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.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

David Wiesner: weird and wonderful

Super creative? Ultra creative? Mega creative? Every good picture book author is imaginative, but somehow David Wiesner (1956- ) manages to be all the more so. His living clouds, flying frogs, and artistic lizards always provide a surprise – a reader starting one of Wiesner's stories will never be able to predict how it is going to end.  That's a joy for parents to experience right along with their kids: a children's story that isn't predictable!

And since several of Wiesner's works are wordless, they can also be great books for reluctant readers to tackle alongside mom or dad. Wordless doesn't mean it's an easy "read" but together parent and child can put their detective skills to work to figure out all that's going on!

What follows are my family's recommendations – our favorites – and then a few that we've read but which for this reason or that, I'm not going to recommend like the rest. Finally, there are three that really aren't worth bothering with.

RECOMMENDED

Free Fall
1988 / 32 pages

A little boy falls asleep and we get to come along in his dream. As dreams often are, this is wordless throughout, one page streaming into the next as the boy goes from meeting a dragon to growing giant-sized, to flying home on a leaf. It makes sense only in the ways that dreams do. But the smart-eyed reader will be able to spot on the last page, when the boy wakes up, all the objects in the room that inspired the different parts of his dream. This is one to “read” slowly and enjoy every picture.

Hurricane
1990 / 32 pages

Two brothers are worried about a coming hurricane. But when the lights go out, and the family is still together, the boys realize it's not so bad after all. It even gets quite good the next day, when they discover a huge fallen tree in their neighbor’s yard. In the days that follow the huge trunk becomes their spaceship, and the branches a jungle, and the both of them together, a pirate-hunting sailboat.

Tuesday
1991 / 32 pages

The only words we see tell us the time, and that it is a Tuesday. For reasons that are left entirely mysterious, at around 8 pm, a swarm of frogs suddenly starts flying (or is it their lily-pads that are doing the levitating?). They flock into town, chase some birds for fun, watch a little telly, and then, just as they are heading back, dawn breaks, and the sun's rays seem to sap their flying powers. That leaves the whole lot of them hopping back to their pond. This is silly nonsense and kids are sure to love it.

Sector 7
1999 / 48 pages

A boy on a field trip to the Empire State Building meets a rambunctious cloud (he discovers that clouds are people!) who takes him back to “Sector 7” high up in the sky where the clouds get their orders about what shape of cloud they should be. But the clouds seem a bit bored with these shapes and appear to ask the boy to draw them up some alternatives. And what fun to see clouds mimicking the sea creatures he draws! Eventually, the rambunctious cloud returns the boy to the Empire State Building, but his visit to Sector 7 might have some lasting impact, as the clouds quite like being fish-shaped. This is another of Wiesner’s wordless books and another one that parent and child will have pouring over to see all that the pictures have to say.

The Three Pigs
2001 / 40 pages

When our middle daughter discovered this one she just had to share it with her younger sister right there and then. This is a creative spin on the old tale as the Big Bad Wolf blows the pigs right out of the story and into some others (including Wiesner's own The Loathsome Dragon). As they travel from storybook to storybook the pigs decide there is no place like home, but also decide to bring along a guest from another story – a dragon! – to give this pesky wolf quite the surprise. 

Art & Max
2010 / 40 pages 

This might be my favorite picture book. It involves just two characters, which makes this one easy to read out loud to the kids, and there’s so much energy on each page that performing it becomes so easy to do. Art knows how to paint, and Max desperately wants to learn. (Both are lizards, but aside from the fun way they look, that doesn't really matter.) But who should Max paint? When Aurthur suggests himself, Max literally starts to throw paint on Art. And that’s when it gets wacky! As Max tries to clean the paint off Art, he starts to clean all the color off him. Art is see-through; he’s just lines! Then, when that line starts to unravel, Art becomes just a scribble. Fortunately, his friend Max is on it, and proves, as he turns that scribble into a work of Art, that he has some mad skills too.

I Got It!
2018 / 32 pages

Once again David Wiesner lets the pictures do (almost) all the talking, When a long flyball is hit into the outfield, a boy declares, “I’ve got it!” which are the only words in the story. But does he really have it? One dropped ball is followed by another, and it’s almost like there are obstacles (getting bigger and bigger) just reaching out to trip him up. His repeated drops have his teammates moving in closer to catch it for him, since he can’t. But then, in one last stretching leap, our boy in red jumps past the obstacles and beats his teammates to the ball for a wonderful game-winning catch. This is a very fun story, but I could see some kids needing a little help to understand what’s going on. But hey, reading together is fantastic!

