New Twists on an Old Classic – Old MacDonald Revisited

Most classic children’s songs are classics for a reason – they have catchy tunes, repetitive lyrics, and opportunities for kids to get involved in the action.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm is just one such classic. It couldn’t be simpler – the lyrics name some of the different animals that can be found a farm, and give kids a chance to make funny animal noises. They also include nonsense lyrics (E-I-E-I-O), which are always fun to say and easy for kids to remember!

Kids are happy to sing this song again…and again…and again…It’s enough to drive anyone mad!

Fear not, though, because the Raincity Librarian is here for you. Here are three picture books that put a new spin on an old classic, and might just make your storytimes or programs a bit more exciting for everyone!

Old MacDonald Had a Truck

Forget the animals – Old MacDonald has heavy duty machinery! Great illustrations, trucks and construction equipment, and a Mrs. MacDonald who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. There’s lots to love in this cute, fun story.

Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop

More tools! In this version of the song, Old MacDonald and his animals are working on a surprise, and are pulling out all the tools in the woodshop to do it. There’s sawing, drilling, chiselling, filing, painting and more, with fun sound effects to match!

Old Mikamba Had a Farm

Rachel Isadora puts an international spin on the old farmyard classic, transporting the action to Africa! Old Mikamba’s farm is filled with all sorts of exciting animals like lions and elephants, with great sound effects to match. A fun and refreshing twist, with Isadora’s signature fantastic illustrations.

Hopefully these three twists on Old MacDonald will help inject a bit of variety into your programs. Enjoy!

Review: James Herriot’s Dog Stories

Like many children, I grew up absolutely obsessed with animals. I would happily have filled my room with a menagerie of furry, four-legged friends, but my terrible allergies and small urban living arrangements put an end to my Dr. Dolittle dreams.

One of my favourite means of filling the animal-shaped void in my life was through books, and few were as well-loved as the semi-autobiographical animal stories of James Herriot. Oh how I loved to explore the Yorkshire Dales with Herriot as he visited charmingly ornery farmers and sweet old cat ladies, treating sick cows, injured dogs and persnickety cats. Herriot’s short stories were filled with colourful characters and infused with real love, and were as likely to inspire laughter as they were tears.

Being part of a family of book-loving readers, most gift-giving occasions include the giving and receiving of books. My family exchanged Christmas presents before my partner and I left for Japan, and my parents gifted me a copy of James Herriot’s Dog Stories. 

“James Herriot’s Dog Stories is a very special curated collection of stories about dogs great and small, in which Herriot tells us about his own dogs and all the wonderful people and animals we have come to love so much.”

What a wonderful book. Herriot truly loved and deeply respected both the animals and humans he worked with, which shines through in each of the fifty stories in the collection. Herriot isn’t afraid to gently poke fun at some of the eccentric characters he interacts with, but he’s even happier to poke fun at himself, and shares both his failures and successes with equal honesty. Like any vet (or medical professional), for every miracle, there is a heartbreaking loss, and Herriot shares both with respect, warmth and love.

While there are plenty of hilarious and heartwarming stories, some of my favourites from the collection are in fact the heartbreakers, the tearjerking tales that are sure to melt even the hardest of hearts. In one story, for example, Herriot treats the elderly dogs of an elderly, invalid woman. The woman, who is nearing the end of her life, admits to Herriot that she’s worried that when she dies she won’t be reunited with her beloved companions, as she has been told that animals have no souls. Herriot’s response echoes what many of us animals lovers firmly believe:

” ‘Well I don’t believe it.’ I patted the hand which still grasped me. ‘If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You have nothing to worry about there'”

When the patient pushes Herriot to explain his own religious beliefs, he responds simply,

” ‘Miss Stubbs, I’m afraid I’m a bit foggy about all this,’ I said. ‘But I’m absolutely certain of one thing. Wherever you are going, they are going too.'”

The scene, which could easily become maudlin or emotionally manipulative, is handled with such respect, warmth and genuine care that it is instead deeply moving. The woman eventually passes away, and her beloved animals find a loving home with an owner who will cherish them until they too eventually pass on and are reunited with their mistress. It’s a simple story, beautifully told and quietly powerful.

