Friday, January 14, 2022

It goes without saying: Peanuts at its silent best

by Charles Schultz
2005 / 160 pages

There seems something almost wrong about using a multitude of words to recommend a wordless book so let me hit just a few highlights and be done. The brilliance in this "tour through fifty years of Peanuts pantomime strips" manifests in at least three different ways.

  1. This is all ages. With no words to struggle over, my 6-year-old, still-learning-to-read daughter enjoyed this just as much as me. Might this be a gem for a reluctant reader?
  2. This is unique. We're all used to the regular puns that populate the newspaper comics page and know what to expect, but the sight gags here are humor of a whole different sort, and that curveball is sure fun.
  3. This is art. Schultz does a lot with a little - not just wordless, but his artistic style is also sparse, and it is amazing to see what he can communicate with just a few lines here and there.

I'll only add that if you enjoy It Goes Without Saying, you might want to check out Garfield Left Speechless. (or, for a twist, Garfield minus Garfield...although that one will be above kids' heads).

Friday, January 7, 2022

Kitten Construction Company: meet the house kittens

by John Patrick Green

70 pages / 2018

The author of Hippopotamister is back with another charming treat for early readers. The story begins with "the city of Mewburg preparing for a big project..." They are building a new mansion for the mayor, and to get it started the city planner has to find the right architect. He has a few candidates to chose from, and the first up has a brilliant design. But there is a problem: the architect is a cute kitten!

"Sorry," he tells little Marmalade, "I regret that you are just too adorable to be taken seriously."

When Marmalade goes off to drown his sorrows in a saucer of warm milk, he meets another kitten dealing with the very same problem: no one is giving him a chance, because he's just so cute. The two decide that maybe they can team up. When they get hired on to help at a big construction project, they think that maybe their luck has turned. But they soon realize that they aren't being given actual work - just busy-work projects.

That's when they decided that if no one else will take them seriously, they'll go out on their own. And that's how the Kitten Construction Company is born!

The kittens get to show their talents when the official mayor's mansion falls to pieces, and they can then take the media and their mayor to see their own, gorgeous, and fully upright, version. That's when everyone has to acknowledge that cute isn't the opposite of capable.

While most of the book's intended audience won't realize it, the author is kindly and gently poking fun at discrimination. He's making the lesson gentle, by making the source of discrimination "cuteness" rather than skin color or gender but what comes through is that treating people based on how they look rather than what they can do is ridiculous. He's also not hammering kids over the head with the lesson, feeling free to divert from the lesson to bring in some funny cat jokes.

The sequel deals with a similar anti-discrimination theme when the kittens get the call to design and build a bridge. As everyone knows, cats don't like water, so they'll need some help with this job. And standing ready are...the Demo Doggos.

Dogs? Marmalade isn't sure. Will that be, as the title asks, A Bridge Too Fur?



Thursday, December 23, 2021

Once upon a Wardrobe

by Patti Callahan
2021 / 285 pages

The year is 1950, and an eight-year-old George Henry Devonshire has finished a book, just published, called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And now he wants to know Where does Narnia come from? George is old enough to know Narnia is not real, and yet at eight, he's somehow already wise enough to know that this story is about something very true. So where did it come from?

Born with a weak heart, the young George has been confined for most of his life to his own room, and, on better days, to the rest of his house. But his older sister Megs loves him fiercely and comes home every weekend from university, so George is sure she'll help him figure this out. Megs, after all, goes to Oxford, where the creator of Narnia teaches. She should just ask him! It turns out though, that Oxford isn't simply one college, but dozens, and Meg is at an entirely different school than where Lewis teaches. She sometimes sees him walking about, but the quiet girl doesn't want to intrude on the great man with bothersome questions. And yet, for her brother, she promises to try.

