Encouraging Empathy in Children

Most children and adults are scared of the severely handicapped.  We feel awkward, we don’t know what to say.  We may assume a person is not intelligent because of their appearance.

Out of My  Mind by Sharon Draper is another book that encourages children to empathize with others.  (See Empathy and Reading)  Both Absolutely Almost and Rain Reign are about children with learning problems.  Children like Albie and Rose could be among your child’s classmates.

Melody is severely disabled. She is  unable to walk, talk or feed herself. She has spent most of her time in special education class. Most people have trouble seeing beyond her twisted body and involuntary movements to recognize that she is very intelligent and full of personality.  We see the world through Melody’s eyes.  .

Melody has struggled  with limited communication.  For most of her life, she had many things she wanted to say but no way to say them.    When Melody accidently knocked over the goldfish bowl, she was helpless to let anyone know that her pet is in trouble.


A new computer with  special  features begins to change that.  She is able to store more vocabulary and express herself through the computer’s voice.  She can now have conversations with other students. But it’s  the school quiz bowl that allows her to shine.

There are children who make fun of Melody.  They don’t seem to understand that she understands them completely. Other  classmates, Rose and Connor, are friendly but awkward.  When she goes to a celebration dinner for the quiz bowl team, she still has to be fed by her parents.

Students on the  Quiz Bowl team become envious when a TV News Station focuses its interview on Melody.  She encounters major disappointment when she is not notified of a last minute flight change and gets left behind in the national competition.

This is a powerful book.  Melody deals with each day’s problems, rarely expressing self pity.  She doesn’t compare her life to her classmates.  She experiences sadness and rejection but that never defines her.  She deals with her disappointment with her teammates in ways that earn their respect.

This book is so well written that it is difficult to do it justice in a review.  Sharon Draper, the author, also has a severely handicapped daughter.  She did not base Melody’s character on her daughter, instead she creates a unique individual.

Draper talks more about her novel on her website:   Sharon Draper on “Out of My Mind”







You Wouldn’t Want To….




You Wouldn’t Want to be a Samurai! A Deadly Career You’d Rather Not Pursue is one of a series of books that bring history to life. These highly visual stories ask children to imagine themselves in a variety of unpleasant historical situations. Lots of gory details are included. The cartoon pictures are amusing rather than frightening. Each colorful page spread includes a handy hint like this:


“As a warrior, you’re never off duty! Take this advice from Takeda, a wise samurai: Keep your sword with you at all times, even when you are alone.”

Despite it’s comic book appearance, this book is packed with information about Medieval Japan. Children will love learning that..

Samurai Soldiers were trained to shoot bows and arrows at moving targes while riding horses at a full gallop. (This book focuses on the Samurai around 1200 AD)

Samurai wore armor 24 hours a day and had lots of problems with lice.

Every meal in wartime was boiled rice and occasionally dry tuna.

Scholastic has produced over 25 of these titles about world history. They are all highly entertaining and packed with information. Many children will want to read more books in this series







The Star of Kazan

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This is another delightful novel from Eva Ibbotson.  She  grew up in pre-World War II Vienna.  Because her family was Jewish, they escaped to England.  The Star of Kazan reflects her love of Austria and her dread of Germany.   The observant reader will notice the presence of early Nazi philosophy in her writing.

Annika is an orphan with a mysterious  past.  Two servants discovered her as infant abandoned in a mountainside chapel. They brought her home and raised in her in the servant’s quarters of a grand house. (think Downton Abbey)

Early on Annika delights in the domestic arts, learning at an early age to make gourmet meals and keep house.  She is happy but she often wonders about her “real mother”

Annika delights in her friendship with the lady across the street, the unwanted aunt of  a dutiful family.   Annika enjoys hearing the older lady’s stories about her days touring in Europe with the theatre.  When she dies, she leaves Annika a trunk full of theatre props and costume jewelry, or so she thinks,  but  a scheming woman in Germany knows better.

While Annika has often fantasized about her mother’s return, she is unprepared when Edeltraut Von Tannenburg knocks on her door and insists on taking her to Germany. Annika always dreamed that her mother would come for her but she never thought about saying goodbye to all the  people she loves in Vienna.

Annika’s new home in Germany is a dark and forbidding mansion. It is bitterly cold inside and out. . The walls are covered with dark heavy hangings embroidered with battle scenes. The rugs on the floor are threadbare and the drapes faded.   She is baffled when her mother insists that she is never to cook or do housework.

Then it gets worse. Annika is sent away to a boarding school called Grossenfluss for “daughters of the nobility” so she can be trained to serve the Fatherland. She is assigned to be pupil 127. (No one will say what happened to pupil 126.) She is issued a uniform and assigned to a room with thirty iron beds covered with gray blankets   The school is run by Fraulein Von Donner, the only  woman in Germany who had received “The Order of the Closed Fist.”

