Encouraging Reluctant Writers – Happy Mail

Happy Mail

If you have a reluctant writer, you know that getting your child to get even a sentence down on paper can be an exercise in extreme frustration for you both! I explored lots of different ways to get the not-so-enthusiastic writer in my family to write, and one thing I found that worked was to have him write letters! I arranged for my son to write letters to everyone from the president, to family members, to restaurants. He worked hard to get his letters just right and was always excited to get a response tucked in our mailbox. Over the years we saved the letters he received back, and some of them will always be treasures, like the letters from his beloved grandfather who has since passed away.

While working on my up-and-coming language arts curriculum, I was looking for some books to get students writing in a creative way and stumbled across Happy Mail. I will be adding it to my curriculum schedule in the writing assignments. The writing portion of my curriculum is being designed to be a gentle, non-pressure introduction to writing for grades 2-6. I’m taking my experiences with students who both LOVE and HATE to write and incorporating these into my book and resource choices.

Happy Mail is the perfect book to get kids and young teens engaged in the old-fashioned art of letter writing and card making. It starts out with an introduction to letter writing tools – all the fun stuff the artist in me loves like felt-tip pens, card stock, and even the humble black crayon. Some of the supplies call for a craft knife, so an adult will need to supervise or assist with a few of the projects.

The next section covers letter writing basics: parts of a letter, salutations, how to address an envelope, and so on. After that there is a section of simple writing prompts (perfect for kids who would otherwise stare at a blank page for hours), as well as a 30 days challenge with plenty of letter writing activities and ideas for your budding writer.

The next section covers lettering styles. Each letter style shows a complete sample alphabet and is followed by a lined practice page like this:

Letter writing for kids

There are 5 lettering styles:

Paper Cut Alphabet, Brush Lettering, Open Alphabet, Ribbon Alphabet, and a Storybook Alphabet

The book emphasizes that there is no need for perfection, and kids are encouraged to add their own touches and styles to their lettering.

After playing around with some hand lettering, there are several projects that are shown in detail with all of the needed supplies listed. Some of these projects are:

Cut Paper Love Notes, a Quote Note, Emoji Note, I Love You More Than…, a List Letter, Birthday Card, Wildly Grateful Thank You Card, Salty Pretzel Sorry Card, and plenty more for a variety of occasion like holidays, congratulations, etc. There are even simple instructions on now to make a homemade envelope. I like the Letter to Your Future Self idea. It’s something I did when I was a kid, and it’s fun to look back as an adult on some of my younger self’s ideas and dreams!

Letter writing ideas for kids

The last section of the book has some pre-designed cards, notes, and templates with cute and full-color art, along with some black-and-white samples your child can color in.

card projects for kids

Happy Mail is a good book to get your child off the computer and into the world of pens, pencils, and the excitement of sending off a letter or card the old-fashioned way!

Book Review – Drawing School

Drawing School book review

I’m a sucker for art books. When I was homeschooling, I had quite a few on the shelves for my kids like Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad and various Klutz Art books, among others. I have always felt that basic art and drawing skills are important to teach!

I recently had the chance to review Drawing School. (Thank you Quarto Group and Edelweiss!) This book is ADORABLE and stuffed full of over 300 things to draw with very clear and easy-to-follow drawing instructions. The 272 pages are organized into categories of items that will appeal to both boys and girls. The categories are:

  • Pets
  • Sports Stuff
  • Let’s Celebrate
  • On the Farm
  • At the Beach
  • Under the Sea
  • At the Zoo
  • In the Garden
  • At the Circus
  • At the Show (with things like guitars, instruments, a movie star, etc.)
  • In a Fairy Tale
  • Around the House
  • At School
  • Around Town
  • Around the World
  • Beyond Our World (planets, an astronaut, etc.)
  • In the Past (dinosaurs)

The book starts out with a small section on supplies and basic drawing instruction, like learning how to see shapes and different types of lines.

