Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: Minn of the Mississippi

I recently finished reading Minn of the Mississippi by Holling Clancy Holling, aloud to the children.  When we started, I had everyone sit in on it (ages 2-13 at the time), but by the end I wasn't insisting that my older two be part of it -- decided they could read it later if they wanted to.  But it was part of school for Zion, my 4th/5th grader.

The book is about a snapping turtle named Minn, who travels down the Mississippi River through the course of her life, seeing many sites and encountering many adventures as she goes.  Through telling the story of what happens to Minn, Holling teaches lessons on history, geography, and even some science, all tied into the story of the Mississippi River.  It's a pretty clever concept, and from that standpoint, as well as his detailed illustrations, his books are truly a work of art.  They are a neat way to bring learning to life -- good examples of what Charlotte Mason would have called "living books."  It's no coincidence that I discovered the Holling books through Ambleside Online.

I enjoyed the book overall, but for some reason it was sort of tough to use as a read aloud.  Something about Holling's style?  His prose can be almost poetic at times, but was sometimes hard to follow, when read aloud to squirmy little ones.  Maybe part of it is the phase I was at w/my listeners on this one.  Abraham (2/3 years old) is not a good one to sit still for reading aloud yet, unless he's very engaged with a book that is geared toward him.  Listening is not his strong suit.  Reading aloud worked fine for us years ago with some of Holling's other books -- Seabird and Paddle-to-the-Sea.

Liberty (age 4/5) enjoyed the book.  She thought the pictures were especially interesting.  Tirzah (age 7/8) also liked it okay.  She said she liked the first and last parts better than the middle.  She liked best when it talked more about Minn and what happened to her, and less about the places she saw.

Zion (age 9/10) said she liked the book about the same as the other Holling books we've read -- in her opinion, they are okay, but not great.  Peter (age 11/12) didn't care for the book much at all.  Bethany (age 13/14) thought it was okay, and said she would give its content 3 out of 5 stars.  She also didn't care as much for the incorporating of information about things along Minn's journey at times.  It does slow down Minn's story, but of course she realizes that it's sort of the point of the book.  I'm not very good at giving stars as a rating system -- I always hate to commit somehow -- but I might give it 3.5 stars.  I appreciated the teaching stuff enough to put it up a notch from Bethany's rating, yet I also appreciate and identify with her criticisms.

As usual for me, there are things I wish were different about the book.  Holling weaves bits (and sometimes more, depending on the book and the part of it) of spiritist/shamanist/Native American religious perspective into all his books, which is something to be aware of as a Christian reader.  I decided against two of his other books (Tree in the Trail and Pagoo) because there was what seemed on a somewhat casual perusal to be significantly more of that sort of content in those books.  But there is still some in the ones we did read.  There is also evolutionary content at times.   I discussed and/or edited various sections.  It seems Minn of the Mississippi may have more than Paddle-to-the-Sea or Seabird, but it's there in all of them.

I found Minn of the Mississippi to be a pretty good resource for historical, geographical, and scientific learning, with some qualifications.  I will probably continue to use it in the future, but now that I've read it myself, I think I may just let my children who read it do so independently (technically all of them have heard at least portions of it now, though the younger ones probably won't remember), possibly with some discussion along the way.  If it's used for school, we may include some narration, and ideally some map work.  It worked pretty well for narrations for Zion. 

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: Augustus Caesar's World by Genevieve Foster

I read Augustus Caesar's World in 2014.  This was the first of Genevieve Foster's books that I completed, although I'd read portions of others.  Since then, I've also finished George Washington's World and Abraham Lincoln's World.  I plan to review at least Abraham Lincoln's World eventually, but I'll begin with this one because I'd already written a partial review in draft form.

I discovered Augustus Caesar's World on the Ambleside Online Year 6 Booklist.  I pre-read it for my children.  It took me a while to figure out exactly what to do with it once I finished.  I'll try to explain.