This is a great adventure story with lively characters and crafty villains.  There are some dark moments  but in Ibbotson’s world, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.

Recommended  for fourth grade and up.

Journey to the River Sea

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Eva Ibbotson is my favorite author. Her style is similar to Roald Dahl and E. Nestbit. Whether her setting  is the Amazon Jungle or prewar Vienna, she creates delightful descriptions of her surroundings.  Her characters are always colorful and her villains deliciously creepy.

Like many great heroines of literature, Maia is an orphan.  She is attending boarding school in England when her lawyer discovers that she has relatives living near the Amazon River in Brazil.  While classmates warn her about frightening creatures and wild jungles, Maia does her research and anticipates a grand adventure.  She is especially excited to meet her twin cousins, Gwendolyn and Beatrice.

Maia and her guardian Miss Minchin sail from England to Brazil.   On the ship, she befriends Clovis, another orphan, who is acting with a traveling company.  Clovis hates his life in the theatre and longs to go back to a more civilized life in England.

In Brazil, Maia discovers that her new relatives despise Brazil and most everything else.  They never venture outside avoiding the heat  and the mosquitos.  They reject the fresh bananas and local seafood in favor of imported beet root, corn beef and green jelly from England.  Gwendolyn and Beatrice are especially disagreeable.  From the start, they attempt to make Maia’s life miserable.

Maia is enchanted by the Amazon River, often called the River Sea, and the nearby rainforest where howler monkeys swing from the trees as scarlet parakeets and clusters of butterflies fly overhead.

Maia also meets Finn (yet another orphan) who lives among the natives on the edge of the Amazon. His father was a wealthy man with an estate in England.  He was an outdoorsman who married a native and settled in Brazil.

Two men from his father’s estate, known to the natives as “the Crows”, because of their grey suits, are trying to capture Finn and take him back to England.  The bumbling crows are constantly thwarted by Finn’s friends who send them in the opposite direction.

So Maia and Finn develop an elaborate plan to ship Clovis to England and then set off a journey of their own, with chaperones, down the Amazon River for the most magical journey of all.

This is a great book for fourth grade and up.


















Empathy and Reading

Here’s more good news for children who read.  A Study by the New School for Social Research in New York revealed that reading quality fiction improves empathy. ( Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.)  This will not surprise avid readers or their parents.

51meGC4gxXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Your child likely goes to school with someone like Albie.   No matter how hard he studies, he can’t pass the weekly spelling test, or read on grade level.   He never gets picked for sports team and sits alone in the cafeteria.

As Albie shares his story in Absolutely Almost, the reader learns that Albie’s parents are busy people with high expectations for their son.  Mom and Dad feel disappointed that Albie has been asked to leave his private school.  When his  father tells him that his grades are “unacceptable,”  Albie feels baffled because he tries so hard but his work is never good enough.

Albie  knows he is not a “cool kid.” A brief period of “popularity” followed by rejection by the same crowd only leaves him feeling more dejected

His new babysitter, Calista, finds new ways to help him study spelling and math, teaches him how to draw and counsels him on the social dynamics of fifth grade.  As a newcomer to New York City, she insists that Albie show her around. Albie may not be a whiz in the classroom but he  navigates his New York neighborhood.    Unfortunately, Calista often forgets that she is working for Albie’s parents and makes some unwise decisions.

Albie is an appealing character, resourceful and kind. When Calista breaks up with her boyfriend, Albie sneaks downstairs to buy her ice cream. He takes the blame for vandalism in his classroom to keep his friend Betsy out of trouble.

The reader can’t help but root for Albie. There are no simple solutions but his story ends on an optimistic note.   When his grandfather criticizes Albie’s grades, his dad defends his son.  Father and son work on a model airplane together.

Children will both identify and sympathize with Albie.  After seeing the world through Albie’s eyes for 320 pages, they will see some of their classmates with new eyes.  This is a great book for children in 3rd-6th grades.
























A Countess Below Stairs


untitled (2)A Countess Below Stairs is a must read for any fan of Downton Abbey.

Anna and her family fled their native Russia during the  Revolution to make a new home in London. Attempts to bring their valuables with them are foiled, leaving them penniless.

Anna takes a job as a housemaid in a grand house. In spite of growing up in a wealthy estate, she is kind and unspoiled. She decides that working downstairs can be a grand adventure. She clings to her copy of The Domestic Servant’s Compendium by Selina Strickland, determined to be the best servant ever.

Rupert is an unlikely Earl. He always assumed his charismatic older brother would inherit Mersham, the family estate. After his brother dies in the first world war, he agrees to be the Earl of Westerholme because his family expects it.

Rupert is engaged to Muriel who nursed him back to health after being wounded in battle. No one can deny that Muriel is beautiful and seems charming. Rupert is really not sure how they came to be engaged.