Each section features a number of specific items that belong in the category. The items are shown being drawn in full color with manageable steps like the following screenshot of a cat’s head:

At the end of each section, there is a full color, 2-page spread that shows many of the section’s drawings in a scene like this:

Homeschoolers will like the Around the World section with instructions on how to draw things like an Egyptian pharaoh:

This book is not just for kids. I got it for myself, lol…because the drawings are so cute and perfect for handmade cards and notes.

I LOVE this book. I love the happy, colorful drawings, as well as the simple drawing instructions. If you have a student who loves drawing, Drawing School would make an excellent Christmas present, or a perfect addition to a low-key art program.

A mom shares her experience with Chemistry in the Kitchen

homeschool chemistry curriculum review
A mom recently shared her teens’ experiences with Chemistry in the Kitchen. I’m sharing what she wrote here, with her permission! I get a lot of emails that describe this type of transformation of a student’s attitude toward science. These stories highlight what my goal for Guest Hollow curriculum is: to engage students, get them thinking, teach them practical things they will actually use in their lives, and spark an interest in learning by using a creative approach. If you have a story to share how Guest Hollow has changed your school day or your child’s view of a particular subject, please feel free to share in the comments! Your sharing will help other families better decide if Guest Hollow is a fit for them or not! ūüôā
The excerpt from the email I received:
I’ve always been intrigued with a more literature learning style but my boys were reluctant. They say they prefer one textbook for the whole course. What I’ve found is when it comes to science a textbook can be hard because they tend to just give the facts and you memorize. There is no practical application (aside from experiments.) When I chose this course I didn’t know if it would be a good fit. It was so different than anything we’ve done before. They liked that they only had one small book at a time, it didn’t feel so overwhelming. If they didn’t like a book they knew it would be over in a week and they would jump into something new. My oldest who is the pickiest loved all the practical learning. He would often pull me into a discussion about what he read that day. Sometimes it would be comments like, “I’m never eating that again” and sometimes it would be, “What do you think about vaccines, my book says this.” Both teens willing do their science daily – that to me is the biggest blessing because with Biology, I had a wonderful and solid course for them but they fought me all year. We ended up doing just the reading part and the microscope sat in the box unopened. I think this course is perfect for the non-traditional learner because it is more interest-led. My boys have already decided that we will be doing Guest Hollow Physics next year.

Access Cambridge Latin Online for Free

For a limited time, you can access the Cambridge Latin course, online, for free (link is at the bottom of this post). This is a terrific opportunity to take an in-depth look at their materials. Cambridge Latin¬†is one of the Latin resources I used with Otter, and I really liked it a lot! It’s very easy to understand and has lots of resources¬†to help you learn Latin, even without a Latin background. The textbooks are designed¬†for schools, but I found the online course perfect for our homeschool. I love the interactive online practice items that really help you retain the material. I also really like how the online program has an audio narration, to help you with pronunciation (classical style).

A yearly subscription gets you access to terrific materials like an online version of the textbook. Here is a screenshot of one of the very beginning pages from Unit 1 / Stage 1:

cambridge latin

The online textbook is a mix of comic-book style stories, reading passages (immersion style learning), history information (with photographs), and exercises / explanations.

Immersion style learning means you are almost immediately reading longer passages of Latin and naturally learning the language without drowning in all the grammar rules. You pick up Latin¬†“naturally” and learn¬†a lot of the grammar just by reading and listening to it. You actually start reading and comprehending Latin right from the start!

You also get access to online exercises. The screenshot below shows the “Listen, Read, Think, and Derive” panel:

Cambridge Latin

With this panel you can read the story, listen to it read out loud, do the think exercises where you respond to questions about the passage, or study the words and phrases in more depth via the derive tab.

There is also a vocabulary tester:

Homeschool latin program

You can also play around with the word sorter to practice vocabulary and check your understanding of words & concepts:

Latin for homeschool

Homeschool Latin course

Another resource is an interactive digital version of the student workbooks with plenty of exercises to practice the textbook material:

Homeschool Latin¬†The entire site is being restructured, so the new version that’s coming out may be even better than what I’ve posted above.

Click here to take a look!¬†I can’t find a price for the online course subscription listed at this time (probably since they are in the process of restructuring their website), but I remember it was¬†very reasonable.

