Friday, January 16, 2015

Fiction of 2014: Read-Alouds

It's that time of year again: an onslaught of book recommendations. Some of you may really need ideas for new books to read; others of you already have hundreds waiting on your "want-to-read" shelf at Goodreads. Either way, I'd love to share what I enjoyed and loathed in 2014. It's so much fun when my friends pick up and fall in love with books I recommended!

We'll start with fiction, and I'll divide it up to make these posts more readable. The boys and I spent much of 2014 in some old favorites of mine (the Wingfeather Saga and the Little House series). We blew through quite a few read-alouds this year, in large part because I discovered that reading to them during lunch and snack times is the best way to preserve my sanity and patience :) My favorite new read-alouds were The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron and The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

The Magician's Nephew - C.S. Lewis (audiobook)*****
In just three years since my first time through, I'd forgotten so much of this--and loved it all over again. So many poignant lines and scenes. All kinds of delightful surprises in terms of links to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was surprised and disappointed that my 6yo didn't get into this one much, but I still think it's wonderful. 

Farmer Boy - Laura Ingalls Wilder****
My favorite of the first three in the series. My 6yo *loved* it. Since this is stand-alone, it's not a bad place to start to get your kids interested in the series, especially if they're boys. I found it tended to build suspense in terms of when Laura would meet and fall in love with Almanzo, since they already knew about him.

On the Banks of Plum Creek****/*****
Both my 6yo and 3yo were really into this. It's so hard to fathom the hardships the Ingalls family endured! This book, like #2 in the series, is a lot more interesting than #1 because it's more plot-driven, rather than "this is how you churn butter, this is how you smoke a hog, etc." (That stuff is fascinating, but not so much for read-aloud.) It was even suspenseful several times. Just really fascinating, heartwarming stories about pioneer life. Probably 4.5 stars. 

By the Shores of Silver Lake***
After the last three in this series were so enjoyable, this one was slow, super-descriptive, and boring at times again. My 6yo was much less interested. The latter half was better, and there were certainly some suspenseful/exciting chapters, but overall this one ranks with #1 in terms of its having historical value but not being overly fun as a read-aloud.  

The Long Winter*****
This is one of the best in the series. Poignant and suspenseful. The depiction of what life was like for the Ingalls family during that awful, unimaginable winter is not at all melodramatic, just straightforward and sparse, yet leaves you continually blown away at what they endured. My 6yo kept begging for one more chapter. FYI, "Stuff You Missed in History Class" has a fascinating podcast about this book with background information about just how horrible that winter actually was.
Little Town on the Prairie****
By this point in the series, I felt kind of surprised that my boys were still into it--the later books are hardly relatable to a 7yo and 3yo, when they're about a teenage girl--but both boys continued to be interested; as soon as we finished this one they were eager to start the next. 

These Happy Golden Years*****
This one might be my favorite of the series. I continued to be surprised how much my boys were into the story, despite it being primarily about the experiences of an older teenage girl--but the 7yo especially loved it and would beg me to keep going with another chapter. The way Laura and Almanzo's relationship evolves is amusing and sweet. 

The First Four Years** 
It was suggested to me that this last Little House book perhaps be left out of the read-aloud-to-my-boys lineup, so I revisited it on my own. And I think that was wise--best to just leave the series on the happy ending of These Happy Golden Years. This one is dark, very different in tone and content from the rest of the series--likely because it was published after the death of Laura's daughter and was printed as-is from her journals, unedited.

You realize immediately you're in for something very different with the jarring opening scenes, in which events from These Happy Golden Years are repeated with the details changed. Almanzo, who was so courageous and generous and smart in the earlier books, comes across as an idiot here, and the Laura who seemed so headstrong and independent in previous books is suddenly all, "OK dear, drown us in debt, no big deal, it's not my business." What?