I enjoyed it overall until some past the halfway point.  Even up until then, there are many things to discuss, many similar to the ones I mentioned in my review of The Story of the Romans, though I noted that Foster's style makes some of them more... well, dramatic.  Her writing style is more fictionalized than is my preference.  I understand the whole telling-the-story, immerse-them-in-the-moment appeal, and I realize that there can be room for a little artistic license.  Still, made-up dialog has always irritated me in history books.  So that is an additional thing to be discussed at points throughout.  There was also one page (87) in the story of Antony and Cleopatra where I blacked out some text I felt was just unnecessary to the point that I wasn't comfortable with my children reading it.  Oh, and I also edited drawings throughout that I felt could use more clothing (that's something I do with quite a few books with drawings).

Despite these things, there were still merits to the book.  It gave more background and seemed a nice supplement to portions of The Story of the Romans.  Her storytelling approach was interesting and helped to bring it to life.  I also appreciated how Foster explored what was going on in different places and in different people's lives during the same time period.

Until I got to the part where she began talking more about various religions.

Her religious sections clearly had an agenda.  Foster uses her book to promote the idea that all religions worship the same "god," and other rather vague spiritual ideas she seems to prefer.  Ambleside Online had warned me that, "This book contains sections on the birth of world religions presented from a secular humanist point of view. Parents may wish to cover these sections closely with their children." (see the note for Augustus Caesar's World on the Year 6 book list)  I appreciated the notice.  The more I read, the more irritated I got with the book, though, and the more discussion points I noted, until I started to reconsider whether I wanted to use the book at all.

When it came to talking about the Bible, there were points at which she was clearly incorrect, and not only that, she also seemed to be trying to subtly undermine the Bible and the religions of the Jews and Christians as she wrote.  She seemed to be approach things from a "higher criticism" perspective.  It was slightly reminiscent of the Old Testament class I took in college -- where not-quite-so-subtle undermining was occurring pretty regularly.  That was irritating, too, but at least I was older than the target audience for this book.

Here's just one example of what I'm talking about. "During the centuries, however, [the Jewish] idea of what God was like had greatly changed.  Those who were writing the Bible in Babylon had come to think of Him as God of righteousness and justice.  Before that he had been a vengeful god of war, leading them to battle against their enemies.  And in the earliest days, when the Jews had been but a tribe of half-savage shepherds roaming the Arabian desert, their god had been but one of the many strange spirits which seemed to people the desert world about them.  Then... they made bloody sacrifices... burning on the altar their first-born children, as later they were to offer up each first-born lamb and goat" (page 186-187).  !?!  And it goes on.  See what I mean? 

The Bible topics presented aren't new to my children, but I wasn't sure that I wanted them to read them presented in this way at this age.  Plus, when a writer presents things in this fashion to the point that it becomes apparent that she isn't being evenhanded with the subject, it makes me start to mistrust her and wonder how much else of what she writes is not to be trusted.  If she presents Jesus in a way that makes him seem almost like another Buddha, how is she twisting the other religions with which I'm less familiar?  And are her other historical facts accurate, when I know some to be incorrect?  Of course any writer can make mistakes, and every writer has a bias no matter how objective he/she tries to be.  But sometimes it just gets to the point where I think, ugh, is this worth it?  And that's where I was before I reached the end of this book.  I did go ahead and finish it, just to get a grasp of the whole. 

I vented to my husband about it a bit, and his first response was that we should not use the book at all.  However, I further explained that I did appreciate some things about the book (mentioned above), especially in the earlier portion.  Our daughter Bethany had also been wanting to read it for some time, having read and enjoyed Foster's books on Washington's and Lincoln's worlds, and had been waiting for me to preview it -- so that was another complicating factor.  I thought that at age 14 she was probably old enough that discussion would be just fine concerning of most if not all things presented... and yet I had doubts.  I was also less sure about what our Year 6 student was able to handle at age 12.  After having invested the time to pre-read a book, I emotionally sort of wanted it to work out -- but not all of them do, and that's okay, so I didn't want that to weigh too heavily in the decision.