Cambridge also offers online distance courses and other materials which are available via their official site: http://www.cscp.educ.cam.ac.uk/ . They even have webcam lessons!

If you are interested in teaching or learning Latin, Cambridge Latin is one of my favorite resources! ¬†I really enjoyed it and benefited immensely from¬†the immersion style of learning. Cambridge Latin, in my opinion, is¬†most appropriate for high schoolers or adults, although a motivated middle schooler could probably use it successfully with a parent’s help . I used it in combination with a few other programs (when learning languages I find I learn best with a multitude of resources), and still have it on my shelf for myself, even though I am now officially “retired” from homeschooling.¬†wink

Happy homeschooling!


Book Review: Indian Captive

Indian Captive

The first Lois Lenski book I ever read was Strawberry Girl. I was instantly enamored with it and went looking to see what other books Lois had written. Lois Lenski wrote a host of old-fashioned, wholesome books and illustrated some of the Betsy-Tacy books.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison¬†is a wonderful addition to Lenski’s historical novels¬†– a story about the real life of Mary Jemison who was captured on an Indian raid and raised among the Senecas.

In the early days of American, many children were captured by Indians. Some of these children chose not to return to white families when later given the choice. Mary (nicknamed Molly) was one of those children. Her capture occurred in 1758, right in the middle of the French and Indian War. Except for two older brothers who escaped, her family was massacred. Molly was adopted by the Indians and ended up living the rest of her life with them.

The book changes a few of Molly’s¬†circumstances for younger readers, but is otherwise true to the original story. Lenski has done her research and it shows. She not only accurately captures life with the Seneca (and Iroquois tribe), but also successfully portrays the inner struggle in Molly’s¬†heart and mind as she adjusts to her new life. Molly struggles to not forget her family and hangs on with a fierce tenacity to their memories. She clings to what her mother and father told her before being separated and repeats their names to keep them fresh in her mind. After finding out they’ve been killed, Molly has to deal with the dichotomy of knowing that the Indians who killed her family are also the people who have grown to love and care for her. It’s a warfare in her heart as she struggles to come to grips with these realities.

Once she’s given a chance to go back to white “civilization”, Molly finds she has a final choice to make that will forever seal her fate as one thing or another. Is she white? Is she an Indian?

Indian Captive has a satisfying end. After getting there, you can understand why Molly makes the decision she does, whether you agree with it or not. Besides a great opportunity to learn some real history, the book is a terrific window into Indian culture. The Indians are not portrayed as evil or wonderful. They are a range of everything in between, as all human beings are – with some characters more sympathetic than the rest. Indian Captive made a great addition to our homeschool for the mid 1700’s as we learned about the French and Indian War. I read it out loud to my two older kids and was delighted to be given the opportunity to review the Kindle edition. Besides a complex and emotional story, the illustrations by Lenski are a visual treat.


Christian parents, there is some mention of Indian spirituality with mentions of the “Great Spirit”.

I also think this story will appeal more to girls than boys, although both my daughter and son enjoyed it when I read it to them years ago.

If you are looking for a book to delve into Iroquois Indian culture or to illustrate the¬†effects¬†of the French and Indian War on both sides, Indian Captive is a great addition to homeschool history studies. It’s also just a good adventure book that explores a little bit of psychological complexities and makes for some good discussion.

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*I recieved this book for free in exchange for my honest opinion.

P.S. For those of you who subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed, please read this post to re-subscribe via my new subscription service and my new feed address. I’ve decided to delay shutting off my old feed for a week or two during the transition so everyone has a chance to migrate to the new system. Thanks and sorry for the inconvenience!


Book Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back

Tiger Babies Strike Back Review

Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised by a Tiger Mom but Could Not Be Turned to the Dark Side

I am a big fan of Amy Chua’s¬†Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of a mother with an unflinching look at her extreme parenting based on the “Chinese” way of raising super-kids. Though I don’t agree with most of Amy’s draconian ways of raising her two girls, I still found her book secretly admirable in parts, though flawed.