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

The Loathsome Dragon
1987 / 32 pages

An evil queen/stepmother casts a spell which turns a princess into a loathsome dragon. Along comes a brave prince who has to kiss the dragon three times to break the spell. The only twist in this tale is that the brave prince is her brother, and not a husband-to-be, but that’s not enough to make this seem fresh. I should add that while I was unimpressed, my girls liked this a lot more than I did.

June 29, 1999
1992 / 32 pages

A young girl, Holly, sends vegetable seedlings into the ionosphere for her science project just to see what might happen. Soon after giant vegetables – house-sized and bigger! – start floating down from the sky. But wait! Some of these vegetables are not the sorts that she sent up. So where did those come from? At book’s end we discover the giant vegetables came from a giant alien chef accidentally losing his ingredients while flying above Earth. Very fun to see the giant vegetables all over the landscape but I think it would have been better without the aliens tacked on at the end.

Flotsam
2006 / 40 pages

When a boy discovers an old-style underwater camera washed up on the beach, he brings the film in to be developed. There he discovers pictures, seemingly taken by underwater creatures themselves, and the world that they live in when we aren’t looking is certainly something to behold: little mermaids and mermen, robotic fish, giant turtles carrying shell cities on their backs, and even what looks like aliens taking rides on the guppies. Done without any text at all, each picture is another discovery. The very last snapshot is of a girl holding up a picture. And in that picture is a boy holding a picture of a girl holding a picture of a boy. A look through a magnifying picture shows this goes deeper still, and further back in time. The boy’s microscope reveals more still layers to the photo. This is inventive and fun, with the only cautions being that the young target audience may have to be informed that though the photos look quite realistic, the aliens and mermen are fantasy, not fact.

DON'T BOTHER

Mr. Wuffles

Tiny tiny aliens have landed, but unfortunately for them, their ship attracts the attention of Mr. Wuffles, who thinks it’s one of his cat toys. To repair their ship the little aliens recruit help from ants and bugs – their treasure trove of lost marbles, pencils, loose change, and paperclips turn out to be just what the aliens need to fix things up. There's some vague religious-type imagery written by the bugs on the house walls that, along with the aliens, makes this one I'd rather just skip.

Fish Girl

Wiesner’s only graphic novel is the story of a mermaid girl kept captive in an aquarium by the owner who she believes is the god Neptune. It’s odd all the way around, and that she is swimming around topless for most of its 192 pages (though always with strategically placed hair, or fishes) makes this another good one to skip. 

Robobaby

Robots get their babies in a box, with some assembly required. This story has its quirky charm, but when Mom and Dad, Uncle Manny, and even the Robobaby tech service can’t assemble Junior properly, but the child amongst them knows just what to do, this become just one more adults-are-dumb-and-kids-know-everything story that we can really do without (Prov. 20:29, 22:15).

CAUTIONS

David Wiesner is an incredibly imaginative picture book author, which makes him very fun to read, but it's that same active imagination that seems to lead him into a bit of over-the-top weirdness now and again. I couldn't figure out what Wiesner's worldview/philosophy is, and it'd be a bit much to conclude he must not be Christian just because he features aliens on occasion, though aliens (at least the intelligent sort) would seem to be incompatible with Christianity (but demons masquerading as aliens would not be). However, there's nothing in his books that would give us reason to conclude he must be Christian. In lieu of evidence one way or the other, that's good reason for parents to approach his future output with some caution.

CONCLUSION

If you have a creative kid, Wiesner's best could be just the spark they need to think bigger and bolder. And if you have a not-particularly-creative kid, Wiesner might be an inspiration for them too, showing them how there are all sorts of possibilities to explore and fresh ways of looking at things.

Finally, if you have a reluctant reader, Wiesner's wordless books – Freefall, Tuesday, Sector 7, and I Got it! – might be an encouragement for them to page through, especially if mom or dad comes alongside.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

God's Big Book of Animals

edited by Shirley Rash
248 pages / 2019

Did you know that baby elephants drink three gallons of milk each day? Or that “woodcock” means “roosters of the forest” And did you know female great white sharks are actually larger than the males? 

God's Big Book of Animals is GIGANTIC - it's bigger than any other book I've read. It is filled with amazing information about intricate animals – like the great white shark! – all created by God. Each of the 60 animals are given 4, bright, beautiful pages full of descriptions, fun facts and pictures. Plus each animal has their own 14 x 10 inch full-page photo. 

