Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley – An Upper Grade Read-Along for Worthington Hills Elementary

Recently, it was brought to my attention that many of the publishers have changed their ‘read-along’ rules to allow educators to read aloud online from their books during ‘shelter in place’ as long as the videos are posted as unlisted on YouTube. My son’s school has been doing an amazing job providing lots of content (morning announcements, read-alongs, creativity challenges) presented by staff and students for the school population to watch while they can’t be in school. Most of the read-alongs have been picture books for younger kids so I decided to contribute by embarking on a read-along of a chapter book for older students. Spencer and I are currently reading Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley and loving it so I decided to head back to the beginning and record a one chapter read-along every day to share with the school. Our school principal is posting my read-alongs to the school’s Facebook page every day at 2 pm but I’ve heard that some folks are having trouble finding the ‘episodes’ in order. For that reason, I decided to create a page here, on my blog, where you can see all of the episodes, chronologically, as they are published! If you or your children are interested in hearing Tumble and Blue (and really…it’s a GREAT read!) please start with Chapter 1 below and join us! I’ll try to keep this page updated daily with the new links!

April 9th, 2020: Introduction

April 10th, 2020: Chapter 1 – Blue

April 11th, 2020: Chapter 2 – More Trouble

April 12th, 2020: Chapter 3 – Ma Myrtle

April 13th, 2020: Chapter 4 – Welcome to the Attic

April 14th, 2020 Chapter 5 – Boxes

April 15th, 2020 Chapter 6 – Tumble

April 16th, 2020 Chapter 7 – How to Hero Every Day

April 17th, 2020 Chapter 8 – Twelve X’s

April 18th, 2020 Chapter 9 – Starter Names

April 20th, 2020 Chapter 10 – Normal People

April 21st, 2020 Chapter 11 – Friends in High Places

April 22nd, 2020 Chapter 12 – A Heroic Plan of Action

April 23rd, 2020 Chapter 13 – A Wink and a Nod

April 24th, 2020 Chapter 14 – A Tarnished Cent

April 25th, 2020 Chapter 15 – Reckless

April 26th, 2020 Chapter 16 – The Race

April 27th, 2020 Chapter 17 – Beast

April 28th, 2020 Chapter 18 – The RV King

April 29th, 2020 Chapter 19 – The Flats

April 30th, 2020 Chapter 20 – The Other Half

May 1st, 2020 Interlude and Chapter 21 – Fate Free

May 2nd, 2020 Chapter 22 – Opposites

May 3rd, 2020 Chapter 23 – Flat as a Flitter

May 4th, 2020 Chapter 24 – The Grand Revue

May 5th, 2020 Chapter 25 – Waiting

May 6th, 2020 Chapter 26 – A Knack for Trouble

May 7th, 2020 Chapter 27 – Munchgomery

May 8th, 2020 Chapter 28 – The Only Difference

May 10th, 2020 Chapter 29 – Just One Gerbil at at Time

May 11th, 2020 Chapter 30 – The Stapler

May 12th, 2020 Chapter 31 – The Ultimatum

May 13th, 2020 Chapter 32 – No Place for Winners

May 14th, 2020 Chapter 33 – The Damsel

May 15th, 2020 Chapter 34 – Gardening

May 16th, 2020 Chapter 35 – A Real Hero

May 17th, 2020 Chapter 36 – Trying is the Trick

May 18th, 2020 Chapter 37 – Starlets

May 21st, 2020 Chapter 38 – Maximal Star

May 22nd, 2020 Chapter 29 – Happy Ending

May 23rd, 2020 Interlude and Chapter 40 – Impossible Moon

May 24th, 2020 Chapter 41 – Thieves

May 25th, 2020 Chapter 42 – Splash

May 26th, 2020 Chapter 43 – Survival Priorities

May 27th, 2020 Chapter 44 – Upside Down

May 28th, 2020 Chapter 45 – Underwater

May 29th, 2020 Chapter 46 – Meeting

Book Review: Don’t Overthink It! (And my weekend adventure to Louisville, KY as a launch team member!)

