From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World

Every now and again, a really, really special biographical picture book comes along that makes me giddy.  By now, you know I love this genre of picture books best of all and I wanted to highlight one really excellent book that was just published last month: From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World.  What makes it great is the delicate balance it has mastered in a genre where so many others fall short-- bringing the subject alive without weighing us down with facts and details.  See, some non-fiction picture books seem to be written as little more than textbooks with pictures.  Boo.  I appreciate the effort, but children's books ought to contain stories first and foremost and if the author can't manage to create a story out of his subject, he ought to exit the children's book world.  That said, there are many fantastic living, story books out there.  I am so happy to add From the Good Mountain to the list.

The text is poetic while still staying informative and grounded.  It is rhythmic in a most satisfactory way.  James Rumford (the same author who brought us the wonderful Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs) wrote this book as a series of riddles: "What was made of rags and bones, soot and seeds? What wore a dark brown coat and was filled with gold? What took lead and tin and a mountain to make?" The pictures are superb; all the little characters from medieval Europe come alive with vibrant colors and details.  Such a delight to hold and read.

Perhaps best of all, is the fact that the author resisted any temptation to get into biased or spurious historical tales about the printing press and its relevance to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church.  The book, even down to the informative footnotes, sticks to the aim of honoring this wonderful achievement with a clear and focused story.  Another excellent point about this book is that Rumford created a companion guide to go with it.  The guide offers even more details on the printing press machinery and times and would make for excellent "living history" reading for anyone studying the late Middle Ages.  Click to see images from inside the book on amazon's site, especially on the hyperlink "Surprise Me" to give you an idea of what you can expect.

Apple by Nikki McClure

Washington State has produced a couple great children's book author/illustrators (including my very, very favorite, Doris Burns), with the latest being from Olympia-- the excellent Nikki McClure.  She is famous for her intricate, yet deceptively simple looking paper cut illustrations in her titles for very young children.  Her first attempts at paper cut illustrations gave birth to a little, homegrown book that was distributed locally in 1996. Apple is the new reprint of that effort, now available to the masses!  It is lovely, and begins with the play on words: "Fall"... as you see an apple falling from a tree.  The book continues with a single word on each page, documenting the life of the apple as it goes through autumn and is composted into the ground before giving new life the following spring.  The book would make a great springboard to inspire budding artists or writers with the art of paper-cutting.  Here is a great little tutorial on that. The little write ups in the back about the life of apples and about composting are just as excellent as this juicy, little morsel of a book itself and I highly recommend it for your early reading pleasure.

St. Francis of Assisi meets Bimba Landmann

On Oct. 4th we celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assissi.  I would guess that there is no other saint in existence who has more picture books dedicated to him; he is the saint for all peoples.  What's not to love about the peaceful man?  You will find St. Francis statues in nature lover's gardens and you'll find New Age pacifists quoting him on the topic of peace. Whatever the case may be, it's always a good idea to get a true sense of the man with some lovely books.  And you have many great choice to choose from. Here is just a partial list of some of the better St. Francis-related titles out there:

Saint Francis
Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy
Canticle of the Sun: Saint Francis of Assisi
Brother Juniper
Brother Sun, Sister Moon
The Good Man of Assisi
Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi

But I want to especially highlight my personal favorite book on the man, called Clare and Francis.  I don't think I can sing the praises of illustrator Bimba Landmann enough.  I first discovered her with the excellent book: A Boy Named Giotto, and have since placed all her titles on my wish list. She is such a unique artist  for children: color, beauty, and a hint of eerie grace all her pictures.  I am so glad she didn't let her teacher act as a killjoy for her:  I decided to become an illustrator when I was a child. 
"I think I was about ten years old, or maybe less. I went on a school visit to a museum where there were a lot of ancient illuminated books, all hand painted by Reinassance monks. When I saw those blues... the golds...the paper... I was lightening struck, gripped by this emotion. I immediately rushed to my teacher and told her: "I know what I will do when I grow up!" But she laughed and answered, "that sort of work does'nt exist any more". I didn't believe her at all, and I went on filling my exercise book with words, drawings, colours and images from my inner world. "
If you are just going to have one book about St. Francis on your shelves, make it this one... a sample of the inside:

"Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society."  
- St. Francis of Assisi

My Would-Be Happy Place

Just add a high, thin tension rod and some lovely sheer curtains to create a dreamy bibliozealous paradise:

Sometimes I love the Internet

My mother was a pioneer.  She homeschooled when it was practically illegal.  She didn't have the help of online forums or curriculum reviews or blogs any social networking sites to discuss her options.  God bless her!  She simply got all the books required through Seton's catalogue for our grade levels and set us to work.  There was no question in her mind about which books to read or what education styles to employ.  She simply did the best she could with what was available to her at the time.  In some ways I envy that.  Choice isn't always a great thing.  For some frazzled souls, the myriad of reviews and books and methods out there nowadays can serve to overwhelm one to the point of a paralyzed fear of "What should I do?!?!"  I rely so much on reviews and online discussions and great blog posts that have helped inspire me and shape my educational paradigm.  How does one homeschool without the great Petersen's Bird App or Star Charts on her iPad?!  How does one purchase a book without first consulting the reviews on!  Is it possible?!  Indeed.  People did it for thousands of years before Al Gore invented the Internet (*snicker*).

What I'm getting at though, is just how great some of our resources are online.  So great.  I mean, if the world ends and we all have to live off the grid back-to-lander style, I'm okay with that.  Bring on the woodstoves and candlelight! But in the meantime, we may as well not fight the total attack on our senses and intelligence and brain waves (good book alert: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) and simply act as sieves rather than dams. Let in as much of the good as we can, while filtering out the twaddle and pure evil.  It's not an easy battle.

At any rate, we know there are great free books online.  This is in some ways antithetical to what a good "book" should be... a real, tangible, book smelling friend in you hands.  I don't care how wonderful, economical or efficient the Kindle is, it's not the same thing as a bound book so don't try to convince me it is.  So, I just discovered a great site that maybe is old news to the rest of you but oh well, here it is: You can search Google Books and the Baldwin Project and Librivox but I really like how visual this website is.  Take note of their children's book section and download a whole bunch of those goodies for your next road trip or mommy's day off read-alouds or quiet times or meal times (meal times are EXCELLENT for audio books so everyone can enjoy some food while a third party reads...)


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