Yesterday we finished the book we had been reading during tea time. It was one of those books that I had randomly pulled off the library shelf, thinking it looked potentially interesting, but had no information nor expectations for it at all. We had just finished The Secret Garden, so it would be difficult for just any book to follow it.
We were all happily surprised by Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. A 13 year old girl is left a mystery by her grandfather which involves a painting which may or may not be a Raphael. As she solves the mystery, art, self-reliance, World War II, the Holocaust, and friendship and belonging become part of the story. There is an unexpected, rather brutal death in the first chapter which made me think, "Oh no, what have we gotten into?" But it is not graphic, and is the event which drives the story. My sometimes sensitive children were not affected by it.
I also need to mention the Holocaust themes. The fate of the Jews in the Holocaust becomes part of the story. This could be a questionable subject to include in a mid-elementary grade chapter book, but it works. Personally, even since high school, I have had to be very careful about what I read or hear about the Holocaust. The nights of nightmares can be unpleasant. The season where M. and B. were in The Diary of Anne Frank with their theater group nearly did me in. In fact, I very nearly bolted from the theater after B.'s opening scene as Mr. Frank. I could only see it once, and I'm pretty sure if any of my other children happened to be in it, I couldn't see it again. This is the level of trauma I feel from the history of the Holocaust. I just can only let a very little bit in. Given this, I can say that I managed this book without great difficulty. If anything, it began some interesting family discussions and allowed me to teach about that time of history in an honest, but accessible way. I felt it was sensitively, but honestly written.
The other thing I feel I need to address was the author's brief handling of Raphael's life. There were some reviews on Amazon where people objected to her description of Raphael's life. I admit I kind of wondered how these people manage to read anything if one or two lines out of an entire novel were so very offensive to them. It's not as though the author was making things up, historical figures are not always so neat and tidy and unoffensive as we would like them to be. If I can read the Old Testament to my children, I think they can handle the fact that Raphael loved a lot of women. It passed so quickly, that the majority of my children didn't even notice. Frankly, this was easier in my mind than having to constantly adjust racist terms which are found in older literature.
There was a lot I loved about this book. The lessons on art. The determined, smart, and responsible heroine. The interesting characters who managed not to be stereotypes, but have more fully described personalities even though they don't appear for very long. And the other girl who befriends our heroine who happens to be a homeschooler. And not just any homeschooler... an unschooler. An unschooler who manages to be portrayed as interesting and intelligent and socially capable, with nary a piece of foil or granola in sight. It's not even what the book focuses on, it's just part of who this character is. Do you have any idea how extremely rare this is? It was a breath of fresh air to a mother who sees the word 'homeschooler' coming up on the page, and holds her breath wondering how terribly horrible it will be this time. I think it is one of the best portrayals of homeschooling in mainstream middle grade fiction I have come across. It's right up there with Surviving the Applewhites.
Probably the most telling thing about how much we all enjoyed this book is the fact that I would often read more than one chapter at a time because no one wanted to stop listening. This does not happen terribly often.
So, if you are looking for a good read aloud, I highly recommend this one. In fact, I think it would work best as a read aloud (or listened to on recording if adults and children are listening together), because of its subject matter. My children had a lot of questions about what we read, and I think it would have been more difficult for them to manage without the debriefing which took place during and afterwards.
A reader pointed out that my links in yesterday's post weren't working. In order to make them work, I have to do a two-step process, and forgot to do the second step. I've gone back and fixed that, and will be sure to make these links work as well. Thanks for clicking through and using my Amazon Associates link. I appreciate it.