“The Martian” and other out-of-this-world fiction

My childhood ambition was to be an astronaut and travel to Mars.  Plans changed and I became a teacher instead, but it’s been fun to see Mars so much in the news recently and also in some very creative fiction. I want to share about three favorites, in chronological order.

First, “The Martian.” What fun! The story occurs sometime in the not too distant future. NASA has sent previous missions to Mars and this team is supposed to spend lengthy time on the red planet. However, a violent storm threatens to tip over their spaceship and they have to get out in a hurry, leaving behind a crewmate, Mark Watney, who they believe to be dead. After they leave, Mark wakes up alone on Mars with no way to phone home. The rest of the movie is reminiscent of “Apollo 13” as Mark tries to survive and NASA discovers his existence and works out what to do next. Naturally, things go wrong, and it is very exciting.

The MartianBefore watching the movie I read the book by Andy Weir, which was very technical in regards to the science. Weir was meticulous in his research and everything is quite believable. The book is pretty geeky. The writers of the screenplay were forced to leave out a lot of the technical stuff and as a result there appear to be some holes and shaky premises, but in the book the premises are solid. The movie also left out entire crisis’s that are detailed in the book. I think the movie is better – they left out the right stuff and they left in the right stuff, including the humor. The book reads like the highly detailed geeky research that went into making the movie, not that I didn’t enjoy it immensely.

“The Martian” is rated PG-13, which I think is appropriate, but in case someone is sensitive to that I wanted to explain. There is a scene at the beginning where Mark Watney has to perform surgery on himself and it is very bloody. I don’t like blood, so I didn’t watch for a couple minutes. Problem solved. There is a fair amount of swearing, although not nearly so much as there is in the book. I don’t like it, but honestly, if there was any time where swearing was appropriate it might be when you discover you’ve been left behind in outer space! It does occur throughout the movie. If swearing bothers you skip the book, but take a chance on the movie – it’s worth it. The final item for the PG-13 rating is brief nudity. It’s mild and it lasts about a second. I think they put it in just to get the rating.

Saving MarsNow move forward in time. Cidney Swanson has written the 6-book series Saving Mars which is an exciting fast-paced sci-fi adventure for the YA market. Mars has now been colonized, but there was a war with earth and no contact is now allowed between the planets. At regular intervals the Marsians, as they prefer to be called, send raiders to earth to get supplies. It’s a very dangerous trip, not least because earth of the future is ruled by a tyrant who mandates a convoluted system of body-swapping. The heroine, Jessamyn, pilots the ship for the raiding party which includes her brilliant brother Ethan who appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. The story has danger and intrigue and plot twists with action so fast it can make your head spin. There is even some light romance. Highly recommended. I loved it and my very bright 10-year-old loved it.

Medieval Mars paperback coverNow go even farther into the future. A thousand years after Mars is colonized comes Travis Perry’s story world of Medieval Mars. Technology finally gets the better of the human race and civilization has collapsed. The inhabitants of Mars have been thrown back into a life that is remeniscient of the medieval days of knights and lords and where technology is so misunderstood that it is considered to be magic. There are even dragons, curtesy of early settlers who bioengineered wings on komodos. Apparently they couldn’t figure out how to make their dragons breathe fire, so they created them to spit acid instead.

Travis Perry invented this world and then invited other authors to write stories for it. The result was Medieval Mars: The Anthology which contains stories about Medieval Mars by nine authors. Stories include Perry’s “The War Between the Mons,” “The Search for Eden” by Mark Venturini and my “Sam and the Dragon.”  Medieval Mars: The Anthology is published by Bear Publications.

Final Cover 1Sam and the Dragon is the story of a boy and his cousin who travel through the wilderness of Mars in search of a dragon who has been eating the family’s goats. The anthology is suitable for YA and up, but Sam and the Dragon is also published separately as a middle-grade (4th-6th grade) chapter book. The stand-alone version includes illustrations by concept artist Phil Wade.

So there’s my favorite Martian fiction. What’s yours?