Tiger Babies Strike back is Kim Wong’s answer to Battle Hymn. It’s her own personal look at Chinese parenting and the toll it takes as well as her personal decision not to follow in the Chinese Tiger Mother footsteps. Her book is a humorous foray into Chinese-American culture as she shares her stories of growing up in San Francisco’s¬†Chinatown¬† Her message: “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be robots.”

Kim has a rambling sort of way of writing. She jumps between history and culture lessons about the Chinese to first hand experiences from her childhood up to her parenting her own daughter. She shares all sorts of stories illustrating the damage done from such a harsh version of Chinese parenting and delves off into rabbit trails about other Chinese cultural bits and pieces with a playful and humorous style that is sometimes tinged with a cutting edge of bitterness.

Kim is sassy, astute and also unapologetic for the message behind her book. She says,

“Tiger Parents, you may be asking yourselves, “What is the point of this book?”

“Love your babies, and show your babies that you love them. Withholding your acceptance and praise while pushing your children into achievement might yield certain results, but that kind of pressure stifles other aspects of growing up.”

While I enjoyed getting to peek into the ever fascinating world of Chinese-American parenting, I never felt the book was completely coherent and totally focused on its message. Kim wanders all over the landscape of her upbringing, often popping into the present and delving deeper into the murkiness of history. She is funny, but sometimes I wasn’t totally sure of who her intended audience was. Was she speaking to all parents? Just Chinese-American parents? Tiger Moms? I felt like an outsider peeking into someone’s life with whatever message she was trying to convey slipping past me, a white woman of European ancestry, as I didn’t fit the mold of whomever she seemed to be speaking to, mainly (it appears) those caught between two cultures as she herself is.

Still, despite its faults, I enjoyed learning a great deal about Chinese-American culture and appreciated Kim’s crusade to persuade Tiger Mom’s to put away their claws when it comes to their children. Compared to Chua’s book I think it fell a little flat, but was still an enjoyable and worthwhile read for the cultural aspects.

Read more of my book reviews here!

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

P.S. For those of you who subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed, please read this post¬†to re-subscribe via my new subscription service and my new feed address. I’ve decided to delay shutting off my old feed for a week or two during the¬†transition so everyone has a chance to migrate to the new system. Thanks and sorry for the inconvenience!

Book Review: The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin

secret of the sealed room

The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin (Click here to see the book on Amazon.)

I got this book to use in our homeschool and was disappointed by a subtle anti-Christian feel throughout. Normally this wouldn’t deter us from reading a book, if it has a purpose – but I just didn’t feel it was necessary or appropriate in the The Secret of the Sealed Room. Besides that issue, the main character, Patience is a much too modern feeling for the time period – enough to probably appeal to readers but not faithful to the historical period. Although there is a lot of little historical tidbits scattered throughout the text and a mystery to keep readers guessing, the whole thing fell flat for me with very little positive character traits emulated by the main characters and a very strong “girl power” message sprinkled throughout as the adult characters put down females through cutting comments all of the time and of course our “heroine” proves them all wrong. I have nothing at all wrong with a strong, historical female heroine (see my review for¬†Madeleine Takes Command), but Patience was just too 21st century.

The novel starts out with Patience who was sold as an indentured servant at her mother’s death. During her indenture, her father dies and she’s left in the care of Mrs. Worth. Patience isn’t happy with her lot in life – Mrs. Worth isn’t very kind, has a complaining, criticizing spirit and is harsh and miserly. Expecting her first child, one evening she has Patience fetch the midwife Moll Bacon. Moll comes and administers some herbs to relieve Mrs. Worth’s discomfort. The next morning Mrs. Worth (and her unborn baby) are dead in a vomit filled room and the doctor pronounces the cause of death as poison by arsenic. When Patience finds out that Mr. Richardson, Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law is going to sell her indenture for pennies, she runs away.

The “adventure” and mystery start at that point and it’s mainly centered around “who killed Mrs. Worth” and where did her strongbox of money disappear to? The midwife Moll Bacon is accused of poisoning the now dead woman and Patience gets accused of stealing the box of money. Patience gets wrapped up in trying to solve the mystery (and clear her name along with Moll’s) with her new, young friend Benjamin Franklin.