More fun fact examples include: 
  • “Turtles do not have teeth. They have strong, jagged jaws that help them take bites.” 
  • “Komodo dragons are also called monitor lizards.” 
  • “Elephant… trunks are heavy, and can weigh over 300 pounds! 
  • “A group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a swarm of butterflies, or a rabble of butterflies.” 
  • “Baby octopuses can hatch in different colors. They can be orange, red, yellow, or different shades of blue.” 
I think kids 7 and up would love this! But even kids younger would like the many pictures inside. 

– Sophia Dykstra

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Last Disciple

by Sigmund Brouwer and Hank Hanegraaff
2004 / 428 pages

It’s the year 65 AD, and Gallus Sergius Vitas is one of the last principled men in Rome. He’s also a confidant of Emperor Nero which means his daily life is conducted on a knife’s edge: indulging the emperor’s perverse demands might keep Vitas safe but would compromise the man that he is; yet to openly oppose the emperor would lead to his immediate introduction to the Coliseum’s lions.

Our story beings with Vitas attempting this balancing act once again. Nero has dressed as a beast, his outfit comprised of lion and bear skins, complete with collar and a chain held by a servant. His night’s entertainment is to terrorize a group of prisoners while playing the part of a beast. Enjoying their fear, the emperor quickly works himself into a killing frenzy. Vitas sees this all from the shadows and can’t let it happen, knowing, though, that to oppose the emperor is to die. So Vistas yells at the chain-holding servant instead: “If the emperor knows you are involved in illegal torture, he will have you destroyed!” It is, as Brouwer writes:

“an all-or-nothing bluff, pretending that he did not know Nero was inside the costume. Trusting that Nero would be too ashamed to admit it. Now. Or later.”

Vitas’ bluff works, but not just because of his daring. An earthquake sends Nero scurrying away, convinced that the shaking ground is a sign of divine judgment.

It’s a great opening, highlighting the depth’s of the emperor’s perversity, the heights of Vitas’ courage, and the certain presence of God even in these pagans’ lives. In less talented hands, the earthquake’s unlikely timing could have come off as cheesy, since in real life God more often uses “ordinary means” (like doctors’ talents or wise friends’ advice) than miracles to accomplish His ends. But miracles do occur, and Brouwer makes it believable. It’s a good thing too, as this is but the first miracle in a story that’s all about how God used miraculous means – the prophetic words in the book of Revelation – to warn his Church to flee the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

What Brouwer and his writing partner, theologian Hank Hanegraaff, have done here is write an alternative to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ popular Left Behind series. Where Left Behind places the beast of Revelation 13 in our near future, Brouwer and Hanegraaff place him in the first century, in the near future of those who first received John’s letter. And they identify the beast as Nero and the bloody empire he led. This “partial preterist” (partial past) interpretation of Revelation holds that the book was written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the city’s fall is a partial fulfillment of much of the prophecy in Revelation.

This, then, is fiction meant to teach as well and entertain, and it does both brilliantly. Brouwer has crafted a story that takes us all around the Mediterranean, with Jews, Romans, and even troubled Christians wrestling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” There’s also political plotting, assassination attempts, sieges, gladiators, and just a touch of romance.

The slowest bits are when theologian Hanegraaff has characters take a page or two to teach Vitas and others what a particular passage in Revelation means. If you’re reading it only for the story, these sections might drag, but they are well spaced out. And if you’re interested in learning about the partial preterist interpretation of Revelation, these will be your favorite passages.

Cautions

One caution: Nero’s depravity, though described with restraint, still means this is not a book for younger teens.

If The Last Disciple series has you eager to read more of Sigmund Brouwer’s work, be aware that he is a proponent of theistic evolution, and also an Arminian. That doesn’t come up in this series (or his best book, Innocent Heroes, a treat for kids, teens, and parents alike) but it does come up in some others.

Finally, readers should be aware that partial preterism probably isn’t the majority view in Canadian Reformed churches (though I’m not sure what the majority view might be, as Revelation seems to be only rarely discussed). Some do hold it though, and it's also held by Reformed pastors outside our circles such as RC Sproul, Douglas Wilson, and Jay Adams.

Conclusion

The Last Disciple is a great book, kicking off a great series. The cast of characters is large, so if you’re like me, make sure you get the whole trilogy – The Last Disciple, The Last Sacrifice and The Last Temple – right away, because if you wait too long between books, you may start forgetting who is who.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction – Sigmund Brouwer has got skills. And if you’d love to have partial preterism explained, well, this is the most entertaining way you could ever learn about it!