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Book Review: Footprints on the Ceiling

ds.fotc.cover (2)Footprints on the Ceiling, the latest book from author Dorcas Smucker, is a delight to read, especially on a rainy day, curled up underneath a cozy blanket with something hot to drink. Or a chapter at a time, while waiting for a late school bus. Or when you have an unexpected break in a busy schedule. I read it all these ways, and finished the last bit while sitting in a barn during my son’s horseback riding lesson. It was the perfect read.

In the days of ever abundant “bonnet fiction” (you know, those books with with young and pretty windswept pioneer girls on the covers), this is the real deal. Dorcas Smucker grew up Amish and married into a Mennonite family. She writes about faith and life with her husband and six children in rural Harrisburg, Oregon, but more than anything else, Dorcas is a storyteller. She finds herself in all sorts of humorous situations (orange dots on the ceiling? a Canadian goose escorting a forklift crossing a bridge backwards? cookie dough that just keeps oozing?) and knows just what to do with them. The stories are all true – you can’t make this stuff up!

Interwoven with the humor are tales of life lessons learned, sometimes reluctantly. Dorcas is refreshingly frank and honest about her own struggles as she raises her children to become self-sufficient adults and she draws the reader in with her candor.

Footprints on the Ceiling is the latest in a series of books Dorcas has written about family life, and in this volume, the kids are almost all grown. If you’ve never read any of her other books, you can jump in and start with this one. The book is suitable for anyone, but will especially appeal to moms, aunts, grandmas, sisters or cousins. I’d let my fourth grader read it, but I’m worried that the incident that led to orange dots on the ceiling might give him too many ideas…

As a participant in the blog tour for Footprints, I am giving away one free copy. Add your name to the comments if you’d like to be included. I’ll announce the winner this Friday, so please check back or leave your email address so I can contact you if you win.

Footprints on the Ceiling is available on Amazon or directly from Dorcas for $15 per book, postage included.  You can mail a check to Dorcas Smucker, 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446.  US addresses only.  To send a copy to Canada or overseas, email Dorcas at  You can also visit her website:

And who put the footprints on the ceiling? You’ll just have to read the book to find out!

Categories: Book Reviews | 41 Comments

A Few of our Favorite Picture Books

Picture books. The delight of children everywhere. Some books are simple, some are memorable, some have illustrations that deserve viewing in a museum. There are museums devoted to artwork from children’s literature, and someday I’d like to visit one.

In our house we went through picture books by the dozen. We owned a handful of favorites, but mostly we checked them out from the library. Picture books are the natural bridge between little board books and books for early readers. They are for snuggling, reading aloud, pointing out things in the story and talking about. A young child who experiences lots of picture books is well prepared for the next steps of learning to read.

Our library has a whole room-size section devoted just to picture books. We read every book we could find that had a fireman or construction equipment on the cover. We read plenty of others, too. Don’t neglect the children’s non-fiction section.  There are plenty more picture books in that section that may interest your child. Here is a list of just a few of our favorites.

Fix it Duck1. Fix-It Duck by Jez Alborough – We loved this book! “Plop! goes the drip that drops in the cup. Duck looks down and Duck looks up. ‘A leak in the roof, Oh, what bad luck! This is a job for… FIX-IT DUCK!” Duck has plenty of confidence, but the more he fixes, the worse it gets. The illustrations are marvelous and the story is perfectly written, including the surprise ending. Alborough has written and illustrated many other picture books and they’re good, too, but I think this one is his masterpiece.

If you give a mouse a cookie2. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff – If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is perfection in a picture book. A little boy gives a mouse a cookie so the mouse asks for a glass of milk, so then he wants to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache, and then he asks for a pair of scissors to give himself a trim… It keeps going until the mouse runs his little host ragged. (The mouse may remind you of a preschooler in your life.) Felicia Bond’s illustrations are delightful. There are a number of other “If You Give a” books in this series, although none of them quite measure up to this one. My favorite of the others is If You Give a Moose a Muffin.

Jamberry3. Jamberry by Bruce Degen – Jamberry is just bursting with fun. As a boy and bear float down a river picking berries, the nonsensical rhymes are memorable and the illustrations leap off the page. Caution: the rhymes will stick!  “One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry!”

