Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Always War

by Margaret Peterson Haddix
2011 / 197 pages

When my 13-year-old got a gift certificate to the local bookstore, it was an excuse for the two of us to spend some serious time perusing the shelves. But after an hour we’d discovered there wasn’t much there for her that she hadn’t already read. The teen books were either silly stories about teen crushes, or weird stuff about witches, demons, and vampires. We finally settled on something with a cover that looked almost liked some 1950s nostalgia, only to later discover one of the key characters had two dads. Another trip to the same story ended up with a decent book, but on the final page the author noted he uses “they/them” pronouns.

Third try was the charm... sort of. We found something by a preteen author I'd heard was quite popular, and whose books I'd seen in our Christian school library. But while the book we settled on – Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Found (2008, 314 pages) – wasn't bad, I appreciated it more for being harmless than stupendous. It’s a time travel adventure/mystery, with a bunch of adopted children trying to figure out where they came from. There’s the typical cautions – kids acting behind their parents’ backs, along with a couple passing mentions of evolution – but none of the newer cautions needed. Peterson isn’t advocating for amputative surgeries on youth or adults (as the fellow with the “they/them” pronouns implicitly is, by pretending that gender is changeable), or for alternative lifestyles. The biggest caution I’d have concerns the fact that this is just the first of Peterson’s eight-book The Missing series, and at roughly 300 pages each, even if they all turn out to be mostly harmless, that’s a lot of cotton candy for any kid to be ingesting. I’ll also add a concern about whether this would be good or bad for adoptive kids to read, as the topic of adoption, and kids searching for who they are, is a big part of the story. Finally, as just a general caution on the author, I do know another book  (Double Identity) by this author that features a female pastor as a major character. So it was more like one thumb up for this one. But while I'm not going to be continuing with that series, it was still good enough for me to check out more Haddix material.

And now I've found one I think worth recommending. The Always War is a mystery of sorts, set in a world like our own, yet one that has been in a constant war for the last 75 years. We come along for the ride with Tessa, a girl who still reads old stories, even though no one else does anymore. She's at a celebration for a young war hero, a pilot named Gideon, that doesn't go as expected – instead of accepting his award for bravery, Gideon runs off. Why would a hero run away from his adoring and appreciative fellow citizens? Well, as Tessa slowly begins to discover, Gideon doesn't think he's a hero, because he did his arial combat, not from the sky, but from behind a computer – he was flying a drone. And he has discovered that instead of hitting a legitimate military target, he seems to have hit a civilian marketplace. Distraught, Gideon is determined to fly down to the marketplace to offer his repentance, for whatever that's worth. And Tessa comes along for the ride. But he has to go behind the military's back, work with black market privateers, and sneak past his own border guards. Then, when they arrive, nothing is as he expected. There are no angry grieving crowds to meet him. In fact there's nothing at all! So what's going on? What's actually real?

I don't want to give too much more away but will just add I found it an intriguing story. The mystery lasts most of the book, which means that this requires a reader with some patience. As for concerns, God is not a part of this world, and seeing as one of the themes of this story is about discerning reality from what authorities tell us is real, that the characters simply rely on their own wherewithal makes a bit too much of Man. But that's the biggest problem. Kids aged 12 will like this if they appreciate a mystery – they will need to have a little patience to let the story to unfold,

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Dr. Seuss's "Horton trilogy"

Parents may be familiar with the first two of Dr. Seuss' Horton books, but the third, only recently republished will be a new delight for many.

HORTON HEARS A WHO!

by Dr. Seuss
1954 / 72 pages 

This was the last Horton story written, but ranks first in our hearts for its surprising pro-life message! With his giant ears, the elephant Horton is able to hear what no one else can: that there are tiny little people, – Whos they call themselves – living on what looks like a dandelion puff. They are too tiny to see, and for everyone else they are too tiny to hear, but as Horton knows, and as he often repeats:

“a person’s a person no matter how small.”

So, conscientious pachyderm that he is, Horton is determined to protect the little Whos, and their whole town of Who-ville. His friends think he's crazy, and one in particular is so sure he's nuts that she wants to grab the dandelion puff and burn it, to put an end to his delusion. And that's where the chase scene ensues, with Horton encouraging all the residents of Who-ville to make as much noise as they can so others will finally be able to hear them! Will their humanity ever be recognized? You'll just have to read it to find out!

Kids will love this for the rhymes and the charming hero, but pro-life parents can't help but embrace Horton's oft repeated entreaty that "a person's a person no matter how small." His simple plea is so famous that it can be a tool in cultural conversations about the unborn. Absolutely everyone has read Horton Hears a Who!

Might Christians be reading something into the story that the author didn't intend? Yes, probably. His second wife said the pro-life movement was hijacking the story for its own purposes. But whether Seuss intended it or not, his story makes a point worth hearing: that our worth is not dependent on our size. Christians have to take that further though, explaining where our worth does come from: being made in the very image of God (Genesis 9:6).