In the end, Megs doesn't so much manage to introduce herself to Lewis, as Lewis's brother Warnie introduces himself to her... and invites her for tea! What follows is only the first conversation of many. Megs keeps coming back because Lewis and his brother never seem to offer the simple answer that young George is after. Instead of sharing where Narnia came from, the two tell Megs stories about their growing up. Megs isn't into stories the way her brother is – her studies in math and physics don't leave her a lot of time, as she might put it, to waste on fiction – so even as she enjoys her time with the two men, she doesn't understand why they won't give her a more direct answer to relay to young George. Her brother loves the stories she brings home, but he keeps sending her back for more. George is aware, even though his parents and sisters have tried to shelter him from the knowledge, that he does not have long to live on this earth. So there's an insistent edge to his questions: he needs to know where such beauty and truth comes from.

Patti Callahan has married careful research with simply wonderful prose to create a fictionalized biography of both Lewis and his best-known book. I loved this so much I've given it to my mom and my wife, and I can't really give it higher praise than that. If you're looking for the serious sort of biography that tells you what the subject ate for breakfast on his 43rd birthday, you'll need to look elsewhere. But if you enjoy learning a little something from the fiction you read, or if you've ever wanted to know more about the man who gave us Narnia, you won't find a more charming introduction.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Demon Seed

by Marty Machowski
2017 / 179 pages

John Milton might approve. Marty Machowski's Dragon Seed covers much of the same ground as Milton's epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Both authors portray Satan's rebellion, the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, and the triumph of Jesus Christ over Satan's temptations. However, Machowski parallels this story of spiritual warfare with a view of the struggles of a teen struggling with grief and anger over the loss of his father.

Nick Freeman (an appropriate name for how he sees himself) is given a book of what his mother calls family history, which tells how Satan and the angels who followed him went from being glorious servants of God to loathsome dragons who spread the same seed of pride that led to their rebellion. Both Nick and his sister react to their situations with pride in different ways (one in conflict with his mother and the other in self-righteous judgment of her friend).

Nick's reading of the family history (ranging from warfare in heaven through the triumph of Christ in His crucifixion and resurrection to the portrayal of the end of history in Revelation) enables him to see and resist the dragon seed that demons seek to plant in every human heart. As for his sister... you'll need to read the book.

The book that Nick is reading is both the strength of, and the possible problem with, this book. Unlike, say, C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, Dragon Seed does not deal exclusively with the actions and words of demons, but also, briefly and imaginatively, with the deeds and speeches of God on His throne, His angels, and Jesus Christ on earth. While Machowski portrays the work and words of God with restraint and consistent with how God reveals Himself in Scripture, some may find the portrayal to be too imaginative.

If you get beyond that issue, the illustration of the devastating effects of pride, and the way back, in  both the story Nick is reading, and his own experience, is reinforced by a twelve-day devotional that takes us through how pride is revealed and critiqued in Scripture and challenges us to join the battle against pride by humbling ourselves before God in Christ.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Nicky & Vera: a Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued

by Peter Sís
2021 / 64 pages

Nicholas Winston never set out to be a hero but he also knew what needed to be done. When the Germans were taking over Czechoslovakia in chunks, before World War II has officially begun, Jews in the country were trying to get their children out. Winston knew how to get this done, pushing the paperwork, bribing the right people, and arranging for families in England where the children could stay.

He ended up saving 669 children, most, or all of whom, were Jewish, and he didn't have to brave bullets to do it. That is the important lesson of this book: that there are quiet ways to do vital work. It was quiet work, but no less life-saving than what Allied soldiers did fighting to end the Nazi reign.

And in its quiet manner, Winston's is more like the important work we are called to do today – our fights are not in the trenches, but writing our MPs, or making donations to the right organizations. We can, for example, save lives by donating to pregnancy crisis centers, and do so at no risk to ourselves. 

Winston was not Christian, so far as I can tell (it doesn't come up in the book) but his example is still one we can benefit from. This would be a great picture book for a school library, to be pulled out and showcased around Remembrance Day each year.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Peacemaking Pastor

by Alfred Poirier
317 pages / 2007 (2nd edition)

Any officebearer who wants to apply the Biblical peacemaking principles explained in Ken Sande`s The Peacemaker will appreciate the depth of the discussion in The Peacemaking Pastor. 