Another deeply moving story features a young boy from a troubled family, who longs for stability and love but expresses his anger and hopelessness through acts of petty crime and vandalism. The boy is written off by the rest of the community as a bad kid, and a hopeless case. When the boy discovers an abandoned puppy, though, an entirely new aspect of his character is revealed, until a terrible tragedy strikes them both.

“As I closed the lid he screwed his knuckles into his eyes and his body shook. I put my arm across his shoulders, and as he leaned against me for a moment and sobbed I wondered if he had ever been able to cry like this – like a little boy with someone to comfort him.”

Though the story is ostensibly about a little puppy, it is even more about a little boy who is just as abandoned, and who is sadly allowed to fall between society’s cracks – “Nobody knew where he went and most people forgot about him.” Though the tale ends sadly, there is also the faintest glimmer of hope in the idea that no one is without merit, and that few people are naturally “bad eggs”, but are all too often let down by the world around them, and by the very people who are supposed to love and care for them. Having someone to love and who loves you, even if it’s an animal, can sometimes make all the difference.

While this collection of dog stories is perfectly suited to dog lovers, even those of us who are just mildly fond of dogs will find much here to appreciate and enjoy. The characters, the setting, the dialogue are all simply wonderful, and each short story provides a perfect momentary escape from the everyday. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald

“Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus. When you regain consciousness you remember nothing about the urgent errands. You can’t even remember where you were going. The important things now are the pain in your leg; the soreness in your back; what you will have for dinner; who is in the next bed.”

Betty MacDonald was a single mother of two young daughters in the 1940’s when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, or TB, and sent away to a sanatorium. In her memoir The Plague and I, Macdonald reflects on the year she spent away from her family and surrounded by fellow residents from all different backgrounds and walks of life, brought together by a shared battle against a frighteningly prevalent, and often deadly, disease.

“We patients at The Pines differed in color, nationality, political beliefs, I.Q., age, religion, background and ambition. According to the standards of normal living, the only things most of us had in common were being alive and speaking English, but as patients in the sanatorium we had everything in common were firmly cemented together…”

TB, for many of us in the western world, is a disease most often relegated to historical novels and old movies. TB has always reminded me of the old Bing Crosby film The Bells of St. Mary’s, which stars Ingrid Bergman as a beautiful nun who contracts tuberculosis and has to move to a warmer, dryer climate to recover. TB is often mentally placed in a box with other old-timey diseases that only appear in old stories, like scarlet fever, diphtheria, cholera and leprosy – diseases that few of us privileged to live in relative comfort in developed countries will ever witness first-hand, but that sadly still ravage communities in many parts of the world, including parts of my own country.

For MacDonald, TB temporarily robbed of her everything she held dear. She was only able to see her young daughters once a month, for only ten minutes at a time. This was meant both to protect her young daughters from contagion and to limit any “excitement” that might tire MacDonald and prevent her recovery, but it was heartbreaking for the entire family. MacDonald was one of the lucky ones – she was able to leave the sanatorium after only a year of treatment. Many of her fellow residents would spend years at a time separated from their loved ones – it wasn’t uncommon for patients to remain at the sanatorium for five years or more as TB ravaged their bodies. Patients’ lives in the sanatorium were strictly controlled and monitored, to an extent that would horrify modern patients – they couldn’t bring personal belongings into the ward, they weren’t supposed to talk or read or get out of their beds without strict permission, they weren’t even permitted to have an extra blanket if they felt cold, as all bed linens were strictly controlled. They were shouted at and told off off strict, disciplinarian nurses and medical staff for any perceived violation of the rules. Every aspect of a patient’s life was carefully monitored, controlled and regulated, and contact with outside world was extremely limited. In many ways, patients came to feel as though they were criminals, stripped of their most basic freedoms, and with little control over any aspect of their lives. Whereas most contemporary hospitals strive to take a more integrated approach to medicine that works to care for a patient mentally and emotionally as well as physically, these patients were left to battle a potentially terminal disease removed from their loved ones in a setting that often felt more like a prison than a hospital.