HORTON HATCHES THE EGG

by Dr. Seuss
1940 / 64 pages

The first of the Horton trilogy isn't as insightful as the third, but it is fun. This time the genial elephant is taken advantage of by a lazy mother bird named Mayzie. She says she just wants a quick break from egg-sitting, but once Horton agrees to take over, Mayzie takes off and doesn't look back.

So, for day after day, Horton faithfully babysits the egg, roosted on the nest, at the top of the tree. As in Horton Hearts a Who, his friends aren't supportive – they're making fun of him again. And then hunters, startled by this strange sight of an elephant up a tree, transport him, tree and all, over the sea to put him in a circus. Horton has to endure the indignity of it all, now to be a spectacle to crowds all over, but, as he repeats to all his critics:

"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent!"

And that, there, is the attraction of this book – it is about steadfastness, and sticking to your word, even when others – where is that Mayzie? – just won't. Children don't need to worry though as both Horton and Mayzie get what's coming to them in the end: the baby bird that finally hatches is half elephant!

HORTON AND THE KWUGGERBUG AND MORE LOST STORIES

by Dr. Seuss
2014 / 64 pages

In 2014 reports came of an upcoming "new" Dr. Seuss book, to be published 23 years after the author's death. It wasn't new new, but rather rediscovered new, with work that Seuss had published in magazines before, but never in a book. It was to be a collection of four stories, all of which had first appeared in print back in the early 1950s.

The title tale features Horton once again being sorely treated, this time by a kwuggerbug, who promises to split some delicious beezlenuts if Horton will only carry him to the tree. It seems a deal when the tree seems near but in the end Horton is crossing crocodile-infested rivers, and climbing mountains and the trail just keeps going on and on. Then, in one final trick, the kwuggerbug "splits" the nuts by taking all the nut meat for himself and leaving Horton the shells for his.

But once again, justice is done, this time via an unintentional sneeze. And while there is no great moral to this story, it sure is fun to see Horton this one more time.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Officer Clawsome: lobster cop

by Brian "Smitty" Smith and Chris Giarrusso
2023 / 238 pages

In the opening scene a fish peddler (the fish is the peddler, not the goods) calls out "Fresh fruit here! Get your fresh..." only to have something "ZOOOM!" past and purée all his oranges and apples. Momentarily at a loss, the peddler looks down at the soupy mess, only to, one panel later, start smiling again calling out, "Fresh fruit juice here! Get your fresh fruit juice."

Comic genius? Not on its own, but just like a good dad-joke (are there any other kind?) the hiliarity builds with every one you layer on top. And there are oodles here, including some awful/awesome puns, starting with the hero of our story, the lobster cop "Officer Clawsome," called "Clawful" by the villains he arrests.

Like any good cop/buddy flick, Clawsome has a partner, the starfish Stariana who serves as both his badge of office, riding around on his chest, and as his ninja throwing star when needed. When the town's favorite bakery goes missing – the whole building, staff and all, are just gone – the twosome have to take on a whole host of underwater villains including Catburglarfish, the wrestler Masked Mussel, Brain Sturgeon, the Electric Eel, and a giant mechanized shark. It's all sorts of action, with all sorts of cinematic cliches thrown in just for dad to enjoy too – the best is the massive explosion in the background with Clawsome and Stariana strutting in the foreground.

One reviewer called this a “safe grandma buying read for the grandkids” and I'd agree. No cautions needed - this is just good clean, very silly fun. And it's so good that even though it weighs in at 200+ pages, your kids won't have had enough. Unfortunately, at this point there isn't a sequel.

But one can hope!

Monday, August 14, 2023

I survived the Nazi invasion, 1944

by Lauren Tarshis
art by Alvaro Sarraseca

2021 / 158 pages

Max and Zena are two Polish Jewish children who, at the time our story begins, have survived for almost 5 years living under Nazi rule. After Hitler's German troops conquered Poland, their mistreatment of the Jewish population started immediately. Jews were spat on, their synagogues burnt down, their businesses destroyed. In the town of Esties, as happened elsewhere, Jews were forced to all move to the same small neighborhood, which was then walled off with barbwire, so the Jews could never leave.

With no employment, food was hard to come by, so when Max and Zena come across a raspberry bush just on the other side of the fence, Max decides to risk it. He slips through the wires to grab some berries. They both get caught. To save his sister, Max attacks the Nazi guard, whose gun goes off in the struggle, the bullet hitting the soldier in the knee.

There's nothing to be done, but to run so off they both go, into the woods. During the first long night in the woods, Max does some remembering, and we're given the siblings' backstory, how their aunt had warned them not to move into the ghetto, and how their papa had argued it was best to just go along. Their aunt soon disappeared. To America? That's what Max hopes. When the Nazis then take away papa and the other men – to where no one is sure – Max and Zena are left to fend for themselves.

