Guts – by Raina Telgemeier (2019)

Raina is a 5th grader who struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, and digestive issues. Every time she gets stressed, her body reacts with vomiting and diarrhea. Raina is hyper-sensitive about germs around her, to an unhealthy degree. A lot of people worry about catching a cold from people around them, but Raina can make herself sick just thinking about it.

Needless to say, this obsession with germs disrupts her life. She misses a lot of school, and prompts frequent trips to the doctor, where they can find nothing physically wrong with her.

Continue reading “Guts – by Raina Telgemeier (2019)”

Little House In The Big Woods – by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)

Little House In The Big Woods

I read all of the “Little House” books when I was a kid, and absolutely loved them. The books have been republished many times over the decades. Spin-off series and a television show were also made. But how did it all begin?

It all goes back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Laura and her husband Almanzo, like millions of other Americans, lost everything after the stock market crashed. Over the years, Laura had kept detailed journals of her life, and had started writing columns about her life for a newspaper, The Missouri Ruralist. After Laura’s mother died in 1924, followed by her sister Mary in 1928, she felt moved to write her life story, which she entitled Pioneer Girl. When the Depression hit, she expanded the manuscript, and it became “Little House In The Big Woods”. The book described their family’s life in the dense woods of Wisconsin in the early 1870s, when Laura was a small child. Sales of the book helped the Ingalls make it through the Great Depression.

The book works its way through the seasons of a year, beginning with fall. It’s time to build up a supply of food to get them through the winter. The family hog is butchered, and a wild deer is shot. Relatives came to help them with packaging and preserving the meat. There are descriptions of how they smoked and salted the food to prevent spoilage. Ma and her daughters made cheese and butter. In the winter Pa would continue to hunt, but the pickings were slimmer. He would spend time inside, making his own bullets, chopping the wood that was constantly needed to keep the family warm, caring for the family cow and horses, and telling the children stories. When springtime came, it was time to collect sap from maple trees and make syrup. The relatives gather to share the work, and dance afterwards. When it was warm enough, it was planting season. In the summer, they did the harvesting.

The book mostly describes their lifestyle, which entailed a lot of manual labor. I doubt if many of us would be able to do what they did! But mixed in with the “how-we-did-it” sections are stories of events that made an impression on young Laura, like the time when her family went to the tiny town of Pepin to buy yearly supplies. She had never even seen two houses together, and it looked huge! Her recollections of Sundays at home were quite interesting as well. To get a feel for life almost 150 years ago, this is a great read.

Smile – by Raina Telgemeier (2010)


When you see a goofy picture like this on the front cover, you assume it’s a silly story.   Although the book does have some humorous moments, it is basically an autobiographical slice of the author’s life. Like the main character Raina, the author Raina had a mishap that seriously damaged several teeth in the front of her mouth when she was in middle school. After an emergency visit to her pediatric dentist, she is sent to an orthodontist, then an endodentist. It takes years of treatment before her mouth looks normal again.

Throughout the book, Raina is very self-conscious about her damaged mouth. She has to put up with more than the average person with braces. For awhile, she has temporary teeth, headgear, and long rubber bands to try to correct her jaw bite. Her friends tease her, only meaning to be funny, but it makes her sad. To make things worse, she meets a really cool guy who she would like to spend time with, but she thinks he is repulsed by her mouth. Although not everything works out perfectly, Raina is able to make a new set of friends at school, keep things civil with her old friends, and finally work her way to a normal mouthful of teeth.

I think this book is most fitting for middle school kids. Raina is in 6th grade at the beginning of the story, right at that time in life when friends are ultra-important and boys are starting to look good. She experiences her first kiss, which is a milestone in life. By the end of the story, she is an eighth-grader, and ready to move on to high school.

But those younger and older than middle school can also enjoy the book. Elementary-age kids with braces will relate to how Raina feels every time she has to go to the orthodontist, or how it feels to be teased by friends. Many adults may identify with the story as well, especially those who have been in a bike or car accident that left them with dental damage. I’m not much of a graphic novel reader, but even I loved this story!

Dragon Teeth – by Michael Crichton (2017)

Dragon Teeth

The newest Michael Crichton novel, published by his wife almost a decade after his death, is a gem of a book. However, don’t expect “Dragon Teeth” to read like most of his other books. Instead of technology, you will find a young man growing up. Instead of pure fiction, you will find a story based on real people who feuded with each other in the 1870s. Instead of the future, you will find the past.

The tale begins with William Johnson, a pampered young student at Yale University in 1876. When another student says he would never survive in the Wild West, William impulsively joins Othniel Charles Marsh’s archeological team to search for dinosaur bones in Indian territory. Part-way through the trip, he is abandoned, and joins a rival paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope. What began as something fun for William turns into life and death, and by the end of the story the Wild West has made him tough as nails.

I loved the fast pace and the simple plot of the story. There was nothing complicated about it, no great mystery, just a great historic novel about human rivalry and the challenges of growing up.


When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – by Judith Kerr (1971)

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Nine-year-old Anna lives in Berlin, Germany with her parents and brother Max. Her father is part Jewish, and has written a number of newspaper articles that are critical of the Nazi party. Just before the election which catapults Adolf Hitler to power, the family flees to Switzerland. In the hasty exit, Anna leaves behind her stuffed animal Pink Rabbit. When a bounty is placed on her father’s head, they flee to Paris. Several years later, they leave France for England.

