Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Atonement Child

by Francine Rivers
374 pages / 1999

I don’t read “girl books” – if it makes you cry I’m not interested in it. But two friends forced this book on me. Any time I mentioned the “P” word, Pro-life, they would ask me if I’d read The Atonement Child yet. They brought it up repeatedly, and very enthusiastically. Finally I thought I would get it over with and actually read the thing.

Whoa!

This is hard hitting book, a powerful book. It tells the tale of Dynah Carey, a girl who has it all. She comes from a solid Christian family, is dating a sincere young man who’s training to be a pastor, and she’s attending a Christian college.

Then she’s raped, and becomes pregnant.

The rape, thankfully, is never described, and is done with by page 18 of this 374-page book. The real story is about how Dynah and the people close to her react to her pregnancy. The unthinkable choice of abortion becomes more and more of a consideration to Dynah as her pregnancy causes her perfect world to crumble. Dynah ends up questioning her faith and God. Why did God let this happen to her?

Though the logical argument against abortion is dealt with briefly, this is primarily an emotional appeal against abortion. It is also a very effective appeal – I think this book might well make some people pro-life.

The rape makes this an adult book, but parents might want to give it to older teens and discuss the issues involved. It is informative and well written, and I’m just glad I was forced to read it.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here and from Amazon.ca here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Come Back, Barbara

by C. John Miller 
& Barbara Miller Juliani
182 pages / 1997

As with an earlier review, I should let you know that not all of the labels below are completely appropriate. For instance, although you can read this book in an evening or two (and you may well do so), don't stop there. Read it again, a chapter at a time, with the study questions at the end as a guide, and incorporate some of the Bible passages quoted in the questions into your own devotions.

The most important label for this book is "prodigal." It tells the true story of how Barbara, seemingly out of the blue, tells her parents that she is not going to church and doesn't want any part of the Christian life anymore. As her parents look back, they can see signs of her stubbornly self-justifying attitude much earlier, and they spend time trying to see what went wrong – more specifically, what they did wrong.

Of course, such a question is futile, and in seeking to place blame and guilt, especially on their wandering child, the Millers were, as they admit, approaching her with an attitude of shame instead of love. This story continues with her parents' journey, by God's grace, sometimes in very dramatic ways, toward recognizing that any straying child has been sinned against herself, including by her parents.

This movement toward humility, toward the acknowledgement of their own need for God's grace, leads toward other necessary changes – the willingness to seek their daughter's forgiveness, the ability to show unconditional love for an often self-centered child, the willingness to give up control over a child who is daily rejecting her parents' upbringing, and a life of persistent prayer.

That last trait is one that I want to look at more (and I will tell you about it in a review in the next couple months), but a life of prayer is certainly one of the greatest fruit of having a child wander from the truth.

What makes this story especially compelling is the fact that Barbara answers each chapter of her father's story with her perception of what her conflict with her parents looked like from her point of view. Too often, parents of prodigals can not understand what their outreach to their children looks like to them – how easy it is to for any child to see through our confident or indignant exterior to our need for control or our smug sense of superiority. At the same time, her responses also show just how great is the power of humble unconditional love.

If you want to find out more about how God brought Barbara back, you can find this book at Amazon.com here and at Amazon.ca here.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Billy and Blaze series

C.W. Anderson (1891-1971) was an author and an artist who loved horses. He created more than 30 children's books about in all, including an 11-book series about a boy names Billy and his horse Blaze.

It all begins with the horse-loving Billy getting his birthday wish: his very own pony. If your children like horses even a little bit they will love these books, because every second page is filled with another illustration of a horse in action. Anderson's sketches are big, and detailed, and beautiful. I don't know a child who hasn't loved to peer at them closely.

Now, I should note I'm not recommending Anderson because of his writing. His stories are very simple, they have next to no tension, and the writing is decidedly average.

But your kids are sure to love the pictures. My oldest daughter loved these books long before she ever knew how to read them, pouring over the pictures again and again.

Billy and Blaze heading out on an adventure.
There are a 11 Billy and Blaze books in all, and that bumps up the value of Anderson's books. What parent, when they find a book their child loves, doesn't wish there were many more in the series? And that's exactly what we have here!

The 11 books are:

Billy and Blaze (1936)
Blaze and the Gypsies (1937)
Blaze and the Forest Fire (1938)
Blaze Finds the Trail (1950)
Blaze and Thunderbolt (1955)
Blaze and the Mountain Lion (1959)
Blaze and the Indian Cave (1964)
Blaze and the Lost Quarry (1966)
Blaze and the Gray Spotted Pony (1968)
Blaze Shows the Way (1969)
Blaze Finds Forgotten Roads (1970)

Each is about 40 to 50 pages long, making it a pretty ideal bedtime story for my 4 and 6-year-old. We've enjoyed each one of these (although we've never read Blaze and the Indian Cave because that's the only one our local library doesn't have).