Flashback complete, we see the two escapees stumble across a farmer. Will he help, or turn them in? Thankfully he is a friendly sort, and after misdirecting the Nazi searchers, the farmer introduces them to the Polish underground. These are Polanders who have never stopped fighting the Nazis, and who have a safe place to hide in the woods. The siblings are delighted to discover that one of the underground fighters is their very own aunt!

CAUTION

When the Nazi soldier is shot in the knee there is some blood shown, but not in much detail. A little more gory is a two-page recounting of a story that Max's father used to tell him, about how David fought Goliath. We see rock-to-face with some blood spattering, but fortunately the giant's beheading is dealt with just outside of frame (David is described and depicted as a boy, maybe of 10 or 12, and and there is good reason to think he was an older teen instead).

The scene is echoed some pages later when Max has to resort to hurling a rock to stop two Nazis about to shoot his sister. Again, we see rock to face, some small blood smattering, and. maybe more disturbing, a frame of the soldier, seemingly dead, staring up blankly. A gunfight follows, concluding with Max realizing that the Nazi trying to kill them is just a boy only a little older than him. He realizes this just as his friend Martin fires and kill the young soldier. That's the most devastating scene in the story, made so, not because of the blood spattering but because we learn that Hitler was turning near-children into murderers.

CONCLUSION

This is a really well done graphic novel, recounting a part of the war that our Canadian, Dutch heritage children, might not be that familiar with: the Polish Jew's perspective. I'd recommend it for 12 and up, but add that many younger kids would be able to handle it too.

There are plans in place for at least 9 books in the I Survived graphic novel series, and so far I've read 6, and quite enjoyed 5 of them. The four other recommended ones are, in historical order:

  • I Survived The Great Chicago Fire, 1871 – This is a bit of American history famous enough that many a Canadian has heard of it. A city full of quickly built wooden buildings goes through a heat wave, and while their fire department is impressive, one night they just can't keep up, and one mile by four mile length of the city goes up in flames. This comic has it all, with the brave young lead willing to stand up to bullies, and risk it all to save the girl. 
  • I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912
    – Our guides are a pair of young siblings, including a rascal of a boy who manages to discover ever last one of the Titanic's rooms, ladders and passageways. While two thirds of the passengers and crew lost their lives, everyone we're introduced to in the story makes it out, which makes this relatively tame account of this tragedy. 
  • I Survived the Attack of the Grizzlies, 1967  – This is the story of what led to two fatal grizzly bear attacks occurred on the very same night in the US's National Park system. . Melody Vega and her little brother are visiting their grandpa at his cabin in Glacier National Park – their mom recently died, and their dad thinks it's important for them to head out to their traditional their summer vacation spot even without her. But when a grizzly follows the girl right back to her cabin and tries to break down the door, Melody and her mom's best friend start investigating why the bears in the park are acting so strange. This isn't a Christian book, but the moral is: that humans have to take better care of God's creation – Christian kids should recognize the stewardship implications. People were dumping their garbage where bears could get it, which made for great shows for the tourists ("Come to the back of our inn and see the bears up close as they eat") but that got the grizzlies dangerously familiar with people. It also harmed the bears physically, from the glass and trash they ingested along with the food scraps. There is some minor nonsensical environmentalism along with the stewardship message: kids are told they can protect wildlife by not buying single serving bags of chips. It's quite the leap to go from showing the danger of feeding bears our garbage to saying that we're hurting them when we buy a big cookie wrapped in plastic. No, not if we throw it in the garbage. But this departure only amounts to a few sentences in the whole 150+ page book. 
  • I Survived the Attacks of Sept. 11, 2011 – 11-year-old Lucas loves football, but football may not love Lucas. When his parents tell Lucas that his third concussion in two years means he has to stop playing, he skips school. He has to go talk to his Uncle Ben, the guy who got him interested in football in the first place. Both Uncle Benny and Lucas's dad are New York firefighters, and Lucas is desperately hoping his uncle can get his dad to change his mind. But as he's talking with his uncle, we see the first plane hit one of the city's Twin Towers. Lucas has to stay behind, as Uncle Benny and all the other firefighters head out to help. Author Lauren Tarshis initially considered having Uncle Benny be one of the victims, but realized that would be too much for her young readers. So all the main figures do make it out alive, but many of their friends don't. I thought this would be a heavy book for my kids. It wasn't any more so than the others. I get it now. I lived through this. They didn't; it's just more history for them; 

I wasn't impressed with I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 where the new kid in town pranks his friends by spreading ketchup on the dock only to see a real shark swim up the river. Of course, now no one will believe him, and he ends up paying for his prank with a piece of his calf the shark bites off. That makes this unnecessarily grim. After all, why do kids need to learn about this particular shark attack? They can learn not to cry wolf without the panel by panel depiction of a shark attack. To be clear, it isn't super gory, but as there is no particular reason to get it, I'd argue there's also no particular reason to overlook any gore.

