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Review: “If I Never Ever Endeavor” by Holly Meade

With my local library restricted to “curbside pick-up” options, I’ve turned to raiding my husband’s book collection. (I’m still a bit wary of the germs accumulating on library books. When I volunteered right before the shutdown, the librarian warned me of the sticky, goopy messes I would find when reshelving books. I’m not sure I want to know what’s been added because of this virus.) So, I found the beautifully-covered book If I Never Ever Endeavor by Holly Meade on our shelves.

“If I Never Ever Endeavor”

First and foremost, Holly Meade‘s illustrations leap off the page. The layered texture shows up so clearly that I kept touching the pages to feel the bird’s wings. Even the watercolor sky added so much depth to the images. In fact, the watercolor swathes often reflected the bird’s feelings and expectations. Truly, Meade excels at art.

That said, the quality of illustration far surpasses the quality of writing. While I love the premise of the book, the language was often so disjointed and the rhythm so inconsistent that I had a hard time following along. Honestly, I felt like I was reading a tongue twister. Several passages sang and flowed with rhyme, but the following passages dropped like a dud. Of course, the challenge of finding multiple rhyming words with a bird theme affected the flow. I think in trying to keep the story original, Meade used a convoluted structure to overcome any repetitive rhymes. It didn’t destroy the story, but it did take away from the book’s readability.

Working Through Fear

What the book lacks in structure, it makes up for in heart. The little bird’s struggle to fly reflects a very human fear of change, failure, and rejection. I love the pages at the climax of the book when the bird decides to try flying. The bird doesn’t instantly swoop into the air like a superhero. Instead, the bird plummets. He struggles at first, but he keeps on flapping. That perseverance ultimately gets the bird flying.

While I might have revised the structure and rhyme scheme of If I Never Ever Endeavor, I see myself reading this book to my future children one day. The book will help me encourage them to try new things. It will give me the opportunity to remind my children that God protects them. God won’t always keep them from failing, but He will support them and lift them back up when they fall.

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Review: “A Year Down Yonder” by Richard Peck

I can’t tell you how many time my family and I have read this book. Somewhere around second grade, my mom tried to read the book out loud to my brother and me. I say “tried” because we all wound up laughing so hard we couldn’t even make it to the punch line! I laughed just as hard reading the book to myself. Needless to say, in researching middle grade books for writing inspiration, I had to reread A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck.

Humor in Trials

A Year Down Yonder always encouraged me to persevere and find humor in the little things. This week, the book rings especially true. A Year Down Yonder occurs during the Great Depression. Peck addresses the scarcity, creativity, and generosity that came with living in the period. (Grandma’s no slouch at making do with what she has, even if that means taking some produce from a neighbor’s field. Yet, she always uses it to take care of her less fortunate neighbors.) Peck also delves into the aftermath of World War I during the Veteran’s Day chapter. The war may have ended, but Peck shows how the soldiers’ and families’ lives forever changed because of horrific war tactics. Further, while I didn’t understand at seven years old, Peck gracefully addresses teenage pregnancy in the Christmas chapter. As an adult, I realized the difficult choice the young mom had to make for her child. In other chapters of the book, Peck addresses complex family relationships and turns snooty pedigree on its head.

While Grandma’s outrageous tactics made me laugh out loud (I mean, a woman ran through town wearing nothing but a snake…) they all addressed deeper issues. The conflict shows the townspeople’s (and therefore our) common humanity. We learn compassion for those who think or look different from us. Grandma illuminates the hidden struggles everyone faces.

Faith in A Year Down Yonder

Faith isn’t expressly addressed in A Year Down Yonder, but the school does present the manger scene in the local church for Christmas. Peck uses religion to illuminate history rather than to preach at his readership. Consequently, I love how faith and story blend together. In fact, we learn more about Jesus’ generous compassion, active love, and discerning discipline from Grandma than we do from the church. We see Jesus’ teachings put in action by Grandma (albeit imperfectly.) It’s seamless and realistic. I think that’s why we all wind up loving the eccentric Grandma Dowdel so much by the end of the book.

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Review: “The…Whangdoodles,” Pt. 2: Calm in the Chaos

Last Friday, we reviewed part 1: “Challenge” of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards. This week, we’re entering Whangdoodleland in part 2: “Capture.” As the children face fantastical dangers, we all learn the importance of staying calm in the chaos.

Beauty and Danger in Whangdoodleland

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles takes full advantage of its fantasy side in part 2, where the children enter Whangdoodleland for the first time. This new fantasy world is magically different than ours. As with part 1, Edwards perfectly describes this new world with rich, sensory words. We smell the flowers, hear the sounds and music, and see the colors painting every inch of the landscape. She rearranges details from reality as we expect it to create a new, immersive, and utterly charming fantasy land.

