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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Larger than Life Lara Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall

This isn’t about me. This story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least that’s what Mrs. Smith, our English teacher, says.

But the story is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class—Lara Phelps, whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. Laney is just relieved to have someone else as a target of bullying. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies . . . until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.

In a unique and multi-layered story, with equal parts humor and angst, Laney communicates the art of storytelling as it happens, with chapter headings, such as: Character, Setting, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax. And she weaves an unforgettable tale of a new girl who transforms an entire class and, in the process, reveals the best and worst in all of us.

My Review

Let me start by being totally upfront, this book is now required reading in my homeschool.  As a matter of fact, I am using it in a Creative Writing class that I teach in my local co-op as well.  It is THAT good!

Let me start with what I love.  Chapter titles like: Character, The Beginning, Villain, Setting, Dialogue, Conflict, Twist, Rising Action, Climax, and Resolution.  Not only is this a great, character building story, but it walks the reader through all of the key elements of a story and explains them from the point of view of a ten year old.  Not only that, it includes great examples of active learning as well.  For example, when Laney's teacher had them look up "suspense," she didn't understand the definition so she looked up the word "apprehension" that was in the definition, which made her look up another word until she finally understood the definition.  Way to go, Laney!

I like that this story addresses bullying without glossing it over.  Lara never makes a friend in this book.  Even Laney stays a few steps back, afraid of how others will react should she befriend Lara, despite the help Lara provides her in the story and Laney's growing respect for her.  Children this age can be very cruel and unthinking when a peer is different-especially different in a way that isn't socially acceptable.  Mackall makes sure that comes throughIt conjured up memories of my own childhood, and experiences my children shared with me during their elementary public school years.

There is a LOT of good in this story, but admittedly, there are things I did not like as well.  First was Lara's character.  This is a 300 pound 10 year old that somehow manages to keep a smile on her face and rather than respond in anger or display her hurt feelings when she is bullied or done wrong, she responds in verse.  Yep, poetry.  For example, when a boy in class passes a note to her comparing her to a pig (with the pig coming out the better of the two in his opinion), not only does Lara choose to keep the note from the teacher, who knows it is an unkind note, but she breaks out in verse.  
Hey, Joey Gilbert, thanks for the note.
In a class clown election, you'd get my vote.
I watched you pitch, and I think you're great.
But you'll get more power if you arm is straight.
I have a hard time imagining a 10 year old being mature enough to not only compose herself enough to thank someone for a cruel not, but to also offer constructive advice on his baseball pitching!  While I understand the purpose, teaching children to rise above bullying and be the better person, I just don't think it is realistic.

My final point contains a spoiler, so stop here if you are planning to read the book and hate spoilers.

The bullying gets so bad that Lara's parents decide to pull her out of school.  The class planned and/or participated in a horrible "joke" along the lines of Carrie without the blood.  And as bad as it was, Lara still refuses to name her tormentors.  On the day she arrives to collect her things, as she is leaving, the class children suddenly come to an epiphany that Lara is a wonderful person for covering for them and create rhyming signs to hold up as she drives away proclaiming their repentance.



And so on.  While it would be wonderful if a bully actually did repent of his/her misdeeds, this scene is so very unlikely.  Lara sees the signs, she smiles and drives off.  The End.  

And while I may not have liked the end, or how Lara was portrayed, it opens up a door for communication, provides an opportunity to talk about how to respond to bullying and whether bullies are still "good" people.  And that makes this a good book in my opinion.  And THAT is why it is now required reading in my house....

All the Pretty Things review

All the Pretty Things by Edie Wadsworth

For a long time, Edie thought she had escaped. It started in an Appalachian trailer park, where a young girl dreamed of becoming a doctor. But every day, Edie woke up to her reality: a poverty-stricken world where getting out seemed impossible. Where, at twelve years old, she taught herself to drive a truck so she could get her drunk daddy home from the bar. Where the grownups ate while the children went hungry. Where, when the family trailer burned down, she couldn’t be caught squawlin’ over losing her things—she just had to be grateful anyone had remembered to save her at all.

And at the center of it all, there was her daddy. She never knew when he would show up; she learned the hard way that she couldn’t count on him to protect her. But it didn’t matter: All she wanted was to make him proud. Against all odds, Edie “made doctor,” achieving everything that had once seemed beyond her reach. But her past caught up with her—and it would take her whole life burning down once again for Edie to be finally able to face the truth about herself, her family, and her relationship with God.

My Review:

Every little girl longs for her Daddy's love.  The girl from the broken home.  The girl with a broken father.  And Edie was no exception.  And while this story doesn't focus entirely on her desire to feel loved by her father, it is there and it will resonate within the reader.

