Monday, August 1, 2022

Chris Chrisman Goes to College

and faces the challenges of relativism, individualism, and pluralism

by James W. Sire
1993 / 155 pages

The clearest way to describe this book is as an apologetic novel - not one that apologizes for Christian faith, but one that puts forward arguments for not only Christianity, but for the engagement of Christians with society - as Chris Chrisman, a Christian, and Bob Wong, an atheist, have their world(view)s turned upside-down by the relativism of their university education.

Whether the name Wong is a sly shot at the wrongness of atheism is debatable, but the story is full of punny names. Chrisman and Wong share their search for intellectual clarity with their mutual friend, Bill Seipel, who is indeed a faithful disciple of Christ.

However, the novel is more than a set of Socratic dialogues (like the works of the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, which are reviewed or previewed on this blog). A few additions make the story a potentially more compelling read. First, the story is told mostly through the eyes of Chris, including his concern for his roommate Bob, as well as his increasing interest in Susie Sylvan - but the book also glancingly brings in several other characters whose reaction to religious and social issues parallel both the current complexities of those issues and the different kinds of seed spread in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-23. Second, the author James W. Sire alternates Chris's fictional story with chapters on the historical development of the worldviews facing the students at Hansom State University - individualism, pluralism, privatization, and varied types of relativism. In the process, Sire makes clear that Christians, no matter how sincere, often do not see the power of the kingdom of God to bring about not only individual salvation, but also the entrance of salt and light into our broken society.

The only problem is that Sire's concerns and suggested solutions tilt heavily in the direction of the quest for social justice, including his list of organizations that seek to bring Christian perspective to social issues - and of course, the list is out of date. As well, Sire describes the problem of individualism as extending even to significant denominational differences. For that reason, I suggest that the book is a good one to become acquainted with some of the challenges of campus life and instruction, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt regarding exactly how churches and Christians need to engage more fully with each other and our broken world.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Virginia Lee Burton: Queen of nostalgia


One of the funnest things about Virginia Lee Burton's books is the history behind them – these are classics! A mom reading Katy and the Big Snow to her daughters might remember her own parents reading the same book to her. Since they first came out in the 1940s, Virginia Lee Burton's books have been enjoyed by three generations.

But there's more to the nostalgia, because even when they were brand new, they likely had a timeless feel. That's because, rather than being about Burton's present, they were a look back, celebrating a not-so distant past that seemed calmer, simpler, better.

The idyllic yesteryear that Burton presents is just a bit before her own childhood, in the transition period between the late 19th and early 20th century. It's a curious time to pick as the wistful pinnacle of civilization. It's an age in which mechanization is already in place, so why is Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel worth celebrating, but the diessel shovels that followed are somehow threatening? But that is the pinnacle she picks, not only in Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, but Maybelle the Cable Car, and then again in The Little House.

To be clear, these are more than quiet laments at the rapid technological advances that were revolutionizing the way life was lived. They are also a hubbub of activity, with all sorts of machines at work, and piles to see on every page. This busyness is then contrasted by the happy, calm conclusion to each story.

While it's fun to take a peek at the past from someone who really appreciates the age she's depicting, parents might remind their children of what the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes 7:10: "Say not 'Why were the former days better than these?' For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." To romanticize the past can sometimes be to overlook the many blessings God is showering on us right now.

RECOMMENDED

Her four most popular are available separately and also in a compendium together. They are wonderful!

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel
1939 / 48 pages

Mike Mulligan and his beautiful red steam shovel, Mary Anne, do a lot of digging in this story: cutting canals, lowering hills, straightening curves. But as technology advances, and new electric, diesel, and gasoline shovels come along, no one wants to hire a steam shovel. But instead of sending Mary Anne to the junkyard, Mike takes her to a small town looking to dig the cellar for their new town hall. He tells them that Mary Anne can do the job in a day, or they won’t have to pay him. The real fun here is not in finding out whether she gets the job done in time, but in the sweet way the story ends, with Mary Anne and Mike finding new jobs to keep them both busy.

