Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Do you love Minnesota? Especially the mighty Mississippi? Have you ever heard of Blue Wing Minnesota? Probably not since it is a fictional setting in a great book called Horns and Wrinkles written by Joe Helgerson.

Helgerson grew up in southern Minnesota and uses places and ideas from his childhood to create a fantastical story with trolls and fairies and spells. Beautiful illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli bring the lying cricket and boy that grows a horn to life.

Claire is busy. Not only is she trying to find a stone feather to turn her Grandpa back from stone and help her bully cousin get rid of his horn by doing a genuine act of kindness (which she doesn’t think he is capable of) but now she is helping 3 river trolls. The trolls are cursed. “If a river troll doesn’t bring Bodacious Deepthink a shooting star before his firstborn is hatched, he gets turned into a human.” Claire isn’t even sure if she thinks that is much of a curse in the first place.

While at the end of the book it does suggest a drive down highway 61 to a fictional city you will not find, I wouldn’t let that stop you from taking a real drive down highway 61 to cities like Red Wing, Wabasha and Winona. Skip your weekend trip to Duluth and turn south this time. Not only are there beautiful bluffs for hiking, piers into Lake Pepin (the widest part of the Mississippi) and an eagle center but after reading the book you can also keep an eye out for blue wing fairies and river trolls and maybe a store with a door that reads:

Coins, Gems, Runestones,
Riddles & Other Imponderables
Wing Repair on Occasion


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April is National Poetry Month. There are lots of great poetry books written especially for kids. Some are humorous while others are spooky. Some are about nature, and some focus on a particular poetry form, like haiku or limerick. But, did you know there is an entire novel written in rhyming verse?

Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston, is one of the most unique books I have ever read! Best when read aloud, this novel tells the story of Katrina Katrell and a whole lot of fantastical creatures. Adventurous and whimsical, this story has it all.

As kids grow up, many love to listen to rhyming-verse stories told by Dr. Seuss or Bill Peet. They love the characters as well as the beautiful language. When they get older they have to choose – a good story with complex characters, or poems with lyrical language? Zorgamazoo is a rare find that lets kids choose both.

Weston admit in the acknowledgments at the back of the book that the venture in writing this poetic novel was “outright madness,” but we readers are thankful he was brave enough to try. The book is also blessed with gorgeous illustrations by Victor Rivas Villa, and creative type-fonts used throughout the text, making it as pleasing to the eye as to the ear.

Check out the author’s website at: www.robertpaulweston.com Or, visit the Zorgamazoo website.  Click on the teacher’s link at the bottom of the page for an extensive list of fun (and educational) activities to do after reading the book!

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With snow melting and flowers blooming and birds returning, Spring has sprung! If you’re anything like me, the hibernation of winter comes to an end right about now and our family suddenly has the urge to go. An essential on the packing list for my road trips – besides music, snacks, and a gigantic dose of patience – is Diane Flynn Keith’s book, Carschooling.


I don’t own one copy of this book. I own two. One stays in my car at all times; it is dog-eared and stained, with crumpled cover and crumbs permanently embedded between its pages. The other stays in my house. Why two copies? I’ll explain in a minute.


As Diane writes in her introduction, she spent countless hours in her car during her kids’ homeschool years, driving them to various classes, libraries, park days and field trips. These activities, coupled with longer road trips, translated to thousands of hours in transit – travel time that Diane turned into learning time. Carschooling is her comprehensive compilation of activities every homeschool can do to make the most of those travel hours.


The book is divided into academic subjects because, as Diane believes, “Carschooling families can cover all the subjects typically required by national curriculum standards…(pg. 6).” Some families may choose to do this – and Diane provides sample curricula to get you started – whereas others may simply use it to supplement and enrich their travel time.


After a very helpful Getting Organized chapter, Diane dives right in with unique and fun learning opportunities that appeal to all ages. In the Carschooling Math section, my family’s personal favorite is Play 21 (pg. 84). Players scan license plates to find ones whose numbers will add up to 21. We usually set a goal – the first player to find five of them wins! This is a great way to sneak in addition and, more often than not, my kids will play well after the official “game” is over.


Another favorite license plate game is Crack the License Plate Code (pg. 152). The challenge is to have kids look at license plates to find abbreviations common in texting. For example, “BTW” translates to By The Way. With tweens and pre-tweens in my car, this game is all the rage. We have the most fun with coming up with our own unique text abbreviations or, on some days, coming up with full sentences based on the letter combinations on the license plates. DW2Y6W could translate to “Do what you want” or “Danny wants your watermelon.” Giggles always ensue…and time flies.