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Bark of the Bog Owl

by Jonathan Rogers
2014 / 248 pages 

Our hero, Aidan Errolson, is a medium-sized twelve-year-old with dreams that are far bigger. When we join his story he’s just putting the finishing touches on a letter: 

My Dearest King – 

You will be glad to learn that I am still available for any quest, adventure, or dangerous mission for which you might need a champion or knight-errant. I specialize in dragon-slaying but would be happy to fight pirates or invading barbarians if circumstances require. I would even be willing to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned by evil relatives. That would not be my first choice, since I am not of marrying age. Still, in peaceful and prosperous times like these, an adventurer takes whatever work he can find… 

For Aidan, it’s all that peace and prosperity that’s the problem. While his father was a great warrior, and his grandparents carved out a settlement on Cornwald’s wild eastern frontier, Aiden’s only excitement comes from the imagined foes he fights in defense of the flock he’s been tasked to tend. 

However, things quickly take a turn. 

First, Aidan hears the bark of the Bog Owl, a creature that has never been seen. Then the Bog Owl turns out to be one of the feechiefolk, who are no less the stuff of campfire stories, akin to impish elves, or fierce boogeyman, and like them both, entirely made-up. But this feechie boy is anything but… and he wants to wrestle. 

Second, Bayard the Truthspeaker makes an unannounced stop at the Errolson farm to see, so he says, the “Wilderking of Corenwald.” And Bayard declares that it is none other than little brother Aidan. That’s quite the surprise, and quite awkward too, because Corenwald already has a king, and the Errolson family are his most loyal supporters. 

Now, if you’re a bit quicker than me, this last bit might be ringing some bells, reminding you of Samuel’s visit to the house of Jesse (1 Sam. 16). This is where my middlest caught on, but I needed several more chapters. I finally figured it out when Aidan fights a giant. With a sling. And five stones.

In my defense, this is only very loosely based on David – Aidan has to deal not only with a giant, but cannons too, and there’s no feechie folk in the original either. That it is inspired by, but does not pretend to be, the story of David is part of what makes this so intriguing. While there’ll be no confusing the two tales, Rogers’ account will have you reflecting on what a tough position David was in, the king not yet crowned, loyal to, and yet chosen to replace, the failed king. 

Requirements 

I usually list any possible cautions for the book being reviewed, but there are none for Bark so I’ll list one requirement instead: this absolutely needs to be read aloud. The feechie folk dialogue, as it is paced and misspelled, will have you speaking with the most delightful accent, without even trying. Jonathan Rogers makes it easy for a dad to sound good. 

Conclusion

I really can’t praise this one enough. I started reading it on on my own, and had to stop midway and start again with my girls because this was simply too good not to share. The Bark of the Bog Owl has been compared to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not so much for story similarities, but because both are clearly Christian and utterly fantastic fantasy. Bark of the Bog Owl is a book that, if you do read it to your children, you can be sure that one day your grandkids will hear their own parents reading it to them too. 

The two sequels – The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking – complete the story. This is really one epic tale split into three parts, so be sure to buy the set. You can preview the first 2 chapters here. And for a second opinion, read Hannah Abrahmason’s take at Reformed Reader.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Feature author: Jan Brett

What sets Jan Brett (1949- ) apart as a picture book illustrator is how much she packs into every page. There’s always lots going on right there in the middle of her double-page pictures, and then there's even more to see toward the edges – Brett’s trademark is to use the side and bottom borders to give hints to the attentive child of what might be coming next. So, for example, in The Mitten, the small picture on the right-hand border of every two-page spread gives us our first glimpse of the next animal to try to squeeze into the already crowded mitten.

What sets Brett apart as an author is the creative twists she brings to otherwise familiar fairytales. Goldilocks, the Gingerbread Man, Cinderella, and the Big Bad Wolf are all taken to new settings, with the most unusual reimagining being Cinderella as told with chickens.

RECOMMENDED

All of her books are 32 pages, and all are aimed at the pre-school to Grade 2 age group (though older children will certainly enjoy revisiting them for years to come). But which Brett should you begin with? And which would make ideal gifts for the kids or grandkids, or purchases for the school library? With more than 40 books so far, there’s certainly lots to enjoy. What follows are my recommendations grouped by theme. 

TWO SETS OF MITTENS

I couldn’t track down which is Brett’s most popular book, but in that’s she’s written three sequels to it, I’d think Brett’s favorite has to be The Mitten.