The Little House
1942 / 44 pages
The story starts with a solid little house in the country that can just see the lights of the city on the horizon at night. But as the decades pass, the city approaches and then engulfs the little house, making her sad. But when the first owner’s great great-granddaughter comes across, she decides to move the solid little house to a new spot, out in the country once more.

Katy and the Big Snow
1943 / 40 pages

A big red crawler tractor named Katy can push dirt in the summer, but when winter comes, she’s the only one strong enough to push through all the snow. When a Big Snow hits, and all the plow trucks get stuck, and the snow piles up to three feet, five feet, and even more, then it’s time for Katy to save the day. She clears roads for ambulances, fire trucks, the police, the mailman, the phone and electric company, and then even clears the runway for a plane that otherwise would have crashed. Katy saved the day!

MayBelle the Cable Car
1952 / 52 pages

Maybelle is a cable car who spends her days going up and down San Fransisco’s steepest roads, and she's been doing so for decades. But now the city wants to do away with all the cable cars and replace them with big new busses. Will Maybelle be out of a job? No, because a campaign by citizens to keep the money-losing cable cars wins the day. Yay? What this presumes is that, so long at the majority rules, it's okay to use tax dollars for non-neccesities of all sorts, including wisful ones. So parents might have to talk their children through this one, to ensure little ones don't walk away with that lesson.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Fun to read once or twice, these don't need to make the cut for personal or school library shelves.

Calico, the Wonder Horse
1941 / 67 pages

A peaceful Western county is disrupted by a gang of bad guys. The wonder horse Calico disguises herself with a black mud bath so that Stewy Stinker, leader of the gang, will mistake her for his horse. When he does, she gives him a wild ride to jail. He escapes and makes plans to hold up the stagecoach only to discover that it is full of presents for the town’s children for Christmas Eve. Stinky starts crying because “I didn’t know I was that mean… holding up Santa on Christmas Eve. I’m never going to be bad anymore.” So the bad guys all decide to be good. This is a fun exciting story, but this people-are-only-bad-because-they-are-misunderstood turn at the end obscures that there is real evil in the world, fully determined to be wicked, and they must be fought and not coddled.

Choo Choo
1937 / 48 pages

A hard-working train engine, Choo Choo takes a bratty turn and decides she wants to go out on her own, so she runs away. After a misadventure, causing all sorts of mishaps as she flies through crossings and even leaps over an open train drawbridge, Choo Choo eventually runs out of steam and is left all on her own at the end of an abandoned line. Fortunately, her conductor, engineer, and fireman go after her, find her, and bring her home, much to Choo Choo’s relief – she’s learned her lesson and pledges never to run away again.

DON'T BOTHER

The second book below made this category on, admittedly, a bit of nitpick, but the first earned its spot, being nothing but propoganda.

Life Story - At 80 pages, this is Burton’s biggest book by far, and all of it a godless evolutionary account of how life on earth originated. We move through millions of years of history until, in the concluding pages set in Burton’s time, there is on display, her wistful longing for a simple, country life.

The Emperor’s New Clothes - Burton illustrated this Hans Christian Anderson classic. As much as I like the story, what I’m looking for in an illustrated version for children is for the Emperor's nakedness to be strategically and artfully obscured. Burton almost pulls it off, but on the last page we have a naked butt, and yes, it is a cartoonish naked butt. However, she's already shown in previous pages that this nudity is unneeded. For this tittering age group, one naked butt is one too many.

CONCLUSION

If one could overdose on Virigina Lee Burton that might lead a child to romanticize the past, and maybe even take an anti-progress, almost Luddite turn. But Burton didn't write all that much, so this isn't much of a concern.

Instead we can just enjoy her timeless books for the lovely look back that they are. We can dig up our own old copy, and point out all the action going on, the favorite bits that we recall from so many years ago "when your grandpappy used to read this to me." Burton at her best offers up stories that will endure at least long enough for you to read them to your grandchildren too.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Medallion

by Dawn L. Watkins
1985 / 213 pages

This will be a fun one for Grade 4/5 boys. Young Trave plans to be king one day, but in the meantime, the current king of Gadalla, his uncle, won't even let him learn to ride a horse. Trave's life takes a turn when a rider comes to warn his uncle of an impending war, and tries to recruit him as an ally against the "Dark Alliance." His uncle dismisses the warning but allows Trave to head off with the departing rider, happy to be done with this annoying boy. But why does the rider have any interest in Trave? Because the rider turns out to be the king of the neighboring nation of Kapnos, and he knew Trave's father back when he was the fighting king of Gadalla. This King Gris is eager to help Trave become the king not simply that Trave wants to be, but that the neighboring nations need him to be, to stop the Dark Alliance.

