A Bad Beginning

Reviewed in 2005 by home school student, Stephanie.

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” That is the warning given to the reader in the first few sentences of Book the First by Lemony Snicket. What kind of author would advise someone not to read their books, which are said to be filled with absolutely no happiness but only misery and despair? Lemony Snicket, or as he is so-called, does just this.

The warning might sound scary to some, but not forbidding enough to frighten the reader away, in face it increases the reader’s rebellious curiosity and my guess is the word of warning is hardly ever heeded.

In my opinion, the plot is somewhat ordinary – three siblings whose house, parents, and fortune are all consumed in a fire and taken from them in truly an ‘unfortunate event.’ Little do they know they are about to experience a long string of these ill-fated incidents. Violet, the oldest Baudelaire at fourteen, is a right-handed, mechanical genius. Klaus is twelve and like Violet, is extremely intelligent. He, apparently, has a photographic memory and remembers everything he reads. Sunny is the baby and speaks ‘Gloo Gack’ or baby talk. Sunny loves to bite and chomp on anything she can lay her hands (or I guess her mouth) on.

The children are sent to a mysterious unfamiliar relative Count Olaf. After a few moments living in his horrible mansion, the children realize they are in danger. Count Olaf treats them as slaves and is after their fortune.

Although I didn’t enjoy the plot of the story, the ways of the author are very clever and amusing. Snicket assumes we are unintelligent, brainless children who do not know the meaning of every third word in the book, so he takes the liberty to provide the definition for us. For example, “the word ‘rickety,’ you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse,’ the word ‘blanched’ here means ‘boiled,’ the word ‘incentive’ here means ‘offered reward to persuade you to do something you don’t want to do.’ ” Some might consider this a great way to learn words they never knew, but I found it bothersome.

Another literary tool of the author is repetition. When Klaus stays up the entire night reading and researching to find some information which might save them from Count Olaf, Lemony Snicket tells us Klaus was so tired he eventually read the same sentence over and over again. He read the same sentence over and over again. He read the same sentence over and over again, and he, okay, okay, we get the point.

A Bad Beginning is a witty work. So, dear readers, if you feel you are brave enough to make your way through these horrific books, then do so, but do not say you were not warned.”

Snicket, Lemony, and Brett Helquist. The Bad Beginning. Thorndike Press, 2000.

The Phantom Tollbooth

The book which changed the way I felt about reading in fourth grade was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The fun play on words and fantastical adventure of Milo and Tock was the beginning of my love of reading.

Milo, a young boy who finds no wonder or interest in the world comes home after school one day to find a large box in his bedroom. Upon putting together the tollbooth inside, Milo takes his car and drives into the Kingdom of Wisdom. Except since the exile of the Princesses, Rhyme and Reason, chaos and division reign. Milo, a watchdog named Tock, and Humbug, take on the quest to restore the princesses to the kingdom.

Their greatest dangers lie in the Valley of Ignorance where demons, such as Terrible Trivium, set their snares to thwart the rescue.

“If you only do the easy, useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…why if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again, and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit too.”

The Phantom Tollbooth is exciting and humorous for readers of all ages. Younger children may not understand all the play on words, but they will enjoy the adventure. I’ve recently re-read the story and still love it. At just over two hundred and fifty pages, it’s a great read-aloud or chapter book for your third or fourth grader.

Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. W. Ross Macdonald School Resource Services Library, 2015.

Navigating the Nautical

I love nautical fiction! Perhaps my fondness is due to the common theme of many of these books – man vs. nature or man vs. God. Nautical classic fiction is never dull – our protagonists are shipwrecked, cast overboard, washed ashore on deserted islands, trapped by pirates, or challenged by mighty sea creatures. The sea is not a respecter of persons and those who live on the sea rely on Providence.

I’m recommending my favorites today, not all of which are pictured. Although admirably a classic, I won’t add Moby Dick  by Herman Melville to the list, because although I’ve begun the novel on several occasions, I’ve never finished it. (Kudos to those who have!) But it is filled with wonderful characters, language, sermons, and lessons about whales.

I’ll begin my recommendations with those for the middle grade readers and work up.

Captain’s Courageous by Rudyard Kipling is perhaps a little known classic of Kipling’s (best known for The Jungle Book). I’ve read and re-read this little novel because of the wonderful characters who make up the story. Harvey Cheyne Jr. is the spoiled son of wealthy train tycoon, who gets swept off the deck of a steamship and is picked up by the crew of a fishing boat heading out for the season. With no identification or money, he cannot convince the Captain of the fishing vessel to turn around. Harvey is forced to become a working member of the crew. The experience gives him a respect for the sea and the men who make their livelihood from the sea.

Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson is a well-known book full of action and danger. Jim Hawkins, the young son of a inn-owner, gets caught up in a treasure hunt when both his father and an old captain die. He goes aboard ship as a cabin boy, but soon becomes unwilling accomplice to piracy. It’s written as a history, by Jim himself and will draw you in from the first foreboding death scene. The story is grisly, but nothing like today’s Hunger Games or Ender’s Game.

In The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe the protagonists are shipwrecked and the greater part of the books have to do with their survival. These survivors endure storms at sea, fierce animals and hostile people. In both of these classics, God is acknowledged and ultimately revered as sovereign and good despite their circumstances.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham is a wonderful true coming-of-age book about Nathan ‘Nat’ Bowditch, the founder of modern maritime navigation and author of The New American Practical Navigator. Jean Lee Latham introduces us to Nat, who at ten is forced to leave school to help his father, in the cooperage. At twelve he becomes an indentured bookkeeping apprentice. The story shows a young boy with great expectations face obstacles and educate himself. Bowditch teaches himself algebra, calculus, French, Latin, as well as languages spoken at ports they visit all over the world. This is a favorite of mine because of the admirable character and perseverance of the real man, Nathan Bowditch. Wonderful for the homeschooling middle grader.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway can be compared to Moby Dick in the sense it is a tale about a man who goes head to head with a sea creature – in Hemingway’s version, however it is a marlin. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman catches an 18 foot marlin after a draught of 84 days without catching anything. The old man spends much of the novel battling the marlin, and then the sharks who feast on his catch as he heads back to shore. Pathetically, there is little left by the time the old man makes it home. This book is one of Hemingway’s last works and is fairly short at just under two hundred pages. It may be a little slow for middle grade readers, but could be a good read aloud and presents high level vocabulary. The Old Man and the Sea is a good introduction to Hemingway.

Sea Wolf by Jack London is for a more mature reader as it is often described as a ‘psychological adventure novel.’ Humphrey van Weyden, the protagonist, is a literary critic who survives a collision at sea and becomes a hostage of sorts of Captain Wolf Larson. The brutality of the Captain ultimately forces Hump van Weyden to flee the ship to a deserted island. Unfortunately, Wolf Larsen is shipwrecked on the same island. I recommend Sea Wolf for high school readers because it gives us an opportunity to consider how we respond to immorality and brutality.




The Homeschool Reference Library

You may have books you’d add to the Homeschooling Reference Library, but I leaned heavily on these five books: The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia, The Heart of Homeschooling, The Well-Trained Mind, Streams of Civilization, and The Time Chart of History of the World. 

I homeschooled my three children from kindergarten through high school and these foundational books enabled me to chart the course. I used different curricula for subject areas which required a systematic and logical path – Saxon for Math and Apologia for Science in middle and high school. But for all other subjects, I depended heavily on guidance from Susan Wise Bauer’s Well-Trained Mind and The Heart of Homeschooling.

These references provided a structure from which I created our unique home school. Each year I began with a plan, but circumstances and the individual character of my own children usually altered the plan significantly. When it began to dissolve, I admit I often panicked. But re-focusing on Jesus Christ and trusting him with the hearts and minds of my children, usually got me back into the game. I soon came up with more realistic objectives for the year and all ended well.

We used reference books and text books in our home school, but they never controlled our homeschooling experience. If they were ineffective or unhelpful, we set them aside and went back to the basics. There were, for example, books which provided repetitive practice of grammar and spelling rules we used for a couple of years. I had to scrap them when I realized my children were completing the pages with no comprehension of the skills being taught. At that point, I pulled out the white board we went through the language skills until I was convinced my children understood them.

As my last child prepares to graduate from college in May, I realize an emphasis on academics is necessary for college and perhaps their career. But, in retrospect, I urge you to focus on the heart and character of your children while you have them at home. A genuine foundation of faith in Jesus Christ has a far greater impact on future joy and success in the lives of our children. Trust God with the academics and the hearts of your children, you will never regret it.

What reference books do you recommend?

Bible Characters Through the Ages


A review by Janice C. Garey

This book takes children back into the Bible story of Adam in the Garden of Eden via a homemade time machine. The story, nicely paced, can be either read alone by the child, or a parent or sibling could read it to younger children.

I believe it would be best to first build a foundation for the child in the true Bible story before reading this story in case a child might have trouble discerning what are the facts and what part is fictional. This applies more, of course, to younger children than to older ones. The story is really good to help the child consider what it would have been like to experience the Bible story personally.

It seems some children have a jumble of Bible stories in their head, perhaps from sporadic attendance at church, so this book series is perfect to dispel confusion as to sequence of the Bible stories if the books are read in order. A timeline project could be set up to give more learning value and hands on experience with the series.

Click to buy: Bible Characters Through the Ages