Family Fridays – The Boxcar Children

Book: The Boxcar Children (1924) by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Series: The Boxcar Children

Category/Age: Early Reader / Beginning Chapter Book :  ages 6 and up


One Warm Night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” So begins Gertrude Chandler Warner’s beloved story about four orphans who run away and find shelter in an abandoned boxcar. There they manage to live all on their own, and at last, find love and security from an unexpected source.


Let’s pause for a moment, shall we? 1924. This book was published in 1924. That’s just a few years after the end of the first world war – and 90 years ago. The language does feel a bit dated in places, but not nearly as much as you might think. This classic has been beloved for almost a century because it’s easy to read, and just plain fun.

I’ve always been a sucker for survival stories, from Julie of the Wolves to The Martian (review forthcoming). The nitty-gritty, mundane details of survival I always find fascinating, and this book falls solidly into the survival genre for much of the book, which I hadn’t remembered going into it. Where do they sleep? What do they cook in? Where do they get clean? Those types of details are answered in a realistic way for the children, and you can definitely see why it would resonate in the minds of young readers – it’s like the ultimate game of playing house.

As an adult, my only quibble with the book was how fast the ending was resolved – I felt like the major conflict set up (with the grandfather) was glossed over for expediency – but overall this is a fantastic chapter book for early readers.

I vaguely seem to remember reading dozens of the other books, and enjoying them greatly as well.

Did you read The Boxcar Children in your childhood? What did you think?

Get it: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Reading List: Pipe Dream Edition

One of my pipe dreams is to get to travel to all of the continents. And not just the easy ones, either. Nope, I want to make it to Antarctica. I often get asked why. Why wouldn’t you want to go to Antarctica? Penguins! Icebergs! Whales! Unspoiled nature! Etc.!

Since it’s somewhat unlikely I’ll actually make it down there (it’s really, REALLY expensive), I read about it instead. My favorite is The Last Place on Earth (Amazon, Barnes and Noble) by Roland Huntford, though it is very hard to read in places (spoiler alert: people die). Next up on my to-be-read list is The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, which I’ve heard is very good, and is a nice balance to The Last Place on Earth.

I just read Blue Latitudes (Amazon, Barnes and Noble) by Tony Horwitz. The tagline is boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before. Captain Cook never actually made it to Antarctica, but he was one of the first to cross the Arctic Circle, and his exploration and charting made possible much of what was to come later. The basic premise of the book is that Horwitz chronicles Captain Cook’s life and voyages, and then visits the same places he did to get an idea of Cook’s lasting legacy.

I had a hard time getting into the book, since the beginning jumps around a lot and was very difficult to follow where in time and place you are. Once he hits his stride though, it was very interesting. It’s almost impossible to imagine how vast the scope of Cook’s charting and discoveries are, especially when you consider the equipment and navigational tools of the day (mid 1700s). I thought Horwitz painted Cook in a very fair light, paying homage to the monumental tasks the man achieved, while also examining the legacy the Cook and the other European discoverers/colonialists/conquerors left for the native peoples (spoiler: it generally hasn’t worked out very well for them). I was less interested in hearing about the author smoking pot and drinking himself silly in every stop (including some implied drunk driving), but I guess that’s just me being an old stick in the mud.

Overall, I found it very readable, and loved learning more about Cook, who seems to be far less well known than Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and many others. I might have to tackle Shackleton next in my explorer’s reading.

What’s your pipe dream? Would you go to Antarctica?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.


Family Fridays: Good Night Our World Book Series

This will be the last entry in my impromptu “Travel Month” books for kids. Good Night Our World is a series of board books for very young kids and takes them through a day, and all the seasons, for a given location.

Of the ones I’ve seen, I think they do a fantastic job of picking locations to highlight that are evocative of the place, and I really like the inclusion of the times of day and seasons aspect. The illustration style is fun and bright. One downside is that the writing is really geared towards very young babies, so some of it’s a little on the cutesy side. These are not books I would be able to happily read over and over out loud, but they’re fun reminders of trips you’ve taken or want to take. I seem to pull them out when I’ve got the travel itch. I’ve even given a couple of my hometown one (Good Night Denver) as gifts to family and friends with babies located out of state, generally to try to entice people to come visit.