I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to read it, so I’ll stop here with the description of the plot. Instead, I’ll focus on the things I personally found irritating.

First: The modern girl plopped down into history issue…

Patience is a very “modern” feeling girl. She chafes against the strong religious views of the time in subtle ways as well as her “station” as a girl and as an indentured servant. There are many references in the book about her being vexed at how girls were looked at or thought about or treated at the time – an opinion I think doesn’t really fit in the way it was presented. I’ve read historical fiction about strong girls that felt real. Patience felt totally contrived with an agenda pushed by the author. So many stereotypes were thrown around by the males in the book. I got really tired of it really fast.

A few quotes: “Well, you’re only a girl, and girls love to weep, so-”

Wilkes flapped his hand. “A weak girl could never hope to break into so sturdy a box, my boy…twas foolish of the wench to steal only the box and not the key as well, but there you are! Girls are not very strong, and they certainly are not very bright.”

“Do you talk back to me, you saucy young hussy?”

There are other instances like the above. Since I was reading the hardback version (and not the Kindle) I didn’t take notes on each and every one, as I usually do when reviewing a book.

Second: The very subtle anti-christian “feel” to the book…

Throughout the book there is a very subtle (and won’t be obvious to children) anti-christian feel that is wrapped up in some of the character’s portrayals as well as Patience’s attitude.
The very first part of the book starts out with, “My name is Patience, but I have little of that with all those in Boston who keep telling me what a bad girl I am. When I learned my letters, the very first sentences I could read proved a harsh and scolding one: In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look.”

A little bit later you are introduced to Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law who is portrayed as a Christian but is nearly evil and certainly very unchristian-like. He is sour and stern and accuses the midwife of witchcraft. Then there is the mention of Cotton Mather who Mrs. Worth think is not “much inferior to an angel” and yet it’s clear he was instrumental in the Salem witch trials so he’s just another idiot, evil Christian (and yes, I think the Salem trials were a terrible tragedy, but just as some like to point to the Crusaders as evidence for Christianity’s stupidity, I believe the author is using Mather to do the same thing). Patience thinks to herself, “It seemed to me that if people like Mr. Richardson had their way, such cruelty would still be going on in Massachusetts.” (That’s in regard to her reading from Mather’s book “The Wonders of the Invisible World” which is about witchcraft.)

Patience mentions how she is reading The Pilgrim’s Progress but doesn’t like it (but hey, at least it has pictures). Anyone who knows about the Pilgrim’s Progress and how influential a (and truly wonderful classic) book it was in Christian households can see the little subtle “dig”. I say that only because of the context of the entire book and all the other “little instances” piled together – NOT because she doesn’t like a particular book. If it was the only instance I would chalk it up to the character’s personal preference. However, taken as a whole, I think it’s the author’s preference shining through, not Patience’s. Hopefully that makes sense.

Another potentially interesting comment that some Christians may take odds with is(interpret it as you will): “Though I do not believe in any kind of magic, I do think we have odd talents that we never or only rarely use. I have a gift of sensing time fairly accurately…” Again, this is just taken in the context of the whole book. There are too many little things like this that pile up and thus gain greater meaning. Another example of that type of thing is a clear stone the midwife leaves on Mrs. Worth’s hearth while she tells he she can “watch her through it”. The midwife then tells Patience it’s not really magic, but hey, if it makes Mrs. Worth feel better there’s no harm in the lie. What was the purpose of her pulling a stone out like that in the first place? How did it help the story? If you are a conservative Christian family, you’ll probably understand why I mention it.

There are plenty of other examples I could mention. Of course, if you are a secular family, this isn’t going to bother you and you can disregard all of the above. However, I wanted to mention it for Christian families who may be trying to decide if a book is appropriate for their family.

Besides all of the above, the characters have to resort to deceit throughout the book. Readers will justify it because of the circumstances, but I didn’t like how integrated into the story it was. At one point Patience chides Ben for lying, stating it’s a sin, and yet she herself resorts to it on numerous occasions.