Alfred Poirier approaches the issue of conflict within congregations from a Reformed and Presbyterian perspective. He shows how we are all part of the problem of conflict because of our desperately deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9), and how peacemaking is a basic part of the message of reconciliation between God and His people, and among God`s people. 

Finally, he makes clear how proper church discipline should support and promote peacemaking. A book worth study by consistories and anyone who knows how sin breaks down peace, and how our forgiving God is a God of peace.



Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Phantom Tollbooth

by Norton Juster
1961 / 255 pages

What kind of book is suitable for study in the Fifth Grade, and in First-Year university English too? It's got to be some kind of weird and wacky wonder to pull that off!

The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic, old enough to have been around when I was a kid. It's also famous, so I may have seen it displayed prominently in the kids' section at the local library, but back then I would have been put off by the title – I wasn't into ghost books. I've seen it many times since, but only got past the title when I noticed it among the offerings at the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore. They're not really about fiction (or ghost stories) so I had to give this a closer look.

It turned out the title tollbooth was a phantom only in the sense that it mysteriously appears in the boy Milo's bedroom. For those that might not have run across them – there don't seem to be many of them anymore – a tollbooth is a small building, usually large enough to fit just one person, where people pay to make use of a bridge or road. The author says of Milo "Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have” but even his curiosity is piqued to want to test this out. He drives up in his electric toy car, deposits some coins, and suddenly finds himself outside his room, driving rapidly down a road.

Among the first people he meets is a watchdog that can talk. And, more importantly, he can tick – Tock is part dog and part pocketwatch! The dog demands to know what Milo is up to.

"Just killing time," replied Milo apologetically. "You see–"

"KILLING TIME!" roared the dog – so furiously that his alarm went off. "It's bad enough wasting time, without killing it." And he shuddered at the thought.

Milo soon learns he is in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land divided after the old King died. His two sons have set up two cities – Dictionopolis and Digitopolis – with one devoted to words, and the other to numbers. The only thing the two sons could agree on was to banish their two sisters, the princesses Rhyme and Reason, and as you might expect, where neither Rhyme nor Reason can be found, craziness abounds.

I was almost a quarter of the way in before I started to get a feel for what sort of book this was. There's some Alice in Wonderland here, with Milo meeting odd sorts speaking confusing but clever things, in a country beyond normal maps. There might be a bit of Pilgrim's Progress too, with Milo learning his lessons by first treading down some wrong paths, and then meeting personifications of troubles he has to contend with. It's not a Christian book, but it is trying to teach a moral – Milo is here to learn that he has lots to learn, and that life is only boring to those too lazy to start exploring.

Cautions

While there aren't any ghosts, parental eyebrows will be raised when the demons make their appearance. But they aren't that sort of demon. They live in the Land of Ignorance, and have names like Gross Exaggeration, and Horrible Hopping Hindsight. Overbearing Know-it-all is:

"a dismal demon who was mostly mouth...ready at a moment's notice to offer misinformation on any subject. And while he tumbled heavily, it was never he who was hurt, but rather, the unfortunate person on whom he fell."

The only caution needed is to remind children that demons do exist, and the real ones aren't so funny.

Conclusion

While this is studied in Grade 5, and my youngest in Grade 2 is quite enjoying it, this is not a book I'd recommend for younger readers to tackle on their own. It is 60 years old, and some language – like "tollbooth" – is unusual today, in need of explanation to pre-teens. And there are puns galore, many of which only a kid who enjoys playing with language will spot on their own. But that shouldn't be a problem, because this is a book that mom or dad could enjoy too, as they read it aloud to all their young charges.

So, two enthusiastic thumbs up for any and all who are twelve and up.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Listen! Six men you should know

by Christine Farenhorst
161 pages / 2021

The six men we get introduced to here are given 25-30 pages each which is enough space to get a very good feel for them. It's also short enough that it avoids completely the indulgence evident in many a bigger biography of telling us what the subject ate for lunch on the third Tuesday of October, one hundreds years ago.