Here’s a link to their website, which lists all the books they have out, and you can also find more information on the series there.

I think travel is so important for everyone, but especially children. Even if you can only afford to pack up the kids and head to your local downtown, do that. Many museums and zoos and other cultural things offer free days, and you can always find somewhere to eat a picnic lunch.

What’s your favorite trip you’ve taken with your children? Or where do you hope to take them one day?

Review of JourneyQuest webseries

Long time readers of the blog will be delighted to hear that I have a new obsession. So instead of just hearing about how awesome the Emperor’s Edge books by Lindsay Buroker are, or why you should all drop everything and read Dorothy Sayers, you’ll also get to hear me talk about how much I love JourneyQuest, a fantasy comedy webseries free to watch on YouTube. It’s very unusual for me to find a tv show that resonates so thoroughly with me, but this one manages it. It’s absolutely hilarious. The characters are so interesting, you could just put them in a room for three hours and watch them interact and it’d STILL be worth watching. I recognize that it’s not for everyone – the language is definitely on the “creatively profane” side of things (strongly on that side of things), but for fantasy nerds who don’t mind that part, it’s pure gold.

JourneyQuest features an incompetent, cowardly wizard; a completely thick and reality-oblivious knight; an intelligent orc; a free-spirited bard constantly in trouble for breaking the rules; an elf who’s pretty much fed up with everyone; a priest who was accidentally-sort-of-turned-into-a-zombie (oops); and a barbarian king who’s forcing his heathen ways on his people (free education for everyone!). It’s mostly lighthearted poking fun at fantasy, though the zombie priest character’s story is (somewhat surprisingly) very emotionally compelling. He’s lost everything, and is still clinging to belief in his god’s mercy and forgiveness, in the face of rejection and temptation. They manage to balance the generally light tone while clearly showing his inner despair excellently.

The production values are surprisingly high for a budget internet show, and the world that’s been created is rich and multi-faceted. There’s action, romance, suspense, and long conversations about Orcish grammar in the midst of a fight. What else could you ask for? Watch it for free here.

Both JourneyQuest and The Gamers films (also great) are distributed by Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. As a crazed fan, I’m avidly watching to see when they’ll get the next season of JQ out. As an erstwhile economist, I’m avidly watching to see if their pricing/distribution model is going to work. This is an independent film company, and in the past they seem to have mostly funded their products through KickStarter (A program where you can donate in tiered levels to get varying rewards – e.g. when fully funded and created, your $10 donation gets you a digital download, $25 gets you a dvd, $1500 gets you a cameo in the film, etc.).

They’re currently running “Phase II” wherein they’re trying to move to a subscription model. Fans are asked to pay $10 a month, and the reward system is based on the total number of subscribers, not your contribution. I should note again that, by intention, all of their major productions are free to watch on the internet. This is somewhat similar to paying for a Netflix subscription, even if Netflix were offering all their films online for free.

I had a very long and boring article detailing why I think this won’t work, which I scrapped because it was, well, long and boring. It was fun to put on my Economist hat for a while and use terms like product differentiation, price discrimination, etc., but here’s the bottom line: they’ve set up a pricing system that caters to one rigid fan type – their model assumes all fans are interested in the same rewards, and willing to pay no more and no less than $10 a month for those rewards. This is a problem for fans who aren’t interested in these rewards in exchange for $120 a year, and also a problem because they’re not capturing fans who would be interested in spending more money, or who would be interested in spending $120 a year, but on different rewards/products, or even fans who would be willing to pay $60 a year.

The Kickstarter model as described above works well because it helps differentiate between these fans, and everyone is able to choose at what level to contribute, and in exchange for what.

If ZOE were to ask me (hah!) for some suggestions on increasing revenue without using Kickstarter, I’d suggest a) streamlining their website so you can find what you’re looking for more easily (content is spread out across several different websites, including some broken links) – i.e. make it easy to find things to purchase, and b) have more things to purchase.