At any rate, I really didn’t find much to redeem this book for our homeschool. There are plenty of other books that cover similar material with much better/stronger moral lessons interwoven or just plain, good old-fashioned adventure stories. I even liked The Witch of Blackbird Pond despite the “rebellious” and strong female character (with some hypocritical Christians abounding) because it felt so much more authentic and was more balanced and real for the time period. I felt that The Secret of the Sealed Room was too contrived (the convenient friendship with young Franklin) and had too many subtle agendas woven throughout.

However, having said that, for those of you who find the things I mentioned NOT an issue, young readers will probably enjoy the mystery aspect of the story and learn a lot of historical details that are sprinkled throughout the novel about Benjamin Franklin during his indenture to his brother, the Salem Witchcraft trials, books and papers circulating the colonial towns at that time, details about early Boston and so on. It just wasn’t a fit for MY family, at all.

*If my review was helpful, please vote “yes” for it on Amazon. ūüôā

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Book Review of a Y.A. dystopian: The Ward

The Ward

The Ward (Click here to view the book on Amazon. It will be released on April 30, 2013.)

I LOVE dystopians and was totally intrigued by the cover of The Ward. It didn’t disappoint. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my heart was pounding while reading various sections and that NEVER happens. Needless to say I read it all in one sitting because I didn’t want to put it down.

The Ward is set in a futuristic Manhattan that is completely flooded. Only the tops of skyscrapers pierce through the water after a meteor collided with a glacier in the Antarctic sometime around 2048 causing high-temperature gases to be released which caused a rise in the sea level. As the Ocean levels rose, fresh ground water was contaminated and the landscape totally changed. Instead of asphalt roads, canals thread their ways through the upper stories of remaining buildings. Boardwalks and suspension bridges stretch from area to area and instead of cars, there are water vehicles.

“Upstate” NY is its own country and, after a conflict with New York City in 2054, they embargoed access to fresh water. New York City is now separated into two areas: the West Isle and The Ward. When the government closed access in and out of the Ward, everyone who was there was stuck for good, even if they lived and commuted from the West Isle. World building is released in little bits of information here and there and while you understand what’s going on in the NY area, very little if anything is said or described about the rest of the world or what happened to the United States. Still, it’s enough information to set the stage and satisfy.

The West Isle is filled with the upper class who have relatively easy lives with plenty of access to water despite the embargo while the Ward is cordoned off to contain people infected with the deadly HBNC virus and is more like a slum with little access to life-giving water. The residents of the Ward filter their rainwater but it’s always a struggle. From the book: “‚Ķand (I) look down into the murky water. To think – people used to fill toilet bowls with fresh. Pissing into a pot you can drink out of. Unbelievable.”

It’s a crime to transmit the HBNC virus and roving bands of enforcers test residents to see if they are contagious. Test positive and you’ll be arrested. Those that live in the Ward live in constant fear of either contracting the disease, if they don’t already have it, being arrested if they do or dying if they’ve been infected and can no longer transmit the virus. It’s an ugly world where the dying scrape together money for injections to relieve the pain and the healthy are just surviving.

Sixteen year old Ren lives in this world and struggles to take care of her younger sister Aven (actually a friend who grew up in the same orphanage) who is infected with the HBNC virus, but no longer contagious. A tumor bulges out from the base of her skull. She’s dying and Ren races to earn money to take care of Aven and buy the meds that give her temporary relief from the excruciating and debilitating pain she suffers. Through Aven you get to see a very tender side of Ren underneath the tough exterior. She truly loves this fragile girl who has become her only family.

Ren has a secret; she’s working for the hated enforcers to earn extra money for Aven, looking for a freshwater source during the races. What she finds under the water’s surface will be the beginning of a dangerous journey where age-old mysteries are unraveled (along with a little bit of a fantasy element). Ren finds water, but it isn’t just any water‚Ķand what it can do is the catalyst behind a world-rocking change and plenty of personal imperilment.

To say The Ward is riveting is an understatement. Besides the intriguing premise, it delivers with rich characters, plenty of twists and plenty of heart-pounding action. There were some underwater scenes where I was nearly gritting my teeth. You know the kind where a vehicle plunges into the water and water starts rushing in and someone is trapped and gulping air and….yeah…that kind. Definitely intense.