And while Trave appreciates being rescued from his uncle, he doesn't like being treated like a schoolboy in need of lessons. He mistakenly believes that being a king means fighting and giving orders, rather than serving. And that makes him susceptible to the flattery of the Dark Alliance's leader, who wants Trave on his side.

This is a quick tale, that has some depth to it, because of the three kingly lessons that Trave needs to know, not just by heart, but in his bones. He finds out, the hard way, that a king needs: 

  • to learn what is true
  • to believe what is true
  • to act on what is true 

While the author is Christian, that's more notable in the lack of any new age or woke weirdness, rather than the presence of any spiritual dimension to the book. The only diety-mention of any kind is that the bad guys worship and are also terrified of owls. 

Boys will love the story, and appreciate the twenty or so great pictures, including one of the evil king riding what looks like a miniature (yet still large) T-rex. That's a reason to get the book all on its own! Another highlight is the curious creature Nog, who lives under a bog, and his every line, is always spoken in rhyme. 

While this is a little too simple for teens, it's one that'll really appeal to the 9-12 set, and younger even, if Dad is reading it as a bedtime book. 

This is the first book in the series so I was eager to check out the others. However the sequel, Arrow struck me as having too many characters to keep track of. And there was an added mystical dimension, where a queen and princess used a mysterious mirrored portal to travel to another realm. Mysterious can be good when the mystery is eventually revealed, but this magical turn is never explained. So, while the original is good enough that I am still going to check out the prequel, Shield, too, for now I'd only recommend the original, as a stand-alone.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Urchin of the Riding Stars

by M.I. McAllister
2021 / 299 pages

This was so good I had to share bits of it with my wife. This is an animals-with-swords tale, the hedgehogs, otters, moles, and squirrels all living together in the same island kingdom under the good King Brushen. 

But all is not well in the kingdom of Mistmantle – there are "cullings" being done to the newborn handicapped children. This is quite the somber subject for a children's book, and as the culling are considered for the elderly too, it's clear that the author is speaking to both abortion and euthanasia. 

The young Urchin is very much opposed, but his heroes, Captains Crispin and Padra, don't seem to be doing anything to stop it, and the third captain, Husk, seems to be enjoying it! So who are the good guys then? Who can Urchin turn to for help to save these children? It turns out some of the good guys are indeed good, but, on the other hand, some turn out to be really, really bad. 

This a fairytale that takes seriously the Chesterton quote about dragons:

"Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."

There is evil in this book, and the might even turn off some of its target preteen to early teen audience. But it gets to be quite the rollicking adventure soon enough, full of courtly intrigue, conspiracies, and heroes being heroic. 

I think the author is Christian, and the God of this story is referred to as "the Heart." This spiritual element isn't huge, but it is persistent and doesn't stray into anything weird or wacky. I know this will be a book I'll enjoy reading to my kids. An otherwise entertaining second book in this Mistmantle Chronicles series is marred by an agenda-pushing, albeit passing, mention of a female priest. The first book stands well enough on its own, so in our house I think we're going to start and stop with number one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Nobody knows how to make a pizza

by Julie Borowski
2019 / 30 pages

The picture book’s title makes a claim that my daughter just couldn’t believe: “Come on Dad, you know how to make a pizza!”

But do I really? Sure, I know how to combine a pizza crust with cheese and tomato sauce. I’m even very good at it. But the point this slim volume is trying to make is that there is a lot more to it.