It’s been quite awhile since I fired up the old blog but it’s been on my mind lately and the release of Anne Bogel’s newest book, Don’t Overthink It, seems like just the push I needed! I’m still reading as much as I ever have and we still, of course, deal with PANDAS in our life regularly.  But, starting this past July, I began teaching English to Chinese students online through VIPKid and (while I love it) it’s consumed a huge chunk of my blog-writing time!  I’ll be sure to do a post soon about online English teaching but, for now, I’d like to begin reinvigorating the blog with a post about what I’ve been reading and doing most recently!

As many of you know, I’ve been a Modern Mrs. Darcy/What Should I Read Next/Anne Bogel fan for years!  I love Anne’s blog, her previous books and her podcast!  In fact, you might remember, I was given the privilege of being a guest on her podcast in November, 2017 where we talked about Middle Grade titles and she recommended books for my son and I to read together!  Time has done nothing to dull my enthusiasm for Anne’s work so, when given the opportunity to participate in the launch team for her newest book, I jumped at the chance!

What’s a launch team, you ask? Well…it’s a group of people who get early access to a book in exchange for reading it and promoting it among their social circles (IRL or online!) We were provided with an early digital copy of the book to read and, if we also pre-ordered the book (a big metric for authors who are trying to get their books printed and available in as many locations as possible!) we were able to access the companion course and audiobook version for free as well. Finally, as a last minute surprise, we were all invited to come to Anne’s home this past weekend for a nominal fee to celebrate the book launch with her! As someone who loves to read, and would definitely have read and promoted the book anyway, I thought it was all great fun!

I have to be honest though…I went into reading the book with a strong bias toward it ‘not being for me.’ I’m a very decisive (some say spontaneous…others say reckless!) person and I considered ‘overthinking’ to be the curse of the ambivalent and equivocal. I was really only reading the book because Anne wrote it!

Well…let me just say: I was wrong. No, I’m not secretly a waffler but I definitely had a very limited impression of what overthinking encompasses and the impact that it can have on my productivity, peace of mind and joy! I don’t want to give away the good stuff…because the book is definitely worth reading for yourself…but let it suffice to say that Anne’s book made me aware of how much control the auto-loop that constantly runs in the back of my mind has on my day-to-day serenity! And my perfectionism…it’s just overthinking in disguise! Bonus points…the book provided great insight into both topics (and more) and helped me better understand the changes I can make to improve my thoughts and my quality of life.

Anne is a very kind, thoughtful and well-spoken woman and her book comes off in very much the same way. Apparently, she is what’s known in the publishing industry as a ‘relatable expert’ and that makes a lot of sense to me. When reading Don’t Overthink It, I felt like I was talking to a friend who has struggled with her own thoughts and was sharing with me what worked for her. I didn’t have to wade through a lot of brain science and big words to be able to identify myself in many of Anne’s stories. And, I didn’t feel like I was reading a college textbook when I learned about what worked for Anne in addressing the issue!

The book is broken down into three sections: Section 1 focuses on laying the foundation for success while Section 2 highlights how to stop the negative patterns that are causing you trouble. Section 3 wraps up by discussing the positive habits that you can employ to use your thoughts to your greatest advantage. Each section contains great anecdotes that helped me relate the topics to my own experience as well as solid advice. Each chapter is followed by a short list of questions that helped me figure out how to best take action on the advice that that chapter provided.

Don’t Overthink It is an easy read that packs a major punch. I found myself highlighting, underlining and writing questions in the margins of the book. Having finished it a couple of weeks back, it’s one of those books that I’ve thought about regularly since reading the last page.

That being said, I can’t complete a post about Don’t Overthink It without also talking about my trip to Louisville this weekend. 3.5 hours from my house, I drove down Saturday afternoon and spent a couple of nights in a local AirBnB in order to be available to visit with Anne and her like-minded readers on Sunday.

I’ve always relished my alone time and loved to travel so two nights away from home to just read, knit and visit with folks like me was a dream come true. Saturday, I visited Anne’s local independent bookstore, Carmichael’s, took myself out for dinner and generally just relaxed and enjoyed some peace and quiet! Sunday, I headed out for brunch, took a nap, did some reading and knitting and then headed to Anne’s home.

While there, I met some wonderful women who, like me, love reading and really admire Anne’s work! We ate, chatted, listened to Anne give us some insight into the book’s history and process and took tons of selfies and pictures in Anne’s amazing home library!