Of course, as with any good book, danger and conflict taints the beauty of this world. However, Edwards’ “evil” characters really aren’t too evil, at all. They act in threatening and frightening ways, but concern for their friends motivates every challenge they create. Throughout the book, the Prock predominantly drives the “evil” obstacles of the book. In part 2, though, the villain the children and professor face is the High-Behind Splintercat. This fantasy cat maintains most of the eccentricities of normal cats. He loves balls of yarn and fields of catnip. Even though kidnapping would probably terrify anyone, this cat still manages to charm the reader.

Calm in the Chaos

Early in part 2, we learn the driving message of this section, if not of the whole book. The children have faced their first scary obstacle, and the professor comforts them. He says,

“If you remain calm in the midst of great chaos, it is the surest guarantee that it will eventually subside.”

*Edwards 98.

Personally, I love this message. It encourages children to persevere through hard times. The professor’s accompanying speech affirms the value of each individual child and the unique strengths they bring to a challenge. Especially during these COVID-19 times, the concept of staying calm in the midst of chaos seems like a virtue we all can grow.

*Edwards, Julie Andrews. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. New York: Harper Trophy, 1974.

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Review: The “Biscuit” Books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

I loved the Biscuit books way back when I was just starting to read. After reading Biscuit Finds a Friend a billion times, I named my golden retriever Happy Meal toy Biscuit. I took a picture of the Biscuit sketch I drew on my Magna Doodle so I would have it forever. Now that I’m nannying toddlers during the week, I’m so pleased to say that the Biscuit books have kept on coming!

The Charm of the Biscuit Books

Take one look at the cover, and you’ll see why small children instantly fall in love with Biscuit. He’s a fluffy, cuddly, smiling puppy who gets into the funniest little messes! (Well, they were hilarious at 5 years old. Now they’re just really cute.) Biscuit’s owner, whose name I can’t recall learning, sweetly leads Biscuit through all their adventures. Then we meet the precious secondary characters like the duckling in Biscuit Finds a Friend or the friends at “read to a pet day” in Biscuit Loves the Library.

How Do the Books Meld with Faith?

Before we jump into the perspective of faith, we’ll want to remember that the Biscuit books appeal to emergent readers. This audience includes toddlers and young elementary schoolers who are getting the hang of connecting sounds with words on a page. The goal of learning to read means that the storyline must be simple if the kiddos are to follow along. Therefore, the books don’t contain a lot of faith-directed meaning. However, I believe the books still hold value for several reasons.

The Value of the Biscuit Books

The Biscuit books ignite children’s imaginations by immersing them in beautiful illustrations and relatable events. Like Biscuit, the young readers themselves are experiencing the library, the farm, and building friendships for the first time. Biscuit’s sweet adventures put children at ease in what could be intimidating new experiences. Further, I love that the books promote a brave and adventurous spirit, cooperation with others, and joy for the little things. In fact, it probably wouldn’t hurt us adults to dust off these qualities from time to time.

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Writing for Granna

We spent Thanksgiving lunch at my grandparents’ house for the first time I could remember since I was a child. For whatever reason, the holidays got celebrated in the days before or after the day marked on the calendar, or my grandparents would stop at our house on the way to see other family, or someone had moved or changed schools and it was easier not to leave town. This year, my mom and I really wanted to spend it further south, so we packed up our respective families (minus the cat) and drove two hours to the Quad Cities.

When I walked in my grandparents’ house, I didn’t remember the narrow galley kitchen being blue. I recognized the blue living room and den, but my mind expected the darker colors from twenty years ago. Both my mom and grandfather tilted their heads when I asked how long the kitchen had been blue. “It was all painted at the same time,” they said. “Granna turned on a light under the cabinet to make it brighter.”

I washed my hands in the kitchen sink and tilted my head to look through the window into the added-on sunroom. I remembered sitting on the couch with my brother and grandfather playing Spyro or Ratchet & Clank on the Playstation. Granna would be fixing sandwiches in the kitchen, or washing dishes, or frying chicken for our picnic supper, and she would lean through the window to tell us we were doing a great job or that food was ready. We would lean forward and wave, and sometimes I ran to the sink to imagine what the window looked like from Granna’s view.

Despite feeling like I was straddled two decades in a single moment, my brother and I laughed at the ceiling fan chain hitting us in our foreheads. We had been so proud to grow tall enough to reach it with the tops of our heads, and now we had to pay serious attention not to whack it when we walked through the middle of the room.

We finally all settled in front of the tv to drift off in a turkey-induced dream or zone out to the random and somewhat confusing movie on the screen. Granna sat at the dining room table and asked me across the room how my writing was going. I told her about my blog and how I was working on my book.

Granna smiled and nodded. “There’s a woman at church who writes books,” she said. I told her I remembered hearing about the author. “What I like about her books is the same thing I like about your writing. Your books aren’t over complicated or deep; I can relax when I read them. I can’t keep up with all those multiple storylines like I used to. I just want books I can relax to.”

