Myth-O-Mania

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 11.12.10 AMWe can’t get enough Greek mythology in our house these days. Blaine has been studying Ancient Greece in school. Larrabee and I just finished Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief and we’re in the middle of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

At the same time, Larrabee is working his way through Kate McMullan‘s ten book Myth-O-Mania series. Blaine devoured these books too.

The Myth-O-Mania books retell the Greek myths from Hades’ perspective. According to Hades, the official versions of these stories were all written by his little brother Zeus, who is a myth-0-maniac (Ancient Greek for “big fat liar”). Hades sets the record straight in hilarious fashion.

I love books that take a familiar story and turn it on its head. For that reason, Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (told from the wolf’s point of view) is a favorite of mine. The second book in McMullan’s series, Phone Home, Persephone!, offers a similarly fractured take on the myth of Hades’ marriage to Persephone.

I also enjoy seeing Larrabee make the connection between characters (Cerberus, Medusa, the Minotaur) that he’s encountered in the classic D’Aulaires versions and in Riordan’s and McMullan’s reimagined versions of the Greek myths.

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50 Must-Read Books for Kids?

IMG_4784Common Sense Media recently published a list of 50 Books All Kids Should Read Before They’re 12.

I have a love-hate relationship with lists like this one. On one hand, I can’t resist them. I have to see whether my favorites made the cut. And I’m eager to find new recommendations too.

On the other hand, I always find something to criticize. A common problem with lists for kids is that they try to encompass books for all ages. For example, this list includes everything from Sherri Duskey Rinker’s Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site to Marie Lu’s Legend.

Lists for kids also tend to be overloaded with classics. For instance, I enjoyed L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (published in 1908) when I was younger, but I would not put it on my sons’ must-read list. The Cheese Touch has much more relevance to their lives—and I give Common Sense Media credit for also including Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (published in 2007).

Lists for kids also tend to favor the educational and inspiring over the humorous and fun. This list, though, seems to include a mix of both.

All in all, I wouldn’t use this list as a checklist, but it has some good suggestions.

Blaine has less than six months until his 12th birthday, and he’s only read half of these books. Maybe he’ll find a summer reading pick or two here. Or on TIME’s list of The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, NPR’s 100 Must-Reads for Kids 9-14, the New York Public Library’s 100 Great Children’s Books, or Time Out’s 73 Best Kids’ Books of All Time.

What do you think of these lists? Anything you would add? Or leave off?

Elephant & Piggie

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Larrabee met Piggie and Gerald on Saturday at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

I highly recommend the Elephant & Piggie books by author/illustrator Mo Willems. They are sweet yet silly, simple yet surprising.

My sister Kay introduced us to this series on Blaine’s third birthday back in 2007. And the twenty-fifth (!) and final book was published earlier this month.

The back cover copy on the Elephant & Piggie books says:

“Gerald is careful. Piggie is not.
Piggie cannot help smiling. Gerald can.
Gerald worries so that Piggie does not have to.
Gerald and Piggie are best friends.”

That sums up what’s so magical to me about these books. They model how to be a good friend to someone who’s different from you.

These books are great ones to read aloud with lots of expression because they are full of exclamation marks. (“AAAAAGGHH!!!”) They also make ideal early readers because they tell a big story with a small number of words. And finding the picture of the pigeon (from Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!) on the back endpapers adds to the fun.

All of the books in this series are worth reading, but I will single out a few:

  • I Will Surprise My Friend!
    This one is my personal favorite. The twist at the end makes me laugh every time. I also love the way this book illustrates how two people can react differently to the same situation.
  • Are You Ready to Play Outside?
    Blaine loved this one when he was younger. The illustrations are incredible. This book also contains a great message about looking on the bright side, so to speak.
  • We Are In a Book!
    This one appeals to Larrabee’s sense of humor. It breaks the fourth wall by having Gerald and Piggie recognize themselves as characters. It reminds of one of my childhood favorites, The Monster at the End of this Book, starring the lovable Grover from Sesame Street.
  • Can I Play Too?
    What do you do when you’re playing catch with your best friend and a snake asks to join your game? (Reminder: You catch with your hands. Snakes have no hands. You see the problem.) This book shows that sometimes you have to think outside the box if you want to include everyone.

I’d love to hear from you. What is your (or your child’s) favorite Elephant & Piggie book?

Why I (Still) Read to My Kids, Part 5

IMG_9549Why do I read aloud to my kids (now ages 11 and 7) when they can—and do—read to themselves?

Reason #4:  For The Cuddles

When I was a little girl, our neighbors had a Springer Spaniel named Candy. He started out as an adorable little black and white ball of fur and soon grew into a big, tall dog. He was as affectionate as ever, though. When my friends’ dad sat down on the porch to put on his running shoes, the dog used to try to climb into his arms. He used to laugh and say, “Candy still thinks he’s a lap dog.”

That story comes to mind as my long-limbed boys fold themselves into my chair and a half with me. They’re really too big to sit on my lap anymore. But they’re not too big to cuddle. That’s one of the nicest parts about reading aloud to them.

