Saturday, February 19, 2011

Giants in the Earth

by O. E. Rolvaag

Thumbs up.

This classic tale of Norwegian immigration to Dakota Territory, tells the story of the Spring Creek Settlement.  Per and Beret Hansa, Hans and Sorrina Olsa, Syvert and Kjersti Tonseten, and the two Solum brothers face together, the perils of westward expansion.  Among the hardships they must bear are hunger, backbreaking labor, difficulties in childbirth, fear of the native people, grasshoppers, and summer and winter storms.  But worse by far for some, is the fear and loneliness of this new country.  The openness and stillness are so pervasive they are hard to ignore.  And for some settlers, including Per Hansa's Beret, they sometimes lead to insanity.

Rolvaag, himself a Norwegian immigrant as a young man, tells all too realistically the sights and sounds of the prairie and the various emotions of the settlers.  We laugh and cry with them.  We appreciate the noble sacrifices they made in order to turn what is described as a desolate and forbidding landscape into the communities and farms that thrive in those prairie lands today. 

We hear with Per Hansa and Beret the, "Squeak, squeak," of the wagon wheels and the, "Tish-ah, tish-ah," of the grasses opening before and closing behind the wagon.

We share with Beret the fear of the open spaces and the almost supernatural forces that inhabit them. We can feel the great silence along with those first settlers.

We experience the manic energy of Per Hansa to get more and more ground broken and keep ahead of his neighbors.  And we rejoice over each acre of sod he breaks and the large sod house and stable he provides his family.

We feel Syvert and Kjersti's sadness, and even bitterness, when they are not able to have children.  We breath a sigh of relief with Per Hansa, when his wife and child make it through a frighteningly difficult birth.

We rejoice Per Hansa's faithful friends, Hans Olsa and Sorrina, when their friend's wife returns to her senses.  We can appreciate the import of their steadfastness to Per Hansa and his family.

But most of all, we feel gratitude and awe toward our forebears for the hardships they surmounted that we might have the farms and towns that make the great plains the great communities they are today.  These people were truly giants in the earth.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The White Mountains

by John Christopher

Two thumbs up!

This is the first installment in the classic Tripods trilogy written in the late '60's by British science fiction author Samuel Youd under the pseudonym, John Christopher.  This series for youth truly stands the test of time.  I enjoyed it in the late '80's, when I first read it as a child, and I enjoyed it now, as an adult.

The story begins quite like a coming of age tale.  We find Will, on the eve of his Capping ceremony, which will mark his entrance into adulthood.  He lives in a futuristic society in which everyone has been enslaved by the mysterious Tripods through mind control made possible by the implantation of metal Caps on the heads of 14 year old during a special celebration.  We slowly learn who the Tripods are as the story progresses, as the story is told from Will's point of view, and he isn't quite sure what they are or how they came to rule over man.

This thrilling science fiction adventure is captivating for so many reasons.  Certainly, the idea of a boy battling large, metallic creatures who are possibly alien beings is motivation enough for many kids to pick up the book.  But looking deeper, the thoughts of Will as he journeys toward a life of freedom from Capping and the Tripods are just as important.  We see struggles that many children his age face: a desire for true friendship, respect and his own place in the world.  We see a child who questions authority, and wants to think for himself.  We see his bravery, but also his fear.  We see him second guess himself in moments of weakness, yet prevail-----perhaps the same weaknesses which allowed this futuristic human race to become slaves to the Tripods long ago.

It is also interesting to hear these characters, who live in the future but with 19th century technology, give their views on "relics of the ancients" that they see remnants of.  Items like watches, subway systems, canned food, trains---are completely foreign concepts to Will and his companions.  They seem to know as little about what life had been like on Earth before the Tripods came as they do about the Tripods themselves.  One could speculate about how a society could be so physically, mentally and morally weak to have allowed themselves to be overcome so completely by the Tripods.

With rumors that this trilogy will soon be made into a movie, it's a great time to rediscover this classic contribution to children's literature.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Write, Slide and Learn: Phonics

Edited by Kate Cuthbert

Thumbs up.

This is a really neat book with a variety of phonics activities.  The range of activities is quite large, with just a few pages at each level, so this could be a deterrent for some users.

Perhaps the most useful lessons are found in the first few pages.  The book begins with a really nice section on choosing the correct short vowel to match the pictures.  Since many kids have trouble hearing the difference between some short vowel sounds, particularly, a, e, and i, these lessons give fun reinforcement when first learning those distinctions.

There is a section on long vowel sounds with a silent e.  This section could be used to introduce the "first vowel says its name, second vowel is silent" rule. 

After that, the progression of the book becomes slightly more arbitrary.  The lessons continue with an extensive long vowel section, less suitable for a beginning reader, then back to some consonant practice that a beginner could do.

The long vowel sections could be useful for those practicing spelling lessons with various long vowel combinations or for review of the above.  It includes a few pages of practice for each of the long vowel sounds in which the child chooses which vowel combination is the correct one for a given picture.  For instance, on the long o page, the student must choose between o, oa, ow, and o+e, to complete the words  "n__s__"  or  "t__ __d"  and there is a corresponding photo for each.

The book includes lessons on choosing whether the vowel sound is long or short; ending and beginning consonants, and general consonants; ending and beginning blends; digraphs; and review pages.

The book is a write on/wipe off style book that is actually easy for the kids to wipe off.  That is a big plus for me, since it seems like so many reusable books of this sort take a parent to do the wiping.  It comes with its own marker.  It has an enclosed spiral binding, in which my daughter kept handy a paper towel for wiping the pages clean.

The lessons are of two sorts, every other page is a practice page of four rows with four pictures in each, and a place below to fill in the correct letter or letter combo.  There is a neat sliding mechanism that allows the child to check each row after filling in the answers.  As the child pulls the slide, the pictures are hidden and are replaced with the correct entire word, and below it the particular letter or letter combo that the child ought to have filled in.

The alternate pages have just a few colorful photos and blanks, which reinforce the lesson.  These pages have no answers included.

The pages and binding seem durable.  The photos throughout are engaging and colorful.  Most pictures are easily identifiable, but a few were difficult for my preschooler to determine.  I'm sure an older user could more readily identify the photos.  The book was originally published in Australia, so there are occasional words that have different English usages in American English, such as a light "globe" instead of "bulb".

Over all the book is very nice.  It could make a nice addition to a homeschool collection, or a summer review or a classroom learner.