While I didn't do most of my growing up years in Appalachia, I have been in the region since I was 12 (no, I won't tell you how long "since" has been!) and Wadsworth does a wonderful job of capturing what rural, poor Appalachia looks like,
The guardrails provided somewhat of a barrier and peace of mind from the hundred-foot drop-off to the valley below-the valley that had become a dumping ground for everything from empty milk cartons to beer cans to old worn-out couches, and even the ocassional rusted-out car. The switchbacks were so narrow that if another car approached, you either had to hug the embankment to the right and pray you didn't puncture your tires from broken glass or hope one of you would be able to back up to where the road widened enough for both vehicles.
Wadsworth does a wonderful job of capturing the angst and longing of growing up in this environment.  This story has it all: a struggle to overcome the past, a desire to achieve more, success, failures, trials, hurt, angst, and self-realization.

As with many Appalachian families, faith is interwoven throughout the story.  For me this was the most "true" aspect.  Wadsworth doesn't gloss over her trials.  She doesn't spout off easy cliches about how she always knew God was going to make everything better. Instead she shares her doubts, her uncertainties about her salvation and her walk, and her journey to coming to really know her Creator.

So I will close my review with Edie's own words after her realization that so much of life is out of our control:
Whether we work or don't, whether we homeschool or not, whether we've had nurturing marriages or not, we walk in humility-knowing that we are dependent on God to use mostly our failures to teach us something of what it means to be a parent, to be a human being.
After all, isn't that truly what life is about, recognizing that God is in control?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Open Review

OpenOpen by David Gregory

Description from publisher:
 It wasn’t the end of the world. It was just the end of Emma Jameson’s world. Fresh off the heels of a devastating breakup and floundering in her career, Emma is struggling to come to grips with why God allows so much pain in our lives, why He seems so absent when she needs Him most, and why the Gospel accounts—our supposed guide for how to lead a contented Christian life—feel so completely irrelevant.

Then one day, a mysterious envelope arrives in Emma’s mailbox with the word Open written on the outside. Inside the envelope is a card bearing the following message: “For a real adventure with Jesus, go through the nearest open door.”

Skeptical, but having absolutely nothing to lose, Emma steps through the pantry door, only to find herself instantly transported back to the first century, where she is taken on a personal tour of various Gospel accounts by none other than Jesus himself—an experience that radically challenges Emma’s perception of the Gospels and what it really means to be a Christian.

My Review:

Another simple and yet very meaningful story from Gregory.  Once again he manages to share a side of Jesus with us in a way that enables us to connect and really get it in about 150 pages, making this a book that can easily be read in a day.  The language is easy to understand.  Gregory helps us to see the stories of Jesus life in a way that we can apply to our own life.

Emma is the girl that struggles with her faith.  She knows that Jesus is supposed to satisfy her, who goes to church, participates in groups, listens to Christian music, and does all the "right" things.  And yet, she doesn't feel like she is "getting anything at all from the Bible....none (of the stories) has anything to do with what I'm dealing with right now....reading stories...that (she'd) read a thousand times didn't provide the answers (she) needed.  Jesus wasn't enough."  She had begun to doubt her faith and then a mysterious letter arrived that would help her to connect with Jesus in a whole new way.

Together Emma and Jesus walk through several key events to help Emma see that faith isn't about religion, but about a person...and when we surrender completely to Him, our whole life changes.

I loved this book so much that I passed it on to a friend who was struggling with similar faith issues.  Like Gregory's other books, this is a great way to open a door for discussion and dialogue on topics that we tend to hide from our brothers in sister in Christ so that we can appear to be good Christians. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Running on Red Dog Road

Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian ChildhoodRunning on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood by Drema Hall Berkheimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gypsies, faith-healers, moonshiners, and snake handlers weave through Drema’s childhood in 1940s Appalachia after Drema’s father is killed in the coal mines, her mother goes off to work as a Rosie the Riveter, and she is left in the care of devout Pentecostal grandparents. What follows is a spitfire of a memoir that reads like a novel with intrigue, sweeping emotion, and indisputable charm. Drema’s coming of age is colored by tent revivals with Grandpa, jitterbug lessons, and traveling carnivals, and though it all, she serves witness to a multi-generational family of saints and sinners whose lives defy the stereotypes. Just as she defies her own.


Running on Red Dog Road and an interesting first hand account of life in Appalachia (specifically West Virginia). We are transported back in time to the 40's and 50's when coal was still the primary source of energy, the war separated families, and (as is still the case in many Appalachian families today) grandparents raised the grandchildren.