So, to repeat, these are not great literature, but they are wonderful as picture books. The only downside I can think to this series is that it is likely to feed the "pony-fever" of any horse-loving boy or girl you might have in your house. But...oh well.

If you want to buy any of these books, you can find a link to the 8-book pack at Amazon.com by clicking here. They don't seem to have a package deal in Canada, so here's a link to the first book, Billy and Blaze at Amazon.ca.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Disappearing Jewel of Madagascar

by Sigmund Brouwer
140 pages / 2002

This is a great book.

It has a great beginning with the “star” of the book, 12-year-old Ricky Kidd, getting the sort of haircut you would expect from a barber that can’t stop sneezing. And it has a great ending when Ricky’s friends are involved in a memorable worm-eating escapade.

In between the reader is introduced to the cast of characters: Lisa, a girl who can play sports with the best of the boys, even if the boys don’t want to admit that; Mike, the impish rascal who pulls gentle pranks on everyone; Ralphy, the computer genius who owns his very own iMac; and Joel, Ricky’s six-year-old brother, who seems to be able to disappear and appear at will.

As the title suggests a jewel plays a central role in this book. The Jewel of Madagascar is an impressive rock with a very strange curse placed on it: whoever touches it will have his friends turn into strangers, and have strangers turn into friends. As a Christian kid Ricky doesn’t think much of curses…until all his friends start avoiding him. Could the curse be real?

Well, no. But I’m not going to ruin the story by telling you anything more.

I liked the story in this book, and also liked the underlying Christian flavor. The author communicates a Christian message without beating his readers over the head with it. In fact there is only one page of explicitly Christian content in this book. When Ricky’s friends start avoiding him he gets a little depressed and worried. His dad notices and spends a few paragraphs talking to Ricky about how we don’t need to worry because we can always trust in God.

The only objection I can raise has nothing to do with this particular book. In another book, The Volcano of Doom, which is a part of the same “Accidental Detectives” series, a few paragraphs are included on how the Bible is not a “science manual” and how the Genesis creation account tells us why the universe was created, not how it was done. It is a not-all-that-subtle shot at Six-Day Creationism, though kids will likely miss it. Still, parents may want to avoid that book.

I do, however, highly recommend The Disappearing Jewels of Madagascar for anyone who has kids in the Grade 3 to Grade 7 range.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com by clicking here and Amazon.ca here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Dark Dark Tale

by Ruth Brown
32 pages / 1981

Three of our school's librarians were busy at work when I popped my head in. I was looking for something that would stretch my girls, just a bit, and asked them for their recommendation: "Do you have a good scary book I could borrow?"

Now, that's not a question I would have asked quite that way at our local library. I might have ended up with a book about vampires, or demons, or werewolves, or vampire demon werewolves.

But here at our Christian school, what I ended up with was a book about a cat....with a surprise ending.

I was looking for a scary book because my daughters need to learn how to deal with a little tension in their reading. Fancy Nancy can be fine, but in her world everyone is quite nice, and the problems they face are quite trivial. In real adventure stories there are dragons to be slain, Nazis to be fought, and dangerous journeys to embark on. I want to start on some of those sorts of books, but before I do, I need to get my girls used to a little more drama in their bedtimes stories.

So that's a long way of introducing a very short story. There are just 119 words in this 32-page book, and I'm already past that in this review. And I haven't even told you about the book!

Since this is for children, I'm not going to feel bad about letting you parents know what it's all about, including the end. It all begins in a "dark, dark moor" and moves on to a "dark, dark wood" and a "dark, dark house" and etc. and etc., until we are finally in an upper room of the house, peering in a "dark, dark corner"of a "dark, dark cupboard" where "there was....A MOUSE!"

I had a cold when I read this, so my voice was particularly gravelly, which only added to the reading. Ruth Brown's pictures are moody and somber, and the "dark, dark" repetition sets up the unexpected joke ending, with the mouse all tucked in his bed in the corner of the cupboard - we were expecting some kind of scary monster, but instead end up with a cute mouse. That makes this the perfect balance of scary and yet not too scary.

(For a second reading, you can ask your children to spot the cat, which is on all but two of the page spreads).

Since this so very short, it is an ideal one to borrow rather than buy. It is also popular enough that your local library is sure to have it. However, if you do want to purchase it, you can get it from Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Operation Chowhound

by Stephen Dando-Collins
248 pages / 2015

This read was really good enough for me to recommend it to my brother, my high school English classes, and my father. Of course, it helps that Stephen Dando-Collins has caught some of our World War II heritage shortly before my grandparents, their families, and many of their countrymen emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada.