The Mitten: a Ukrainian folktale (1989) After his grandmother knits him some snow-white mittens, Nicki loses one in the forest. But one boy’s loss is a mole’s gain, who finds it just the perfect size to crawl into and stay cozy and warm. A passing rabbit has the same thought, and, despite there really being no room, joins the mole, only to have a hedgehog, owl, and more squeeze in. The charming story has a fun twist at the end when Nicki recovers his lost mitten

The Hat (1997) Hedgie gets a woolen sock stuck to her head, and the other animals use the rest of the drying laundry to fashion their own hats. 

The Umbrella (2002) This retelling of The Mitten takes place in the jungle and begins with a little frog trying to find refuge in a little boy’s lost umbrella. But it isn’t too long before he has a lot of very close neighbors. 

Cozy (2020) An Alaskan Muskox named Cozy becomes a refuge for cold animals seeking shelter. It starts with some lemmings, then a snowshoe rabbit, and so on. The attentive young reader will notice that this is another retelling of The Mitten but with its own creative twists. 

HEDGIE’S BOOKS

Hedgie the hedgehog makes frequent appearances in Brett’s books, showing up in at least twenty of them. Most often it’s somewhere in the background (he’s carved into a bedpost in Goldilocks and the Three Bears) but in The Hat above, and in the books below, he has a bigger role.

Trouble with Trolls (1994) A little girl, Treva, has to contend with some troublesome trolls who really want her pet dog for their own. Though she outsmarts them in the end, children might feel a little sorry for the trolls, who just wanted a pet. But the observant child will notice that, though they don’t deserve it, by story’s end, the trolls do end up with a wonderful pet. Guess who it is!

Hedgie’s Surprise (2002) Hedgie helps a hen stop a thieving Tomten (a Danish gremlin) from taking her eggs so that she can have a family. The borders are done as needlepoint for added charm.

The Snowy Nap (2018) Hedgie puts off hibernation long enough to see the farm in wintertime. 

FAIRYTALES WELL (RE)TOLD 

There is a reason the same fairytales we heard as kids are still being told – they are classics for a reason. But Brett’s taken on the challenge of improving on them, and in these four her success is obvious. The first three here are all versions of Goldilocks and there’s something to love about each one.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1987) What sets this faithful retelling apart is the detailed, gorgeous pictures - there is so much to see! And the author also explains (which few other versions do) how the Papa and Mama bears could tell Goldilocks had been on their chairs and beds.

The Three Snow Bears (2007) An Inuit girl, Aloo-ki, ends up at the igloo house of a family of polar bears. She’s less destructive than in the original, and the bears are more forgiving. The arctic landscape brings added charm.

The Mermaid (2017) This time Goldilocks is a mermaid visiting the home of the three octopuses. The ending is a little happier than it usually is – the little one gets a gift from “Goldilocks.”

Beauty and the Beast (1989) To save her father, a girl agrees to live with a beast and his animal servants. That’s always made this my least favorite fairytale – what sort of loving father would let his daughter sacrifice herself for him? But while Brett’s version still includes this troublesome opening, the artwork makes it special. An observant child will notice the paintings shown on the castle hallway walls reveal what the animal servants used to look like back when they were human.

Town Mouse · Country Mouse (1994) When a pair of country mice switch places with two city mice, they both learn that there’s no place like home. An added element to this version: a city cat and a country owl both intent on getting dinner.

Gingerbread baby (1997) While the title character is full of sass, this is a kinder, gentler twist on the classic Gingerbread Man tale.

The 3 little Dassies (2010) Brett has taken The Three Little Pigs to Africa, swapping in dassies (gopher-like creatures) as the architects, and an eagle as the windbag. It’s a little scarier than its source material because the eagle actually catches the first two dassies, But never fear – in the picture borders we can watch as they are rescued by a friendly lizard even as the eagle makes his unsuccessful attempt at Dassie #3.

THE REST OF THE BEST

Among this potpourri are original stories from Jan Brett, as well as folktales from other countries.

Annie and the Wild animals (1985) When a little girl’s pet cat goes missing, she tries to find a new pet from among the wild animals in the forest. What she discovers is that none of them are a good fit. Fortunately, her cat comes back...and she brings some surprises with her.

Fritz and the beautiful horses (1987) A scruffy pony wishes that someone would ride him but all anyone does is laugh at how he looks. But when the town’s bridge breaks, the sure-footed Fritz is able to do something the beautiful horses won’t – he can bring the town’s children through the river back to their parents. Hurray for Fritz!