That said, I'm looking forward to the ninth book, scheduled for Spring 2024, called I Survived the Battle of D-Day, 1944.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart
512 pages / 2008

Reynie Muldoon is 11-year-old orphan who knows he is smart – he certainly reads more than any of the other boys at the orphanage – but he doesn't quite understand just how smart. The orphanage administrators seem to have an inkling, assigning him his very own tutor. His tutor, Miss Perumal, is certainly aware, so when she notices an ad in the newspaper offering a scholarship for gifted children who pass a special exam, she signs Reynie up.

It might seem just a multiple choice exam, but there's more being tested here than knowledge. I don't want to give too much of the fun away, but I'll share just one example. The children are told to take one pencil, and one pencil only; not any less or any more. Simple enough, except that as Reynie and several other children approach the exam building, the girl in front of him manages to drop her pencil down a sewer grating. The exam is just about to begin, and she has no pencil. Reynie stops to help but she tells him to just go – he doesn't have an extra pencil, so what can he do anyway? That's when Reynie takes out his pencil and breaks it in half. Problem solved. All it took was some creative thinking by a kind soul. The first half of the book is full of all sorts of puzzles like that, that involve not only clever thinking, but often thoughtfulness.

While dozens of children take the test, only Reynie, and three others pass. Like Reynie, they are all missing their parents, and they all have their own unique way of looking at the world, and their own gifts. George "Sticky" Washington can remember everything he reads, Kate Wetherall is quick thinking, athletic, and always positive, and Constance Contraire... well the children aren't quite sure what Constance is, other than grumpy. After passing the tests, they meet Mr. Benedict, the man behind it all. He explains to them that the world is facing a mysterious danger, that the world is only aware of as "The Emergency." No one quite seems sure what the emergency actually is, but it has everyone feeling discombobulated, and looking to their leaders for direction.

Mr. Benedict reveals that the Emergency is actually being caused by subliminal messages being sent over the radio and television airwaves. And the messages are coming from an elite children's school called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened or L.I.V.E. (and note also, what it spells backwards). Mr. Benedict wants them to go undercover as his operatives at the school to find out what's really happening.

I loved the first half of the book best, with all its different puzzles to solve. But another highlight was the creepy L.I.V.E. Institute, and their rules. Kids might not catch it, but if parents are reading this out loud, it might be worth noting to your children that the double-speak here is of the sort we hear from our own political leadership, who will transform tolerance to be mean its opposite, and love to mean embracing what shouldn't be. Here are a few of the Institute rules: 

  1. There are no rules here!
  2. You can wear whatever you like. However, trousers, shoes and shirts are required at all times.
  3. You don't have to bath if you don't want to. Simply be clean every day in class.
  4. You may stay up as late at night as you wish. Lights are turned off at 10 PM and you must be in your room at that time.
  5. You are free to go where you please. Please not, however, that you must keep to the paths and the yellow-tiled corridors

CAUTIONS

A common and troubling theme in children's books is for the kids to be much smarter than their parents, such that they don't feel a need to listen to the authorities in their lives. After all, their dumb parents just don't get them.  That the protangnists here are four pre-teen geniuses mean there is at least a little of that, but it's balanced off by the fact that Mr. Benedict himself is a genius and, and several of the other adults – his assistants Milligan, Number Two, and Rhonda – are highly capable. But there are still occasions – particularly in the first sequel – where the kids ignore an adult's order because they know better. And because they are geniuses, they often do actually know better! The author balances that out by the number of times the adults are involved in rescuing them – sometimes adults know best too.

There are 5 books in the series, with each clocking in at 400+ pages, so with the amount of time a child might put into it, it is worth noting the complete lack of spirituality in the series. This is 2,000+ pages of God being almost entirely ignored. The only exception I can recall is in the prequel, Book 5, in which a mention is made of a chapel service.

CONCLUSION

Overall, this is a fairly gentle series – it could make for bedtime reading without much danger of giving anyone nightmares. I appreciated it for making television one of the tools of the bad guys, as it so often is in real life too. There is also an implicit warning against overreaching government control, with the bad guys trying to use the Emergency as an excuse for them to seize the political reins of power. This isn't really a political book, but what politics is has, I rather like.

There are three sequels to The Mysterious Benedict Society, then a prequel for #5 telling the young life of their mentor Mr. Benedict, and finally, a companion puzzle book for #6 that invites us to become a puzzle-solver too, just like the Benedict Society. The series, in order, is: 

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007, 512 pages) 
  2. The Perilous Journey (2008, 440 pages) 
  3. The Prisoner's Dilemma (2009, 400 pages) 
  4. The Riddle of Ages (2019, 416 pages) 
  5. The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (2012, 480 pages) 
  6. Mr. Benedict's Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums (2011, 176 pages).