After further discussion with my husband, we determined it might be best to have them read to a certain point and stop, at least for the time being, just giving them a brief explanation of why.  If they were really interested in reading more, we could evaluate further at that point.  So I allowed my oldest two students to read almost the first 200 pages (through page 194, to be exact), which is approaching 2/3 of the book.  There were still plenty of things I wanted to discuss in this portion, some of which I hesitated about exposing them to (some of her comments about the Bible and the Jewish religion especially).  But it might be good for them to be aware that some of these perspectives exist, although the ideal would perhaps be for them to get their information about it from a source that exposed it for what it is.  Yet, I thought with discussion I would be exposing it, and if they ever take a college class or read certain literature about the Bible in the future, they'll get it even more heavily in probably worse than that style.  So perhaps it's just as well for them to see it that way and get some better perspective on it with the discussion.

So many issues the world presents are like this.  I'd rather that we didn't have to address them at all, but in many cases it seems wiser to talk about them at some point, so our children can be prepared to live in the real world.  Homeschooling presents the very helpful option of being able to choose to a much larger degree the timing and approach used for broaching many topics, which is wonderful, and I wouldn't want it any other way.  Yet, at times it can be overwhelming and difficult to make decisions in this area.   May God give us wisdom.

Before they started reading, I explained to my oldest two children the decision we made about the book, and why.  They could see enough of the author's tone as they read the early part that I think they could see why I chose to omit the rest.  I encouraged them to come to me with any questions as they read, but they didn't.  I planned to discuss with them what they read.  The ideal would have been to do it gradually at intervals as they went along, but I ended up doing this some time after they read it.  It ended up that Bethany wasn't too interested in the book once she started reading it.  I'd probably taken too long to get to it for her, and she'd been able to read The Story of the Romans before it, which she prefers.  But she was also disappointed in the way Foster handled some of the subject matter -- similar to how I felt on that.

So, would I recommend this book?  Hmm, definitely not without at least mentioning my reservations.  There are merits to it, as I mentioned above, and yet there is enough I don't like about it that I have reservations about recommending it.  Will I continue to have my children part of it?  I don't know.  I think I might make it optional to read a portion of it -- always with some discussion, though.  I much prefer The Story of the Romans by H. A. Guerber over this book.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Book Review: The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

Wouldn't it be great to try reviewing each book I read this year?  I seriously doubt that it will happen, but that doesn't keep me from thinking such idealistic things at the beginning of a new year. :)

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, by Samuel Johnson, was the first book I finished this year.  It was one I had on hand as a possibility for Bethany's school year, chosen from the Ambleside Online book list, but I wanted to pre-read it.  I didn't even know what it was about.  Toward the end of 2014, I wanted to complete 50 books before the year was out, but I was getting short on time.  I took up this one with just a few days left in the year because it was only around 100 pages, and it only took Johnson a week to write.  Surely then, it wouldn't take long to read.

I was wrong.  Not only was I pretty busy, especially in that last part of 2014 and the first part of 2015, both with various activities and other things needing reading as well, but the book is apparently the distillation of years of forethought, learning, and experience.  While he did whip it out in a week in 1759 to pay for the costs of his mother's healthcare and funeral, and it is a novel, it's not a lightweight read.  This is a thought-provoking, philosophical book.

But don't let that keep you from reading it!  Although I was mildly irritated that I couldn't get it read in time, and it ended up taking me more than twice as long to read it as it took him to write it, I really enjoyed it.  I'm quite glad I read it, and recommend it.

Rasselas is a young prince who lives in what seems at first to be a rather Utopian community, but he is not content.  He decides to travel and explore the concept of happiness, to try to determine where and how to find and keep it.  This book is about his adventures and conversations with various people from different walks of life in his attempts to do so.

Through this plot, Johnson philosophizes on various topics, including but certainly not limited to:  idleness and luxury, work, learning, marriage, family, grief, and madness.  Yes, he packed a lot in those less than 100 pages!  There is a lot of quotable wisdom in it.  I think it will make a great book for discussion, especially coupled with a solid Biblical perspective.  I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by this little book.

Some of the many quotes I enjoyed:

"...the life that is devoted to knowledge passes silently away, and is very little diversified by events.  To talk in publick, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to inquire, and answer inquiries, is the business of a scholar.  He wanders about the world without pomp or terrour, and is neither known nor valued but by men like himself" (p. 15).

