Book Review: The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth

The Turnip Princess cover imageThe Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault—all were well known collectors of fairy tales, those magical, lesson-infused stories spread centuries ago in the oral tradition. A lesser known collector, Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth, was also at work recording old stories he heard in northern Bavaria during the same time as the Grimms. Until recently, his work remained lost. But with the discovery of manuscripts resting in a German archive, Schönwerth’s tales have now been published for all to read.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales is a collection of more than 70 of Schönwerth’s stories, selected from a cache of 500 by the woman who discovered them, Erika Eichenseer. Many of the tales sound similar to ones already known, such as Cinderella and Seven at One Blow, but many are less familiar.

Most of the tales are dark and cautionary, often with one wise brother or sister who outsmarts siblings, or a magical being who brings aid to those who are destitute. Sometimes animals play the role of enchanted humans waiting to be set free. All provide a glimpse into the lives of the people who told these stories and passed them along to others. The Turnip Princess should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading fairy tales, both as a comparison to what has come before them and as something to be appreciated on its own.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Our Endless Numbered Days cover imageEight-year-old Peggy’s father is obsessed with being able to survive in a disaster. She has to practice packing a rucksack and being ready to flee in minutes in case the need arises. Peggy’s mother is a renowned pianist from Germany who tolerates her husband and her friends. But when Peggy’s father tells her to pack her bags one day and they set off from their home in London, she doesn’t know that home will become a remote cottage in the German wilderness and that she won’t see her mother or civilization again for another nine years.

Together, Peggy and her father survive by trapping forest animals, growing vegetables and making do with the few things they found in the cabin and they brought with them. Peggy believes the world outside has ended, and they are the only two people left alive. Her father’s deteriorating mental condition forces a series of events that eventually conclude with her return from the woods.

Told from Peggy’s point of view as a 17 year old recovering from her ordeal and an eight year old experiencing it, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is lyrical and heartbreaking and complicated. Peggy’s point of view as a child is superbly captured. Believing her mother and everyone else in the world dead, she trusts her father completely and depends upon him for survival. Yet readers know Peggy leaves the woods for some reason, and the mystery compels the story forward.

Fuller’s descriptions of the forest are vivid and she lets her characters show themselves through small and big actions that bring them fully to life. Despite my skepticism that anywhere in Germany is remote enough (or was in the 1970s and 80s when the story takes place) for there to be no evidence of life outside the clearing (not even an airplane overhead?), I found the story compelling. And while I would have liked to know more about how Peggy reacted to and dealt with her growing body and the changes that puberty brought, I found it a poignant and thought-provoking tale exposing the vulnerability and trust children must place in their parents for their own survival and what happens when that trust is breached.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation by John Grant

Say you’re at a party and someone is talking to you and a few others about their beliefs on vaccinations. Or maybe climate change is their topic, or evolution, or alternative medicine. What they have to say sounds like it could be wrong, but how do you know? If you’re not an expert on a subject yourself, how can you spot the signs that the speaker is no expert either?

John Grant, the author of more than 70 books and an expert on conspiracy theories, has a few ideas for you. In Debunk It: How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation, Grant starts off by talking about critical thinking, and how learning to analyze a few key points can help you recognize when someone is trying to pass off information as accurate when they’re either just repeating something they’ve heard or purposefully trying to mislead. There’s a lot of conflicting information coming our way these days, so learning to think critically is an important skill to have.

Grant is an equal opportunity debunker, taking on issues dear to those who lean politically left and right. He also delves into issues from the past, to show how conspiracy theories and misinformation have been around about as long as people have been keeping records of what others have said. All the more reason to realize that someone with an agenda will always work to confuse issues of the day. Debunk It! offers tips on how to recognize when we are being misled and ways to find information that is considered accurate. Grant backs up his words with footnotes and an extensive bibliography for readers who want to check his sources. I recommend it for teens and others who want to be more informed consumers of information.

Read my interview with author John Grant to learn more.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Author Interview: John Grant, Author of Debunk It!

John Grant photoJohn Grant is the author of more than 70 books and an expert on conspiracy theories. In Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation he helps readers learn to identify misinformation that comes their ways from many sources—politicians, talk show hosts, high-traffic bloggers, and others. Here, he answers questions about why thinking critically and carefully before accepting information at face value is so important.