Businesses make money by selling solutions to problems or products people want, not by giving away all their content. I do recognize some of the reasons they want to give content away, and I think it’s great. However, I think they should ALSO sell it to the people who would be interested in buying it. There’s no reason not to. Selling digital downloads of all of their content would be an easy step, and people who are tired of navigating episodes on YouTube (plus having to watch the intro/outros for every 10 minute episode) will happily spend $10 bucks to have it in one easy to watch format that can be transferred to their phones, tablets, ipods, whatever. As for myself, I couldn’t find digital versions of everything I wanted on their website (broken link for JourneyQuest, though I did buy The Gamers: Hands of Fate) so I bought the dvds of the first two seasons of JQ, and was happy to do so.

They’ve shunned ads and sponsors in order to keep their artistic integrity and maintain control over their products. That’s very noble, but I think there might be some level of ads/sponsorships that would have been acceptable and could have been a decent source of funding.

Also, I was shocked that there’s not more merchandise – they have some, but not much. It’s super easy to set up a CafePress or Zazzle store (I did find one of theirs that had some posters in it). These stores handle all the distribution, customer support, etc. and all you really need is some ideas and a basic ability to use photo-editing software. The hard part is the ideas, but they already have a ton of easily translatable ideas. I for one am generally not a t-shirt person, but I would love a “Bravery favors the Brave” t-shirt. It’s a line from an episode (and I think it’s the title as well). Or an “Onward!” shirt. Or maybe “Team Rilk”. That plus a JourneyQuest logo somewhere on it would provide revenue and more word of mouth advertising (word of t-shirt?). Nerds love nerdy t-shirts (see for example ThinkGeek – I buy a lot of Christmas/birthday presents on there), and the more obscure the better. It’s an easy win. It wouldn’t be a huge stream of money – the percentage royalties the stores give you aren’t huge, but if you couple it with an affiliate link it’s nothing to sneeze at, and once you have the ideas the amount of work to put it up once and then do nothing else is pretty small. I’ve been surprised that I’m able to cover the costs of running my site with the revenue from my CafePress store (/shameless plug). They could even let fans design t-shirts.

So anyways, I don’t think that the ZOE “Phase II” will be successful long term, but I hope I’m wrong, or at least that they’re able to find some way to fund JQ Season Three. Like yesterday. I can’t wait!

Do you watch shows on YouTube? What webseries are your favorites?

P.S. Guys, if you’re reading this, please can you make a “bravery” t-shirt? I will totally buy it. Here’s an idea:









*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.




Family Fridays – “This Is…” Travel Series Review

I’m belatedly declaring March “Children’s Travel Month”, mostly because I had fun writing up last week’s post about books being the best souvenirs for children and wanted to keep going.

My all time favorite travel series for children is the This Is … series by M. Sasek. The books were published between 1959 and 1970, though there has been a reprinting of all or most of them in the last decade or so (including some updated information listed at the end of the books).

The illustrations will draw you in, but the chatty narrative will hook you for life. Reading these books is a bit like looking at trip photos while your friend (but wittier and less rambly than your REAL friends) gives highlights and funny stories about the places you’re looking at.

These would be great souvenirs for adults or children, but they’d also make great trip preparation for older children. The books tend to give little historical snippets or details about the places which are genuinely interesting, and could help engage reluctant history students. They’re also fun because Sasek wasn’t about poking fun at his subjects. When I reread the books on London, Britain, and Texas, one of my favorite bits was: “King Stephen was supposed to have sat in this chair. He reigned over England – rather inefficiently – during the first half of the twelfth century.” Also fun are the self-portrait sketches on the inside of the front and back covers. It usually shows Sasek coming in and leaving with his easel, but the Britain one shows him arriving as a conquering Viking, and ends with him in the stocks.

Eventually I hope to have all of the books about places I’ve been to (or maybe the goal should be go to all of the places that he did a book about? there’s even one to the  moon…). I currently have This is London (my favorite so far!), This is Britain (really fun, but there is a LOT crammed in here, so you miss some of the chattier tone from his other books), This is Texas, and This is Paris – in Portuguese (long story).

Age range wise it varies depending on the book. The This is London is recommended for 4 and up, and the This is Britain is recommended for 9 and up, both of those seem about right to me. If you’re thinking about getting a specific destination, I’d make sure to check the age range to make sure your kids will be able to appreciate it.

Here’s a link to the Amazon Author Page for Sasek, where you can see all his available books, and here’s a link to the corresponding Barnes and Noble page.

What are your favorite travel series for children?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

P.S. As I’ve mentioned before, I use some of his books as artwork in my baby’s nursery.