The book is great…so helpful! Anne is wonderful and her readers are an incredible group of women that I am lucky to have met. The launch team experience is something I would do again in a heartbeat! And, my trip was relaxing and fortifying in all the right ways! It was just the right adventure for practicing the art of Not Overthinking It!

To get your copy of Anne Bogel’s latest book, Don’t Overthink It, click here.

Join us TONIGHT at 8pm EDT! Mama Panda’s Virtual Book Club to discuss All Of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil!

Use the Google Calendar link below to sign up for the discussion and add it to your calendar! We will meet via Google Hangouts.

We will have special input from Michelle Ruiz Keil, the author! Meeting shoud last about 1 hour!

Click here to register: Registration

To enter the Hangout when the meeting begins, please click on the Google calendar entry on your calendar and then click ‘Join Hangouts.’

Can’t wait to see you there!

Two Book Reviews! The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – 4.5 stars!

Let me start off by saying that my experience has been that it’s fairly rare to find a book and its sequel that are equally well written and compelling. However, I’m happy to say that The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley are solid exceptions to the rule!

This is another set of books that my 11 year-old son and I read together…though he was 9 when we started. We finished Saved My Life in 2017 before the sequel was released and then got caught up in all the other books we wanted to read and didn’t get to Finally Won until earlier this year (although it was published in late 2017.) I was interested to see that the two books have almost exactly the same star rating (about 4.5) on Goodreads as that is pretty much exactly how we found them: both very good and worthy of an equally high rating!

Both books revolve around the life of Ada and her brother Jamie. Ada is definitely the protagonist and when we are first introduced to her we find her suffering the effects of a clubfoot and being mistreated and locked in a one-room flat (and sometimes even locked in the cupboard in that flat) by her mother. Ada’s only view of the world is what she can see from the her one window to the street…she has never been outside and has no friends or companions aside from her brother. She is repeatedly beaten, told that she is dumb and made to feel that she is defective due to her disability.

As circumstances would have it, when bombing begins in London, she and Jamie have the opportunity to be sent to the English countryside as evacuees. Under some duress, Ada’s mother allows them both to go and, although Ada struggles to make the trip, she succeeds in doing so and is taken in by a local woman named Susan Smith.

Susan has recently dealt with some tragedy in her own life and is living alone in a big house with plenty of room and resources for the children. While her recent loss and the ensuing depression make Susan reticent to take in the children, she does so at the encouragement of the local Woment’s Volunteer Association. Although Ada is deeply scarred by her life experiences to date and makes it difficult to get close to her, Susan comes to love Ada and Jamie and begins to teach them what a ‘normal’ life could look like for them. While the events of the war seem to have improved Ada’s lot in life considerably (getting her away from her mother and allowing her to experience Susan’s care and the world around her) it seems inevitable that, as the war progresses, she will be forced to return to the circumstances from whence she came. Having witnessed Ada’s development as she tastes some love and freedom, it’s hard for the reader to imagine how she might cope with returning to her flat and her mother’s mistreatment.

I won’t spoil the events leading up to the books outcome for you, but suffice it to say that, somehow, Ada and Jamie are permitted to remain with Susan. As the book’s title implies, while World War II rages around them in England and takes countless lives from amongst the English and others, it is that same war that ultimately saves Ada’s life and frees her from her mother’s control.

This story is a delight to read: the characters that Brubaker Bradley draws in Saved My Life are rich and nuanced. She clearly depicts Ada as the survivor of abuse and allows the reader to see the damage that such treatment has caused to Ada’s psyche and confidence. Her gentle treatment of Ada’s (and Susan’s) struggles with PTSD and depression are admirable and touching…you can watch compassionately as both women struggle to overcome battles in their own minds.

There are other minor story threads that flow through the book as well. We are introduced to the wealthy neighbors, Lord and Lady Thornton and their children Maggie and Johnathan and get to experience how the war impacted those of greater means. There’s also the story of how Susan came to be living alone in her big house with no family…it’s a nuanced topic that some young readers may not pick up on but, I must admit, to my surprise, my 9 year old son ‘got it’ immediately. I was impressed with Brubaker Bradley’s willingness to take on a topic that would have been incredibly controversial at the time (still is, in some ways) and weave it into the story in a sensitive and natural way.