In your introduction to Debunk It! and later in one of the chapters you talk about the importance of critical thinking. I know it’s a big subject, but can you briefly talk about why critical thinking is so important, especially for teens?

JG: The short answer is that, unless we apply critical thinking to our understanding of the world, we end up doing stupid things. And that inevitably works out badly for us, both individually and on the wider scale. All through history, for example, we’ve seen the horrendous consequences of people uncritically accepting evil and nonsensical propositions such as that some groups aren’t really human because of their ethnicity or the color of their skins – propositions that can easily be shown to be false in a dozen different ways. Yet people go along with them on the grounds that it’s easier to do that than think.

Later on, of course, they discover what a lousy bargain they made. The effort put into thinking critically about important issues is always worth it. And the odd thing is, it’s actually fun.

Besides, think what your life would be like without the application of critical thinking. You’d end up believing in all kinds of wild conspiracy theories – “It was the Bush administration that organized 9/11!” or “NASA faked the moon landings!” – or wasting all your money on quack doctors, perhaps even at the cost of your life.

The world that the older generations have created is the one that today’s teens are going to inherit. It’s a world that’s full of problems many of which – like climate change – might have been avoided or at least ameliorated had more people of the older generations engaged in critical thinking. The sooner today’s young adults start understanding how to grapple with that world, the better it’s likely to be for them.

In Debunk It! you include many examples where people, governments, industries, or corporations purposefully misled others. Do you think those instances are more widespread today than they have been in the past?

JG: Politicians have lied to people since, I’d guess, the dawn of history – it’s part of the job description. I do think, though, that we’re going through a particularly obnoxious spate of it in this country at the moment. Just in recent weeks we’ve seen several politicians trying to distort the science of vaccination, and of course the political falsehood that “the science isn’t settled” on issues like climate change is a sort of ever-present background chorus. There’s just about nothing that modern US politicians won’t lie about. There was one the other day claiming that gynecological examinations weren’t really an intrusion: couldn’t women just swallow little cameras?

As for businesses, that’s a more recent phenomenon, but even so it goes back a long time. Just offhand I can think of how people were lied to about the ill effects of leaded gasoline, about the hole in the ozone layer, about the dangers of smoking, about the dangers of passive smoking, about climate change. Very often it was the same people doing the lying. And those lies can survive far beyond the time when they’re “officially” abandoned by the liars. Just two minutes on the intertubes will turn up dozens of websites still claiming that there’s no evidence that smoking can do you any harm.

Is it easier or more difficult now, when information can be searched for quickly on the Internet, for someone to debunk claims on their own?

JG: It’s both easier and more difficult. There are plenty of great informational sites on the Web. The trouble is, finding them. If you do a search for vaccination and autism, for example, chances are that most of the sites you turn up are antivaxer ones. It’s a matter of learning to assess which sites are genuine and which are garbage. To you and me that might seem simple enough – Scientific American is more likely to be telling the truth about biology than Answers in Genesis, and so on – but to young adults it can be not nearly so easy. What I think I’m trying to say is that the difficulty with using the Internet as a debunking tool is that the information it presents you with is unsorted.

Once you learn how to pick your way through the baloney, though, then the Internet becomes an immensely powerful tool. A politician’s telling you something that doesn’t seem right? Within minutes you can find out which industries are funding that politician. Someone’s offering a radically different version of American history? Often just as little as a quick check in Wikipedia will reveal that this person isn’t actually a qualified historian. A TV personality is telling you something that flies in the teeth of known science? Most of the established science magazines have free websites where you can quickly learn the truth. Besides, most of the major scientific organizations – like the American Medical Association – have websites of their own where, again, it’s easy enough to find real rather than bogus information. And many scientists run their own very active blogs where they explain their specialty to the interested public.

How powerful can this tool be? Just over the past week or two there’s been a lot in the news media about how a particular scientist who’s spoken out against the consensus of climate science has been receiving funding from the fossil-fuels industry. Thanks to research on the intertubes I knew about this some years ago – and indeed was writing about it (far from the first to do so!) as long ago as 2010/2011. The information was there for all to see on various well accredited investigative websites; too many people in the mainstream media just chose never to look.

 

How can someone researching claims know they are getting information from a trustworthy source?