I'd recommend the first two and last two. The first of the bunch has an originality to it, and a very clever reveal at the end that'll have you saying "Of course!" even as you had no inkling of it before that moment! The second doesn't reach the same heights... but how could it? It is, however, very fun. The second-best book in the series is actually the fifth, the prequel about the young Mr. Benedict, and his own adventures in an orphanage. I read about 15 minutes of this to our girls each night, for about 2 months straight, and they were always asking for more. While the puzzle book was interesting, I was glad we got it out of the library and didn't buy it.

I wouldn't bother with books 3 and 4. In these two, Constance has developed telepathy, and since mind-reading is beyond all of us (even as figuring out puzzles isn't) this development makes these two books a good deal less relatable, and consequently less interesting. Telepathy also seems a cheat – how hard is it to outwit your enemies when you can read their minds? To top it off, Constance also learns how to manipulate minds with her telepathy, influencing them to think as she wants them to. This takes us into the realm of mind-control, not by machine as in the first book, but by supernatural powers. and for a decidedly unspiritual book, this is getting too weird for my liking. Thankfully each book is entirely self-contained, so it is easy to get just 4 out of the 6, without any sense of incompleteness.

Books 1 and 2, along with 5 and 6 total more than 1,500 pages of reading, which should keep even the most avid bookworm in your family chewing for a long time.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Fever year: the killer flu of 1918

by Don Brown
2019 / 96 pages

In the Spring of 1918, even as the First World War was winding down, a more deadly foe made its presence known. An army cook, in Camp Funston, Kansas, reported sick, and over the next month a thousand of his campmates would also fall ill.

Author Don Brown seems to be making the case that the Spanish Flu didn't originate in Spain, but in America, making the jump overseas with the soldiers that departed as the US entered the "war to end all wars." That, however, is a contentious point. The other sources I consulted agree that the disease was called the Spanish Flu only because the Spanish press was being more open about the numbers of citizens being struck down, and not because they were the actual source of the sickness. The true source of the illness seems to be a mystery.

What's uncontested is the devastating nature of the epidemic. Before it was through, the Spanish Flu would travel around the world, and more than 50 million would die.

By way of comparison, about half that numbered died during the entirety of the First World War, and as many as a third of those were from the Spanish Flu, and not weapons.

The moral of Don Brown's story could be taken in very different directions, based on the particular bias of the reader. That the Flu jumped from city to city via infected travelers could be seen as proving the need for lockdowns. That health authorities assured the public of facts not in evidence – that there was no reason to worry – could be used to argue health authorities have a long history of lying to us. That New York kept schools and most businesses open, and that the city had a lower than average death rate, could be used to argue against lockdowns. That San Fransisco embraced masks but had the worst death rate on the west coast might be used to argue against masks' efficacy. Or folks could look to how San Fransisco banned all social gatherings except church services and see that as evidence that their ban needed to go further.

As you can see, there is a lot information offered up, and it points in all sorts of directions.

What's more certain are the heroes: doctors and nurses who worked endless hours, trying to aid the ever growing numbers in need. Neighbors and even the elderly all chipped in when whole families would get laid low.

Brown details the search for a vaccine, and how there was a real mystery to be solved. Though the flu was obviously highly contagious, doctors weren't sure about the how. Sick patients could cough right in the face of volunteers without inflecting them.

CAUTIONS

This graphic novel came out at the end of 2019, 10o years after the Spanish Flu it chronicles, but just a few months before COVID-19 made its appearance. I've been wondering ever since if that was the very worst of times, or the best of times for this graphic novel to get published. If I'd reviewed this during the lockdowns, I might have added cautions about drawing too strong a conclusion from the information offered up in a comic book. That's still a good thought, but a little less necessary.

While Don Brown illustrates the dead with some restraint – simple lines communicate discomfort and pain, but aren't realistic enough to really shock – this still isn't a comic for kids. 50 million people died from the Spanish Flu, so the topic is too grim for the very young. But I'd recommend it as a great one for a high school library.

CONCLUSION

Our recent history makes that an even more intriguing, and even more sobering read. What we went through parallels much of what the world endured then, though theirs was the far deadlier plague. That a virus can infect a third of the world reminds everyone to "seek the Lord while He may be found" (Is. 55). That's a lesson we were reminded of in the last few years, and one everyone would do well not to forget.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Tiananmen 1989: our shattered hopes

by Lin Zhang, Adrien Gombeaud, and Ameziane
2020 / 115 pages

I asked my 13 year-old and her friend whether they’d heard about China’s Tiananmen Square and neither knew anything about it. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been: the massacre the square is known for – with the government’s tanks rolling over protesting Chinese students, killing hundreds and maybe thousands – happened 20 years before they were born.