That flour I use started as grain that somebody had to grow, and I certainly don’t know how to do that. That farmer who does, brings in his crop using a wheat harvester, which he isn’t able to make himself. He’ll ship off his grain, perhaps via a train, which neither of us could ever manufacture. We also don’t know how to turn wheat into flour, and the folks that do, don’t know how to make the semi-trucks that ship their flour to grocery stores around the country. Making even the simple pizza crust requires a lot of different people all working together, with not one of them knowing how to get all the needed steps done. That’s why the pizza narrator’s claim – that “there’s not a single person on Earth who knows how to make me” – isn’t as outrageous as it first seem, And that doesn’t even get into the tomato sauce and cheese!

You might be wondering, okay, but so what?

The point of this little book (and the 1958 essay, I, Pencil, which inspired it) is to expose the arrogance of any big government’s central planners. Whether it’s full-blown communists who want to plan everything, or a democracy where the elected leadership “merely” direct large chunks of the economy (gov’t spending in Canada accounts for 45% of GDP, and their impact is extended further still via regulations), we have governments of all sorts all around the world that think they know how best to run things from the top down. However, if planning the production of a single cheese pizza is beyond the capabilities of any one man, or even a team of the very smartest people on earth, then why would we think the government could ever know enough to competently make the innumerable management decisions they make, from what minimum wage everyone should be paid, to how children should be educated in K-12 (and what they should learn), which companies should be bailed out or subsidized, or even how much milk should be produced?

Of course, if no one knows how to make a pizza, that prompts an obvious question: how is it that countless cheese pizzas are made every day?

Instead of someone at the top planning it all out, this miracle occurs without much planning at all. The author of this picture book makes more of a libertarian presentation than a Christian one, so I’m using the term “miracle” here for a wonder she doesn’t really attempt to explain. But Christians do have an explanation. Now, we might take for granted what the free market can produce – cheaper computers, innovations like the smartphone, innumerable kinds of bagel – to the point it seems too ordinary to call all of that a miracle. But the free market is a miracle nonetheless, completely beyond anybody’s ability to plan and create, making it all the easier to see God’s fingerprints. His commandment “Do not steal” creates property rights, which is the basis for one person trading what they own to another for something they want more. If you can’t steal from others, then the only way to provide for yourself and your family is by producing something other people will value. You get money from them to meet your needs by making something that meets theirs. So God’s law is the basis for free trade and it is unplanned, unorganized free trade that has miraculously proven to be the most effective way of raising people out of poverty. The government still has a role here – to prevent theft, enforce contract laws, and generally ensure that property rights are respected – but not in picking the winners and losers.

While that’s deeper than this picture book goes, what Julie Borowski does highlight is the result: all sorts of strangers cooperating with one another, each looking out for their own interests, but together creating something that none of them could make on their own – innumerable voluntary exchanges and, eventually, violà a pizza!

As noted, this book has a libertarian flavoring to it, and because libertarians can often be libertines on moral issues, their values can be at odds with what God knows is best. However, in this case the libertarian impulse for small government syncs up well with the Christian emphasis on humility and Man’s fallibility – we have a hard enough time trying to plan out our own lives, so it’s arrogant indeed for bureaucrats and politicians to think they can plan out everyone else’s lives for them. Better then, to limit (though certainly not eliminate) the government and what it does, so as to leave people the responsibility and allow them the freedom to manage their own lives.

This would be read to best effect with a parent along for the ride. Otherwise I could see kids enjoying it, even as they entirely miss the overall small government argument being made.

You can watch the author read her book below.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Owly: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer

by Andy Runton
2004 / 160 pages

This is two stories in one, and at about 80 pages each, they have room for some real fun. In the first, we get introduced to Owly, who, as you may have guessed, is an owl. The forest creatures are afraid of him because, well, he’s an owl, and they know that typically owls eat creatures like them. But not Owly. He’s a kinder gentler owl, and all he wants to do is feed his fellow birds seeds. 

Sadly, no one trusts him, and Owly is all alone… until the night of the big storm! Then Owly finds a worm, half-drowned, and nurses it back to health. Worm, realizing he hadn’t been eaten, trusts and befriends Owly, which is the start of something beautiful. It’s never really explained what Owly does eat, but we can be certain that it isn’t cute little worms! 