Muriel espouses an early Nazi philosophy known as Eugenics. She wants to apply the same principles of breeding  racehorses to human reproduction, beautiful people mating with other beautiful people with no room for disease or decay.

Muriel fires one of the footmen because he is too short. She sends the mute servant girl to an institution where she can be with her “own kind of people.” She is distressed when she discovers that Ollie, the flower girl in her wedding, has a limp.

The tone of this novel is light and comical. As a romance, it is fairly predictable. The fun of the novel comes from a wide variety of interesting characters and vivid descriptions. It is clear early on that Anna is lovely and kind, spreading joy to everyone she meets.  Rupert is obviously attracted to Anna but promised to Muriel. Both Rupert and Anna are committed to doing the right thing almost to the point of absurdity.  No one can set up a scene or create characters like Eva Ibbotson. She is a master of vivid imagery.

I first discovered Eva Ibbotson through her children’s books, Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan.  When I found one of her adult books on the library shelves, it looked quite nondescript.  I would never have selected it if I had not known about the author. People say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do.

Her books were originally written for an adult audience.  Ibbotson wrote mostly children books in her later years.  Until recently, her adult title were hard to locate.  In 2008, MacMillan publishing has begun marketing her older titles to teens.  They simply changed the covers.  I think both adults and teens will enjoy these chaste romances.

A Countess Below Stairs is sometimes published under the title, The Secret Countess.










Ruth Hunley: A Tribute

rebelI am taking a break from my usual children’s book reviews to write about my mom, Ruth Hunley.  Today’s blog post is dedicated to Monroe High School Graduates.

Senior year at Monroe High School mean football games, pep rallies and Senior English with Mrs. Hunley.  In our small town, we had  heard about her class for years.  She was known to be the toughest teacher in the school.  She was both praised and feared.

It was especially a unique year for me because Ruth Hunley was not only my English teacher but my mother.

It was a different experience walking into her classroom on that September afternoon. I had done a lot of the obligatory moaning and groaning about having my mother for a teacher. Mom taught all college preparatory English classes and not taking college English was never an option. And ultimately I knew I would have felt left out if I wasn’t hanging out at the public library and doing my assignment sheets like everyone else. :

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked my mother as a teacher. She was so passionate about teaching English.   Like many adolescents, I hadn’t thought much about my mom’s life except in relation to me. Somehow in the classroom, she didn’t seem like my  mother.  I used to joke that we got along better at school than at home.

I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed her class, the hardest academic class taken to date. She treated us like college students, handing us a syllabus on the first day of class.  Expectations were high and communicated clearly. We did lots of research at the public library, learning to use all kinds of reference books and being exposed to all kinds of literature. She began stirring in me the desire to be a writer.

Almost every graduate of Monroe High School from 1962 to 1992 can recite The Prologue  to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.  The words look like gibberish but once memorized take up permanent memory in the brain.

She was always big on memory work. It was a common sight to have students lined up utside her classroom or dropping by the house to recite their lines.   Some of my classmates claimed that she had memorized MacBeth, the whole play, because she had taught it for so many years. (“Is this a dagger that I see before me? The handle toward my hand, come let me clutch thee.”)

During my childhood, I sometimes grew tired of hearing about my mother. I knew that she was kind to many people, baking cakes, writing encouraging notes and devoting free time to helping students with their work. It became tiresome because I lived with her and I knew she didn’t walk on water.

Every May as long as I can remember, the phone would start ringing at our house. There was always one and usually several students who were failing senior English. Failure to pass senior English meant not graduating with the class, a major humiliation.

My mother was determined that I would be a reader. And early on, I became a serious bookworm. I frequently got in trouble at school for reading books when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher or doing my math problems. I was not much of a student until after high school. I am sure it would surprise no one that my mom read to me constantly. Even at 11 or 12, she would insist on reading me a chapter of the classics like Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

I eventually became a children’s librarian and a writer. All that research in the library helped provide the groundwork for my future career. The desire to be a writer actually began from writing all those themes in Senior English.

I think she and I were both surprised by our classroom experience. She was a much better teacher than I ever expected. I was a better student for her than I had been for most of my earlier teachers.  She was surprised that her underachieving daughter could write well and enjoy working so hard.

My mom died on Feb 10, 1995. For many years, February was a bleak month. but the last two years have been different. I posted a few pictures of her on Facebook and got an overwhelming response from Monroe High School Graduates, many of them people I didn’t know. How I treasured all those likes and comments! Remembering my mom became something to rejoice about. None of my friends in Greenville, S.C. ever met my mom but I suddenly felt a kinship with all these people from Monroe, North Carolina

It’s nice to know there are other people out there who can recite:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote                         

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,     

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour,

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(so priketh hem Nature in hir corages),

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Note:  I started this blog to write about children and young  adult books.  I publish posts on Tuesdays and Fridays.