drama and excitement to keep the reader engaged. Thus, if you can persevere through the preparations and the packing chapters, the remainder of the novel is entertaining.

Each chapter is headed by the date in 1896, the number of days on the journey, and the location, such as “August 16, 1896; Day 103; Laramie, Wyoming,” which makes it easy to follow. The front and back cover have a map of the women’s route, which is very useful. Clara is a practical narrator who is at a crossroads in her life, wondering if she should marry the boy next door, marry the young newspaper reporter she just met, or go on to college alone. The biggest source of conflict, though, is her relationship with her mother. Thus, girls who have a contentious or sometimes-strained relationship with their mothers may enjoy this book. For instance:
Ma thrived on attention, being different, marching with the suffragists, tromping clear across the country, and getting her picture in the New York World. I would do anything to avoid attention. Her notions had her blooming fiery orange like her Austrian Copper rose, then going dormant as a stick. I was more like a pine tree, never blooming—just a steady, predictable green (Dagg 124).
Or, this:
“If you wanted to talk, you should have taken Ida,” I said, reaching over my shoulder to peel my sweaty shirtwaist from my back.

“Ida wouldn’t have lasted an hour in this heat,” Ma said. “At least you’re still here.”
Ja, well,” I answered, surprised by the compliment. “I suppose my doggedness is just another way I’m like Pa.”

Ja, well. You might recall that your Pa didn’t want us to take this trip. Yet here you are, with me.” Ma unbuttoned the first three buttons on her shirtwaist and picked up her bag, ready to walk again. “You might just be more like me than you think.”

Heaven forbid, I thought (Dagg 87). 

This conversation between mother and daughter is representative of the relationship between many mothers and daughters, the desire to be different and the recognition of similarities. Spoiler alert! [Skip the rest of this paragraph if you do not want to be told some important plot twists.] However, what the reader does not see at this time is the foreshadowing that is not so representative of most mother-daughter unions and unexpected in a sweet prairie story—Clara is not her Pa’s daughter at all, but the daughter of Helga’s former beau. Moreover, Clara is not even the age she thinks. She is 19, not 18, as she believes. While this is not such a scandalous situation in a tale for older teens, it is likely inappropriate for readers under twelve years old. This is unfortunate because the yellow, old-fashioned cover and the story overall is really better suited to younger readers than older ones.

There is one point in the book which presents a thought-provoking argument:
“At least one of us has to make it to New York, so men can’t say women are too frail for such a venture, or quit too easily. I have no patience for people who accept whatever life gives them without a fight,” she said. “‘God’s will,’ they say. Well, I say ‘With God, all things are possible.’ The worst is behind us. Once we get to the plains, it’s just a flat walk to the field in New York” (Dagg 141).
Should a person accept what happens in his life as God’s will? Or should he try to do the “impossible” with God’s help? It’s an intriguing question. Other than this and the previous paragraph’s issue, though, the book is simply an entertaining tale, with not much fodder for discussion. Therefore, it isn’t a good choice for a book club.

Overall, it is an entertaining book, with historical value, some good writing, and some exciting parts, but it lacks pacing and consistency. Also, honestly, reading the “Author’s Note” and discovering what happened to the real Clara Estby, sort of ruined the story for me.

My other problem with the book is the mixed audience to whom it is writing. Initially, the story seems to appeal to nine- to twelve-year-olds, but the mature topics are really more suitable for readers over twelve. The Year We Were Famous is well-suited to older readers who enjoy prairie and farm tales and who prefer controversial topics with a soft edge. It would also be a good complement to a study of President McKinley or women’s suffrage rights because a good chunk of the book dwells on this. (If you have a struggling or dyslexic reader, you may want to avoid this book because of the varying fonts. Clara writes and receives letters which are signified by italics and other fonts, which may be difficult for some.)

While I liked the story once I “got into it,” I give it three stars (out of five) because it starts slowly, has some rough edges, and the modern issues it addresses (such as bipolar disorder and race relations between the whites and the American Indians) starkly contrasts with its quaint cover and 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.