As MacDonald reveals in her memoir, though, even in the most difficult of situations, one can always find humour and humanity. MacDonald describes the colourful cast of characters she shared her ward with, and the friendships she quickly developed. While the staff at the sanatorium often seemed cold, hard, even ruthless, their outward demeanour often hid kind, caring souls;

“The Medical Director ruled his sanatorium and the patients with a rod of iron, said constantly that people with tuberculosis were ungrateful, stupid uncooperative and unworthy. Then, carefully screening himself from his own kindness the way he screened his patients from their operations, he loaned those same ungrateful, stupid, uncooperative, and unworthy patients money, bought them bathrobes and pajamas, took care of their families and children, listened to their problems, helped them get work, and fretted twenty-four hours a day over their welfare.”

The medical staff at The Pines TB sanatorium were working with limited drugs, knowledge and resources to treat what was at the time a poorly-understood (by the public, at least), highly contagious and difficult to treat disease that was running rampant through urban areas. MacDonald was herself infected by a coworker who had knowingly been contagious for at least 19 years, and had infected an unknown number of people. Doctors and nurses were applying contemporary medical knowledge and widely accepted ideas surrounding recovery and behaviour, and though some staff were perhaps genuinely unkind and cruel (there are always bad apples in any bunch), by and large they were simply trying to do the best they could with what they had and what they knew.

MacDonald approaches her year in the sanatorium with gentleness and heart, and although the text does feel very much a product of its times (it was written in the 1940’s), MacDonald’s wit and humour are still very approachable and highly enjoyable. She’s just as happy to poke fun at herself as at others, and moments of laughter are tempered with moments of wistful sadness and quiet reflection. MacDonald was one of the lucky ones, a fact she never takes lightly, and while her treatment at the sanatorium left much to be desired, it was also the only affordable option available to a single mother of limited income, without which she likely would not have been able to recover.  While TB is treatable with modern medicines, and is no longer as widespread as it once was, it remains a potent and lethal disease in many communities even in Canada, and should not be taken lightly, or quickly forgotten.

The Plague and I is a fascinating slice of life story, a reflection on a specific moment in history that gives us glimpses into a bygone era that’s both so very similar and dissimilar from our own. It’s a story about never losing your sense of humour, no matter the situation, and about trying to make the best out of even the most daunting realities. Charming, witty, sensitive and heartfelt, The Plague and I is definitely worth checking out.

#Road2ReadingChallenge – Freckleface Strawberry

All journeys have a starting place.
This is a weekly place to find books and tools
that you may use with readers at the start of their reading journey.
Join in the conversation at #road2reading
.

Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy and Michelle Knot at Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook have come to together to start a conversation all about emerging readers!

Read more

Michael Crichton 101

I adore Michael Crichton. He had a miraculous talent for crafting griping, edge of your seat thrillers that entertained readers while also leaving them a bit more educated and better informed for having read them. In short, these were books you really could feel good about reading.

For anyone who has yet to enjoy a Crichton novel and is wondering where to start, here are four of my very favourites. Narrowing down this list to only four titles was indeed a challenge, but I hope they help you pick your next great read.

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The Andromeda Strain

A satellite falls to earth bearing a terrible passenger – a mysterious microbe that brings terrifying death in its wake. A small group of scientists is pitted in a desperate race against the clock to identify and defeat this microscopic killer before it spreads its deadly touch around the world. The Andromeda Strain is a breathtaking ride that barrels along at breakneck speed from its shocking beginning to its slightly unsatisfying (but still well crafted) resolution.

Sphere

Something has been discovered at the bottom of the ocean. Something impossibly large, and even more impossibly ancient. What mysteries does the sphere hold? Not only is Sphere a white-knuckle read with heavy lashings of science and philosophy, it’s also a psychological thriller that will leave your head spinning – in the best possible way, of course.

Jurassic Park

Now, hold your horses. While there are plenty of similarities between the original novel and the popular film adaptation, there are perhaps even more differences between the two. While both are fantastic, the novel contains significantly more advanced mathematics, biology and computer science than the movie does. In fact, I would say that there are more formulas in Jurassic Park than there are dinosaurs, so do keep that in mind if numbers frighten you, or if you have a short attention span like I do.