JG: If something goes wrong with my toilet, I call a plumber to get it fixed, not a heart surgeon. If I need a triple bypass, there’s no way I’m going to let my plumber open me up with his wrench and spanner – I go to a heart surgeon. The point is to rely for your information on the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

The way that modern society works is that we all rely upon each other for specialist knowledge. It’s also true that there are plenty of important fields of knowledge that outsiders aren’t going to be able to understand unless they spend years of study at university level. We have to accept the fact that most of us are in no position to offer critiques of quantum mechanics or the Big Bang theory or the mating practices of squid; we have to accept what the experts tell us. Are those experts ever wrong? Yes, sometimes . . . but it’s going to be other experts in their own field who correct them, not someone who thinks they’ve educated themselves at the “University of Google”!

What I’m saying, then, is: If in doubt, consult the specialist rather than the amateur. And really, really, really don’t let your plumber do that heart operation.

In your book you talk about misinformation surrounding topics like evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations and more. Was it difficult for you to narrow down which issues you would focus on in the book?

JG: Yes. Ideally I’d have had a chapter on the prevalent falsehoods about food, for example, such as some of the myths (both for and against) surrounding the issue of GMOs, and of course the fact that Big Ag is “persuading” our politicians to minimize the risks of the overuse of antibiotics in the food industry. I was very tempted to have a chapter on the nonsense people come out with about sex and about gender identity. I actually wrote a longish chapter countering the simplistic falsehoods (“You can’t get something from nothing!”) that get hurled at the Big Bang theory, and about how some people think it’s a flaw in the theory of evolution by natural selection that it can’t explain that same Big Bang. And so on. But there’s only so much you can get into a single book.

Is there anything else you’d like to add to readers at Mother Daughter Book Club.com?

JG: First of all, thank you very much for extending your hospitality to me – it’s very much appreciated. And thank you, too, for some very perceptive questions: I’ve had to think pretty hard while answering them, which is good for me!

I imagine that anyone who’s read as far as this is interested in the idea of opening up their kids’ lives as much as possible to the world we live in through the application of critical thinking and education in general. For that, my very great thanks. By and large, the kids are better than us and smarter than us (however much they can sometimes be a PITA). Let’s help them be even more so.

 

 

 

Book Review: Famous Phonies by Brianna DuMont

Famous Phonies cover imageFamous Phonies: Legends, Fakes and Frauds Who Changed History by Brianna DuMont should put to rest any notion that history is boring. In twelve chapters focusing on historic figures, DuMont sets about answering questions such as: Did a female pope ever sit on the throne in Rome? Did Homer really write The Iliad and The Odyssey? How did Confucius become a legend? Was George Washington a good general?

The people DuMont highlights include those above as well as Shakespeare, Hiawatha, Pythagoras, Gilgamesh and more. In each case she looks in depth into the tales surrounding the person, in some cases even showing that the person of legend never existed. But DuMont also points out how the stories about the famous people often inspired others to go to war, change the rules, or even create new inventions. For instance, The Turk, a famous chess-playing automaton from the 1700s, helped inspire inventors who started the Industrial Revolution. And a planted dead body helped the Allies win World War II.

Famous Phonies is full of interesting tidbits that will have you thinking critically about other legends you take for granted. It’s fun to read, with several pull-out facts and supporting sidebars included with each chapter. The result is a fascinating read for those who love history as well as those who think they don’t. I highly recommend it for readers aged 9 to 12 and their parents.

The author provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh

The Truth About Twinkie Pie cover imageSince their mom died when GiGi was a baby, her big sister DiDi has taken care of her. DiDi works hard to make sure GiGi gets what she needs to excel in school and prepare for college. So when she wins a lot of money in a contest, she decides the two of them should move to Long Island where GiGi can attend a challenging prep school.

GiGi sees it as an opportunity to reinvent herself without leaving the things she likes about her life behind. She makes waves as well as friends and enemies in her new town. But her desire to find a special present for her older sister’s birthday will lead her to a shocking discovery about her family.

The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh is about family, friends, and making a better life for yourself when the opportunity arises. As GiGi tries to figure out how to fit into her new, upper-class environment, she learns that people can have troubles no matter what their situation in life.