Ok…if you’ve only read Saved My Life and don’t want to know anything about Finally Won before you pick it up…stop reading now! You can get your copy knowing that it’s just as satisfying a read as Saved My Life and come back here to read my thoughts when you’ve finished!

So my thoughts on the second book: equally rich, equally compelling. The War I Finally Won takes up Ada’s story from the time when she came to live permanently with Susan. Ada, Susan and Jamie have changed residences (for reasons that will become apparent when you read Saved My Life) and are now living with Lady Thornton (and Maggie when she is home from boarding school.) Susan has paid for foot surgery for Ada and the family is dealing with the war that is raging on their doorstep. Food rations, potato picking, fire watches and the like are all part of their daily lives as they try to survive in a world that is being torn apart by World War II.

Three major developments take place in this book: 1) A young German refugee named Ruth comes to live with Ada, Susan, Jamie and Lady Thornton, 2) A tragedy befalls the family as part of the war and 3) Susan becomes very ill and requires hospitalization. Throughout the book, the reader sees these three events folded together to bring the book to its eventual close…how they deal with Ruth, face their tragedy and learn about the depth of their love for one another in the face of Susan’s illness are the major themes that frame the second book overall.

Readers get to spend more time with Lady Thornton and her family members in this sequel and will get to know Ruth (and see the impact of the war on Germans who did not follow Hitler.) We also learn about suffering and strength and what it can do to people’s characters. Finally, we get to see Ada come to terms with her history and understand that she is lovable and that her mother’s assertions about her defectiveness were nothing more than the ravings of a women who was inherently ‘broken’ herself.

Jamie continues to provide comic relief in this second book and Ada continues to establish herself as a fighter…she faces adversity and her own fear with courage and aplomb. Perhaps most heartwarming within this second book is Susan’s story: we finally learn more about her past and come to understand her depression, her strength and her willingness and ability to love Ada and Jamie through their struggles. The combination of Ada’s and Susan’s characters, is, to my mind, one of the best pairings I have encountered in a book in a long time. They will tear at your heartstrings, have you in tears and leave you with warm laughter.

I can’t recommend these two books enough…they read like older books of the same style (think Anne of Green Gables or Little Women) but are somewhat more modern and forward thinking. There’s lots to learn about World War II and the state of affairs of that time in Europe but neither book reads as ‘educational’ (a curse to the 11 year old, I assure you!) There’s a lot to uncover in each book and I’m sure you could read each one repeatedly and find new and different topics to consider and discuss. Brubaker Bradley does an amazing job drawing this ‘family’ together and making the reader truly care about what happens as they build their story together! Read them in order, for sure…but definitely take the opportunity to read them. You won’t regret it!

To get your copy of either book, please click the links below:

The War That Saved My Life The War I Finally Won

Just 7 days until the next Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club Meeting. All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil at 8:00pm EDT, July 15th!

Join us via Google Hangout! We’ll have discussion questions provided by the author and a giveaway at the end of the session!

If you still haven’t purchased your copy of the book, get it here: All of Us With Wings You still have plenty of time to read it!

Backlist Middle Grade Book Review: The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp by Kathy Appelt – 5 stars!

I think it’s fair to say that my son and I read A TON of books together. That being said, it’s no small compliment to say that The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt is our hands-down mutual favorite! This book is a frolicking romp through the swamp from two perspectives: that of a teen boy and that of a pair of raccoons. All of the protagonists have the same goal: to save the swamp from imminent development and destruction. How they try to go about doing so, however, is what makes the book so enthralling and absolutely charming!

Don’t tell the kids but this is actually a story about conservation. I’m sure that on some level, they know that, but it’s disguised as an adventure and coming of age story that doesn’t even remotely preach. Two forces of ‘evil’ threaten the swamp: the first is ‘bad guy’ Jaeger Stitch who wants to turn the swamp into Alligator Wrestling Arena and the second is a pack of feral hogs who are on the march and destroying everything in their wake. Attempting to save the swamp are Bingo and J’Miah (raccoon brothers who are the newest Information Officer recruits into the Sugar Man’s Scout organization) and Chap Brayburn (a young man whose mother owns a sugar pie cafe in the swamp area and whose grandfather has recently passed away.)