Tiananmen 1989 is a lightly fictionalized biography of one of the student organizers, Lin Zhang – all the main figures are real, but some surrounding fictionalized characters have been added to round things out.

he comic begins 30 years prior to the protests, with Lin Zhang’s early years, and accounts of various Chinese Communist Party government leaders rising in influence, then getting purged, and some later being “rehabilitated.” That’s three decades covered in the first 25 pages.

From there it slows down, and for the next 75 pages we get an inside look at the protest’s 50 days, beginning on April 16, 1989. We learn that the tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of students arriving at Tiananmen Square was a spontaneous event, organized only after the fact. We hear students debate with each other about what a win would look like. We see hundreds of students decide to hunger strike en masse. And then we watch as the soldiers march in shooting.

CAUTIONS

Thankfully the violence is depicted with moderation – we see a couple of people shot, and some bodies at a distance. This isn’t a graphic novel you’d want to put in your elementary school library, but no high schooler would be shocked.

Language concerns are limited to a couple uses of “bastard.”

The more notable caution would be ideological. The god of this book is democracy. That’s what the students were after, and willing to die for. It’s what they placed all their hope in. They spoke of their fight in spiritual tones, likening it to a battle of “light vs. darkness.” Near the end of the protest they even crafted a “goddess of democracy” statue. Young readers need to understand that democracy wouldn’t have been the fix-all that the students thought it would be. Their communist state was founded on the sin of envy, and a turn to democracy wouldn’t have done anything to excise the envy – it is prevalent, and every bit as destructive, in democracies too.

While this is an insider’s perspective, I was impressed with its moderate tone. He’s criticizing his government, but also celebrates some within it. I did wonder if some bias might have been evident in the numbers: he wrote of a million protesters, whereas other accounts list as few as 100,000.

CONCLUSION

I think the memory of the massacre has faded even among those old enough to have seen it happen, reported live by CNN and the BBC, and carried by stations around the world. Do Canadians still remember what happened after martial law was declared, and thousands of Chinese troops descended on the unarmed students? Governments around the world condemned the Communist Party leadership for its violent overreaction.

If Canadians still remembered, I rather suspect Prime Minister Trudeau wouldn’t have dared invoke the Emergency Measures Act this past summer to turn the police on the Freedom Convoy protest on Parliament Hill. Connections would have been made.

If our young people were taught about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, they’d be aware that powerful governments have done enormous harm to their own citizenry. Yet a recent poll of Americans shared that among the under-30s polled, 29% would favor an in-home government surveillance camera, installed in the name of reducing domestic crime. A third of these young people trust their government so completely they’d like it in their houses.

There’s good reason then, to get this book into our school libraries. God calls us to honor those He puts in place over us, but it is only when we understand how power can corrupt, and how power has been abused, that we will know the importance of limited, restrained government.



Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Freedom!

by James Buckley Jr. and Izeek Esidene

2020 / 94 pages

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was an American black woman born into slavery who escaped the South only to go back again and again to show other slaves the way to freedom. She also served in the American Civil War as both a guide for Northern forces, and as a nurse. Even during the war, she continued making trips to free slaves.

Biographies can sometimes be dry and dusty, but one advantage of this comic-book format is that it allows for an era that survives only in black and white photos to be brought to life in full color.

One wonderful surprise in this secular book, was how Harriet is shown repeatedly pleading to, praising, and thanking God. It was made obvious that what she was doing was based on a love for her Lord. She could be brave because she knew she was in God's hands. 

Like the other American-focused editions of this "Show Me History!" series, this comic is narrated by two kids, a boy and a girl, which makes it all the more accessible for early readers. Sam, is actually a young "Uncle Sam" and his friend Libby, clad all in green, is also known as "lady liberty" (aka the Statue of Liberty) and their back-and-forth banter really adds some fun, especially in Tubman's life, which is otherwise a pretty serious story. This has me excited to check out other titles in the series.

Cautions

In a book in which God is being praised dozens of times, I don't think it a stretch to presume that the one time someone "interjects" God's Name that it is been done as a short prayer of thanks. I include the instance here for you to decide. Harriet's niece Kizzy is escaping and desperately looking for her aunt. On spotting Harriet ahead, Kizzy says to her husband: "I see her, John, oh Lord... I see her!"

Another caution concerns how the book presumes that the South's secession was a problem that needed to be solved by war. While estimates vary, at least 600,000 soldiers died in the war, or more than 2% of the population of the time. And that doesn't even include the uncounted number of civilian deaths. Southern slavery was wicked, but Great Britain ended slavery without a war, so it is worth considering if Abraham Lincoln did the right thing. The indivisibility of the country is also worth considering in our own time when up until just recently abortion was legalized nationwide for 50 years, leading to more than 60 million deaths. Might that number have been smaller had pro-life states had the ready option of leaving the union? I will add though that the fact this comic doesn't question the righteousness of the Civil War is hardly unusual, and in that sense, it is not all that notable.