Perhaps this book is more realistic and less sugar-coated...but for the sake of childhood nostalgia and fun reading aloud, I prefer the warm and happy books to this one. It's a quick read when you're not reading aloud, but too depressing to plow through with my boys.

Three Tales of My Father's Dragon - Ruth Stiles Gannett****
A charming set of stories, with lots of illustrations. My 6yo and 3yo loved it. The first was my favorite--I enjoyed how clever the boy was portrayed to be. 

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness - Andrew Peterson (audiobook)****
I was really sad that my boys didn't get into this like I thought they would. I suspect it might have been different if I'd read it to them rather than listening to the audiobook in the car. I wasn't overly impressed with the narrator--he wasn't much for voices, nothing on the level of Jim Dale or Stockard Channing. Still, I love the story.
North! Or Be Eaten - Andrew Peterson*****
I still just adore this book. This was at least my third time through and it was just as fresh and wonderful as the first time. Once we gave up on the audio version and I started reading it personally, the boys were more engaged and my 7yo kept asking for "just one more chapter!" 

The Monster in the Hollows - Andrew Peterson*****
Loved this every bit as much the second time around, as a read-aloud. I marvel at how men like Peterson have not only the imagination to tell a captivating story, but also the ability to weave profound truth throughout, such that you see and think about life and eternity in fresh ways. So wonderful. 

The Cricket in Times Square - George Selden*****
A charming, heartwarming classic. Both my boys loved it. I don't know if there's an audio version, but this would be a good book to listen to if the narrator does character voices reasonably well. I felt like this was one of those books that required a good variety of character voices and I am laughable in my attempts :) 

The Stories Julian Tells - Ann Cameron*****
Really charming and delightful, though lots shorter than I expected (more like the length of five or six picture books rather than a chapter book). I loved the father's gentle, playful parenting. This made me eager to look for more books about Julian and his family...only to be sorely disappointed (see below).

Julian, Secret Agent - Ann Cameron**
I did not enjoy this nearly so much as The Stories Julian Tells (maybe because the winsome, wise father only appears at the very end?).

Spunky Tells All - Ann Cameron***
A decent read-aloud. Charming and clever at times, as it was written from the perspective of the family dog who's lots more intelligent than anyone realizes. 

A Bear Called Paddington - Michael Bond****
Charming and sweet. A lot of it went over my 3yo's head, but amused me. 

The Boxcar Children - Gertrude Chandler Warner***

Caboose Mystery - Gertrude Chandler Warner***
Sweet little stories, slightly cheesy, fairly predictable. They kept my 3.5yo interested and didn't bore me. 

What stories did you and your kids enjoy in 2014?


Danielle said...

I'm working on reading more chapter books with my kids. Because I'm responsible for reading them so much for school, I feel like we don't get to the "fun" books as much. Still reading lots of history/science related stuff week to week.

That's great the boys tracked with the Little House series! Farmer Boy is one of my faves. I think I was 7 when my mom read them aloud to me, but wasn't sure if the boys would be as interested as I was, since I was a girl and probably related to Laura better than they might. But glad to year your crew liked them! Maybe we'll try them next!

As far as chapter books go, we listened to the entire Ramona series. Wow, I was sad when it was over! I read aloud to them The Little White Horse and then viewed the movie. We also read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Now we just started the Wingfeather Saga. I'm not into them myself yet (we're on chapter 5) nor are they, but we're sticking with them since so many of our friends rave about them.

Amy said...

I love Ramona! Stockard Channing is so fabulous in those audiobooks. Way better to listen to her than read them myself :)

I think you have to stick with Andrew Peterson through book two if at all possible. I admit I didn't *love* the first one. His sense of humor is so quirky and over-the-top. It calms down a lot in #2 :) If you revisit that article he wrote about Harry Potter, he talks about how he learned SO much in writing the first one and hoped readers would be patient because he had a much bigger story to tell. That becomes so much clearer and more compelling in North! Or Be Eaten.