For young and old alike, we like Silver Sculptures (pg. 222). Packing a roll of aluminum foil provides a carschool art class as kids are invited to tear and twist the foil into works of art. We often issue challenges – sculpt an animal! – and everyone sets to work on their artistic endeavor. And Rest Stop Olympics (pg. 267) is another one the kids look forward to. When stopping for bathroom breaks or gas or snacks, everyone hops out of the car and I announce the event, my phone’s stopwatch feature at the ready. “Who can do the most jumping jacks in thirty seconds?” or “Who can hop on one foot for the longest?” Getting wiggles out has never been so much fun.


So….why does my homeschool household have two copies of this book? The one in my car has been essential to have on hand for looking up impromptu activities and games while our trip is in progress. The second one – the one that sits on my bookshelf – is the one I consult for longer trips, for those days when I know we’ll be traveling for a long while, when I need the opportunity to plan and prepare and bring special items along. Both copies have been indispensable and have truly transformed our travel time into learning time.


Happy reading!

this review first appeared on Parent At the Helm.

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Studying ancient Egypt or just planning on going to the Science Museum of Minnesota’s King Tut exhibit? Casting the Gods Adrift is a great historical fiction book about the brief period in ancient Egypt when King Tut’s father broke with the polytheistic religious beliefs long held by the Egyptian people and declared that only Aten, the sun god, would be worshipped. This monotheistic system caused much turmoil and was replaced again by the old religion when King Tut came to power. Intended for younger readers, this novel is a quick but exciting read.

The author does an excellent job describing the ancient Egyptian landscape, animals, beliefs and customs. Historical fiction is special because while the story can be completely made up and the characters can seem modern and relatable to the reader, the small elements of scene description, common practices or even musical instruments teach aspects of history that might otherwise be overlooked.

A famous sculpture of the bust of Queen Nefertiti bears the artist’s name who turns into the main character of this story. Using this one bit of historical information, the author creates a life and story full of both historical facts and imaginative drama.

The author, Geradline McCaughrean describes her many novels as “something for everyone, you see, my dear young, not-so-young, eccentric, middle-of-the-road, poetical, sad, cheerful, timid or reckless reader. All they have in common is that they all contain words. If you are allergic to words, you’d best not open the covers.”

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Reviewed by Beth Balmanno

Zenschooling, the newest offering by homeschool veteran and author Tammy Takahaski, is a gentle, affirming book filled with sage advice. The focus of the book is simple: by embracing the Zen principle of being present in each moment, of being mindful of where we are and what we are doing in our homeschooling, families can create a more peaceful, positive place…not just for learning but for living.

Incorporating Zen ideas and beliefs is easy, according to Tammy. After all, “The simple act of just being there with the children is mindfulness practice. We teach the best when we are fully present. We show our love for them the best when we are fully present. (pg. 9).” With this in mind, Tammy shares with us a variety of situations and how we can adapt to them to better serve ourselves and our children in our pursuit of a peaceful, meaningful life without school.

In the chapter Homeschool Hang-Ups, Tammy touches on the fears and concerns many homeschoolers harbor, whether it’s the fear of not being a good enough teacher or the fear of readying our children for the “real world.” Her advice: these hang-ups are attached to judgement; all we need do is detach from this. For example, some parents worry that they don’t measure up as educators or, conversely, they fear being judged by other teachers (homeschool or otherwise). Tammy reminds us, “Without an attachment to judgement, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. (pg. 58)”

In the chapter Cultivating Patience, Tammy tackles what may be a universal issue in most homeschool families: impatience. So many of us are impatient with learning – Johnny isn’t reading and he’s 9 or Susie is behind in math – and yet we only need one thing to help us overcome this obstacle: be mindfully present. We must realize that, “…Being impatient does not do any good in making things happen faster…being mindful can make the passage of time almost invisible (pgs.202-03).”

There are nuggets of practical goodness scattered plentifully throughout but perhaps the best section of the book is tucked in the last few pages, where Tammy describes her ideal image of a “Zen teacher.” A Zen teacher is patient…has unfailing belief in her student…focuses on the process rather than the result…treats failure not as a crisis but as an opportunity. It is everything parent strive to be in the home learning environment. It was the section I read and nodded my head, thinking, “Yes. This is the parent I want to be. The parent I wish I could be.”

However, in true form, Tammy tells us, “But, then, a Zen teacher is none of these things, is he (pg. 248)?” Because to have these beliefs – to attach judgement or fear to how we perceive ourselves as teachers – goes against the very principles of Zen. If we release ourselves from our expectations and remind ourselves to be mindfully present – to our children, our families, and society as a whole – we will find that, “…when we look close, what we are doing is just fine (pg. 249).” And what homeschool parent doesn’t need to hear that?

this review was originally published at www.parentatthehelm.com

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