Review of Thyme of Death by Susan Wittig Albert (1992) (China Bayles Series)

Bottom line: Okay

Rating: Recommended if: you’re looking for a light mystery, or have a connection to the Texas Hill Country


China Bayles has it all – a prestigious Houston law practice, money, power – but it’s not enough. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s confident, and she knows she wants something more out of life than the fast track offers. Something like the Thyme and Seasons herb shop in Pecan Springs, Texas. Realizing that her career is turning her into somebody she doesn’t like, China does what many people only dream of doing: She relocates to a small town to begin a new and, she hopes, a gentler, more fulfilling life.

But even in Pecan Springs, evil can occur among ordinary people living everyday lives. China soon learns that while she can move from the city, she can’t escape the world of moral choice. When China’s good friend, Jo Gilbert, apparently commits suicide, China is more than puzzled. Jo had been suffering from a terminal disease, but wasn’t the type to take her own life. And, to a lawyer like China, some revealing letters that Jo leaves behind shout blackmail and murder, not suicide.

But why would anybody want to kill a woman who will die soon anyway? And what about the scent of perfume in Jo’s house? When another mysterious death occurs, China is sure she’s dealing with homicide. Helped by her best friend, New-Ager Ruby Wilcox, and with support from lover Mike McQuaid, a former-cop-turned-professor, China follows a trail of greed and fear to discover some unsettling answers. Thyme of Death marks the memorable debut of one of the most original and appealing new female sleuths to come along in years. Readers will identify with China Bayles as she makes the kind of tough decisions that confront us all.


I was excited to read this, as it seemed like a neat setup – I love the Texas Hill Country, and the former-lawyer-turned-herb-shop-owner premise seemed intriguing. However, I had to really push myself through the first fifty or so pages before I started to get into it. I found the writing to be clunky and distracting. The characters were ok, and the plot was good, but the not-so-subtle themes and meticulous character descriptions kept pulling me out of the story. Surely there is a happy medium between not being told anything about what a character looks like and having to know, down to the shoes, exactly what every single person is wearing, even random once-off characters we’re never going to see again.

I did start enjoying it more once we got into the investigation parts of the story, and if I happened across the next in the series while at the library I’ll probably pick it up, but I won’t be rushing out to grab it. I felt mildly curious about the lead’s past, but I didn’t feel connected enough to her to need to know more about her. It is worth a read if you’re headed to the Texas Hill Country and are looking for a light, throw away read for an afternoon.

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Family Fridays – The Best Souvenirs for Children

Well, duh – I’m going to say “books”. I absolutely love getting travel and regional books to commemorate trips taken, a part of your heritage, or just as a snapshot of your hometown. One of the great joys of travel is wandering around in new bookstores and coming out with a treasure (or two!). On our last trip, my son and I travelled to Las Cruces, New Mexico to meet up with family and enjoy some wonderful Mexican food (an area in which Colorado is sadly lacking). We ate at La Posta (a family tradition), then ambled around the historic plaza while trying to digest the last bits of sopapilla (dairy free! this is my version of heaven).

The Mesilla Book Center on the plaza had a great selection of regional children’s books, and the hard part was deciding what to leave behind, not what to take home. I finally settled on the fun “Guess Who’s in the Desert” by Charline Profiri and Susan Swan – the combination of illustrations, facts and desert animals made it a winner for us. We can enjoy it now, and it will grow with my son as he gets older.

Wherever you go, there will be a place to find regional children’s books, and I highly recommend them as a souvenir. Beautiful, practical, and a great way to remember a place, you can’t go wrong with these.

What are your favorite regional books for kids?

Tools of the Trade: The Bookmark

Ah, the bookmark. This can be anything: a humble scrap of paper, bank notes (I once found a $20 bill in the Lord of the Rings), airplane ticket stubs, toilet paper (don’t lie, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably done that), or on rare occasions your iPad mini (oops). What makes the bookmark a tool of the trade? Well, obviously you can use it to mark your place in a book when you stop midway through. But on a deeper level it signifies a reading philosophy.