Tension builds as the raccoon try to wake the Sugar Man (who can save the swamp but hasn’t been woken in decades) and Chap does his best to fight off Stitch. The book has both a folksy feel to it (the audiobook is narrated by Lyle Lovett…OMG!) and great prose. It’s filled with fantastic vocabulary words that are colorful and lovely. We also truly loved the anthropomorphized personalities of the raccoons…one is brave while the other suffers from anxiety. They live in an old rusted DeSoto in the woods that is practically a character in the story itself.

The story is both funny and sweet. I was most impressed by its broad appeal. Not only was my son hanging on every word in this story…I was amused and entertained as well. I loved the characters and their unique personalities as well as the quirky, funny asides that make the story particularly wry!

I also loved the messages that this book conveys. There’s a lot of pluck in the raccoons and in Chap and they have to push through against lots of setbacks in their attempts to save the swamp. Lately, after reading Happy Campers (see this post: https://mamapandabear.com/tag/happycampers/ ) I’m obsessed with the idea of inspiring grit in children. The True Blue Scouts just personifies grit in so many ways!

I also loved the ‘protecting the Earth’ and ‘respecting your elders’ storylines. True Blue Scouts is nothing (as I said above) if not a parable about conservation and Chap’s fight to protect his mother’s bakery and his grandfather’s legacy also plays an integral part in the story. The fact that this book alludes so frequently to caring about things outside of ourselves and outside of the here and now is important to me: I love that this story is about something more than the immediacy of our wants and needs today.

I can’t say enough about Bingo, J’Miah and Chap and I can’t say enough about The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp. It’s charming, endearing and powerful. There’s plenty to enjoy and something to be learned. In the end, I struggle to imagine a more perfect book for the Middle Grade set. Lure them in with laughs and a rolicking adventure…imprint upon their hearts a story with true meaning and grit!

To get your copy today, please click the link below:

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

TV Review: Stranger Things for Tweens? New Season Starts Tomorrow – 7.4.2019!

While I realize that most of you will be celebrating America’s independence tomorrow, here in the Navin house, we have more than one thing to celebrate: that’s right, the third season of Stranger Things is available tomorrow on Netflix! As those of you who read my blog regularly know, my 11 year old son and I LOVE reading together but also tend to bond over binge watching certain TV series. Sometimes I struggle to find shows that are both moderately appropriate for his age and maturity and at least moderately interesting to me (see my posts about the Umbrella Academy and Riverdale) but Stranger Things has really set the bar pretty high for us. We both love the show and I find the content mostly appropriate for his age. Needless to say, we’ve been counting down the days to Season 3.

I have to admit…we were late to the party. Kids had at my son’s school were already dressing up as Eleven for Halloween before we got in on the game. Last year’s long winter days had us searching for something to watch together though and Stranger Things kept coming up as a recommendation. I wasn’t sure it was going to be appropriate…and I definitely wasn’t sure I was going to be into sci-fi (not really my thing) but we decided to give it a go. I’m really glad we did.

For those of you who don’t know, (where have YOU been?) the first season of Stranger Things centered around a local boy (Will Byers) who goes missing, leading to the discovery of a government lab, a nearby portal and some very creepy monsters. Inexplicably, a young girl with a shaved head (Eleven) also shows up in town. Will’s friends (Dustin, Mike and Lucas,) his Mom (Joyce Byers…Winona Ryder) and the local police chief (Jim Hopper) as well as numerous members of the boys’ families and the local community get pulled into the search for Will and for answers. The plot is creepy and twisted (but not in a way that would be too scary or mature for tweens) but the characters that we meet in Hawkins, Indiana are what really sells the show. I think my son cared a great deal about the mystery aspect of the plot while I was focused on caring more about the characters and their lives.

By Season 2, a few new characters have been introduced. The boys have a new friend (Max…a girl) and Joyce has a new boyfriend (Bob…you may know him as Rudy or Samwise!) and even more mysteries to solve. Although Will may have been saved in Season 1, the creepy elements that have taken over Hawkins have not been put to sleep. They are back…and with a vengeance! There’s a touch of a ‘young love’ plot and unlikely relationships form between some of the characters. Overall, the focus of Season 2 is ‘putting the genie back in the bottle,’ if you will. One of the most gruesome scenes in the series occurs near the end of Season 2 (even my son was yelling, ‘Never turn your back on the monsters!’) so you might want to cover some eyes as the locals try to get out of the lab! That scene even haunted me!