"Inconsistencies... cannot both be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.  Yet diversity is not inconsistency" (p. 16).

"...drinking at the fountains of knowledge, to quench the thirst of curiosity" (p. 17).

"...envy feels not its own happiness, but when it may be compared with the misery of others" (p. 19).

"Truth, such as is necessary to the regulation of life, is always found where it is honestly sought" (p. 24).

"Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed" (p. 25).

"Few things are impossible to diligence and skill" (p. 28).

"I live in the crowds of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself, and am only loud and merry to conceal my sadness" (p. 35).

"We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself" (p. 35).

"Be not too hasty... to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men" (p. 38).

"...every tongue was muttering censure and every eye was searching for a fault" (p. 47).

"The colours of life in youth and age appear different, as the face of nature in spring and winter" (p. 50).

"Few parents act in such a manner as much to enforce their maxims by the credit of their lives" (p. 50).

"The general folly of mankind is the cause of general complaint" (p. 56).

"...nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left... as we approach one, we recede from another.  There are goods so opposed that we cannot seize both, but, by too much prudence, may pass between them at too great a distance to reach either.  This is often the fate of long consideration; he does nothing who endeavours to do more than is allowed to humanity....  Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content.  No man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of the spring: no man can, at the same time, fill his cup from the source and from the mouth of the Nile" (p. 58).

"This at least... is the present reward of virtuous conduct, that no unlucky consequence can cause us to repent it" (p. 67).

"Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful" (p. 81).

" mock the heaviest of human afflictions is neither charitable nor wise.... Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason" (p. 84).

"No disease of the imagination... is so difficult of cure, as that which is complicated with the dread of guilt..." (p. 92).

I had trouble stopping!  But I must leave you reason to read the book. :)

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Extra Photos

Here are some more photos from our not back-to-school group.  They are a little more varied, a little more fun, a little more silly. :) I'm putting them up without commentary to save time.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

2014-2015 Not Back-to-School Photos

Well, now that it's November, I guess it's finally time to get back to school...

Joking. :) The children have been working hard for quite some time.  I took "not" back-to-school photos a while ago, but hadn't gotten around to posting them.  Our first "official" week of school started September 14. (But that's a Sunday, you say?  Exactly.  They learn on Sundays, too -- very important things, in fact.  But the more traditional school work didn't start until the following day.)  Due to Justice's mid-August birth we delayed our start time this year.  The photos were taken near the end of September.

I have other photos without the signs showing their ages, but I limited this post to only the ones with signs to reduce its length.  I got more "sign shots" with some students than others.

Perhaps I'll post other pictures later... but at my current rate of posting, there are no guarantees. Between one little boy who doesn't settle down easily at night, and another who is an early-morning riser, these precious blessings are stretching me these days.  Many times that might otherwise seem good for blogging now and then are spent discussing heavy machinery with a 3 year old or caring for a fussy baby.  It's a season that will seem to have passed oh, so quickly when I look back. These photos serve as evidence of that, as I see how much my older ones have grown from previous years.

That the Lord has blessed us with all these beautiful children fills me with awe.  They are amazing.  God is truly an incredible Creator and deserves our praise. 

We have a new student this year. :)

He had a rash for a while that we thought was heat rash.  We finally upped the a/c because we felt sorry for him, and it improved, but part of it did linger and came back now and then, though it's finally all gone now and his cheeks are back to smooth baby softness.  He may have sensitive skin.

Abraham had a little trouble smiling on request...

 ...but he was still cute.

Telling me something about the sign.

I finally resorted to bribery.  I told him he could have a Starburst if he could smile nicely for pictures. I promised them to the older ones, too, but he was why.

Funny boy.  

Liberty did pretty well.

Topaz the cat joined her...

 ...and seemed to be posing for this shot.

Cheese!  Cutie pie.

Here's Tirzah, who was still 7.  Now she is 8, after having a birthday in October.

Turning into a lovely young lady.

Speaking of lovely young ladies, I'm blessed to have the company of two others...

...and a handsome young gentleman as well.

Here is the last lovely young lady, Bethany, who is really the first.

My babies are growing up!