In the second story, Owly and Worm meet a couple of hummingbirds and have a great time until the little speedsters have to head south for the winter. But don’t worry, they’ll be back come Spring!

It’d be more accurate to call these “talkless” rather than “wordless” because, even as the dialogue between Owly and his worm friend is limited to symbols and punctuation marks – a question mark when one of them is puzzled and an exclamation mark when they are excited – there’s the occasional shop sign or even a whole encyclopedia page entry on hummingbirds that does require the reader to be able to actually read. 

If you’re considering getting this for your school library, you’ll be interested to know there are two editions of this story, the first in black and white with this symbol-based dialogue, and the second, now titled simply Owly: The Way Home (2020) that is in full-color and adds in a minimal bit of verbiage between the characters. While I really like the original near-wordless version, it was sometimes a bit hard to decipher what Owly and his pal were saying to each other, so the second editions are probably the best way to go. Everything in this series seems to be gentle and kind including Just a Little Blue (1st edition 2005 /2nd edition 2020, 130 pages), Flying Lessons (2005/2021, 144 pages), A Time To Be Brave (2007/2022, 132 pages), and Tiny Tales (2008, 172 pages).

Monday, April 25, 2022

Maker Comics: Draw a comic

by JP Coovert
2019 / 124 pages

Cartooning was a fascination as a kid, so I've read a few different books on how to do it, and I think this might be the best overall introduction I've seen. One of its strengths is the way it teaches - via a comic adventure! Our guide Maggie, and her dog Rex, are trying to fulfill her grandfather's dream of having a comic library, but the villain of the piece, Dr. Stephens wants to turn the building into a parking lot. How can they stop him? A discovered treasure map might lead to just what they need to buy the building.

Alongside their treasure quest, readers are given 6 projects to complete: 

  • Learning the parts of a comic
  • Planning a comic strip
  • Drawing your comic strip
  • Making a one-sheet, 8-page comic
  • Printing your one-sheet comic
  • Make a bigger comic book

There's piles of information here, but kids only have to use the bare bones of it – just a pencil and a sheet of paper – to start making their own mini-comic books. And if they get into it, then they can dive back into the book to learn more about the different pencils, pens, brushes, and techniques they can use to get better. 

There isn't a lot of help offered for actual drawing technique – kids will have to turn elsewhere to find more on that. What this book is about is equipping kids to get a running start in presenting their story or joke in a polished and yet still easy-to-do manner, even while their art skills might be at the stick figure level. They can get excited about starting and completing an actual comic. 

The only caution is a minor one, a passing mention made in one of the comic captions about dinosaurs living 65 millions years ago. 

My 10-year-old daughter and I have read another in this "Maker Comics" series and found Build a Robot a lot harder to get off and running with – you need to have a spare small motor lying around. That said, Draw a Comic does have us interested in checking out others, like their Grow a Garden and Bake Like a Pro titles.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Misadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson

by Glenn McCarty
327 pages/ 2019

I’m sure I’m not the first reviewer to describe Misadventured as Mark Twain-esque. This is a tale of two very different boys, living out frontier life in 1876, and equally matched as both friends and rivals. Tumbleweed Thompson is a shyster and the son of a shyster, blowing into Rattlesnake Junction as father and son peddle miracle medicine from the back of their wagon. 

Eugene Appleton, a good son of the town’s pastor, is in the audience, watching as the peddlers are shown up and run out. But when Tumbleweed reappears on his ownsome, he pulls Eugene into a whole summer’s worth of getting chased by smugglers, trailing train robbers, and trying to outdo each other for the attentions of the mayor’s daughter, Charlotte Scoggins, a misadventurous lass herself. 

It’s evident the author is Christian, though that might not be apparent to the 10–14-year-old audience this is intended for because, even as Eugene means well, he doesn’t always act well (and Tumbleweed often enough doesn’t even mean well). That would be the big caution then, not to give this to boys who are struggling with telling right from wrong themselves. That does mostly get sorted out at story's end, when both boys do the very best thing, acting in defense of a widow and a man falsely accused. 

Loads of fun!