Some readers often have 5-6 books going at one time. Some readers will chip away at one book, chapter by chapter, a little before bed each night. I can’t do either of those things. My brain isn’t capable of switching between different storylines and plots (though I can occasionally handle a non-fiction and fiction book at the same time) and after seven years of marriage my husband just rolls his eyes when I say I’m going to read “for just a little bit” before bed, as this inevitably turns into me finishing the book at three in the morning – and I don’t even have to like it. I get sucked into the story and just can’t stop, unless the book is truly horrible, and even then I generally need to know how it ends.

I have always, always been a sit down and read a whole book kind of girl. Now that I have a young son, and my husband is working a more traditional schedule (i.e. he’s not gone for whole-book lengths of time after our baby goes to sleep), I just don’t have the time to do that anymore. It’s either read a little at a time, or not at all. So I’m trying to train myself to be a bookmark user. If I can’t make myself stop in the middle of a book, I’m either looking at very short nights or not reading. Neither of those options appeal to me. At all.

So today I’m raising up the bookmark as not only a tool of the trade, but as a representation of the brave new world of reading in small doses.

Do you use bookmarks? How many books are you generally reading at once? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever used as a bookmark?

Family Fridays – TV Shows for One Year Olds That Won’t Make You Insane (YMMV)

As mentioned earlier in the week, my son and I both had a pretty bad cold a few weeks ago, and so we did something we normally don’t do: we camped out in a comfy chair together, snuggled, went through mountains of tissues, and watched several tv shows back to back. Here are my top three picks for shows at his current age:

Sesame Street: I don’t remember watching Sesame Street growing up, so I’ve been blown away at how good it is. They’ve got great educational stuff, music, art, morals, etc. and they still manage to entertain the very young crowd. My son giggles out loud when he sees his favorites: Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, Grover, Elmo (man, I hate Elmo) and Oscar the Grouch. I was raving about what a great show it was to a friend and she mentioned something about the “political messages”. I haven’t seen any subversive political messages, though I only watch the show on Netflix, which has a very limited selection, so I might be missing something from later seasons.

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: This is a spin off from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (which I’ve also never seen), and the focus is on learning social skills – sharing, what to do when you get mad, etc. It is a very good show, though of the three listed here, I find I have the lowest tolerance for this one, mostly due to the repetition. Each thirty minute segment is split into two parts, each teaching the same lesson, but with different characters. Each segment has a song that gets sung quite often (“If you have to go potty, STOP! and go right away!”) and WILL get stuck in your head. The first season is on Netflix.

Postman Pat Special Delivery Service: This is the updated version of a show I remember from my childhood, Postman Pat. It is a charming little show set in a small, rural town in England (using stop motion animation – or at least a look alike) that features the adventures of the postman trying to deliver a parcel that somehow always goes wrong. It’s probably the least educational of the three here, but it’s very pleasant. This one isn’t on Netflix, but you can watch it free on Amazon Prime if you’re a member. My mother bought me the first season, and we’re enjoying working our way through it. It doesn’t hold my one year old’s attention as much as the other two (it’s a little old for him), but we can usually get through at least one 15 minute segment, and generally a 30 minute show.

I’ve tried other shows, but these are the three I keep coming back to. What shows do you watch with your kids?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Happy March!

For the two of you out there who follow my blog, you may have noticed I haven’t posted in a while. My son and I both had a pretty bad cold, then we had family visiting, and the day after they left, we left on a trip of our own for a few days. So it was a crazy couple of weeks. I think the worst thing about having a cold is the amount of awfulness you feel vs. the amount of wimpiness you feel for suffering as much as you do. “Oh, it’s just a cold.” NO! It feels like you’re probably not going to die, but you’re not at all sure that that’s a good thing. Anyways, I’m mostly over it, though the whining continues. Side note: when we lived in Aberdeen, I learned about a great word the Scots have for complaining: whinging. I love it.

Another random update: I’ve changed my 2014 reading challenge on GoodReads from 214 books to 100. I had planned on including board books and baby/toddler books in the number, but in terms of practicality, it was just too diificult to keep track of and enter the books I was reading. I’ll read anywhere between 5-20 of those books a day to my toddler, and it was just too much work to keep track of what I’d entered or what I hadn’t entered. So, 100 books instead of 214, but “real books” only. According to GR, I’m 3 books ahead of schedule as of the end of February. Yay!

How are your 2014 reading goals coming along?