Pancakes for breakfast4. Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola – We loved this little picture book, and it is truly a picture book because there are no words.  Tomie dePaola illustrates the story of a lady who wants pancakes for breakfast, but everything seems to go wrong. A nice story for children to “read” to themselves, although mine always wanted me to “read” it to him anyway. We still use the pancake recipe included in the book.

Fireman Small5. Fireman Small by Wong Herbert Yee – Of all the fireman books we read, this series was the standout. “In the middle of town where buildings stand tall, there lives a little man called Fireman Small.” Kids can relate to little Fireman Small who single handedly saves the day. The text flows very well as a read-aloud.

Little bear6. Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik – The Little Bear series is intended for early readers, but I am including it in picture books as an example of the type of early ready you can read to your children before they are able to read to themselves. My son first heard the story of Little Bear when he was only two, and what followed is detailed in Duck’s Story. The original is a sweet story of Little Bear’s adventures as he makes Birthday Soup and flies to the moon. We were delighted to find additional Little Bear books that introduce more characters and are just as sweet and playful.

I'll follow the moon7. I’ll Follow the Moon by Stephanie Lisa Tara – We didn’t know about this exquisite book soon enough to use it as a bedtime story, but I’m listing it anyway because if I’d known, it would have been one of our favorites. A beautiful story of baby turtles hatching and following the moon to find their mother.

Little house8. 9. 10. Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow and The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton – These classics are some of our other favorites. I was going to write about just one so I asked my son to pick which he liked the best, but he said they were all even.

What’s the favorite picture book in your house?

Categories: Children's Books, Picture Books, Reading, Reading to children | Leave a comment

A Few of our Favorite Little Board Books

Toddler and baby board books are a great invention. They are sturdy, somewhat chewable and a great introduction to reading for young children. They can tell stories or teach colors, numbers, letters and anything else in life that is relevant to their target audience. When your child outgrows these books you may decide to put them away, but don’t get rid of them quite yet. See Sit – Stand – Walk: The Process of Learning to Read (Part II) to find out why. (Note: That post hasn’t been written yet, but I’ll include the link here as soon as it is ready.)

We went through many board books when our son was little. Some were so dull that I’ve blissfully forgotten them, but others were real standouts. In no particular order, here are the ones we loved so much that they made the cut and didn’t get sent to Goodwill.

goodnight gorilla1. Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann – A fresh take on Goodnight, Moon, the beloved classic which we never really enjoyed. In Good Night, Gorilla, a zookeeper says goodnight to all the animals as the gorilla tiptoes behind him and unlocks the cages. The animals follow the zookeeper home, where they try to crawl into his bed for the night. Toddlers who are old enough to understand the story think it’s hilarious.

2. What Shall We Do with the Boo Hoo Baby? by Cressida Cowell – A set of animals tries to figure out how to get a baby to stop crying. This was a surprise favorite.

Very Hungry Caterpillar3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle – This classic story teaches counting and days of the week as a very hungry caterpillar eats and eats and eats… Definitely a keeper.

4. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. – This book is also illustrated by Eric Carle and it teaches colors. I didn’t think it was as good as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but it proved to be useful for reading practice later.

5. One Hungry Monster by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe – A very funny counting book in rhyme. Maybe after reading this book, your toddler won’t be quite so scared of the one hungry monster underneath his bed.

10 little dinos6. Ten Little Dinosaurs by Pattie Schnetzler – “Ten little dinosaurs bouncing on the bed. Pachycephalosaurus fell off and broke his head!” This is another very clever counting book. My husband found a website with audio clips on how to correctly pronounce dinosaur names. This book was not a favorite of our son until he started kindergarten, at which point he asked us to read it so many times we could all quote it from memory.

7. Dr Seuss’s ABC’s – This little alphabet book is a hoot! The board book is a condensed version of the longer book originally written by Dr. Seuss. The shorter (board book) version is better because they fixed some metrical problems. Heads up: If you did not learn phonics as a child, you may find words like “Fiffer-feffer-feff” a little frustrating, but your kids will love it!

Little Fur Family8. The Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown – This read aloud is calm, soothing and just right for bedtime. This was one of our son’s favorites and mine, too. I still remember how it began:

“There was a little fur family
warm as toast
smaller than most
in little fur coats
and they lived in an old wooden tree.”