Friday, March 18, 2022

Once again, 5 good, but not "really good," comics

The name of this blog is "Really Good Reads" so why review graphic novels that are good but not great

It's because, while these comics themselves might not be outstanding, they are an outstanding way to get reluctant readers into the habit of regularly reading. Some of these will use pictures to draw them in, and then the story will keep them hooked. And then, as they grow, they can progress to more complex graphic novels which often have as much text as full-size books. And then it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to reading those non-graphic sorts of novels. Many of the more complex graphic novels have as much text as many a full-size book.

In other cases, graphic novels can serve as a great introductory level textbook to a topic. Think of it as a Dummies sort of broad overview, wonderfully accessible and still highly informative.

Unfortunately, many comic books are silly, racy, gory, or disgusting in other ways, so if you have a son or daughter who you've managed to turn on to reading, then they might start chewing through graphic novels, and be looking for more. So, to keep those fires burning, here are some solid suggestions.

Around the World in 80 Days: A Graphic Novel
by Jules Verne, Chris Everheart and Tod Smith
Stone Arch Books
2015 / 72 pages

This is a comic adaptation of Jules Verne's 1873 classic Around the World in 80 Days. The story begins in London, in 1872, when a man makes a bet with some wealthy friends that, in this "modern" age of wonder, he can travel around the world in just 80 days. They don't believe it, and are happy to make the wager. But, as if that wasn't challenge enough, our hero, Phileas Fogg, is mistaken for a criminal, and even as he travels around the world, he is pursued by a dogged detective.

This makes for a fun exploration of different sorts of transportation, and the different ways people dress and act around the world.

I read this with my six and four-year-old, and while graphic novels are not, generally, a group read, this worked well. Both of them loved the pictures, and reading it together gave me a chance to explain what a suttee was. This is the practice of burning a dead man's still-living widow, along with his body, on the funeral pyre. It was practiced in India, and in the story Fogg, and his loyal servant Jean Passepartout, rescue a young widow from this fate.

While the comic is 72 pages, the story itself is just 58, so there isn't the space to do Jules Verne's original novel true justice. Even the fantastic surprise ending is cut out. SPOILER ALERT: In the original, on the very last day of his journey Fogg is arrested by the detective, and isn't released until day 81. It seems he has lost his bet. But no, Fogg has traveled ever eastward, through one time zone after another, and that has meant that, on average, instead of 24 hours, his days have only lasted roughly 23 hours and 45 minutes - he was losing roughly 15 minutes a day. Or to put it another way, his shorter days meant that at the end of the journey, he actually had one whole day to spare - he had traveled 80 days, but in London that only amounted to 79! Thus, after his release, he discovered it was still just day 80 in London, and he had won his wager!

Now, if that explanation didn't quite explain things for you, then you'll understand why they skipped it entirely in the comic. In this version, he simply arrives in the nick of time. It is a sad loss for a grand ending, but an understandable edit for this medium and audience. Still, it is that type of abridgment that makes this a merely good, and not great, adaptation.

Machines that think!
by Don Brown
2020 / 120 pages

Where did computers and robots come from? Author Don Brown has given a comprehensive overview, starting with the discovery of binary, to the invention of mechanical computers, then transistors, and bringing us all the way to today's self-driving cars. 

Our narrator is Muhammad ibn Mūsa all-Khwârizmi, the popularizer of Arabic numbers (ie. 1,2,3, instead of the Roman numerals I, II, III), which might be a politically-correct effort to counterbalance all the other, Western-based, advancements in math and engineering the rest of the book details. If so, then thankfully, that's as far as PC culture intrudes. This is largely "just the facts ma'am." Old and new are introduced, from Blaise Pascal and Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Some of these folks had checkered pasts, so I appreciated that the author sticks with their computer contributions and doesn't get into anything else. 

Artwork is very cartoonish, with the exception of some schematics which are drawn more realistically. There are a lot of complex ideas and technological leaps details here, and this friendly artistic style helps make this a far less intimidating work than it might otherwise have been.

This is just the sort of broad overview that could get a certain sort of kid interested in engineering. I'd recommend it for ages 12 and up.