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This is a considerably more cerebral read than the rampaging dinosaur story line might initially suggest. Still, it’s not without its fair share of thrills and chills (and even some spills), and it does have a few brilliant twists that were left out of the movie. Definitely worth a read (even if you do have to skip a few pages).

Eaters of the Dead

And now for something completely different. Eaters of the Dead is, to put it simply, pretty darn odd. The set-up is that the text we’re reading is the translated memoirs of an Arab emissary to the land of the Vikings, and comes complete with very realistic-sounding footnotes, editor’s notes and references. To be honest, when I first read this in high school I was completely duped, and was shocked to discover that the book wasn’t in fact based on an ancient manuscript, but was Crichton’s spin on the legend of Beowulf. Like the other books on this list, Eaters of the Dead was adapted into a film (The Thirteenth Warrior with Antonio Banderas), but the two are only vaguely related. I’d stick to the book – it really is something else entirely, and so very unlike Crichton’s other works.

And there you have it – four fantastic novels from one of my favourite novelists. Now, Michael Crichton was obviously a highly intelligent and highly educated individual, and his books do at times feel like they’re hitting you over the head with this fact (“yes, yes, I get it, Michael, you’re smarter than I’ll every be”), but don’t give up! The thrills, chills and spills that are packed into each of these books is absolutely worth the price of admission.

Are you a Michael Crichton fan? Which of his books would you recommend to a new reader? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Raincity Software Engineer Recommends: What If?

I try to recommend a variety of styles, themes and topics here on Raincity Librarian, but the reality is that I know what I like and I read what I like, so a lot of my posts are variations on a bookish theme.

To help me provide a different perspective, I’ve got a recommendation from a very special guest, my partner, the Raincity Software Engineer!

If you’re a bit of a fellow nerd, the Raincity Software Engineer would suggest checking out What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe.

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Randall Munroe is the creator of xkcd, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”. What If? is based on a long-running feature on Munroe’s website in which he uses hard science to provide serious (yet often hilarious) answers to readers’ ridiculous questions.

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Mathematics was never my strong suit, I avoided all chemistry and physics classes in high school, and I’ve never managed to code anything beyond “Hello World” in Visual Basic, so a lot of the content in What If? most certainly flew over my very confused artsy head. Randall Munroe is a very intelligent, very nerdy individual, and he doesn’t pull his scientific punches here. If the sight of a mathematical formula gives you chest pains, this might not be the best book for you.

But, if you are a science nerd or computer geek like the Raincity Software Engineer (and I mean that in the most loving way possible), this collection of humorous, science-based anecdotes might be right up your alley. Each short chapter covers a different question from start to finish, complete with Munroe’s signature stick men illustrations. The Raincity Software Engineer works your typical tech company hours, and doesn’t have a lot of free time, so he particularly enjoyed being able to pick up the book, read a section, and then pick it up again a couple days later, without having to get caught up again on the story. Read a chapter, put it down, and get on with your life!

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Hard science served with a comedic chaser – What If? is a good choice if you’re looking to do some learning and laughing.

Queens of Crime – The Golden Age of Mystery

I mentioned in a previous post a few of the reasons why I love reading mystery novels so very much. I thought I’d follow that up with a brief introduction to a few of my favourite mystery authors – consider this a bit of a primer for anyone who’s considering dipping their toes into the genre. And because I’m a feminist, I’m going to start with the so-called “Queens of Crime”, four British (well, three British and one Kiwi) women who dominated the crime fiction genre in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These four women challenged cultural norms, asserted themselves in a predominantly male-dominated world, achieved incredible success in a traditionally masculine field, and also happened to write very enjoyable mystery novels, in addition to other literary works. In other words, these were some pretty fierce trailblazing ladies.