Conclusion

At 94 pages, this has the room to go a lot deeper than most kids’ biographies ever do. I think it’d be great for any kids 10-14 who wanted to learn about either US history, or about some of the Christians who helped fight slavery.

So far I’ve checked out two others in this “Show Me History!” series.

Benjamin Franklin: Inventor of the Nation was also very good. The man himself is PG-rated – he had kids out of wedlock, and possibly two wives at the same time – so even though the comic only briefly touches on those details, that one might be better for teens than preteens. And, in sharp contrast with the Harriet Tubman title, there’s really no Christian content. But his life as an inventor, printer, diplomat, and one of the American Founding Fathers is quite the read!

Abraham Lincoln: Defender of the Union was also a quick and easy read, but it shares a caution with Harriet Tubman. The book presumes that the Union had to be preserved, even at the cost of 600,000 men’s lives. That’s an especially big part of this book, make it a bigger caution in this case, so I might go with a different comic Lincoln biography: Rick Geary’s The Murder of Abraham Lincoln.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Comic Book Lesson

A graphic novel that shows you how to make comics
by Mark Crilley
2022 / 156 pages

Emily is a young artist with plans for a comic book - she wants the hero to be a "pet finder" coming to the rescue of any and all who have lost their furry friends. But it's one thing to have a story and the skills to draw it and yet another to know how to transform it into comic book form. So how can she bridge that gap? She just needs the right sort of mentor. What author Mark Crilley has given us is a story showing aspiring cartoonists how they, too, can learn what Emily wants to know – we get to come along for her journey as she meets three talented ladies who are willing to teach.

First up is an encounter at the comic store: Emily discovers that the store clerk, a high schooler named Trudy, is a fantastic artist working on a comic project of her own. Emily's enthusiasm and persistence ensure that one impromptu lesson becomes more. Trudy teaches Emily things like pacing – how including adding a couple more frames can make a scene more dramatic – and how a character's eyebrows communicate more about their emotions than a smile or frown.

Trudy is so impressed with Emily's work that she introduces her to Madeline, a friend who's already a published cartoonist. The lessons Madeline teaches include the importance of a "broad" establishing shot before going in for close-ups, and the need to script a comic before you begin drawing it. Madeline, in turn, introduces Emily to her own cartooning mentor, Sophie, who has yet more to teach Emily, like the proper order for word bubbles, and the need to eliminate any possibilities of confusion.

While I don't like to include spoilers, for the sake of young readers, I'm going to include one. During her time with Sophie, we find out why Emily was so earnest about her hero being a pet finder: because Emily wasn't able to rescue her own dog. Her loss is poignantly told, which made my one daughter sad enough that she stopped reading. I suspect though, that she might pick it up again. If your child is a sensitive soul, it might help to give them a heads-up beforehand.

Cautions

I'm going to list a few cautions that aren't all the relevant to the mid to older teens this is aimed at, and I only include them because some 10-year-olds and even younger could really enjoy this comic, but with some parental guidance.

This is one of the tamest, safest "how-to-cartoon" books you can find (Maker Comics: Draw a Comic is another, though it covers different ground). But parents need to know that comics today contain loads of weirdness. Whether it's the way women are depicted as impossibly buxom and skinny, or the heroic witches, ghosts, and demons that feature in more and more stories, or the queer agenda that's inserted in comics for even the youngest ages, there is a lot of twisted stuff out there.

The Comic Book Lesson isn't pushing any of that, but in a few instances, this secular work does "bump" into this weirdness. So, for example, Trudy mentions the "Electric Angel Nurse Mizuki" comic she's authored, and we're shown the cover depicting a nurse with wings. Madeline mentions she is writing a comic book about assassins for hire. A customer asks for a copy of Raina Telgemeier's Smile, which is a fine book, but whose sequels take a queer turn. And the 12-or-so-year-old Emily is depicted at a comic store and convention without her parents, which are weirder places than we'd want our 12-year-old to go without us.

That's about it. Nothing too bad, but some of it worth a discussion, especially for younger readers.

Conclusion

Comics can combine not simply exceptional writing but outstanding art, doubling the creative potential to explore. That's why Christians really should dive into this medium. The Comic Book Lesson is a solid piece of "edutainment" that'll give young aspiring artists an introduction to the general approach needed to be able to expand and refine their skills. This is not so much a "how-to-draw" book – there's already enough of those – as it is a "how-to-decide-what-to-draw" book.

If your child loves The Comic Book Lesson, you may be interested to learn that the author has also created The Drawing Lesson, which I hope to check out very soon.

For more, watch the video below where the author gives an in-depth (20 minutes long) introduction to his book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Fuzzy Baseball: Triple Play

by John Steven Gurney
2022 / 176 ages

This is, as the title references, three stories in one, each involving the Fernwood Valley Fuzzies baseball team taking on a different opponent. The Fuzzies are quite a cuddly team, even if their manager is a bear. Other players include a koala, a wombat, and a penguin.