I survived the Nazi invasion, 1944: a graphic novel
by Lauren Tarshis
2021 / 160 pages

After the Nazis invaded and conquer Poland, they quickly start rounding up Jews, and placing them together, in ghettos. These are rundown neighborhoods, which the Germans then surround with barbwire to keep the Jews in. This is the story of Max and Zena, two Jewish children who get in a tussle with a German soldier and have to flee the ghetto to get away. They end up finding a sympathetic farmer, and a group of Resistance fighters who help them hide in the vast forests of Poland. 

This is an exciting story, with the Nazis almost finding them a number of times, and Max even gets shot. By story's end, Max is telling us that he has trouble sleeping, and we've seen enough of what he experienced to understand why. 

This is intended for teens, and largely age-appropriate, noting the many who died, without actually having any of the Jews we're introduced to get killed. That's not realistic - we're told in the appendix that more than 90% of the Polish Jews didn't make it to the end of the war - but that is understandable for this age group. There is a happy ending for all, a marriage in one case, a move to Israel for some, and a move to America for Max, Zena, and the father they've been reuinted with.

The big caution for this book concerns the violence. In addition to Max getting shot, we also see three German soldiers get shot, and a fourth hit in the face by a large rock, all of them presumably killed. While it is not especially gory, there is some blood shown. For 12 and up, this is likely no big deal, but because this is a comic book, kids a lot younger might be tempted to open it up to take a look. And they should be steered clear.

Fred & Marjorie: A doctor, a dog, and the discovery of Insulin
by Deborah Kerbel
illustrated by Angela Poon
2021 / 56 pages

This is the story of how, in 1920, Dr. Fred Banting's experiments on dogs led him to the discovery of Insulin. Both man and animals produce insulin, and it is used to regulate the amount of sugar in our bloodstream. Without it, a person can develop heart and kidney disease, vision loss, and more. The only treatment before Banting's discovery was to limit a person's food intake, to thus reduce their blood sugar. But this was starving someone to keep them from getting heart disease, so it wasn't much of a treatment.

The comic is simple and solid, a bit jumpy in parts likely because Dr. Banting's recall of events was also spotting in parts. It's a bit of a detective story, with Banting and his colleague first needing to figure out what it was that these patients weren't getting enough of. A middle-of-the-night moment of inspiration led him to propose a series of dog experiments, half of them having their pancreas removed to induce diabetes, and others studied to see what it was their pancreas was secreting. These secretions would then be injected in the diabetes dogs to see if they helped. This process is what eventually led to the discovery of insulin. But it did involve a lot of dogs dying. This wore on Banting, and the comic shows some of the emotional toil it caused him. But he knew that if they figured this out, he could save millions of children. So he kept on. 

The cautions concern age appropriateness. Early in the book there is mention made of children dying of diabetes, and some are shown in a near skeletal state (though in line drawings that aren't overly detailed). Sensitive children may also find it hard to read about, and seeing some of the dogs dying, though again, there is nothing overly graphic shown. A more notable caution is about the discussion in the appendix, about whether animals experimentation is bad or good. The book, in showing it, and touting the benefits of it, is clearly making the case for, but the discussion the back takes a neutral stance, noting some believe all life to be "equally sacred" and that sacrificing a dog to help humans is immoral. I suspect some Christian children in the young grades that this is intended for (Grades 4-7) might need a little help in seeing through the lie in that position.

Who was the First Man on the Moon? Neil Armstrong
by Nathan Page
2022 / 64 pages

Despite the title, this is more about the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the whole crew, than it is about just Neil Armstrong. And that’s what makes this an interesting, if all-too-brief, read. Like all the books in the "Who is" series, the pages are small, which makes for only an average of 4 panels a page - this could be read in ten minutes. Of course, that's also a feature for some young readers.

The story also ends with their landing on the moon, which is a bit of an abrupt ending but does also leave readers wanting more. So they can turn to another moon landing graphic novel, The Far Side of the Moon, for more.