Granna then told me the story of her struggles to learn to read in 1st grade and her transformation to a teacher when reading clicked. I nodded; I had heard the story before. More than this story, her earlier comment was circling in my head. I just want to read to relax. I had spent so many hours in college studying literature and feeling sheepish for writing simply that I never realized the reason I wrote that way in the first place. I wrote because I wanted to help people relax, to give them an escape where they could process emotions through catharsis and feel a little more hopeful when they finished.

Before we left, my grandfather ran to a shoe box and pulled out a handmade star ornament. “I want you to have this, an ornament for your first Christmas tree.” I held the slim piece of glass in my hands and felt my heart swell. I knew my grandfather had spent a lot of time choosing the best pieces of glasses and soldering the pieces together. I also knew I would be putting it at the top of my tree when I decorated the day after Thanksgiving.

As I held the ornament in my hands on the drive home, I decided I would no longer feel guilty for not writing complicated literature. I would write well, yes, and use all I knew to make the words true and round and engaging. But my Granna needed stories she could relax to, and so did someone else’s Granna or Meemaw or Grandma. I couldn’t fail these ladies who poured their hearts into teaching children to love reading, who still devoured books to cope, who read to keep their minds sharp. I love them too much not to write for them.

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Why I Write

It was our third science teacher of the year. We sat in the corner room with the door-size window that let in what hint of light a Tennessee-gray sky provided in March.

This teacher had grouped our desks into five sections around the room, as opposed to the rows our last teacher had instituted. She then passed out little quiz packets, but this time, the questions weren’t about the phases of the moon (praise God… we learned that chapter 3 times that year.) This quiz was a personality quiz, and we tallied up our answers on the last page to discover what type of “animal” we were.

“How many of you are lions?” the five-foot-tall teacher with spiky hair asked. Of the 30 kids in the class, 28 kids raised their hands.

I glanced a couple of chairs over to the only other kid in the class not raising his hand. He had skipped a grade to join our class of 6th graders, and his voice was so quiet when he told me about quantum mechanics that I could hardly hear him yell about the idiots believing something about atoms that went over my head.

“How many of you are otters?” the teacher asked. The quantum mechanics kid raised his hand.

“And how many of you are golden retrievers?” I raised my hand just next to my ear. I was the only one left, after all. I didn’t want the extra attention of my arm reaching closer to the ceiling than everybody else’s because of my extra height. I scrunched lower in my chair and wished I were reading the historical fiction novel in my backpack instead. The Redcoats in 1775 Boston had nothing on these middle schoolers.

I learned later that day that golden retriever was the most common personality type. “Yeah,” my lion-friend said, “you’re the most normal person in the class!” My other lion-friend nodded in agreement, but I had to admit, that emptiness in my chest sure didn’t make me feel like I was the normal one. As soon as I got home, I burrowed into the couch and dove into the Revolutionary War and a love story of two spies racing horses in the night to tell colonial militia about the British Army’s next move.

Books became my escape. My mom tried to pre-read all the grown-up novels I was reading in an attempt to challenge my vocabulary and comprehension, but she ran out of time between the dishes and driving us to baseball practices and drama rehearsals. So, I focused exclusively on the Christian Fiction genre, and even then, some of the books had scenes edging on topics too strong for my 12-year-old brain to handle. The school principal kept telling us on the morning announcements, “Be the best you can be. The choice [*pause for effect*] is yours,” and I suppose that daily brainwashing had an impact. I decided that I, with my pencil and dragonfly journal in hand, would write books to give girls hope that God had a plan and would use all things for good.

No question – I’m a dog person at heart.

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Why English Majors Can’t Read

This past week I met several new people at a church event, and the topic of books frequently came up. Though the worst question to ask an English major is “what is your favorite book,” it seemed to be the most popular. Despite resulting in a list of books (including commentary) rather than a single title, the introvert in me was thankful for a topic I could easily discuss. And people were happy to discuss books with me! Apparently I have found a church for writers.

I learned something interesting in these conversations. For readers and writers alike, everyone agreed that the Christian Fiction genre needs improvement. They often avoided the books because religion was forced down people’s throats and the characters were so flat. In one conversation, a girl discussed a favorite series from her youth that she recently reread. She was concerned that the male love interest ignored the protagonist for three books until suddenly the characters were engaged. She said a girl deserved both a good guy and for him to be interested in her, not one or the other.

Bookshelf BlogI was pleased that people who hadn’t studied English had many of the same concerns for books that I learned as an English major. After all, being an English major tends to ruin a person’s love of reading. After studying the craft of writing for several years, I can’t open a book anymore without judging every sentence for full descriptions and realistic characters. It’s hard to enjoy reading because I can’t stop myself from rewriting the books along the way. I’ve met many English majors who have the same problem. Once an English major learns to read critically, it is hard to return to that imaginative world that caused them to fall in love with reading in the first place. It’s comforting to know that the audience has the same concerns.