This Week’s Best of the Virtual Book Bag

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It is pouring down rain here in Portland, perfect book weather. Although, my spouse reminds me, that if it were sunny and 70 degrees I would say it’s perfect read-in-the-hammock weather, and if it were snowing, I’d say it’s perfect read-by-the-fire weather. When the air was toxic with smoke, it was perfect read-in-the-safety-of-your-home weather, I suppose.

We loved so many of our finds at the library this week that it was honestly hard to make my kids do virtual school. I may or may not have let them skip P.E., valuable as burpees in front of a Chromebook may be.

Here’s what we were doing instead of jumping jacks this week:

I picked this one because it’s set in Texas (my home state) and it won the Newbery. It sat on our virtual shelf for ages, because my son is always, always, always going to pick something with fighting or magic or at the very least a male protagonist. A turn-of-the-twentieth-century story about a young girl and her relationship with her grandfather just couldn’t compete. I finally asked him to let me start the first chapter, and on the first page he was hooked. So was I, and not just for the nostalgia (sticker burrs!) – Calpurnia is such an honest character: hilarious, practical, infinitely curious. I loved her from the first moment and all the way through. The ironic quotes from The Origin of Species at the head of every chapter are brilliant, and your child will learn so much science along the way without even realizing it. It’s like sneaking spinach into brownies. I would say almost every child will love this story, whether they are into science, family relationships, crushes, history, or a little bit of silliness (the painted turkeys!); there is something for every kiddo in this book. We are going to dive right into the sequel next. Don’t forget to read it like a Texan (git, not get, remember?).

And speaking of grandfatherly mentors . . .

Gossamer by Lois Lowry

After telling his family how spectacular his classroom read-aloud Gossamer is, my son promptly forbade us from reading it because he was afraid of spoilers. After promising up and down and sideways and even swearing by the river Styx, my daughter and I finally received the right to read Gossamer, gasp, before his class finished it. We have system requirements – closed door, sound machine, whispered reading, but all the hoopla is worth it because, well, Lois Lowry. The chapters are short, so it’s easy to say, “Okay just one more chapter,” and feel like a grandma instead of a parent. We are about halfway through and have already had an absolutely delicious sob together. Lowry manages to make you love a character who says and does truly cruel things, and if there was ever a book to help you understand that hurting people hurt people, it’s this one. Empathy abounds in this read-aloud.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier

When I told my husband about Reader, I Married Him, a collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, all written by women, he asked if I had read Wide Sargasso Sea yet. I hadn’t. Jane Eyre is my go-to pick-me-up book, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to encounter the same characters in a more depressing format. I know, I know – a book about an abused orphan who faces trial after trial is a pick-me-up? Yes. Jane’s grit and resilience and faith in her own worth despite the world’s scorn, and the happy ending that she writes herself, her agency (“Reader, I married him,” not “Reader, he married me”), all of these can make me feel incredibly happy during what may feel like day nine-thousand of rain and grey skies here in Portland. But I checked Wide Sargasso Sea out at the library, because now I was curious. I read it in one gulp (it’s not very long), sobbed a cathartic cry, and then sobbed a mournful cry for the loss of my Mr. Rochester. I thought Wide Sargasso Sea would be like the short stories in Reader, I Married Him, connected but clearly separate. For example, in one of the short stories, Grace Poole is secretly the mother of Adele, which was an interesting idea, but felt like a clear departure from the original. Wide Sargasso Sea, however, tells a story both so faithful to the plot, and such a heartbreakingly different narrative, that I may never be able to read Mr. Rochester the same way again. He was already messy and complicated (which was one of the things I loved about the book, honestly). But now . . . well, you’ve been warned. My husband, by the way, claims no responsibility for ruining, perhaps forever, my relationship with the original. “I only asked if you had read it. I didn’t recommend it.”

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

My husband is on a Calvino kick and started reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler this week. He read a bit of the introduction to me, and I promptly asked to be included in the whole thing. We’ve been reading it aloud every night (thank god basketball season is over). I’ve been surprised by how much chuckling we’ve been doing in this one. It’s early days, but it’s going in the recommend pile so far.

Happy reading, and I’d love to hear what’s in your virtual book bag this week!