Are you sleepy, yet?

If I missed your family’s favorite, please put it in the comments.  Coming up next: A Few of our Favorite Picture Books!

Categories: Board Books, Board Books, Children's Books, Reading | Leave a comment

Sit – Stand – Walk: How Children Learn to Read (Part 1: Sit)

This is the first of a three-part series on the process of learning to read.

As different as children are, they still go through the same basic steps to learn their first skills.  Think of a child who learns to walk.  First, they have to learn to sit.  No one jumps out of their bassinet and walks without first learning how to sit.  Then they become mobile, in whatever form that takes. The next step is to stand.  Somehow, they figure out how to stand on their feet.  Finally, they start taking steps and toddle before they become proficient walkers.

I think reading has similar steps to it. This series of posts is abouat the steps I’ve observed kids go through as they learn to read.  I’m not an expert – this is simply based on the observations of a mom who also happens to be a children’s book author, so I pay attention to this stuff.

Part I: Sit

The common advice is that to prepare a child for reading, you should read to the child.  Among other things, this communicates to the child that books are fun, those little squiggles on the page represent words and it increases the vocabulary the child is exposed to.  Some say you should start reading to your child during infancy.  Some say you should read 15, 20, or 30 minutes a day to your child.  We weren’t very regimented about it, and the main reason I read to my son was not to create a great reader but just because it was fun!  That, and he was always on the go so it was often the only time I could get him to sit next to me and snuggle.  We didn’t really do the bedtime story thing – we read when it was convenient or when I needed something for us to do.

I never gave much credence to the advice that you should introduce books at infancy, but we were given a couple chewable books as baby shower gifts and I let my son have them when he was still in the bassinet.  The books included a little board book with black and white pictures in the style that babies are supposed to be able to see.  One day I set the book in front of him upside down.  My husband noticed, and so I said, “What difference does it make?  He’ll think it’s something new.”  In response, our infant bawled his cute little head off until I turned the book right side up.  Hmmm.

From books-to-chew-on we progressed to little board books.  These are great because they are mostly indestructible and are small enough for little hands to hold and turn pages.  Some board books teach colors, some teach numbers, some are good for bedtime, vocabulary or just plain fun.  The library has them by the hundreds, but you’ll probably want to buy your own because the ones from the library often come pre-chewed.  When you feel your child has outgrown this stage, put the books away, but don’t get rid of them, yet.  You’ll find out why in Part 2: Stand.  I’m going to write a separate post about some of our favorite board books soon.

At the board book stage, I also introduced reading newspaper inserts, specifically the fliers from large hardware stores.  My son would point to the pictures of various tools and want to know the names of each one.  One day I got tired of saying, “Saw.  Saw.  Saw,” and I told him the full names.  “Reciprocating saw.  Table saw. Compound miter saw.” (I knew what they were because I read the description in the flyer.) After that, he really impressed people with his vocabulary.

From the little board book stage, children move on to picture books.  These stages overlap a lot.  Picture books have thinner pages which are hard for little hands to turn, and they have more text.  Now there is time for a longer story to develop.  These are the books that children want to hear over and over and over and over and…  If this drives you crazy, check out picture books from the library and return them when you’re done.

We found some absolutely delightful picture books and I’m going to write a separate post about those, too.  Besides traditional picture books, we read some early readers and chapter books.  My preschooler was happy to play with his toys while I read and so I even read chapter books with few pictures.  We read both volumes of the original Winnie-the-Pooh.  Each chapter in these books stands alone and I was frequently begged to read his favorite chapters.  We read children’s story Bibles from cover to cover (not all at once) multiple times.  We read early readers (1st-2nd grade reading level) and these were often his favorites.  We also read numerous alphabet books and these reinforced the concept of the names of the letters and the sounds they make.  Find alphabet books with good rhyme and meter that include your child’s interests and they will want to hear them over and over until they are memorized.

I’m calling exposure to books, vocabulary and the alphabet, SIT.  All this experience sets the stage for the next step: STAND!

Categories: Board Books, Children's Books, Picture Books, Reading, Reading to children, Sit Stand Walk | Leave a comment

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