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Agatha Christie

Need I say more? Ms. Christie remains one of the best-selling novelists in the English language, and her impressive catalogue includes novels, short stories and plays. Two of her best-known characters are Miss Marple, an elderly spinster with an eye for clues, and Hercule Poirot, a quirky Belgian detective who relies on the superior deductive powers of his “little grey cells”. Christie’s characters tend to rely on observation and psychological understanding rather than hard evidence to solve crimes, and the mysteries are often resolved with the help of a dramatic “drawing room” scene, in which the hero gathers all the suspects into a room before revealing the identity of the criminal. Her works represent the classic who-dunnit at its most entertaining, if not necessarily its most intellectually challenging, and are a perfect starting point for new mystery readers.

Where to start:

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Ngaio Marsh

New Zealander Ngaio Marsh was the author of 32 mystery novels starring British policeman Roderick Alleyn. Though she achieved international success as a writer, Marsh’s true passion was the theatre. A strong, fiercely independent woman who never married, it seems fitting that Inspector Alleyn’s wife, Troy, is herself a highly independent, well-educated and capable woman who achieves her own considerable success independent of her husband as a respected artist. This is no case of insta-love – Troy resists Alleyn’s advanced for a considerable period, and even after her marriage she is commonly referred to as “Troy”, which is actually her maiden name (her first name is Agatha!). Definitely a series that deserves much more love.  

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Dorothy L. Sayers

Feminist, academic (she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford), noted wit and successful mystery writer – Dorothy L. Sayers is truly a woman worth knowing. Like Marsh, her novels feature a male protagonist and a strong, intelligent and independent female partner, who share a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. While Lord Peter Wimsey is the star of Sayers’ mystery novels, and is a very likeable character in his own right, it is his eventual wife, Harriet Vane, who is my personal favourite. Like Sayers, Harriet is a mystery writer, which was a bit of a scandalous career for a woman at the time. She’s also university graduate, and is thrown into Wimsey’s world when she becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her lover – oh my!

Where to start:

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Margery Allingham

I’ll have to admit that of all the Queens of Crime, Allingham is the one I’m the least familiar with. I’ve seen a few adaptations of her novels on television, but I’ve only read one or two of her novels. Like Wimsey and Alleyn, Allingham’s protagonist Albert Campion is an upper-crust sleuth, who stars in 17 novels. Campion is a mysterious character whose slightly dim-witted exterior masks a highly intelligent mind.

Where to start:

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I hope I’ve inspired you to get better acquainted with these great ladies of mystery, and to explore the writings of a group of trailblazing women who dominated their field and left an indelible literary legacy.  

Summery Picture Books for Wintery Days

Winter technically doesn’t start until the end of December, but here in the Pacific Northwest, winter has come.

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The grey days of winter can be just as difficult and depressing for children as they can be for grownups – even puddle jumping can start to lose its appeal after about the 14th day of straight rain.

So without further ado, here are a few sunshiney picture books that can help inject a bit of summer fun into your winter story times and school visits.

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Duck and Goose Go to the Beach

Duck longs for an adventure, while Goose would prefer to stay at home. When Duck and Goose end up at the seaside, Goose discovers the joys of the beach, while Duck realises that there’s no place like home. This summery story about a sweetly mismatched pair can help fulfil those wintery longings for sand between your toes.

Scaredy Squirrel Goes to the Beach

Canadian content! I love Scaredy Squirrel – being a bit of a worrywart myself, I can readily relate to his charming assortment of miscellaneous neuroses.When Scaredy Squirrel heads to the beach for a summery vacation, will his numerous safeguards and backup plans keep summertime disasters at bay?

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Penguin on Vacation

Tired of life in the cold Antarctic, Penguin sets off for a warm and sunny vacation, making new friends along the way. Simple text, adorable illustrations and a hot, beachy setting make this a perfect pick-me-up for a wintery day.

The Whale in My Swimming Pool

Longing for the days of outdoor swimming pools and warm sunshine? Relive your summer memories with the story of a little boy, a giant whale, and a backyard pool that’s not big enough for the both of them.

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The Watermelon Seed

Few things scream summer to me quite the same way watermelon does. Sitting on a picnic blanket in the park, spitting out little black seeds as sweet juice drips down your chin is my idea of a perfect summer day. The little crocodile in The Watermelon Seed loves watermelon just as much as I do, but when he accidentally swallows a seed, will a giant watermelon grow in his stomach? Turn the page to find out!

