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Accidental favorites

If homeschoolers were living up to our name, you might think we spend a lot of time at home. However, the opposite usually ends up being true. We are out and about, going to clubs and classes, our homeschool program, and on fieldtrips.

This results in a lot of time for my kids to argue in the car. And argue they do, unless, I have found, something else is occupying their brains.

The best thing I’ve found is audiobooks. Unfortunately, we seem to need a steady supply, and unless I have been doing my homework, ordering books from the library ahead of time, we find ourselves about to embark on a roadtrip, bookless.

The last two books we listened to were found in this way: we’d run out of books, and I had to make do with what I could find that day. One day, we were at our homeschool program and I happened to look on the books on CD shelf. There was a book I’d never heard of before, A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. It looked promising, so I checked it out and popped it in.

One of the problems we’ve been having lately is that my kids like big, meaty books, but aren’t so fond of scary books. As you move past the kids’ classics and get into the middle grade and teen fiction, a lot of it gets way too exciting and full of stories more scary than we are interested in. A Single Shard is an example of what can be done with a sweet, historically based story. Though it has no blood-sucking vampires, no evil villains, and no end-of-the-world scenario, the book is powerful and fully gripping.

A Single Shard

A Single Shard

In the book, a young orphan is being raised by a homeless cripple under a bridge in medieval Korea. The orphan is awed by the work of the local potters, who are famous across the land for their celadon glaze. Through a mishap, he ends up needing to work for an elderly master potter to repay a debt, and becomes his helper.

The book is rich with historical details woven seamlessly into the stories. I believe that my children and I learned more about historical Korea just by listening to that book than we have about historical Japan in the studying we’ve been doing. (Can anyone recommend a similar book set in Japan?) On top of that, the book had a moral lesson. When the main character is about to embark on a long, arduous journey, the man who has raised him tells him that sometimes, a closed door leads us to find an open door. It’s a tiny bit of wisdom that takes on great significance in the book.

I recently reviewed the book Some of my Best Friends are Books, which is such a great read. One of the things that the author says is how important it is for kids to learn from fiction. She points out that books can act as therapy, teaching kids lessons in ways that really stick in their brain.

Can there be a better lesson than this? A loss often leads to an opportunity. In the case of A Single Shard, the opportunity is small. Our hero doesn’t become world-famous, rich, or even well-known enough to pass his name to the present. His work was anonymous; his identity is lost. But in writing this book, Park shows how much meaning a life can have, if only a boy does not give up on his quest.

The next time we were left without an audiobook, we had time to stop at the library. I never know what’s going to be there, though I can be sure of a few things:

  • All the books on CD that we’ve already listened to will be available for checkout
  • Lots of second, third, and fourth books in series will be available
  • Most of what’s left will be for little kids, teenagers, or in a language we’re not studying at the moment.

At this stop, however, there was one book that didn’t fit in those categories. It didn’t look too scary. It wasn’t part of a series. (I later found out it was the first in a series, though.) And we had never heard of it. Trusting the staff of SCPL, I checked it out.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel was completely unfamiliar to me. The description sounded promising, though it had very little information. We popped it in and were immediately sucked in.

The story takes place in a sort of alternate universe — like His Dark Materials, but much less dark and scary. In this version of Earth, a compound called Hydrium has been discovered, and Victorian-age peoples have taken to the air. Our hero is not much of a hero yet. Matt is just a cabin boy on a luxury sky-ship.

What I loved about this book was the slow, Victorian-age pacing. I am reading Oliver Twist to my 11-year-old right now, and Airborn has the same easy pace. “Don’t worry,” the book seems to say. “Your world is all in a rush, but this one drifts with the air currents.”

Nothing happens all in a rush. We have time throughout the book to experience things as our protagonist does: through his senses and his emotions. This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s more than good enough. The flights of imagination are superb. I can almost feel the whoosh of the cloud-cat’s wings as it flies past me.

Like A Single Shard, there is no gratuitous excitement here. This book is exciting, however, and there is violence. One of the main characters is killed, but his death is properly mourned, and the meaning of his death — a young man’s life has been ended before he had the chance to find out his purpose in life — is made clear. This is a very moral book, which I appreciated. Our hero is Errol Flynn, not Steven Segal.

My kids and I sat in the car a few times, unwilling to stop the book and go in. In the end, I relented and brought the CD in to listen inside. We just couldn’t leave our hero hanging out in the car while we went on gaily with our lives!

Certainly, I’ve not had 100% luck in random audiobook choices, but these experiences reminded me that there are so many great books out there. You just have to be willing to try something new and unknown. And be willing to jump ship if it turns out not to be the journey you had hoped.

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