We are left with some level of closure at the end of Season 2 but, of course, we suspect that there is more to come (if only because Season 3 already had a release date! :)) Eleven is back where she belongs and I personally can’t wait to see more of her. Personally, my son and I loved both Eleven and Dusty the most. Separately, I have a soft spot for Hopper…his brokenhearted tough guy acts steals my heart every time! (I’m a total sucker!) We can’t wait to see what’s going to unfold in Season 3…the kids will be older and (supposedly) the portal is closed. So where will we find the creepiness this year?

To highlight just how much we loved Seasons 1 and 2, I have to admit: we watched all of the Behind the Scenes footage we could find and both seasons of Beyond Stranger Things which was filled with interviews with directors and cast. If you have extra time, it’s a fun watch if only to learn things like that Mille Bobby Brown (Eleven) is actually British and which cast member was nervous about his/her on-screen kiss! It filled some of the time we spent waiting for Season 3!

As you can see, both my son and I were thoroughly entertained by Seasons 1 and 2 of Stranger Things. But what about the maturity of the content? There is definitely a fair bit of swearing. If you have a problem with your kids hearing ‘bad words,’ this is a series to steer clear of. In general, the swearing is mostly what you would expect to hear from teens when their parents aren’t around (Dustin is the #1 culprit…he begins Season 1 with the phrase ‘We’re in deep shit!’) but it feels germane to the plot, the time and the characters. Expect words like ‘bitchin,’ ‘son of a bitch,’ ‘pissed off’ and the occasional ‘douchebag.’ There’s a bit of sexual innuendo throughout the series…several ‘making out’ scenes but no real nudity or actual sex.

If there were any consideration that might make me keep my kid from watching Stranger Things, it would be the violence. (I mentioned the gruesome scene near the end of Season 2…that’s as bad as it gets) Nonetheless, it’s nothing worse than one might see in Jurassic Park and, if you’re kid is one that plays Fortnite incessantly like mine…you’ve got nothing to worry about here.

As you can see, we truly loved Stranger Things and I thought it was a great series to watch with my son. The 80s throwback content was fun to discuss with him (references to things from my own childhood abound) and the fact that the show is filled with both action (for him) and character development (mostly for me) made it an overall winner across the board. As I said, I’m not sure what Season 3 is going to bring (and I don’t read spoilers so I hope not to know before we start watching!) but we are both truly looking forward to finding out!

To binge watch Seasons 1 and 2 and get ready for Season 3, click the link below.

Stranger Things

Backlist Book Review: The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman – 3.5 stars

It seems, if Goodreads is any indication, that this book is quite polarizing. Folks seem to love it or hate it. For me, however, The Two-Family House was simple a pleasant surprise. I was concerned that it might be formulaic and predictable but it didn’t, in my option, turn out to be that way at all. Cohen Loigman used a very interesting plot device to focus the reader on the long-term story arc (more about that later) and I was very grateful that she did! I truly enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down until I was finished!

The Two-Family House is the story of two Jewish families (Mort and Rose and Abe and Helen and their respective children – 3 boys/4 girls) who share an up/down duplex in Manhattan. The story begins in the late 1940s in a blizzard…the last of each couple’s children is due to be born any day and, unluckily, both children arrive in the world while the women are snowed in and can’t reach a hospital. The two children, one a boy and a one a girl, are delivered at home by a midwife while their fathers are out of town on business. The sisters-in-law have always been very close and have raised their children together so, it’s no surprise to anyone that they would deliver their last babies together.

Out of that weekend of surprises is born a secret that changes everything for the two families. Not only does the secret change the way that the two women interact, it has wide-reaching implications for the older children, the husbands and the new babies. What’s most interesting to me is that, Cohen Loigman does little to conceal the secret…by page 10, the average reader has it figured out…and focuses instead on the impact of that secret rather than allowing the reader to get caught up in the mystery. This transparency is the plot device that I referred to in my introduction and is critical, I believe, to ensuring that the book is not simply a predictable trope. While the initial secret that spawns this story doesn’t remain a surprise to the reader for long, there are still several plot points that caught me off guard. Because I always appreciate a story that can keep me guessing, I feel strongly that Cohen Loigman handled the story arc brilliantly. I was engaged with and delighted by her story from start to finish.