Berlioz the Bear (1991) A bear and his band of musicians are stuck on their way to the gala – their donkey won’t budge. Can the rooster, cat, goat, or ox get him to move? No, but children will enjoy seeing how something much smaller can change the stubborn beast’s mind!

Daisy comes home (2002) Set in China, this is the tale of a quiet meek chicken who gets picked on by other chickens. But on an unexpected journey, she has to fight a monkey, a dog, and more, and her courage helps her stand up to the chicken bullies when she gets back home. 

Honey.. honey... Lion! (2005) The honeyguide bird and honey badger normally work together, with the little bird showing the badger where to find honey, and the badger breaking things open so they can both feast. But one day, when honey badger decides not to share, honeyguide knows exactly how to teach him a lesson.

The Turnip (2015) Based on an old Russian folktale, the badger family can’t pull their giant turnip out of the ground, no matter how much help they get. But when a rooster tries it on his own, and, unnoticed to all, he gets some help from below - bears pushing the turnip up out of their den – the turnip finally comes out.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

Armadillo Rodeo A near-sighted armadillo befriends a pair of red cowboy boots and follows wherever their owner takes them. It’s fine, but just not as interesting as Brett’s best. 

Hedgie Blasts Off Hedgie goes to space to unplug a planet that shoots sparkles, much to the alien tourists’ delight. There’s nothing all that wrong with it (aside maybe from the aliens, because aliens don’t actually exist… but, of course, talking animals don’t either). However, its simpler format (no border pictures) and science fiction elements make it different and just not as enjoyable as Brett’s usual fare.

Gingerbread Friends In this sequel to Gingerbread Baby, the baby goes on a journey in search of friends only to find out that other baked goods can’t talk or dance. But when he returns home to find that his friend has baked him a whole bunch of gingerbread friends. Kids will probably appreciate this sequel, but parents will find it less creative than the first.

Mossy A unique turtle – she has a mossy garden growing on her back – is put on display in a museum. But Mossy pines to be back with the new friend (and budding romantic partner?) Scooty. To help the lonely turtle, the museum director releases her back into the wild. This is a gorgeous book, but its message about creature care is in line with environmentalism’s general “hands off” approach which stands in opposition to the “hands on” role God has assigned us as stewards. While this will go over kids’ heads I’m noting it because Brett is pointedly preaching here – there is a message to this book – and she’s directing that point to young impressionable readers. While I’d have no problem reading this with my children, it is one I would want to read with them. I’d tell them that, yes, it is important to address Mossy’s loneliness, but returning her to Nature wasn’t the only option – Scooty could also have been brought indoors.

Cinders, a chicken Cinderella This is both a bizarre but enjoyable take on Cinderella, with chickens playing the principal parts. The only downside to this book is from a school library perspective: it has a double-page foldout in the middle, that’ll quickly get crumpled up.

The Tale of the Tiger Slippers Tiger tries to throw out his old raggedy shoes that served him well as he worked his way to wealth, but no matter what he tries, they end up coming back. The story doesn’t have the usual Jan Brett spark, and because the tigers are dressed as people their clothing doesn’t allow Brett’s art to capture the real beauty of these animals.

DON’T BOTHER

Of the twelve books listed below, 8 have Christmas in the title, one is about Easter, and the other about Noah’s Ark. The problem here is not so much with anything in the individual titles but in what’s missing from all of them: God. His complete absence is so conspicuous it’s even noticeable to unbelievers – Publisher’s Weekly, in their review of On Noah’s Ark, noted how Brett:

"omits the biblical framework…. There's no mention of God or his relationship to Noah, nor any reason given for the Flood.”

If you read one of her Christmas books God’s absence won’t be as conspicuous since many a Christmas story skips over the real reason for the season, so that she does to doesn’t seem so glaring. But when an author writes eight books about Christmas and Christ never comes up, we have to wonder, what’s going on? In The Twelve Days of Christmas, Brett follows the song with “A Brief History” of the Twelve Days. She writes that:

“The Twelve Days of Christmas are the days linking Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6, when the three Magi offered the first Christmas presents – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Gifts to Who? The Magi get a nod, but Jesus is still ignored? Individually, Brett’s Christmas books are simply fluffy fun, but collectively they are a studious avoidance of any mention of the God who became Man. So, why bother with them?
  • Christmas Trolls – Young girl teaches trolls that Christmas is about generosity.
  • The Easter Egg – An Easter Rabbit becomes the focus of the season.
  • On Noah’s ark - The boat itself is far smaller than the Bible describes and, contrary to Scripture, it says the mountaintops were not covered.
  • The Wild Christmas Reindeer – Elf learns that reindeer respond better to kindness than bullying.
  • Gingerbread Christmas - The Gingerbread baby and his band celebrate Christmas… with no mention of Christ.
  • The night before Christmas - The classic poem, with Jan Brett’s art.
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas - Brett notes that though the song is “named for this religious holiday” it “is actually quite pagan in tone.”
  • The Animal’s Santa – A rabbit discovers that Santa is “truly, truly true.” Sigh.
  • Home for Christmas - A young troll eventually learns there is no place like home. The Christmas in the title has no relevance in the story.
  • Who’s that knocking on Christmas Eve? – A boy and his giant ice bear scare trolls away from a Christmas feast.
Two others also worth giving a miss:
  • Comet’s nine lives - On an island where dogs are people, but cats are just cats, we follow along as a cat (rather gently) dies eight times.
  • The first dog – A cave boy turns a helpful wolf into his pet and names him “dog.” There’s a touch of evolution here in her presumption that this occurred 12,000-55,000 years ago.

CONCLUSION

If your kids are into picture books, then they’ll love Jan Brett – it’s as simple as that. Her detailed full-page illustrations are genius, wonderfully capturing the beauty of the many different animals she’s featured. There’s no one better.

You can watch below as Jan Brett reads her book "The Mitten."

Monday, June 21, 2021

Devoured by Cannabis

Weed, liberty, and legalization
by Douglas Wilson
2020 / 99 pages

Why shouldn’t Christians smoke marijuana? The go-to answer to that question used to be: because it is illegal. But with its legalization in Canada and many US states, that argument is increasingly irrelevant.

But are there any other reasons not to inhale? In this slim volume, Douglas Wilson says yes, arguing that it is a sin, and despite what’s happening in jurisdictions all over, it is the sort of sin that should also be a crime.

Intoxication is out

So why is it a sin? Wilson points to God’s prohibition against intoxication. While alcohol can also cause intoxication, he notes the Bible also spells out five legitimate uses including:
  • sacramental
  • medicinal
  • aesthetic
  • quenching thirst
  • a celebratory, gladdening the heart, function.
It is this last one that is sometimes pointed to as a legitimate usage for marijuana, but in answer to that argument, Wilson notes that God’s condemnation of drunkenness and His call for self-control puts constraints on what sort of celebrations we should have. “True celebration is discipline, accompanied by hard work, training, and fruition of joy” while the use of marijuana “is a celebratory slide downward…”

His point is that alcohol goes well with a been-cooking-all-day-holiday-feast, with one wine pairing “well with the beef, and another chosen because it complements the pasta.” Meanwhile, “marijuana goes well with Oreos and mustard.” The one can be a part of a God-glorifying family gathering, the other simply a lead-in to letting loose. Thus “the only possible lawful use for marijuana is the medicinal, [but] the use to which everyone puts marijuana is the one that is denied to alcohol,” i.e. intoxication.

Should it be a crime?

Wilson also makes the argument that marijuana usage is not simply a sin, but a crime, and notes that’s a departure from the more hands-off stance he once leaned toward. Why the change? While acknowledging not all sins should be crimes – we wouldn’t want the government trying to police the 10th commandment – Wilson notes that in a finger-in-every-pot State such that we have, whatever isn’t criminalized is all too often then encouraged and tax-subsidized. And it isn’t hard to see how that would happen with marijuana usage. Our welfare state will have the government picking up the pieces, doling out tax dollars. That might be money for medical treatments dealing with increased cases of psychosis. Or it might be increased unemployment and welfare payouts that will be needed for the addicted.

Another cost will come to employers. The way legalization has proceeded, it as if it’s been some sort of neutral act, granting the pot-user a freedom at no cost to anyone else. If that were so, Wilson notes, then:

“…the liberty to smoke pot and the liberty to fire a pothead should be the same liberty. Otherwise, we are granting liberty to the privilege and no liberty at all to the responsibility.…[But] the way the push for legal pot is happening now, the pressure is on us to increase the liberty of the irresponsible while simultaneously decreasing the liberty of the responsible ones.”

Government will be stuck with the cost, as will employers, who will not be allowed to fire someone for using what will now be a perfectly legal substance.

Wilson is not arguing so much that marijuana must always and in all circumstances be criminalized, but more that presented with a choice of the State either criminalizing usage or encouraging it, then we should choose the former. But are those really the only realistic options? Can’t the State take a neutral stance, neither against, but also not for? Well, that latest bit of evidence on that front is Washington State’s “Joint for Jabs” where the government is using the promise of a free joint to promote Covid vaccination. It really does seem that if they aren’t against it, then they will be pushing it.