One caution would be an incidental mention of the moon being 4 billion years old. Another: that this recommendation shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the "Who is" books, since this secular series frequently celebrates people who shouldn't be celebrated, like evolutionist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, crossdresser RuPaul, homosexual activist Harvey Milk, abortion defender Ruth Badar Ginsburg, and communist revolutionary Che Guevara. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Rule of Law

by Randy Singer
2017 / 473 pages

Rule of Law is a legal thriller, but the story begins outside the courtroom, with a SEAL team storming an Arabic jail to free an imprisoned American journalist. When that mission takes a tragic turn, the fallout ends up in front of the Supreme Court. 

Author Randy Singer uses his fictional story to examine the real-world way in which the US government, and particularly the executive branch, has been acting as judge, jury, and executioner in placing foreign nationals on a “kill list,” and then taking them out, and those near them, via drone strikes. Singer doesn’t seem to be arguing against all drone strikes. But the title he has chosen certainly references the idea that we all need and benefit from accountability, so we all – including even the president – need to be under the law. Our leaders must not act like they are above it, as dictators do. 

This is well written, with a great balance of action, some romance, unexpected courtroom twists, and some realistic, subtly woven in, wrestlings with God. Singer is rapidly becoming a favorite author.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

A Different Shade of Green

A Biblical Approach to Environmentalism and the Dominion Mandate
by Gordon Wilson
2019, 189 pages 

Christians are right to be skeptical of an environmental movement that sees Man as a problem for the planet, rather than the steward of it. But, as Gordon Wilson explains in his A Different Shade of Green, Christians can’t simply be contrarians – we won’t arrive at the biblical position simply by being reactionary and anti-Green. Instead, our foundation has to be God’s Word, starting with the dominion mandate in Genesis 1:28, and then God’s own evaluation of His creation as is expressed a few verses later: “and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). We are to value His Creation and the creatures in it because He values it, and we are to take charge of its care because He has made us responsible for it.

What Dr. Wilson has gifted us with here is a challenging and engaging Biblical Environmentalism 101 – he hasn’t worked it all out for us, but he is pointing us in the right direction. For more of Wilson’s creation care thoughts, be sure to check out his nature documentary series, The Riot and The Dance.

Monday, February 14, 2022

God's Smuggler

by Brother Andrew 
2015 (originally 1967) / 288 pages

This is an amazing true story about God’s miraculous interventions to get Bibles to his persecuted Church in both Communist countries and Muslims ones.

There are miracles all around us, but the rising sun, our pumping hearts, and babies’ wriggling toes do their thing with such regularity as to seem ordinary. Not so the miracles in God’s Smuggler. Here “Brother Andrew” (1928- ) relates one extraordinary answer to prayer after another: a needed cake delivered by an off-duty postman, money of the right sum arriving at just the right time, the instant healing of Andrew’s crippled ankle. 

Then, in his work smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain, this Dutchman came to rely on the extraordinary becoming regular. Border crossings into Communist countries were always tense, but each time Brother Andrew would ask God to “make seeing eyes blind” and again and again God would do so. The same border guards who had just taken apart the car in front of them would simply wave them through or, if they did inspect their cargo, the guards would completely miss the Bibles crammed in everywhere. It was through these regular miracles that God used Andrew and his coworkers to deliver His Word to millions in the persecuted Church. 

Cautions

While reading this to my children, I told them that we shouldn’t understand the many miracles Andrew experienced as evidence that he was always acting and praying as he should. He acknowledges himself that God honored some of his requests despite how he prayed. So we don't need to take this all prescriptively, as what we also should do, but we can take it descriptively as evidence of God’s great love for his persecuted Church.

Conclusion

We can also appreciate how aware Andrew was of his complete reliance on God. We all are, all the time, but when times are good we so often forget. Living his life in danger so much of the time, Brother Andrew wasn’t nearly so forgetful. 

This would be also be a valuable tool to impress on a younger generation that while in their lifetimes it has primarily been the culture that has been the biggest enemy of God’s Church, in many places, and at many times, it has been the government. 

I would recommend this primarily for adults, because it does take some discernment to think through where Brother Andrew is relying on God in a ways that we too should imitate, and where he might be getting close, or even crossing the line, into testing God. 

For a younger audience, just read it to them and discuss afterwards. Then it could be good for as young as 8.