I loved it that the characters in The Ward are fully fleshed out. Ren is completely¬†likable¬†as well as genuinely funny. The novel is told in first person from her perspective but there is plenty of world detail along with her humorous insights. Thankfully The Ward is lacking the usual sickly-sweet love triangle Y.A. dystopian novel focus. There is a little bit of a love interest but it’s such a mild sub-plot that it doesn’t steal from the show.

The racing part of the story (Ren races some sort of water vehicle that skips across the top of the water and skids across the sides of partially submerged buildings) is NOT my usual fare, however I found myself enjoying it. It’s a technical, sci-fi type of racing that would make a terrific action scene in a movie. Ren is struggling to make it in what is apparently a male-dominated venue but her tenacity and raw skill earn her reluctant respect. As the story progresses, the racing takes a back seat to the plot twists surrounding Ren’s discovery and the revelation that everyone isn’t who they appear to be as the story unfolds. I don’t want to share anymore because part of the fun is seeing how the story unravels and twists as you read along.

Now for the Mom part of the review: I would rate The Ward PG-13. The Ward is definitely a gritty novel that doesn’t shy away from Ren’s inner dialogue or violent events. There are several instances of instances of cursing (or “near” cursing) like: hell, dam*it, effed up, brack (I guess it’s the Ward’s version of a cuss word), bada$$ery, slut, a couple mentions of giving the finger and so on. There is no s*x, although this topic exists in various venues, such as the time when Ren is naked in front of one of the guy characters at one point and there is a kiss and Ren gets distracted by a young man’s hands lifting her by her armpits (“dangerously close to other places”) and other similar instances. There is also mention of two dragster “girlfriends” (apparently homos*xual although no further details are fleshed out) and Ren talks about her breasts and backside (but not in detail, just in the context of an outfit). There is some underage drinking, although it doesn’t play a big part and Ren herself doesn’t like it but “takes a sip” to be “polite”.

I would say The Ward is more appropriate for older teens vs. the younger crowd and it definitely has an adult edge to it mixed with a strong “teen flavor”. Ren is a strong character leading an adult life despite her age. Conservative Christian families will probably not feel comfortable with some of the situations she finds herself in, even though The Ward is a bit more tame than other novels in this genre with less specific “adult” material. Ren has a crush and she’s in adult situations, but it’s straight forward and there isn’t much, if any, fluff. The focus is on the action, not on a love story or a heavy does of s*xual tension as Y.A. novels sometimes tend to lean towards.

I read other reviews of The Ward written by teens and apparently many of them were kind of “lost” ¬†or not drawn into the story as frequently and easily as I’ve seen for other titles. The Ward is more subtle in letting you know what’s going on as far as world building goes and how it describes the past. I’ve summed it all up in the beginning of my review, but that info was gleaned from multiple areas in the book. I think the fact that the racing scenes were described but the reader is not told the “hows” behind it was probably a bit¬†mildly¬†disconcerting to some readers as well. The thing I read over and over was how the readers enjoyed the main character Ren and I have to agree she’s the one that anchors the book as a whole. While I would have liked more background or world building, Ren kept me from caring too much about whatever might be lacking as the action barely ever let up from start to finish.

Quick Summary:

I found The Ward to be a refreshing entry into the dystopian genre and even though it’s a Y.A. novel, as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ren is such a strong character that she manages to pull the book through any potential weak spots. The action swept me along and I’m looking forward to the next book. Even though the ending was wrapped up nicely, there were a few big elements where you are left hanging and hungry to read more. I can’t wait for book #2 and recommend The Ward to anyone who likes either dystopians, a bit of modern/futuristic worlds with a fantasy/mild sci-fi twist or just a good action story.

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Review of Marie’s Words – Vocabulary Flash Cards

Marie's Words Vocabulary Cards

I’ve been homeschooling for 17 years now and have seen (and probably used, lol) just about everything you can think of for vocabulary studies. One of our favorites over the years is the book Vocabulary Cartoons¬†for the way it connects pictures to a word’s meaning. The negative about Vocabulary Cartoons is that it’s in a book format. It’s kind of hard to practice definitions when you can see everything (like the definition/answers) all together on the page.