So what then is to be done? Wilson is writing for the US, where some states have legalized it and others have not, and there he’s hoping it might still be possible, if not to maintain an outright “red,” to at least run with a “yellow” rather than a “green.” Where it is completely legal, like Canada, the hope would be that at least the Church can recognize what should be – that it is a sin, even if it isn’t a crime. Unconfused on that point, God’s people can minimize our own addictions, and, to help others, make a push for restrictions, particularly for teenage and young adult usage.

Sinners need their Savior

The book concludes with a Gospel appeal, in which Wilson reminds us that it is only when our country turns back to God that we will be able to turn away from such addictions. But he is quick to point out that while our addictions should have our country desperate for God, we don’t turn to Christ simply to right ourselves or our country.

“If we treat Christ as the means to an end (freedom from drugs, say), then we are not coming to Him as Christ. He is a Savior, not a self-help specialist. We come to the Giver for who He is and not for the gifts that He might give. At the same time, He is the Giver of gifts (Eph. 4:8).”

Our culture doesn’t just need to be freed from addiction – a sober pagan is still going to hell. What the Church can direct people to is not simply freedom from drugs, but freedom in Christ. In Him, we are free to enjoy our God and Maker, and we are free to live to His glory. That will also be a freedom from addiction, but that is the fruit that comes from turning to God. What Wilson is reminding us of here is the need to point others to the Tree of Life, and not simply its fruit.

Conclusion

The value of Wilson’s book is, first and foremost, the section on whether marijuana usage should be a sin. The clarity on offer here could be a great help for our teens and young adults when (not if) they are pressured into trying it. For parents who think that won’t happen, just remember back to the parties you either attended or heard about where all the attendees were church-goers, but where underage drinking was prevalent nonetheless. So let’s not be naive about whether our children are going to be offered marijuana at their own parties today. Dad, mom, Wilson’s book is a quick, insightful discussion that would make for a great read for you to tackle along with your teen – it’s a tool here for you to use.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Passion and Purity


 Learning to Bring Your Love Life  Under Christ's Control

by Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)
191 pages / originally published 1984

We have reviewed Elisabeth Elliot's books before in this blog. Hers was indeed a life consciously dedicated to God in Christ - including her "love life." That's what makes this book so helpful, as Elliot examines what it means to live as the bride of Christ, even while seeking a man or woman to live your life with in marriage in the Lord.

Elliot's book is a fairly easy read, because, like a good novel, her true-life story is an example of how to "Bring Your Love Life Under Christ's Control," rather than a textbook. She takes us through her budding romance with Jim Elliot, showing us what made him admirable to her in his Christian commitment and maturity (something that makes this book also suitable for guys to read). As well, she shows the difficulties inherent in waiting for God to make his will for their relationship, as Jim goes through his training to become a missionary with the commitment that he will not proceed further in his relationship with Elisabeth until he knows where and when he is serving as a missionary and how she will fit into that work.

In contrast to our culture's attitude to romantic love - the belief that it is just one more way to bring us ultimate fulfilment - Elliot insists that we must yield ourselves to Christ before and above anyone or anything else. She calls our culture's obsession with either romantic love or single self-fulfilment "The Serpent's Reasoning" - the promise of the snake to Adam and Eve in Eden.

Instead of seeking our fulfilment in either ourselves or others, we need to seek God, and Elliot reminds us of what she needed to remind herself in her relationship with God:

  • God is with us in our struggles with sexual temptation;
  • sometimes we may simply have to wait for God to make His will clear, and that waiting makes the final result sweeter;
  • God's will for us may be life as a single person;
  • suffering frustration by waiting to get married at the right time is good for us, because God exalts us by humbling us first; and
  • nothing shall separate us from God's love in Christ (not even frustration in romance).
I have only two cautions:
  • The foreword is written by Joshua Harris, who has also written on this subject, but has since renounced Christ.
  • Elliot states that while submision is God's command for wives, that does not give husbands the right to "demand obedience," for they are to use their authority in a Christlike way. She stresses the sacrificial nature of Christ's love for His bride - true enough - but then extends that description to say that He does not impose His will. It is not her main point, but this version of the idea that God is a gentleman misses the fact that as a Father, He is willing to "impose His will" on His dangerously straying children.

If you want to understand better the struggle between passion and purity, you can purchase Elliot's book here, or here in Canada.