Book Review: as if being 12-3/4 isn’t bad enough, my mother is running for president! by Donna Gephart

There’s a lot to like in Donna Gephart’s first book, as if being 12-3/4 isn’t bad enough, my mother is running for president. Vanessa Rothrock is nearly 13 and already used to the limelight because she’s the Florida governor’s daughter. But when her mother decides to run for president, and it looks like she stands a good chance of winning, Vanessa’s life intensifies. Gephart gives us a good glimpse into the family life of a presidential candidate—hint: there’s not much family time—while also capturing pre-teen angst quite well.

Vanessa’s concerns will have moms remembering their own middle school years while being reminded of what their daughters of the same age may be going through. Girls will be able to identify with many of the same issues Vanessa experiences, and maybe learn a few things from her mistakes.

I found it a good reminder of how kids can be so ego-centric in middle school. Everything is seen through the lens of “what does it mean to me.” For Vanessa, it doesn’t matter that her mom will make history by becoming the first female president of our country if she’s not home to watch her daughter compete in the regional spelling bee.

It’s also a good reminder that kids often don’t tell their parents about important things that are worrying them. Instead they try to solve them on their own. When Vanessa receives letters threatening to kill her mom if she doesn’t drop out of the race, she thinks it’s better to secretly try to get her mom to drop out instead of telling someone with the ability to help.

This is also a very interesting book to read in an election year when a woman came close to being nominated as a major-political-party presidential candidate. And I loved the reasons Vanessa’s mom wrote to her telling why she wants to be president. The list could spark a whole separate conversation with members of a mother-daughter book club about things that are important for our country.

I recommend this book for readers aged 9 to 12.

Book Review: This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

My mother-daughter book club with Madeleine met last week to discuss This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. This was our first memoir, and it’s unfortunate that it came so close to the end of school that many of the girls were too stressed studying for finals to read much of it. The moms and two of the girls had read it, and we had an interesting discussion.

The story begins when 10-year-old Toby is driving with his mother from Florida to Utah to escape his mother’s abusive boyfriend. They eventually keep moving on to Seattle and finally to a small town north of there. The moms were a bit frustrated that we didn’t know more about Toby’s life before then: we find out his mother is divorced and an older brother lives with the father, but we never learn more than that about his earlier life.

The memoir takes place starting in the mid-1950s, and it’s surprising to read about neglect and abuse in an era that often evokes thoughts of “Happy Days.” The moms wanted to see more redemption in the story. Toby changes his name to Jack, gets into trouble out of boredom and lack of supervision, and generally seems to be on a course that will limit a successful future. We know he comes out well on the other side, because we know he’s an accomplished writer, but we don’t get to see that in This Boy’s Life. The girls were more accepting of those limitations and read the story for what it was— snapshot of Toby’s life from the time he left Florida until the time he left high school. Through the years he learns to survive. The author wastes no emotional energy on his younger self, giving it to the reader straight through the boy’s actions and letting us draw our own conclusions about his emotional state.

All in all, it was a good book to discuss, and it was interesting for us to read a memoir with an author writing about the same age our daughters are now. Recommended for ages 16 and up.

Book Review: Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen

Gumbo Tales imageI’ve been reading a book by Sara Roahen called Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen. It’s full of stories of food from New Orleans—things like gumbo, sno-balls, muffalettas, and so much more.

I love the way Roahen weaves the history of New Orleans into the culinary tales, and also how she updates readers on what happened to some of the city’s favorite restaurants and their owners in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Even as a native Louisianian (from Baton Rouge) I’ve learned a lot reading Gumbo Tales. And it really makes my mouth water for some good old New Orleans food. Since I’m not going to get it any time soon, I guess I’ll have to break out the cookbook and get to work. This is a great book for anyone interested in New Orleans and its culinary delights.

Who Says Reading’s On the Decline? Not in Mother-Daughter Book Clubs

Last week my mother-daughter book club celebrated its fourth year together with a Cinco de Mayo party followed by a discussion of our book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King. Our hostess brought out her Partridge Family album and played it for the moms, many of whom had teenage crushes on David Cassidy (yes, me too!). We got crazy singing along and talking about our 13-year-old selves back in the day, which was quite embarrassing for our daughters.

But then we settled down to talk about the book. We talked about the fun of reading mysteries and discussed the main characters—Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell—and we talked about things we liked and didn’t like about the plot.

As I looked around at the girls and moms sitting in the circle talking, I was reminded of a study released last year by the National Endowment of the Arts, which says reading is on the decline. I thought, “thank goodness my family isn’t a part of that.” Yes, my girls love to read and maybe they would be avid readers anyway. Their dad and I always have a stack of books we’re working our way through and as parents, we have always encouraged them to read books.

Even so, I believe being in a mother-daughter book club has helped us keep reading cool, even when Madeleine and Catherine might have been tempted to let it fall by the wayside as their other time commitments ramped up. And the friendships they’ve developed there have become some of the most important ones in their lives. I can say the same is true for me.

I’m happy to be a trend-reverser, and I look forward to the day a study finds I’m right in the middle of the upswing in readers everywhere.


Book Review: Girlwood by Claire Dean

With one foot in the modern world and one foot in a world of fantasy, Girlwood takes us into the life of Polly Greene, who can see the colors that surround people, revealing their true selves. Polly’s older sister, Bree, disappears into the woods one night, and Polly is the only one who believes she has not run far, that she’s hiding nearby to heal her out-of-control life.