Sprinkled with recipes from the girls’ trailer park, South Carolina roots, it’s an endearing story that will have you whipping up the dishes described even as you ponder the life situations they serve. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 12 to 16.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: One Witch at a Time by Stacy DeKeyser

One Witch at a Time cover imageA harsh winter has taken its toll on Rudi’s village of Brixen. Carrying a portion of his dairy farm’s dwindling supply of cheese and butter, he sets off for the market in a nearby town to trade for food, taking the pesky daughter of a friend along. But when Susanna Louisa trades a whole cow to a pretty foreign girl for a handful of beans, Rudi’s troubles truly begin.

One Witch at a Time by Stacy DeKeyser reimagines the Jack in the Beanstalk tale, expanding and updating it for modern readers. Here, a whole community surrounds Rudi. When he sets off with Susanna Louisa to visit the witch who lives in the mountain and set things right, he begins an adventure that will have him figuring out how to return things where they rightfully belong, address injustice for oppressed villagers, and earn the respect of those closest to him. It’s a tall order for a 13-year-old, but Rudi shows he’s up to the task.

While the basics of the tale are well known—a boy, a giant, a beanstalk—DeKeyser creates so much more by providing rich detail about the place and the people in it. She also makes a few changes that will delight young readers. Rudi’s town of Brixen, the far-off icy village of Petz, two magic witches, and one clever grandmother all combine to make One Witch at a Time a compelling book for kids to read on their own or for parents to read to them. I highly recommend it for young readers and mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 8 to 12.

You may be interested in watching the book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQWp3Nk9nY4. Also, check out Stacy DeKeyser’s previous post about what makes a good story and a give away of One Witch at a Time and The Brixen Witch.

The author provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Author Stacy DeKeyser Talks About What Makes a Good Story and a Book Giveaway

Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for Stacy DeKeyser and her book, One Witch at a Time, the sequel to The Brixen Witch, which received two starred reviews and was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Pick.

As a stop on the tour, Mother Daughter Book Club has a set of books to give away to a reader with a U.S. address: The Brixen Witch in paperback and One Witch at a Time in hardcover. Just leave a comment below (before midnight PST on Wednesday, February 25), and tell us about your favorite kinds of stories to read. Please note: the giveaway is closed. Congratulations to Mary on winning.

DeKeyser is also the author of the young adult novel, Jump the Cracks and two nonfiction books for young reader. She lives in Connecticut with her family. To learn more and to download a free, CCSS-aligned discussion guide for One Witch at a Time, visit StacyDeKeyser.com.

Read on to hear what DeKeyer thinks makes a good story and how those stories can have an affect on young readers. Check back tomorrow for my review of One Witch at a Time. And don’t forget to comment for a chance to win these great books for young readers.

What’s the Story REALLY About?

By Stacy DeKeyser

Stacy DeKeyser photo

Stacy DeKeyser
Photo by Michaela Ristaino

What makes a good story? An exciting plot? Characters you care about? A satisfying ending?

Of course, all those things (and a whole bunch more) are important to making a book memorable and worth passing along to friends. As a writer, I love stories that operate on two levels at the same time. Call them the external story and the internal story.

The external story is pretty obvious, right? It’s the action on the page. It’s where the magic happens (literally, in some books!). In One Witch at a Time, the external story can be summed up like this:

“A kid named Rudi joins forces with his new friend Agatha to return magic beans to a vindictive neighboring witch, before the foreign magic causes trouble at home in Brixen.”

And then there’s the internal story.

The internal story is what’s going on in the characters’ hearts and heads. It’s what drives the characters to act the way they do. You might say that the internal story is what any good story is REALLY about. The internal story of One Witch at a Time can be summed up like this:

“A kid named Rudi commits some innocent but serious errors in judgment, and sets out to repair the consequences of those errors so that he can redeem himself.”

One story, two very different things going on at the same time. Think of it like this: The external story is what keeps you turning the pages, but the internal story is what makes you care about the characters.

And when you care about the characters, you can more easily put yourself in their shoes. So that reading about the imaginary troubles of two kids in a fantasy world can equip a 21st-century kid to deal with his or her own internal struggles.

A kid today may never have to deal with witches, giants, or magic beanstalks. (Let’s hope not, anyway.) But she WILL make errors in judgment from time to time. We all do. And if that kid reads or hears enough stories, she might remember that kid in some book, who messed up pretty badly, but still managed to redeem himself. And she might think: “If Rudi refused to be defined by his mistakes but instead by his honesty, resourcefulness, and courage in owning up to them and rising above them, then maybe I can, too.”

That’s what a good story is really about.

 

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