The half dozen that author Christine Farenhorst introduces us to are:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Albert Schweitzer
  • Rembrandt Dutch
  • Samuel Morse
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Norman Rockwell

I enjoyed the eclectic nature of the selections – these six holding little in common outside their fame and influence, but all worth knowing better. I was more curious about some of them than others, particularly the very first, the American icon, Martin Luther King Jr. But after learning a little about his thoughts, and the political and cultural battles of his time, I skipped ahead to the profile of Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud who spent most of this life in Europe, and died when King was just 10. I'd read biographies on both men previously, but Christine's solidly biblical perspective brought new light to both subjects.

For the four others, I knew little more than their names – or their artwork, in the cases of Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt – and I enjoyed this opportunity to delve into their backgrounds, their age, and place. I enjoyed learning about Samuel Morse in particular, as he is the only one of these six who was clearly a Christian. Christine shows that some of the others, like Freud, clearly were not, while Rembrandt, had, at best, an odd relationship with his Maker.

Overall, this is a very quick enjoyable read – I think I finished it in a day. It was sad reading about many of these men's outright rejection of God, so I might recommend reading the profiles out of order so that you can conclude with Samuel Morse, and end on a happy note! Children who enjoy history, and reading, would likely enjoy this as young as 12. The short, 30-page profiles, would also make this a great title for adults who want to know their history, but are put off by the tomes that some historians publish.

You can order Listen! Six men you should know at many online retailers.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

50 "Great Books"


What are the “Great Books”? There is no one list, but the term is meant to describe a compilation of classics from Western Literature. Some lists are very long, topping hundreds of books, while others limit themselves to as little as 50, but the idea behind all of them is that these are foundational books – read these and you will have a better understanding of some of the key ideas or events shaping the world today. A Christian list would look different than a non-Christian, though a Christian list should contain non-Christian books. Placement is as much or more about a book’s influence as it is about its genuine insight, so pivotal infamous books do make their appearances. 

So what exactly might be on such a list? Here is an example:

  1. The Unaborted Socrates by Peter Kreeft
  2. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
  3. Everyone's a Theologian by R.C. Sproul
  4. Macbeth by Shakespeare
  5. Death by Living by N.D. Wilson
  6. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  7. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
  8. The Heidelberg Catechism
  9. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  10. Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt
  11. Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell
  12. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  13. The Grace and Truth Paradox by Randy Alcorn
  14. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  15. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  16. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  17. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  18. Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen
  19. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  20. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  21. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  22. Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer
  23. Desiring God by John Piper
  24. Aesop’s Fables by, well, Aesop
  25. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
  26. City of God by Augustine
  27. Flags out Front by Douglas Wilson
  28. The Prince by Machiavelli
  29. 1984 by George Orwell
  30. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  31. 95 Theses by Martin Luther
  32. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
  33. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  34. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  35. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
  36. The Koran by Mohammad
  37. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  39. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  40. The Gospel Blimp (and other parables) by Joe Bayly
  41. Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation by Ronald Reagan
  42. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  43. The Westminster Confession of Faith
  44. Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams
  45. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  46. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
  47. Hamlet by Shakespeare
  48. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
  49. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
  50. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Museum Trip

by Barbara Lehman
2006 / 40 pages

In this wordless wonder, a little boy on a class trip to the museum stops to tie his shoe and loses track of the others. He then discovers a small door in the wall that leads to a room with 6 small mazes on display. Next thing, we see a little version of him running through each maze, one by one. Has he actually shrunk, or is this him daydreaming and just imagining he’s running through them? Either way, readers in Grade1 and preschool will enjoy working through each of these simple mazes. As the boy makes his way to the middle of the last maze we get a glimpse of him having a gold medal hung around his neck. Right afterward, he’s big again and manages to track down his class. So was his maze adventure just a daydream? Well, on the final panel, as the class leaves the museum, we see the boy discover he does have a gold medal around his neck...and we see the museum director has one around his neck too!

Kids who enjoy the mystery of this tale will enjoy the author’s Red (2004) and Red Again (2017) wordless stories which are more mysterious still. They should be bought as a set, with the ending of the one serving as an introduction to the next, and vice versa (or as my one daughter put it “They’re a circle!”).