When Polly finds a magical clearing hidden among the trees, she’s certain that her sister is close. She determines to leave her food and clothing and healing plants in a magical spot she and her friends dub Girlwood to help Bree survive until she’s ready to return.

Girlwood explores many themes as Polly enlists the help of friends and family in her mission:

  • What’s the value of nature compared to development?
  • Why do girls sometimes subvert their own personalities when they start to date?
  • How does divorce affect family dynamics?
  • How can parents teach and protect their children while also allowing them to have independent thoughts?

The themes are woven into a story that is as enchanting as the magical clearing, Girlwood, itself. And by the end, you may even find yourself searching for your own Girlwood.

Recommended for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in aged 12 and up.

Spotlight on a Mother-Daughter Book Club in Brookfield, Wisconsin

Featured mother-daughter book club
Eight moms and daughters from Brookfield, Wisconsin

The members of this mother-daughter book club in Brookfield generously took time during their last meeting to answer some questions about their group. Read on to find out how the group started on some of their favorite books.

How did your group get started, and what grade were your daughters in when you first formed?

Our group started at the beginning of the girls’ seventh grade. Several mothers had done similar clubs with older daughters and suggested we form a club for this group of girls. The girls have a relatively small class so we invited all of the girls in their class to join and decided we would form one or two groups depending on level of interest. Our original group was 7 mother daughter pairs so we elected to do a single book club. We will meet through the summer after 8th grade – we decided high school activities would preclude meeting in high school.

How many mother/daughter pairs are in your book club?

We are now up to 8 pairs – one mother/daughter joined us after a few months. They had originally declined due to other commitments but heard our discussions at other school events and decided they were missing out.

How often do you meet?

This varies depending on other school activities and holidays but is generally every 6 weeks.

Do you tend to read certain genre books?

Everyone brings suggestions of books they would like to read and we have had quite a variety. We generally get consensus on which book we will read next.

Tell us about the three books you’ve read that have been favorites with the group and what you liked about them.

  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd—a wonderful story of women and their diverse friendships. Teaches perseverance and acceptance of others. We have already talked about doing a book club reunion when the movie comes out next year.
  • Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick—Funny and sad story with a great boy lead character.
  • The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom—thought-provoking book that led to a great discussion and made us all think about the impact we have on others.

Do you have activities outside of book club?

We plan to go to a movie of one of the books we have read and then out for dinner where we can compare the movie and the book.

Can you offer any tips or advice to other mother/daughter book clubs?

Make it a fun, quality time for mothers and daughters – not one more chore for the girls, another assignment to finish, an attempt to improve reading skills, etc. To make it fun, each meeting was hosted by one mother-daughter pair and the discussion led by another pair. We always started with a game—often based on a TV game show – that “quizzed” us on some details of the book. We had inexpensive prizes which were theme based – for example Burt’s Bees Lip Balm for Secret Life of Bees. The hosts often served theme-based food—for example, Chinese food for the meeting to discuss Chinese Cinderella. The game and food made the meetings fun and helped lead to great discussions. We had prepared questions to prompt discussion—each one started by of the girls. Eight mother/daughter pairs was a good size—I don’t think you can go much bigger and have a discussion that includes everyone. Teach the girls to listen—at first everyone tried to talk at once but we eventually got to the point where one girl started the discussion and everyone contributed.


Book Review: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

West with the Night, a memoir by Beryl Markham, is one of my all time favorite books to read. Both for the glimpse it gives into life in Africa during the early decades of the 20th century, and for the descriptions of life for a bush pilot.

As a child growing up with her father in Africa, Markham faced down lions and wild boar. As an adult she trained race horses before learning to fly airplanes and becoming a bush pilot. Eventually she became the first pilot, female or male, to fly west with the night and cross the Atlantic ocean solo from Europe to North America. Marham bring the African bush to life with stories of boar hunts and elephant hunts. Of horse races and airplane flights over desert terrain. And she tells her story beautifully. There are other famous characters here as well. If you’re familiar with Bror Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton, who appeared in Out of Africa, you’ll find more about both of them in this book.

Markham lived a courageous life in a time when girls were only supposed to wear dresses and play with dolls and flying airplanes was a man’s job. Her account of the early part of her life is fascinating and provides a good example for older girls. I recommend West with the Night for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 14 and older.

Book Review: Sold by Patricia McCormick

I just finished reading Sold by Patricia McCormick. The story is about a Nepalese girl—13-year-old Lakshmi—who leaves home thinking she will be working to support her desperately poor family. In reality she has been sold into the sexual slave trade and is taken far away from anything that is relevant to her. A fictional tale of a very real event, Sold is an important book that sheds light on how easily girls can be lured away from their families and into situations from which it is difficult for them to escape.

To research her story, McCormick traveled to the countries of India and Nepal, and she interviewed the women living in Calcutta’s red-light district, as well as girls who had been rescued from sexual slavery. As the mother of two daughters, I think it’s important for them to know that cases like these are not isolated, and sexual slavery occurs all over the world, even in the U.S.

Sold has recently been released in paperback, and I believe it would make for a very interesting discussion with a mother-daughter book club. The scenes of Lakshmi’s life before she leaves home are bittersweet as well as enlightening about what life is like for the people who live in the villages of Nepal. And Lakshmi is as innocent as you might expect any girl her age to be. Her voice rings true throughout the book; she’s a very real character.

A non-fiction book I recently read on this topic called Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It by David Batstone makes a great companion to Sold. Batstone tells of organizations in many different countries that are fighting this horrific practice, and gives ideas for what each of us can do to help support them.

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