Blueberries for Sal

Another picture book that captures the sweet taste of summer. Sal and her mother are collecting blueberries to can for winter when they encounter a pair of bears who are preparing for winter, too! A classic picture book that captures the last few days of summer.

Here’s to another six months of rain. We’ll make it to spring eventually!

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Ho-Ho-Ho Readathon : Baseball Bats for Christmas

For this entry in The Caffeinated Book Reviewer‘s holiday readathon we’re going way up north, all the way up to the remote Nunavut community formerly known as Repulse Bay, for a Christmas story with an Inuit twist!

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Baseball Bats for Christmas by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak

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When a bush pilot delivers Christmas trees to the remote northern community of Repulse Bay (now known by its Inuit name Naujaat) in the winter of 1955, the Inuit children don’t know what to make of these strange, spindly pieces of wood, which they dub “the standing-ups”. Their community lies far north of the tree line, and the children of Repulse Bay have never seen a tree before! Seven year old asthmatic Arvaarluk (the author) and his friends, led by Yvo, the smartest boy in the village, eventually realize that the tree trunks can actually be used to make baseball bats, and set to work making themselves wonderful Christmas presents that they enjoy all year long.

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Inspired by Inuit author Kusugak’s own childhood experiences growing up on the Arctic Circle, Baseball Bats for Christmas is a warm, charming story about the ingenuity of children, which gently pokes fun at the biases and assumptions of those of us southerners who live south of 60 – why on Earth would Inuit communities in the far north ever want or need Christmas trees?! They live above the tree line! Still, the Inuit children turn these assumptions and expectations upside down, and use their creativity to turn something useless into something special, something that meets their needs, and which has real value for their community. You can almost see Kusugak shaking his head as he tells the story, and rolling his eyes at the completely oblivious outsiders, especially the ones who seem to mean well, but just honestly don’t have a clue.

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Michael Kusugak is a Canadian treasure, and was one of the first Inuit authors to achieve nation-wide success and recognition. He is perhaps best known for the book A Promise is a Promise, which was co-written with fellow Canadian legend Robert Munsch, and which is based on the Inuit legend of the terrible Qallupilluit creature. His stories introduce children to Inuit life and culture, both traditional and contemporary. Set in 1955, Baseball Bats for Christmas shares a way of life that has largely disappeared in Inuit communities, but the warmth, generosity, ingenuity and spirit of Inuit communities remains unchanged. Illustrator Krykorka, though not Inuit, collaborated closely with Kusugak on several of his books, living in Nunavut with him and his family, immersing herself in the environment and the community.

Baseball Bats for Christmas is a wonderful reminder for young readers of the importance of trying ti avoid making assumptions about other communities, and is a charming tale of ingenuity and creativity, as well as a beautiful introduction to Inuit culture. Certainly worth exploring at this time of year!

Ho-Ho-Ho Readathon: La Noche Buena

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There are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than Spain, including 41 million native Spanish speakers. In recognition of this vibrant, growing population, this Ho-Ho-Ho Readathon title is all about La Noche Buena, or Christmas, Cuban style!

La Noche Buena: A Christmas Story by  Antonio Sacre

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When Nina visits her grandma in hot, humid Miami for Christmas, she doesn’t quite know what to think. Everything’s so different from cold, snowy New England, where she normally spends the holidays with her mother’s family. With the help of her abuela, Nina discovers the rich, colourful traditions of her father’s Cuban family. Food and family, music and dancing come together to create a Noche Buena that Nina will never forget, which helps her connect with her family and her heritage in a wonderful new way.

Author Antonio Sacre‘s father arrived in the United States from Cuba in the 1960s, and La Noche Buena is inspired by his own childhood memories of holidays celebrated both in Miami’s Little Havana and with his mother’s Irish-American family in New England. As the bicultural Nina discovers, there’s no right or wrong way to celebrate a holiday, as long as you spend it with people you care about, and who care about you.

A handy glossary explains Spanish vocabulary, making this a great introduction to Cuban culture.

Colourful, fun and lively, La Noche Buena is a wonderful celebration of Cuban culture, intercultural families, and the importance of family.