Book Review: If I’d Known Then, Women in Their 20s and 30s Writer Letters to Their Younger Selves

June 24, 2008

Have you ever wished you could write a letter to yourself when you were younger to give yourself hope or encouragement to get through a difficult time? That’s what the 35 women did who appear in If I’d Know Then, Women in Their 20s and 30s Write Letters to Their Younger Selves by Ellyn Spragins.

Readers will recognize many of the writers as well as receive introductions to remarkable women they may not have heard of before. The letters are all heartfelt, with the authors talking directly to the young girls they once were. It’s a wonderful reminder that no matter how famous or wealthy or popular someone is, we all share many of the same insecurities, doubts, fears and self-imposed limitations.

This book is part of the What I Know Now series, and I think it’s a great addition for younger readers. I was particularly struck by the story of  Mindy Lam, who was labeled an unlucky child when she was born in China and treated harshly during her childhood. She overcame incredible hurdles to come this country, learn to speak English and find a way to support herself before stumbling upon an idea for creating jewelry that has made her successful beyond her imagining. All the stories are inspiring.

Moms in a mother-daughter book club can write letters to their younger selves as a meeting activity to inspire discussion. And girls could also think about issues they’re dealing with now that they may see differently in a few years.

I believe girls aged 13 and up would enjoy reading If I’d Known Then.

Book Review: The Curse of Addy McMahon by Katie Davis

June 17, 2008

Be sure you have plenty of time when you start to read The Curse of Addy McMahon by Katie Davis—you might not be able to stop turning pages to see what happens next. On the other hand, Davis’s clever use of graphic illustrations interspersed in the narrative provide clean breaks if you just have to put the book down now and then.

Mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 11 to 14 will find a lot to like here. Addy is convinced she suffers from a family curse, rendered against her great-granddad in Ireland by fairies. And she’s got mounting evidence to suggest she might be right. Her mom’s boyfriend is moving into the guest room “temporarily,” her worst enemy saw her shopping for a training bra, and her best friend, Jackie, is mad at her because she accidentally emailed a copy of a nasty fake interview with Jackie that got all around school.

But Addy does have a lot going for her. She helped create a school newspaper and she’s on the editorial staff. She interviews interesting people and creates graphic drawings to illustrate the stories she writes. People love her interviews, and they let her know it.  I found myself wishing I had experienced that kind of good luck when I was in middle school.

The illustrations punctuating the narrative should make The Curse of Addy McMahon attractive to reluctant readers as well as those who devour books. The presentation is unconventional, and so is some of the narrative. It was quite interesting to read Addy’s thoughts about her father, who died from cancer he got from smoking. And the subject of parents entering the dating/relationship world after the death of a spouse is also very thoughtfully written.

Here’s an activity idea to go with the book: have girls and moms both draw their own autobiograstrips like Addy’s. Share them at a meeting and see what discussion ensues.

Book Review: as if being 12-3/4 isn’t bad enough, my mother is running for president! by Donna Gephart

June 12, 2008

There’s a lot to like in Donna Gephart’s first book, as if being 12-3/4 isn’t bad enough, my mother is running for president. Vanessa Rothrock is nearly 13 and already used to the limelight because she’s the Florida governor’s daughter. But when her mother decides to run for president, and it looks like she stands a good chance of winning, Vanessa’s life intensifies. Gephart gives us a good glimpse into the family life of a presidential candidate—hint: there’s not much family time—while also capturing pre-teen angst quite well.

Vanessa’s concerns will have moms remembering their own middle school years while being reminded of what their daughters of the same age may be going through. Girls will be able to identify with many of the same issues Vanessa experiences, and maybe learn a few things from her mistakes.

I found it a good reminder of how kids can be so ego-centric in middle school. Everything is seen through the lens of “what does it mean to me.” For Vanessa, it doesn’t matter that her mom will make history by becoming the first female president of our country if she’s not home to watch her daughter compete in the regional spelling bee.

It’s also a good reminder that kids often don’t tell their parents about important things that are worrying them. Instead they try to solve them on their own. When Vanessa receives letters threatening to kill her mom if she doesn’t drop out of the race, she thinks it’s better to secretly try to get her mom to drop out instead of telling someone with the ability to help.

This is also a very interesting book to read in an election year when a woman came close to being nominated as a major-political-party presidential candidate. And I loved the reasons Vanessa’s mom wrote to her telling why she wants to be president. The list could spark a whole separate conversation with members of a mother-daughter book club about things that are important for our country.

I recommend this book for readers aged 9 to 12.

Book Review: This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

June 10, 2008

My mother-daughter book club with Madeleine met last week to discuss This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. This was our first memoir, and it’s unfortunate that it came so close to the end of school that many of the girls were too stressed studying for finals to read much of it. The moms and two of the girls had read it, and we had an interesting discussion.

The story begins when 10-year-old Toby is driving with his mother from Florida to Utah to escape his mother’s abusive boyfriend. They eventually keep moving on to Seattle and finally to a small town north of there. The moms were a bit frustrated that we didn’t know more about Toby’s life before then: we find out his mother is divorced and an older brother lives with the father, but we never learn more than that about his earlier life.

The memoir takes place starting in the mid-1950s, and it’s surprising to read about neglect and abuse in an era that often evokes thoughts of “Happy Days.” The moms wanted to see more redemption in the story. Toby changes his name to Jack, gets into trouble out of boredom and lack of supervision, and generally seems to be on a course that will limit a successful future. We know he comes out well on the other side, because we know he’s an accomplished writer, but we don’t get to see that in This Boy’s Life. The girls were more accepting of those limitations and read the story for what it was— snapshot of Toby’s life from the time he left Florida until the time he left high school. Through the years he learns to survive. The author wastes no emotional energy on his younger self, giving it to the reader straight through the boy’s actions and letting us draw our own conclusions about his emotional state.

All in all, it was a good book to discuss, and it was interesting for us to read a memoir with an author writing about the same age our daughters are now. Recommended for ages 16 and up.

Interview with Cindy Hudson of Mother-Daughter Book Club

June 5, 2008

When I interviewed author Christina Hamlett recently (read interview), she then turned the tables and interviewed me about mother-daughter book clubs for American Chronicle. How interesting it was to be on the other side of the pen. Here’s a link for you to read Christina’s interview. Check it out!

New Blog with Mother Daughter Book Club List

June 3, 2008

Recently I received an email from Caryn, whose mother-daughter book club has been meeting for a few years. Her group of 7 mother/daughter pairs has just started a blog about their experience, and they’ve posted a list of the books they’ve read on it. Caryn’s group is from Portola Hills in California, and their girls are 11 and 12 years old. Here’s her note with the link:

I happened upon your site searching for mother-daughter book club blogs since we just launched our own blog this past week. I invite you to visit our blog at We are still building it, but we have posted a list of all the books we have read so far, and we would recommend them all to you as they all gave much to discuss (a few are already on your lists). We started our club in 2005 when the girls were in 3rd grade. We have read some great books and have had a lot of fun along the way. We are beginning to feel a transition toward more mature themes as the girls are more and more interested in some of the “teen lit” books, but we still want to protect them from some of the more trashy novels so I am so happy to find your site and read your reviews.