In the first story we’re introduced to their biggest fan, Blossom Possum. But when the Fuzzies keep losing to their rivals, the Rocky Ridge Claws, this fan decides she has to do more than cheer from the sidelines: Blossom tries out and makes the team! But can a little possum really get a hit playing against the fearsome critters of the Red Claw? What can she do versus a crocodile, warthog, bull, rhino, or wolf? As you might imagine, there is a happy ending.

In the second story, the team travels to Japan to play the Sashimi City Ninjas, a polite, but very cocky lot that leaves some of the Fuzzies feeling intimidated. Things get crazy when the Ninjas are able to amplify their baseball skills with a “morfo-power blast” – this is riffing off of Asian cartoons where characters often have some kind of secret power boost they can employ when they most need it. But when the Fuzzies take advantage of this power blast too, it’s homeruns all around, but, as Blossom notes, “This isn’t baseball.” A fun quirk to this story is two alternate endings, the first where it was all a dream, and the second where it wasn’t.

In the third story the Fuzzies discover that the team they are playing are actually robots. Can they beat mechanical wonders? The Fuzzies are up for finding out.

Cautions

This is a collection of what was first three separate books – Fuzzy Baseball, Ninja Baseball Blast, and RBI Robots – and while I have no concerns with any of them, I’ll mention that the fourth book, Di-no hitters. This time the Fuzzies are playing a team of dinosaurs, and while I’ve only read the back cover, it has a couple of allusions to evolution, so I suspect that one will have more than a few jokes about millions of years and such. So, pick up Triple Play, but it might be worth giving book #4 a miss.

Conclusion

This is a kid’s comic that sticks to that target audience: it’s fun, creative, and while this isn’t really trying to teach kids anything, whatever morals there are to the stories (maybe, “be a good teammate,” or “work hard,” etc.) are ones we can appreciate. This would make for a fantastic Christmas present for any kid who likes baseball, fuzzy animals, comics, or even none of the above.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Hobbit: an illustrated edition of the fantasy classic

by J.R.R. Tolkien 
adapted by Charles Dixon
illustrated by David Wenzel
1990 / 133 pages

There's a hierarchy so unfailingly true it could be carved into stone: the book is always better than the movie, and the movie is always better than the graphic novel adaptation. 

But I am here to tell you that this otherwise unfailing rule does have an exception! I'm not going to start talking all crazy and tell you that this comic is better than the book – that has never been and never will be! – but it is better than the film! It is even better than many a book, paling in comparison only to its original source material. 

For those unfamiliar with the epic tale, this is the story of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, and a hobbit is basically human-like, though half the size and with at least twice the hair on their feet. Hobbits are homebodies so Biblo isn't exactly sure how he joined a dwarfish expedition to steal back their treasure from an enormous talking dragon. Small though he might be, Biblo is big in character, and though he doesn't think himself brave, in meeting up with trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and, of course, an even bigger dragon, he ends up doing many a brave thing. It's a good old-fashioned epic tale, with good, eventually, triumphing over evil...but not without paying a price. 

That's the original, and the 133 pages of this graphic novel adaptation give this the space to capture it all. And illustrator David Wenzel has given this a classic look for this classic tale - there's a reason that in the 30 years since this first came out, no one has even attempted to improve on it. 

Its size and depth mean this isn't for the casual comic fan, but for fantasy fans 14 and up, this will be such a treat!


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Mis-inflation: the truth about inflation, pricing, and the creation of wealth

by Douglas Wilson and David Bahnsen
2022 / 140 pages

Over the last ten years hyperinflation has wiped out the Venezuelan currency, reducing it to 1/40 billionth of what it once was, and for years now I've been wondering, aren't we in danger of heading in the same direction? Isn't it just a matter of math that if our governments keep printing more money, that money will be worth less – if they double it, shouldn't each bill end up being worth half as much? 

And if that's so, what with Western governments' stimulus handouts, quantitative easing, and COVID emergency spending, why haven't we become Venezuela already? 

That's the lead question that Pastor Douglas asks financial manager David Bahnsen in Mis-inflation. It's a series of back-and-forth emails, with Wilson the interviewer, and Bahnsen (son of Reformed presuppositional apologist Greg Bahnsen), giving his best replies. The short answer is, that we probably don't need to worry about Venezuelan-type hyperinflation (and, consequently, don't need to start buying gold), but stagnating like Japan is a real danger. 

More important still was a connection made between economic worries and the Parable of the Talents. The unfaithful servant fearfully buried his talent, but we are called, even in economic downturns, to take what God has given us and seek a return on it to His glory. 

Now, if economics is not your interest, this will be a tough read - it took me about three chapters to begin to understand what Bahnsen was explaining (though Wilson's questions did help unpack Bahnsen's answers). However, if you are interested, this has some helpful answers that don't seem readily available anywhere else, which makes it worth the effort!