Marie’s Words Vocabulary Flash Cards¬†solves this! Fun illustrations are on the front of each card (about the size of an index card). Flip it over and you get the definition(s), pronunciation help, synonyms and antonyms. There is a total of 550 cards with words targeted for the SAT.

Marie's Words Vocabulary Flashcards

Look at all these cards! There are 550 to be exact.

The front of each card features the word you are learning along with an illustration to help you remember the meaning of the word. For example: the word viscous is drawn with a jar of honey being poured over the top of the letters V I S C O U S. You can see that the honey is clinging to the top of the letters and dripping down. It’s an immediate visual cue that really helps you remember that a viscous substance (like honey) has a thick, sticky consistency between a solid and liquid.

On the “hamper” card below you can see both meanings for hamper: something to hold dirty laundry and also the fact that the vehicle is being hampered from driving any further.

Marie's Vocabulary Words

The back of each card has several helps beyond just a definition (or several definitions if a word has more than one meaning).


First, there is a number on the upper left corner. This is helpful if you want to alphabetize your cards. Ours are hopelessly out of order from using them so much, but if we ever wanted to put them back in order, these numbers would help tremendously.

Next, there is the word you are defining featured prominently at the top (which is nice if you are helping a child practice – you don’t have to look at the front of the card to see what you are doing) as well as a pronunciation help underneath. The pronunciation help is a great feature, especially for some of the harder and more unfamiliar words. For example: On the card for the word putrid the pronunciation help shows: pyoo-trid with the pyoo part in bold so you know to emphasize that syllable.

Underneath the word and it’s pronunciation help is the definition itself. Sometimes there is more than one definition if a word has more than one meaning. There is also a sentence for each definition so you can see the word in context. I find this really helps my son better retain the meaning. The sentence for the first definition (and most commonly used meaning) is related to the drawing on the front of the card to make it stick even more.

The last thing on each card are two boxes at the bottom. One contains synonyms and the other antonyms. These boxes do double duty. Not only do they expose you to even more vocabulary, they also help clarify the meaning of the word. Let’s say my son is learning the 2nd definition for the word “hamper” and he doesn’t know what impede or restrict means. He can look at the antonym box and see that the opposite meaning is to allow or permit. This not only helps make the definition more clear, it also connects it to other words and meanings. When he looks at the synonym box he can see the synonyms block and stymie. These words will either help him better define the word or will introduce him to additional vocabulary words he may not be totally familiar with. I find the synonym box to also be a huge plus in that it can allow a student to define the word using just one other word instead of a longer definition. Sometimes that just works better (and is quicker)!

I know these cards are being marketed for SAT study, but I think they are just as useful as a vocabulary program for almost any age (though some words and their definitions might be too difficult for some early elementary students). I’ve found that they are a fun break from using a workbook or something similar. They are easy to use, quick and memorable (and portable!).

Another thing I want to comment on is that I work with a child who has (high functioning) autism (Aspergers). This child sometimes has difficulty learning things out of context. Having Marie’s Words on hand instantly ties each word to something visual and more easy to connect to than just a word itself.

A student can easily use the cards on his own, but I find it’s more fun to use them together. We like to flip through them and quiz each other. Even I learned some words *blush*…

The only negative thought I have about Marie’s Words is the name. It’s not sticky. I think the cards should be called something like Visual Vocabulary or something similar. Ah well. That’s a very minor complaint and has nothing to do with the actual use of the cards themselves. Also, sometimes the definition is kind of difficult, but all you have to do is look at the synonyms to “dumb it down”.

I’ve had great success using Marie’s Words in my homeschool and highly recommend them if you are looking for something different to help you teach vocabulary. The illustrations really help the word meanings stick and turn learning vocabulary into something visual, quick, easy and even fun!

Click here to visit the official Marie’s Words website. You can also purchase them from Amazon¬†and¬†Timberdoodle. If you visit the official site, there is also an app available for the iPhone, iPad and Android!