More mysterious still is secret box (2011) in which generation after generation of children going to the same boarding school discover the same box, with a treasure map that allows them to meet up with the children who have discovered the map before. Some wordless books are too mysterious, such that it's hard to know what on earth is going on. This almost crosses the line, but Lehman's friendly, detailed drawing ensure this is still a fun one. 

Less mysterious, but lots of fun, (and still wordless) is the author’s Trainstop (2008) where a girl goes on a train ride and encounters little people in need of a big friend. Another favorite is Rainstorm (2007) about a boy wandering his big house all alone who finds a key that unlocks a truck. The trunk opens into a very long tunnel under his house which leads to… well, you’ll have to get the book to find out!

Parents might think wordless books are good ones for their pre-reading or still-learning children to "read" on their own, but that's not so. These are books best experienced with a parent along for the ride, to help them learn the skills of deciphering story from visual clues. It's loads of fun for child and parent!

Saturday, August 21, 2021

In the hall of the Dragon King

by Stephen Lawhead
1982 / 370 pages

This is an old-fashioned fantasy tale, with a loosely Christian underpinning. Quentin is a young man who has had a quest thrust upon him. He was going to spend his life behind the walls of a temple, so this turn of events isn’t unwelcome. But he has to figure out how he can see the queen. And someone needs to rescue the king. Oh, and there’s a dark wizard that needs to be dealt with. Is this really a job for a young former priest-to-be who doesn’t know one end of a sword from the other?

The young Quentin, looking for help, meets a hermit of sorts, who serves not the gods, but the one God. That’s an ongoing theme throughout, as author Stephen Lawhead is trying to point readers to the true God.

Cautions

However, Lawhead sometimes gets it wrong. Quentin is told that God leads by “hunches and nudges” and “very rarely by direct command.” But our God does give us clear direct commands, in His Word, though some who profess to be Christians reject His Word in favor of hunches. Also, when a soldier is dying and asks how to go to heaven, the hermit tells him to just believe, but doesn’t mention anything about God being holy, the man being sin-stained, and the need to ask God for forgiveness.

Conclusion

While those are notable flaws, and worth bringing up with younger readers, they amount to only a few paragraphs in a rollicking adventure. There is a true and proper villain who had delved deep into the dark arts – he's a necromancer even! – which sharpens the contrast with the hermit, who has turned away from magic to serve his Lord.

One feature I really appreciated is that, while this is the first book of a trilogy, it is a full and complete story – this is not the sort of trilogy that is actually one story split over three books. But readers can look forward to Quentin's further adventures in The Warlords of Nin and The Sword and the Flame. 

Like any great children's book, this will be a great read for adults too – I'd recommend it for 12 and up.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Jesus on Every Page

10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament
by David Murray    2013 / 246 pages

This book is really good enough for me to use as a resource in my Bible courses (and possibly even as a textbook).

David Murray explains how he first witnessed, and shared in, the discomfort that many Christians, including preachers, feel when confronting the Old Testament - not because of any disagreement with what they saw as its message, but because they wanted to proclaim Christ, not just God's ongoing relationship with His often disobedient people. He then reveals how he found the answer to this problem in the words of Jesus Himself, and in the words of His servants Peter, Paul, and John: that the Old Testament, just like the New Testament, is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Murray shows how to find Jesus in the Old Testament as He is manifested in
  • creation,
  • the lives of His people,
  • His appearances to His people,
  • the law,
  • history,
  • prophecy,
  • typology,
  • His covenants with His people, and
  • wisdom literature. 
Murray makes his insights more accessible with study questions (some of which make excellent focuses for personal devotions) and references to both Old Testament and New Testament passages. I found his work so inspiring that I was slightly disappointed that I am not teaching anything from the Old Testament in the near future.

If you want David Murray to help you see Jesus on Every Page of the Old Testament, you can download it for free here, as long as you set up a free account, or you can order it from Ligonier Ministries.