Two-Family is told from multiple perspectives: we read about events through the voices of Rose and Helen, Abe and Mort and Judith and Natalie (two of the daughters.) While some have complained that they found the changing perspectives confusing, I did not and really valued the opportunity to watch time pass and events transpire from the point of view of multiple members of this family. As the book is truly focused on what happens to these relationships over decades, it felt important to me to be able to understand important developments as they are happening to all of the family members.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Cohen Loigman’s book is the fact that it left me thinking: given the same set of circumstances, an opportunity and an understanding the potential outcomes, would I have made a different decision from the one that Rose and Helen make? In reading other reviews, I’ve found that many people are decidedly dismissive of their decision and have judged it inherently wrong. For me, it wasn’t quite that obvious…in a given place and time with certain pressures and interests, I can absolutely understand what drove their thinking. While I truly believe that making decisions that result in lifelong secrets is a bad idea, I put great value on writing that can make me question my own morals and judgements.

Multiple decades pass as we watch these two families grow together and fall apart…it’s a saga that allows the reader time to get to know each character and really understand what motivates them. There is no question that the adults in the story are not perfect…the men can be sexist and intractible (think Archie Bunker here), the women insufferable and selfish. There motives seem to me, however, to be good despite their genuinely flawed decisions. Ultimately, Cohen Loigman brings her story arc to a close by allowing reader to understand the impact of the women’s decisions on the lives of their husbands and, most importantly, their children.

One of the best books I read this year was This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and I think a strong comparison can be made between these two stories. While O’Farrell is the stronger writer and her book is significantly more emotionally complex, both authors, to my mind, have created generational family sagas that follow the impact of a single decision through the years. The Two-Family House is an opportunity to plumb the human psyche and witness the impact of human fallibility over time and I think we all relish stories that give us a chance to appreciate how a single moment in time can change our lives and the lives of those around us.

To get your own copy of The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, please click the link below:

The Two-Family House: A Novel

Middle Grade Book Review: A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan – 4.5 stars

If you are a book nerd like me, you have to love a book that reads like love letter to libraries! Add in a quirky, lovable cadre of characters and a strong sense of what it means to be a middle schooler and you have the absolute winner that is A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan.

Tan’s story features Jamie, a middle school girl who has gotten into trouble (and been humiliated about it by a classmate) at the end of the school year. Because of her transgression, she’s been ‘sentenced’ to community service at the local library for the summer. Initially, Jamie dreads her service work and avoids even being seen out in public (so deep is her shame about the situation that she created at school…not-much-of-a-spoiler-alert: it involves a boy!)

As the summer moves along, however, Jamie becomes more and more interested in the library staff and its patrons and begins to develop deep and meaningful relationships with the ‘quirky characters’ I mentioned above. The local library in which she is volunteering is strapped for money and on the mayor’s chopping block. Jamie is uniquely situated to be able to see exactly what the library means to her community and the people within it and comes to discover that the library is extremely important to her too. Poignant and funny interludes between Jamie and the library crew abound in this book and are well worth the price of admission. You’ll come to love each member of the staff and ‘library regular’ that Jamie gets to know. As I said, if you love books…and especially libraries…you’re going to love this book!

I was also extremely fond of the way that Tan portrays Jamie. She’s mature for her age but also makes the kind of mistakes that someone in middle school would make. She’s beset with trouble from ‘mean girls’ who don’t want to allow her to forget her public humiliation from the school year and holding onto a serious crush on the brother of one of those girls. Having lived through a stage where I dreaded ‘mean girls’ every day, the way that Tan described Jamie’s comfort was absolutely palpable to me. If you’ve been tortured by your own set of ‘mean girls,’ you’ll understand Jamie right away…if you haven’t, there’s a phenomenal opportunity to understand the dynamic within this book!

Jamie’s parents and aunt are alluded to within the story but never present within the ‘action.’ Nevertheless, the relationship that Jamie has with her mother and the way she describes what she has learned from her is heartwarming and hopeful. While it’s clear that Jamie and her mom haven’t had it easy, it’s also evident that Jamie’s mom has worked very hard to raise her well and that the relationship between them definitely reflects that!