As they get older and busier with homework, sports, and other activities, it gets harder to find a time to read together, of course. But it’s worth it for me to have a book with each boy (and sometimes a third shared one too) in progress all the time. That way when we find a spare half hour before bed, on a school holiday, or on a lazy weekend afternoon, we can curl up and pick up where we left off.

How long will I keep reading aloud to them? As long as they let me.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 8.24.00 AMThe world does not need another review of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Since its publication in 1960, it has won the Pulitzer Prize, sold more than 40 million copies, and been reviewed many, many times.

So, this is not a book review. Instead, it’s a read-aloud recommendation. If you’re looking for a book that will spark conversation with your child, this is a good one.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird with my 6th grader this year. I wanted to re-read it before reading Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman. And I wanted to share it with him because it’s on every must-read list—from the Goodreads 100 Books You Should Read in a Lifetime to Powell’s 25 Books to Read Before You Die.

We thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always absorbing.

I was glad that we read it together because I could provide some historical context. The setting—1930s Alabama—is more than 80 years and 2,000 miles distant from his experience. He flinched at the book’s use of the n-word, taboo in his world. And he struggled to place the story in history. For example, Scout’s Cousin Ike Finch is a Civil War veteran; World War II hasn’t happened yet. And Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that he’s studied in school is 30 years in the future.

The book contains big topics, of course, such as racial prejudice, poverty, and rape. It also contains smaller topics equally worthy of discussion, such as Scout’s observations on her 1st grade education, her attempts at cussing (“pass the damn ham please”), and her resistance to her aunt’s efforts to feminize her.

Lee once said in an interview that she’d like to be the “Jane Austen of South Alabama.” Like Austen, she is a keen observer of people, their speech and their mannerisms, their strengths and their foibles. Her characters feel familiar and real.

I’m looking forward to a To Kill a Mockingbird family movie night!

Why I (Still) Read Aloud to My Kids, Part 4

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Why do I read aloud to my kids (now ages 11 and 7) when they can—and do—read to themselves?

Reason #3:  For The Conversations

Books make great conversation starters.

Some of these conversations are silly:

Others are more serious. For instance, all kids have had the experience of envying—and being envied by—a friend or sibling. But jealousy can be a more difficult emotion to name and understand than happiness, sadness, or anger. Situations in books can help prompt conversations. Here are a couple that come to mind:

Books can also provide teachable moments. For example, Greg Heffley, the protagonist of the hilarious Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney, often makes bad choices. Some people criticize the series for teaching bad lessons, but I think kids are perfectly able to judge for themselves, for instance, that it’s wrong for Greg to let his best friend take the blame for something he did wrong.

I love it when an episode in a book leads to an interesting conversation with one of my kids. I also treasure the little moments when something in real life reminds my kids of a book we read together.

The Lightning Thief

I had a hardcover copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire when I was growing up. I kept it on my bottom bookshelf and read it over and over. The illustrations inspired me to draw my own pictures of Zeus and Athena and Poseidon. By the time I first encountered the Greek myths in school, they were already old friends.

Imagine my excitement at rediscovering these old friends in a fresh, new set of stories by Rick Riordan. The premise of the fabulously fun Percy Jackson books is that the gods of Olympus still meddle in the lives of mortals. And their demigod children face dangers that no ordinary child can imagine. Percy, for example, defeats one of the Furies with a celestial bronze sword during a school field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Riordan has written two five-book series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Heroes of Olympus) plus several companion books and stories incorporating Greek mythology. All of the books are fast-paced and action-packed. They also include plenty of humor—starting with the funny chapter titles. The real charm of the series, though, is the way Riordan weaves mythological characters into a modern-day quest. For instance, Medusa appears as Aunty Em, the proprietor of a stone statuary shop in New Jersey. Percy and his companions lose five days in the Lotus Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. And they find the entrance to the Underworld in Los Angeles.

I read the first series, starting with The Lightning Thiefto Blaine back in 2010. It inspired his Camp Half-Blood 6th birthday party. (Note the Minotaur piñata, the Golden Fleece on the monkey bars, Grandma as the Oracle at Delphi, capture-the-flag with swords, and the slightly melted lightning bolt cake). Since then, we’ve enjoyed at least one new Riordan book each year as we worked our way through the Heroes of Olympus series, the Kane Chronicles (based on Egyptian mythology), and the first book in the new Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series (based on Norse mythology).

I just started reading The Lightning Thief to Larrabee last week. This series is on a very short list (so far including just the Harry Potter books and the Magic Treehouse books) that I’ve been willing to read a second time to my younger son.

I will caution you that these books are aimed at a middle grade audience and would not be a good choice for some younger kids. For one thing, Percy and his friends face mortal peril at every turn. For another thing, these books follow Percy from age twelve through his teenage years and so deal with topics, such as his first girlfriend, of more interest to older kids. If you’re hesitating to share the later Harry Potter books with your kids, you should wait on these books too.

That said, my kids and I love them. We’ve learned a lot about Greek mythology without even realizing it.

And for those of you who say, “Yeah, we know, we’ve read all these books too,” I have some good news. The Hidden Oracle, the first book in Riordan’s new Trials of Apollo series, was published yesterday! It’s on our virtual to-be-read pile.