Berkheimer walks us through her past is a personal and real way. She brings to life the truth of her grandfather's teaching that, "the places and people we come from sear into our very being and follow us all the days of our lives". Written in a simple, conversational manner you can't help but fall in love with the story. And for those of us who grew up in Appalachia, it is nice to see a story come out that highlights the beauty of that life.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A moment of weakness review

A Moment of Weakness (Forever Faithful, #2)A Moment of Weakness by Karen Kingsbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jade and Tanner could love be any sweeter "that" summer? And yet misunderstanding and misinformation leads to heartache. Jade finds herself wed to another, a man less than ideal. And yet......all hope is not lost when divorce and a nasty child custody case bring Jade and Tanner together again.

I appreciate that Kingsbury addresses real life, less than perfect issues. Even the "best" Christian makes bad choices in their life. It is how you respond to those choices that matter. I especially loved the prayer life/God conversations each had with God. Kingsbury does a good job of showing different views of what that can look like. And Tanner's acceptance of God's gift, all I can say is make sure you have a box of tissues!

While the story is predictable, and you probably already know how the story is going to end, it is an enjoyable pleasure read with a good moral compass. After all, isn't that what Kingsbury does?

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I am N review

I Am N description:

Yousef, whose mother threatened to kill him for having a Bible, now smuggles Bibles the way his family once smuggled drugs.
After Parveen’s employer beats her for attending church, Parveen begins to help other young Christian women who work in Muslim houses.
Abdulmasi kills hundreds of Christians in northern Nigeria with no remorse—until the day he chooses a new life of faith and sacrifices everything for a God of love.

What can we learn from these faith-filled brothers and sisters around the world? How can we pray for them? And what do their remarkable stories teach us about a God whose light shines in a dark world?

I-Am-N reminds us that we are each “N”—as radical Muslims in Iraq identify followers of Jesus the Nazarene. Wherever we live, we have camaraderie with those who are persecuted. So come meet their families. Read their stories. Deepen your faith in a God who gives us the courage to shine in a dark and hurting world.

My review:
 You almost can't turn on the news without hearing about ISIS or troubles in the Middle East.  In I Am N, The Voice of the Martyrs strives to move the story from sensational headlines to personal connections.  Each of the 17 stories are real.  Some end horribly in martyrdom.  Others end with new Christians reaching out to others in their community sharing the truth of Jesus despite the personal risks.  All will bring home the reality of what it truly is to abandon self and whole-heartedly serve God.

My church had already committed to praying for the Christians facing Islamic extremists several months ago.  You will see many of us wearing orange (because of the jumpsuits the prisoners are often wearing when shown on the news) bracelets with Hebrews 13:3 on them as reminders of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are living it first hand.  This book has helped to guide how I pray for these people. 

The only negative (besides the obvious need to write such a book) is that the writing seems very impersonal and almost cold.  Not that I think the authors don't hurt for those they write about, but as if they have distanced themselves from the horror.  The stories present the facts with little emotion.

As an effort to share the stories of those who are N, Voice of the Martyrs has truly succeeded.  I dare say you will be changed after reading this and will no longer be able to read the headlines or watch the news without realizing that every person being terrorized by ISIS has a story, has a family that loves them, has a desire to live....and yet their faith in Jesus love is such that they refuse to turn their back on Him.  I never thought I would see persecution like in the days of Nero.....yet here we are......

Looking for Home review

Looking for Home Description:

 With his mother dead, his father gone, and his older brothers and sisters unable to help, eight-year-old Ethan Cooper knows it’s his responsibility to keep him and his younger siblings together—even if that means going to an orphanage.

Ethan, Alice, Simon, and Will settle into the Briarlane Christian Children’s Home, where there’s plenty to eat, plenty of work, and plenty of talk about a Father who never leaves. Even so, Ethan fears losing the only family he has. How can he trust God to keep him safe when almost everything he’s known has disappeared?

The first book in the Beyond the Orphan Train series, Looking for Home takes us back to 1907 Pennsylvania and into the real-life adventures of four children in search of a true home.

My Review:
When I was given the opportunity to review this book I was a bit confused.  I had never heard of the orphan trains.  Apparently (according to Wikipedia anyways)
The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.
In this series Richardson bases the main characters on the lives of 4 orphans and their experiences.  While names have been changed the events are as close to accurate as the memories of those the characters have been modeled after.

That being said, I think this would be a great way to introduce younger children to this time in history.  The main character, Ethan, is 8 years old in 1907 when this story begins.  He is the oldest of the children being sent to the orphanage with his 3 younger siblings and is tasked with looking out after them.  His older siblings had obtained work and thus were able to support themselves, but unable to support their younger siblings.  Ma has passed on and Pa is out "working on a boat" but we are led to believe that he has abandoned the family. 

As the first in the series this 12 chapter, 170 page book covers the children's trip to the local orphanage and their first year there.  It is written in such a way that an elementary age child would easily be able not only read the book but connect with the characters.  I believe this would also be a wonderful read aloud for lower elementary students as well.  And if you are a lover of living books, this would be right up your alley. 

Look for reviews of the next 3 books to come soon!