There are a number of subplots within A Kind of Paradise (a library romance, a couple of tragedies, a life rebound story and the story of saving the library itself) and all of them contribute to the color with which we see the library and it’s impact on the community. I sometimes find multiple ‘side stories’ distracting and unnecessary in a book with a strong plot but not this time: the subplots only added to the strength of the story of Jamie’s summer.

While this book is definitely appropriate and highly recommended for Middle Grade readers, don’t hesitate to read it yourself if you appreciate a good story, well told. A Kind of Paradise is sweet and satisfying…it will either bring back memories of a time of great growth in your own life or help you understand the growth trajectory of folks around you. Either way, it’s a quick read and a solid investment of time. Read it to enjoy…finish it to understand!

To get your own copy of A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan, please click on the link below:

A Kind of Paradise

Book Review: Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults by Audrey Monke – 5 stars!

If you’ve seen my other recent posts, then you know that we just sent my 11-year old son to overnight camp for the first time. It was quite the learning experience for all of us so I was extremely interested in reading Happy Campers by Audrey Monke. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect…was she going to recommend that we canoe every day and sing campfire songs every night? I must say, however, that I was absolutely delighted with this book. I read the entire thing with a highlighter and took away so many great parenting tips that I know I’ll need to keep this book on hand for a good number of years going forward!

Monke begins her book by establishing her credibility as a parenting expert. She has 4-5 kids herself but her real qualifiction comes in the form of having owned a summer camp since she was right out of college. First, I can’t imagine trying to own and run anything at that age…but I certainly wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to take on the business aspect of a summer camp at 22 (let alone responsibility for hundreds of other people’s children!) Her story is incredibly interesting and really establishes her as someone with incredible foresight and an amazing head on her shoulders!

As I said, I read this book with a highlighter…I got about 1/8 of the way through it and realized that I was going to want to keep track of a number of pieces of parenting advice that Monke was providing. Her book is broken into 9 primary chapters…9 seperate areas of advice that she recommends we focus on with our children. Each area feels distinct and important…she covers such topics as fostering independence and building grit. She also breaks each chapter down into the following sections:

  1. One Simple Thing – Identifies a small tweak that, as a parent, I can make to my own behavior.
  2. The Sticky Note Solution – One or two simple things I can do with a sticky note to drive home the lesson of the chapter for my child
  3. Make it Fun – Ways to bring fun into introducing the chapter topic to your family
  4. Around the Campfire – Suggestions for daily family sharing
  5. Family Meeting Topic – Ways to implement formal communication for the whole family on a given topic
  6. Diving Deeper – Ideas for creating substantive shifts in family culture

I really appreciated the way the book was broken up because it gave me a number of different ways to approach Monke’s suggestions. On some topics, I’m ready to make wholesale changes to the way my family handles certain things…one others, one simple thing is just about all I can handle. Either way, I feel like I have strategies for taking on the suggestions that I value right now. Give me a solution that is going to take weeks to implement and you might as well forget it, I’ll never get back to it!

Monke’s book is peppered with both solid advice and compelling stories. As a busy mom, it’s much easier for me to internalize her advice if I’m given a concrete example of how it applies. She not only provides examples of how she learned the importance of each of the areas she promotes at camp, she gives us practical examples of how to apply them at home. Monke has the advantage of having known thousands of kids over her years as a camp owner but also being the mom in a relatively large family. She can give objective positive and negative growth examples from camp but also explain how she has applied those learnings (for better or worse) to her own children.

One of the things I really appreciated about Monke’s writing style is that it is very personal. This is not a textbook. It’s also not judgy or mom-shaming. Monke is very open about where, as a camp owner and as a mom, she has succeeded and failed. Even in situations where she’s illustrating mistakes that she believes were made by parents of her campers, she takes the time to empathize with their decision making process and explain the rationale that might have led them to their thought process.

All in all, I walked away from reading Happy Campers with tons of food for thought and several pages of notes! I’ve already implemented one of Monke’s ideas: as a family, we share our daily high point and low point every night before bed. It’s been an easy way to learn more about what my son is experiencing day in and day out and to teach him that it’s important to ask and learn about other’s experiences as well! Happy Campers is applicable for parents of children of all ages (truly, I wish I had ready many of Monke’s suggestions earlier) and I highly recommend it as an easy-to-read, highly digestible way to evaluate some important parenting topics!

To get a copy of Audrey Monke’s Happy Campers for yourself, please click the link below:

Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults