Blue YA Books

Since I’ve read several YA books lately and they all happen to be blue, I came up with a very creative title for this post. 😉 Even if you don’t typically read YA fiction, I highly recommend these.

Sweet Home Alaska

Carole Estby Dagg

Terpsichore and her family move to Alaska during the Great Depression as part of a New Deal plan to help struggling families and to settle the new territory. She works hard to convince her mother that they should stay by helping her father on their farm, founding a community library, and creating a life for their family. Terpsichore loves Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and often finds parallels between her life and Laura’s. (These are the only Little House books in publication at the time–Little House on the Prairie appears later in the novel.) She even names her prize-winning pumpkins Laura and Almanzo!

My main problem with this book is the title. I’m not sure what I would have called it, but I’m not a fan of the author’s choice. Ha! I did enjoy learning a bit about American history that I didn’t know previously–the Alaska settlement plan is all based on fact, as are many of the details Ms. Dagg included. I would recommend this one for the middle school crowd: 8 and up.

Report Card: B+



Pam Munoz Ryan

This book is incredible. The author tells the stories of three different children on different continents immediately before and during World War II. The thread that ties them together is a harmonica that they all end up playing. Beyond that, these stories are set within a frame story that’s part of another story! Confused yet? It sounds nuts, but it works.

Echo reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See, but for the younger set. I would probably hold off on this one until 6th/7th grade mostly because 1)it’s huge (and therefore intimidating) and 2)it deals with World War II and the accompanying issues of the Holocaust, concentration camps, and death. I have heard great things about the audio version of this book as well.

Report Card: A+


The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book is a clever retelling of The Jungle Book, except the jungle is a cemetery and the animals are the souls of the dearly departed. Nobody Owens ends up in an old cemetery as an infant and stays there, protected by its inhabitants for 15 or so years. It’s a fun coming-of-age story, as Bod deals with his past and moves into his future during the course of the story.

This novel has a Harry Potter vibe to it: lots of supernatural and fantasy and weird made-up facts. I love that Mr. Gaiman wrote this book for his kids. 🙂 I would recommend this book to the middle school + crowd as well.

Report Card: B+







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America’s First Daughter

America’s First Daughter IMG_0629.JPG

Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

This is a history book that reads like a novel, or a novel that reads like a history book; I can’t decide which! The authors took historical facts (mainly based on the thousands of letters written by Thomas Jefferson over the course of his life) and filled in the unknowns about the president and his daughter with probable and possible events. The book covers a span of 50+ years in the life of Patsy Jefferson, from her escape from Monticello with her father, mother, and sister during the Revolutionary War, to the mid-1800s, after the death of her father. While quite a tome (well over 500 pages), I found the story fascinating because it demonstrates how much influence Patsy had on her father’s life (and presidency) as well as bringing to life the Revolutionary period. So much of that era becomes rosy and glorified, when it really had to have been a terrible time, even though so much good came out of it. I enjoyed how the authors gave voices to the great fathers of America and showed their humanness–too often we just see them as legends and larger than life. The parallels between the American Revolution and the closely-following French Revolution also gave me new insights into the history of that era and the relationship between the new Americans and their French allies.

My Rating: B+

  • fascinating history, but dry at times (and long!)
  • excellent meshing of historical fact and imagination
  • a good compromise as far as learning history and providing enjoyment

Clean Factor: A

  • no objectionable language or scenes

Application: B-

  • I think the target audience for this book is fairly narrow.
  • It would spur a fun discussion in book club if I could talk them into a big one! 😉


Amazon link:

Secrets of a Charmed Life

Secrets of a Charmed Life51Dv9RUSOJL

Susan Meissner

Summary: American student Kendra Van Zant meets Isabel McFarland and intends to interview her for a college history assignment. Isabel is an elderly survivor of the London Blitz during World War II. However, the interview becomes increasingly interesting when Isabel reveals that she isn’t actually Isabel at all.

*Warning: the next two sections contain spoilers.*

What Works:

  • The Londoner’s perspective of the Blitz. With as many WW2 books as I have read, this is the first one that centers on the German attack on the civilians of London (minus introductions to books taking place in the country which focus on children who have been shipped out of harm’s way–i.e. The Chronicles of Narnia and The War that Saved My Life.) Meissner puts you right in the middle of the air raids and the aftermath of the destruction.
  • The frame story. Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about Isabel telling her story as a part of a college-student’s history assignment. The whole flashback is a fairly common literary technique (at least in the modern literature I’ve read), and I admit I rolled my eyes a bit when I figured out that’s what was going on again. However, the present-day “bookend” in the final pages and Isabel’s reasons for wanting to tell her story to the public make it work better and complete a tidy ending to a messy life.

What Doesn’t Work:

  • The entire section of the book written as letters from Julia. I get that Meissner wanted to keep the fact that Julia is still alive as a secret, but the letters seem like a cop-out. The rest of the novel is so compelling, but the letters leave a lot to be desired. Even though the previous parts of the book have a third-person perspective, they still have much personal insight and really connect the reader to Emmy/Isabel. The letters, despite being written in first person, do not have nearly the emotion and feeling as the prose in the other parts of the novel.

Final Thoughts:

Overall I enjoyed the book and it read quickly. Meissner develops the characters well, writes a believable story, and keeps the action moving quickly (except for that letter part. Yawn.) This is a great book club pick (I missed this month’s meeting) and has a wide reader-appeal. (Kendal, I think you would like this one!) I much preferred this novel to the other of Meissner’s that I have read (The Fall of Marigolds). Sorry for all the parentheticals!


My Rating: B+

  • compelling storyline, despite frame story/flashback
  • less-than-stellar choice for Part 3
  • lovely character development
  • historical significance


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CC Cycle 3/Usborne Match-Ups

Here is a list I’ve compiled of current Usborne offerings that correspond to Classical Conversations Cycle 3 (2017-2018 academic year). Please give me credit for this list if you choose to share. And if you do not have an Usborne rep, please use my website to order your books! I am grateful for your support of my business. 😉

To visit my website, click here:


Disclaimer: All links go to my Usborne website.

Timelines of World History
History: Usborne Encyclopedia of World History

What does the President Look Like?

Who Were the First North Americans?

Sticker Dressing Explorers

See Inside Exploration and Discovery

1920s Fashion (sticker book)

Hollywood and the Golden Age of Glamour

World Wars

The Story of the Second World War

See Inside the First World War

Sticker Dressing First World War

Sticker Dressing Second World War

First World War Sticker Book

Wartime Fashion (sticker book)

Animals at War

Fighter Planes

Living in Space

The Story of Astronomy and Space

Astronaut’s Handbook (there are bunches of space books if you search for them: here)

Science: Usborne Encyclopedia of Science

Usborne Children’s Encyclopedia

First Encylopedia of Science

First Encyclopedia of the Human Body

Human Body Reference Book

Complete Book of the Human Body

Usborne Living World Encyclopedia

Lift-the-Flap Questions and Answers about the Body

See Inside Your Body  (7+)

Look Inside Your Body  (3+)

Shine-a-Light: The Human Body

Lift-the-Flap Questions and Answers about Science

Science Activities (3 volumes); many other science activity books here

Illustrated Elementary Science Dictionary (8+)

Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Biology (12+)

Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Science (12+)

Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Chemistry (12+)

All science books here.

Math: Lift-the-Flap Times Tables

Learning Wrap-Ups Multiplication

First Illustrated Math Dictionary (6+)

Illustrated Elementary Math Dictionary (8+)

Illustrated Dictionary of Math (12+)

Times Tables Activity Book

Wipe-Clean Starting Times Tables

Geography: Big Picture Atlas

Lift-the-Flap Picture Atlas

Shine-a-Light: Wonders of the USA

See Inside Great Cities

Learning Wrap-Ups: States and Capitals

Usborne Geography Encyclopedia

Fine Arts: Usborne Children’s Book of Art Famous Artists Sticker Book

Usborne Book of Famous Artists

Children’s Book of Art

Lift the Flap: Art

I Can Draw Animals

Step-By-Step Drawing, Animals, People, Dinosaurs

Art Treasury

Famous Paintings Cards

Classical Music Reference Book

Famous Composers Reference Book

First Book about the Orchestra

Noisy Orchestra

Latin: First Thousand Words in Latin

The links I listed for the encyclopedias are for the reduced format, which are the smaller, paperback versions, but they contain the exact content as the more expensive, slightly larger, hardback versions, which are linked here: Science Encyclopedia, History Encyclopedia, Geography Encyclopedia. There are library editions available as well. If you want the hardback versions, you can save some money by ordering the set here.

Building a Home Library:

If I had to choose only 3 books from Usborne, I would choose these:


Usborne Encyclopedia of Science

This book provides a survey of pretty much every science topic. Here is an example of a page on energy (cycle 2, week 15):


If you send me a message, I will send you pictures of the table of contents.

NB: There is a perfunctory explanation of sex in the biology section, so you may want to keep an eye on your younger readers. Also, Usborne is not a Christian company, so some topics may require discussion of that nature, i.e. evolution.

Timelines of World History

This book is pretty amazing. I think at least 10 families from my CC community have purchased this book. Not every CC timeline event is mentioned, but the majority correspond. I like how the pages show parallel events across the world. It’s a great starting point for further investigation. I will send a picture of my Foundations timeline page marked with the corresponding Timelines pages via email or PM upon request.


Big Picture Atlas

This one is just fun! I like that you can see more of the culture of the places we discuss in geography.


If your wishlist has extended your budget, please consider hosting a party with me. You can email me at or PM me on Facebook.

Please join my page to stay updated on all things Usborne!

*If you purchase books using these links or via my website, I will be compensated by Usborne. I appreciate your support of my business (and your consideration of my time in creating this post) through your purchases.

Deconstructing Penguins: English Teacher Pick

Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone


The Goldstones describe the book club model they set up through their local library, specifically for 2nd-5th graders. They explain the importance of reading itself, but also emphasize reading good literature and not just reading for reading’s sake. (Sorry for all the “readings.” 🙂 ) In each chapter, the authors discuss different literary elements, specifically protagonist/antagonist, plot/climax, and conflict. It sounds boring, but it’s not; the comments and questions from the kids in the reading groups keep things light for sure, even when discussing difficult texts like Animal Farm (in 4th grade!) and The Giver.

Who Should Read This Book:

-Parents of elementary aged kids

-Literature teachers at any level

-People who want to get more out of what they read

Even though this book is geared at teaching/guiding elementary students, I think that most of what the Goldstones demonstrate translates to the reading of any book. I have found myself thinking about their questions and methodology in the (adult) books I have read since finishing this one. I hope to utilize these methods in discussing books with my own kids and if I find myself teaching in a classroom setting again.

Why You Should Read This Book:

The Goldstones show how to get to the meat of any book you pick up. The themes in the books they choose for their book clubs are not light reading by any means, and the kids are extremely insightful. I love how they don’t “dumb down” reality and they let the kids make the observations themselves while gently guiding them to deeper understanding. The whole point of literature is to experience things that you otherwise wouldn’t, and then to act on it. If there’s no reason the author wrote the book, then it’s just popcorn and not really worth my time. 😉

The reading lists in the back of the book are full of great titles that promote thinking, discussion, and self-examination. If you have any interest at all in reading for more than just checking it off your list, you won’t be disappointed.


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Dad is Fat: A Book That Will Make You Laugh

Dad is Fat

by Jim Gaffigan

Y’all. This book is HILARIOUS. Like I read passages out loud to my husband with tears rolling down my face hilarious. If you are a parent, or even if you’re not, it is a great, fun read. Here are some of my favorite quotes. (Note: I read an ebook version, so the page numbers might be off.)

  • “[Having children] is an incurable condition, and I have it. Symptoms include constant fatigue, inability to sleep, and of course, extreme sleep disruption.” -p. 22-23
  • “Failing and laughing at your own shortcomings are the hallmarks of a sane parent.” -p. 29
  • “For me, parenting was literally a wake-up call from my own simple selfishness. In other words, I not quite as horrible as I used to be.” -p. 44-45
  • (discussing newborns) “No matter what the weight, they say the same thing: ‘Oooh, big baby.'” p. 57
  • “‘The Jets have asked for a time-out.’ Katie saw the quarterback talking to the coach and asked, ‘Why did he get a time-out?’ I thought for a second and then just said, ‘Because he didn’t listen to his daddy.'” p. 79
  • “I don’t want to give the terrorists any ideas, but if I really wanted to cripple a city with biological warfare, my WMD of choice would have to be the toddler.” p. 82
  • “If children equal noise, then having five kids is like living on a construction site. Noise from our children is a constant in our house. Silence is startling…There are different volumes of loud, and kids know their cues. If you can get a phone call, children intuitively know to speak louder, based on the importance of the call. If you are removing a toddler from a wedding or a funeral, they will understand they are supposed to scream…Screaming. Did I mention the screaming? Screaming is usually associated with horror films and roller coasters. That is why I usually look like I’ve just watched a horror film on a roller coaster.” p. 92-93
  • “I explained what it was like having a fourth kid very simply: imagine you are drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.” p. 183
  • “[Having children] is a sensitive subject and not really anyone else’s business…I don’t mean to get up on a diaper box, but individual liberties are all-important in this country…except when it comes to the number of kids you have or don’t have…So, no kids, one kid, five kids, or sixteen kids, I say we just live and let live. This is the land of the free and the home enough of the brave enough to have five kids. Judging other people says more about you than about the person you’re judging.” p. 186-187
  • “I guess the reasons against having more children always seem uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life. I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another thirty-four kids to be a pretty decent guy. Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart. I would trade money, sleep, or hair for a smile from one of my children in a heartbeat. Well, it depends on how much hair.” p. 189

I also recommend Jim Gaffigan’s stand-up routines. He’s so funny and completely PG rated. 🙂



Watership Down: A Book You’ve Been Meaning to Read

Watership Down

by Richard Adams


A group of rabbits from a large warren decide to strike out on their own after Fiver, a rabbit with visions of the future, sees a terrible event at their home. Hazel, the de facto leader (the Chief Rabbit of the renegade group), guides the other rabbits miles and miles, dodging all kinds of danger, including badgers, rivers, and a strange warren they consider joining. Eventually they find an ideal location for a new warren at Watership Down, but soon realize that since they brought no does along from their old warren, that they cannot flourish without finding some female rabbits. Hazel and his rabbits embark on an expedition to find some does from a nearby warren, but end up causing all-out war with the Efafran warren’s crazed Chief, General Woundwort.

Lessons from Watership Down:

  • Be nice to everyone. Hazel makes a point to befriend other animals, such as a mouse and the big white seabird, even when rabbits usually stay to themselves. In both cases, Hazel’s being friendly and helpful (actually saving the lives of both a mouse and a bird) ends up saving all the rabbits in Watership Down on various occasions. Hazel understood the value of working together, even with those different than himself.
  • A true leader leads with humility and respect for others. As evidenced by the parallel between General Woundwort and Hazel, a true leader puts the needs of his people (or in this case, rabbits) above his own and does not make decisions out of vanity or selfish ambition. Hazel literally puts his own life on the line on multiple occasions for the benefit of his warren; General Woundwort truly thinks only of himself and his reputation. Furthermore, Hazel is the chief rabbit of the Watership Down warren because the other rabbits made him so, not because he forced his way to the top.

Final Thoughts:

I’m kind of sad that I waited this long to read this book! While it did take a while to get into, I could barely put it down after I reached the middle. The relationships are real, the struggles are scary, and oddly enough, it’s fairly believable. I would love to teach this novel in a junior high or early high school setting; it would make for great summer reading (if you could make sure the kids would actually read it!).

My Rating: A+

  • universal truths and themes
  • sympathetic characters
  • excellent writing

Clean Factor: A+

Application: A

  • great for a classroom setting, possibly even a family read-aloud
  • fairly long, but it does provide many talking points, so it would work for a book club as well

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Take 2

I have read books by these authors previously. These are my thoughts on some of their other works.

A Book Based on a Vacation or a Road Trip: At the Water’s Edge

by Sara Gruen


Maddie, her husband Ellis, and his best friend Hank head to Scotland in the midst of World War II to attempt to find the famous monster of Loch Ness. Many years before, Ellis’s father had faked pictures of the beast and therefore had been disgraced and Ellis planned to redeem his family’s name (although selfishly to get back into his father’s good graces/money/inheritance). However, Maddie discovers more about her husband than about the mythical monster while in Scotland.


Several years ago, I read Water for Elephants, which I really enjoyed, but I had to get rid of because of the pervasive sexual content. (I thought about blacking out or tearing out pages, but there was too much!) This novel did not have quite as much racy material, but some still appeared. And  evidently, Sara Gruen has a thing for extramarital affairs in her novels! Even though Maddie can be “justified,” it’s still painful to read about an unhappy marriage. The novel, although set during World War II, does not focus on the war at all, and honestly when Gruen interjects facts about concentration camps, or the advancement of the Russian army, it seems a little forced. The focus of the story isn’t on the war, or even the famous monster, but on the much more human monster that Maddie struggles against.

Is this a good story? Sure. Is it literary writing? Not really. Would I recommend? Meh.

Rating: B-


A Book Based on a Historical Event: Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks


When the plague invades her town (via the tailor living in her house), Anna loses her boarder and both of her young sons just months after her husband died in a mining accident. The young parish rector encourages the village to close its borders and quarantine themselves to prevent further spreading of the disease, and the town’s people band together to survive through its rampage.


A book about the plague sounds reeeeeally depressing, and it pretty much is. However, the main focus of the novel isn’t how many people have died and who might be next, but on the relationships between the townspeople and how disaster brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) in them. My main critique of this one is that the ending is just plain weird. I’ll leave it at that as not to spoil anything!

Brooks has a knack for choosing interesting historical events and creating an entire world around pieced together facts (other books of Brooks’ I have read: March, Caleb’s Crossing, and People of the Book). While this isn’t my favorite of Brooks’ works, it does have an interesting, personal perspective.

Rating: B+


A Book from the Library: Left Neglected

by Lisa Genova


Sarah is VP of a major consulting firm, has a great husband, 3 kids, a nice house, and a vacation home in the mountains. Everything comes crashing down when she rolls her SUV while trying to make phone calls on the way to work one morning. Sarah wakes up several days later in the hospital, having absolutely no awareness of the left side of her body or the left side of anything else; “Left Neglect,” the neurologists call it. Once she comes to grips with her new situation, Sarah has to decide what’s really important in her life.


While this novel did not hit me as hard as Still Alice (probably because I don’t have a personal connection to Left Neglect like I do Alzheimer’s), Genova again displays a remarkable insight into the life and brain of a person who suffers from neurological issues. The characters are well-drawn and multi-faceted–Genova did a better job with Sarah’s husband Bob than she did with Alice’s husband. I love the parallels between Sarah’s “new” brain and her son’s ADHD one. The redemptive story between mother and daughter is lovely as well.

This one will go on my “recommend to anyone” list. It brings a little-known medical condition to light and also makes the reader think and step into Sarah’s shoes.

Rating: A


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The Boys in the Boat: A New York Times Bestseller

The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown


In 1933, a group of eager University of Washington freshmen sit in a rowing shell for the first time. Over the next three years, these boys row thousands of miles in their quest to defeat their rivals at the University of California. Their success in American regattas catapult them to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where their defeat of Germany foreshadows the great war to come.

Reasons to Read this Book:

  • Great American heroes: Everyone likes a good, old-fashioned, red-white-and-blue tale. This is definitely one of those. What makes it better? These boys are the pulled up by their own bootstraps, American dream type. Brown focuses on Joe Rantz, the number 2 man, and the hardships he experiences as a child and young man, including the early death of his mother, abandonment by his father and stepmother, and living hand to mouth throughout his college years. The story is much more inspiring than it would have been if the Olympic crew consisted of Harvard or Yale old-money boys. It’s a good versus evil story too: the Allies and the Axis powers, but six years premature. I got a lot of the same vibes from this story as from the Kurt Russell movie Miracle about the 1982 hockey team defeating the Russians (I highly recommend this movie! Read more here).
  • History: The Greatest Generation includes these boys who defied Hitler and his new Germany several years before the United States entered into World War II. Brown demonstrates the events in Germany in parallel with the training of the Husky crew. It’s eerie to read about the lengths the Germans went to in order to sterilize the front they showed to the world and how greatly they tried to prove that the post-World War I Germany was peaceful and welcoming and clean. Hitler, with the help of his propagandist Goebbels, fooled a lot of people for a long time! Brown also inserts short anecdotes about people who enter the crew’s story: a German family in the town where they stayed during the Olympics, only one of whom survived the war, and a soon-to-be-famous racehorse named Seabiscuit.
  • The power of a team: Throughout the book, Brown looks into the minds of each of the men on the Washington crew that becomes the American crew. When they row poorly, it’s because they aren’t paying attention to each other. When they row well (and multiple people, coaches, etc. say that this team is the best crew they have ever seen, so we’re talking really well!), they are in tune with each other and literally cannot be beaten. At the end of their careers, Joe Rantz, Shorty Hunt, and Roger Morris, had never lost a race (the Olympic crew didn’t form until 1935, so the other boys rowed in different boats at Washington). After the Olympics, the boys remained like family, spending reunions together multiple times per year, calling each other on the phone, and rowing together each decade following the Olympic victory. The boys together added up to much more than each individual’s contribution.

Final Thoughts:

You know I’m a sucker for any good nonfiction. (More here.) While there were some slow parts, and one would think that reading about a race wouldn’t be exciting, you’d be wrong! This would be a book that I would reread, so you know it’s worth it!

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: A-

  • “minus” because it took me a while to really get into it–like 50 pages.
  • appeals to a wide variety of readers

Clean Factor: A

  • nothing beyond a few disturbing mentions of atrocities committed by Hitler and his men.

Application: A

  • Book clubs: lots of discussion points; clean
  • School/Classroom setting: excellent to pair with American history class, alongside fiction in an English class; good example of nonfiction and research methods


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