This story is semi-autobiographical, and portrays the early years of World War II through the eyes of a child. The author’s parents, like Anna’s parents, were fortunate enough to escape from Germany and save their lives. But they gave up a great deal – friends, a well-to-do lifestyle, a spacious house and almost all their possessions. Despite becoming refugees, downsizing to tiny living quarters, becoming impoverished, and learning new languages, they survived and thrived because the four of them stayed together as a family.

There have been so many books written about World War II that spell out the grizzly facts of what the victims suffered. This book tells the story on the level of a child’s understanding of the war. Anna knows a little bit about the war, but is mercifully ignorant of many details. Instead, the story focuses on the everyday life of a family that gives up their homeland to becomes refugees in a new country. Although the setting of the book is serious, there are many humorous parts, especially as Anna tries to learn French. It is well-written, and appropriate for anyone ages eight and older to read.

The Last Photograph – by Stephen Bransford (1995)

The Last Photograph

It’s the tale of two brothers – Gordon the older, and Stephen the younger. From earliest childhood, they were as different as night and day. Gordon was rough and tough, unafraid of anything or anyone. Stephen was thin and gangly, and a frequent target of the bully at school. As they reached adulthood, their paths continued to grow apart. Gordon went off to Vietnam, while Stephen went to seminary to avoid the draft. It seemed that the two of them would never be close as brothers.

Years later the family planned a ten-day hunting expedition. The brother who loved the outdoors and horseback riding led the group, while the other brother spent the majority of his time taking pictures with his camera. But for once, they weren’t fighting or competing with each other.

The story was fascinating. At several points in the book, I remember thinking, this just seems too real to be fiction. The feelings expressed by Stephen were so authentic and raw. The end of the book left me wiping my eyes with a tissue and blowing my nose. I have rarely read a book with such a moving ending. The afterword states that the book is based on events from the author’s life. Barnes and Noble’s bookstore website classifies the book as “autobiographical fiction”. Although there is no way of knowing exactly how much fiction was added to the facts, the book gives a beautiful account of the journey of the Bransford brothers.

Shoofly Pie – by Tim Downs (2003)

Shoofly Pie

“Shoofly Pie” introduces us to forensic entomologist Nick Polchak, aka “the Bug Man”. Nick’s whole life is devoted to studying and understanding every type of fly or insect. His dream is to discover some unknown insect. His adoration of bugs tends to put people off a bit, but it’s hard not to admire a guy so devoted to his line of work.

Into the story comes Kathryn, who has lost a dear childhood friend, supposedly to suicide. But she can’t bring herself to believe he would take his own life. So she hires the Bug Man to investigate, much to the irritation of the local police chief. I loved Nick’s clever ways of questioning people, and getting to the bottom of things. If you enjoy this book as much as I did, there are five more Bug Man mysteries!

Bug Man novels include:
1 – Shoofly Pie
2 – Chop Shop
3 – First The Dead
4 – Less Than Dead
5 – Ends Of The Earth
6 – Nick Of Time

Little House On The Prairie – by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935)

Little House On The Prairie

I have enjoyed reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books many times over the years. This time I listened to the audiobook version, which is read by Cherry Jones, who has a fine, deep reading voice. (You may remember her as the actress who played the female president on the TV show “24”.) She reads with enthusiasm and joy; obvious she loves the books too.

Growing up, I was under the impression that Laura’s books were totally biographical, and was puzzled when I noticed them in the fiction section of the library. Turns out that although the incidents in the book actually happened, some basic facts were changed to satisfy the publisher. For example, Laura was only 2-3 years old during the time they lived in Indian Territory, not 5-ish as the book portrays. Also, baby Grace didn’t arrive in the Territory with them, but was born just a few weeks before they moved out. Other facts were altered as well.

That being said, don’t let that stop you from reading this book! It’s totally amazing to hear how they built a house from scratch, dealt with fire, lived in wolf territory, and survived malaria. You’ll get a good picture of both the harshness of prairie life, and the joy of a close-knit family living a simple life together. Written in 1935, it’s still enjoy by millions of people.



The Long Winter – by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940)

The Long Winter


Of all the books in the “LIttle House” series, this has always been my favorite. It focuses on the terrible winter of 1890-91 in De Smet. Although Laura wrote her books as a mixture of fact and fiction, this book was a very accurate picture of that winter in the Dakota Territory. The blizzards did indeed begin in October, the Chicago and North Western Railroad did actually stop running by Christmas because the rails were impassible, people died of starvation, and the train didn’t make it to De Smet until May.

The Ingalls family, like everyone else, depended on supplies coming in regularly on the trains. When they didn’t come, they were forced to ration supplies and think creatively to survive the winter. Two young men, Almanzo Wilder and his friend Cap Garland, risked their lives to save the people in town from starvation.

The story is written so compellingly that you can hear the wind howling, and feel your feet freezing as you read it. Read it in the winter, when you don’t think you can bear any more cold, and it will fill you with gratitude for a warm house and nearby grocery stores.

A Newbery Honor Book