Dando-Collins' account starts with the marriage in the 1930s of a German member of the Nazi party to Princess Wilhemina of the Netherlands. While this book is not written from a Christian perspective, God's providence is clear in the way He used this unusual ally of a conquered country. Despite his dubious German past, Prince Bernhard turned out to be a faithful friend of his new homeland as it goes through the notorious Hunger Winter brought on by wartime shortages, the cruelty of the German occupiers, and the initial failure of the Allies to liberate the Netherlands in 1944.

Despite Hitler's orders to basically leave the Netherlands underwater, Prince Bernhard negotiated a makeshift truce with the Nazis directly in charge of the occupation of the country to allow bombers from the United States and Britain to drop food for the beleaguered Dutch. To find out just how successful those "bombing" missions were; the risks the bomber crews ran (as some were fired on!); and the part in the saga of such soon-to-be famous people as Ian Fleming, Farley Mowat, and Audrey Hepburn - you will need to read Stephen Dando-Collins' fascinating account yourself.

If you want to learn some of the crucial details of the end of WWII in occupied Holland, you can get Operation Chowhound at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Others on the Dutch perspective of WWII


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The life of John Calvin

A modern translation of the classic
by Theodore Beza
144 pages / 1997

This biography has two strengths.

First, it is short. Because it was originally written as an introduction to Calvin’s last published work, his Commentary on Joshua, it weighs in at only 144 pages. That could also be considered a weakness – the small size means it doesn’t have the detail or scope of most other Calvin biographies – but the slim size makes it more inviting than its 400-to-500-page rivals. This is a biography that can be read in a few days, rather than a few weeks.

Second, this is an eyewitness account. Theodore Beza was a friend and disciple of Calvin and wrote his account as a tribute. That too could be considered a weakness; Beza’s admiration of Calvin made him incapable of seeing, or at least incapable of recording, any of his mentor’s faults. But this same admiration made Beza the best chronicler of Calvin’s gifts, the God-given talents that made the man a giant of the Reformation.

The Life of John Calvin is available in a number of different editions but, because the original is over 400 years old, some translations are dated and simply dreadful. Fortunately Evangelical Press (aka EP books) have done “a modern translation of the classic” that can be found on Amazon.com here and at Amazon.ca here.

We've reviewed a handful of other very good John Calvin biographies, and you can find those reviews here.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Revolt: A Novel in Wycliffe's England

by Douglas Bond
269 pages /  2016

I was never a fan of Church history in school, but I've come to realize that this was really the textbook's fault. It was a series of dry and weary titles, with lots of dates and facts, but no story to them. So I owe a debt of thanks to Douglas Bond for reviving my interest in what is really a most important topic, and he has done so by telling great stories.

Sometimes, as he has in this novel, that story-telling involves weaving in fiction among the facts, so I can just imagine someone saying, "But then you're not really learning Church history, are you? Not if lots of it is made up!" Ah yes, but I know more Church history than I once did, and it was painless!

And what's more, Bond's fictionalized biographies – he's tackled Calvin, Knox, C.S. Lewis, and now Wycliffe – left me wanting to know more about these men. So after read a Bond book I've followed it up with reading non-fiction books about or by all of them. My old Church history textbook never inspired me to do that!

In The Revolt Bond tackles an early Reformer, John Wycliffe, who lived and died more than 100 years before Martin Luther nailed up his 95 theses. Like Luther, Wycliffe was a man very much on his own – he had followers, but not really colleagues. He was the trailblazer who decided that, contrary to what the Pope and Church has pronounced, the common people needed to hear the Bible in their own tongue. One thing he had going for himself is that he lived in a time when there was two popes at the same time, which made it easier to question the need for submission to the pope.

Wycliffe doesn't actually show up until page 62, so this is more a book about the England of his time than about him. The story begins with a young scholar on the battlefields of France, where the English army is surround by a much larger French force. The scholar has been assigned the task of recording the events, so while everyone else has a bow, or a battle axe, or something with some sort of sharp steel end, he is armed only with his quill. It's a great beginning, and from then on we follow along with this scholar who serves as the story's narrator. Through him we meet peasants, other scholars, and finally Wycliffe himself.

The Revolt is a novel most any adult would find an easy and enjoyable read. I'm not sure, though, that this would be a good book for a teenager who is only a casual reader. It is a very good story, but it's not the non-stop "thrill ride" that so many Young Adult books try to be these days. To put it another way, this is far from a heavy read, but it's also not a light read either.

However, for anyone with any interest in Church history, this is an ideal way to learn more. I sure hope Douglas Bond keeps on coming up with these great fictionalized "biographies"!

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here and Amazon.ca here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

5 more comics that are good, but not "really good"

The name of this blog is "really good reads" and that is, with the occasional exception, what we aim to share. But this is one of the exceptions.

Graphic novels have become a very popular genre in the last very years, and for good reason. At their very best, they are the combination of two art forms: writing and drawing. And, like pictures books, they can sometimes get even the most reluctant reader interested in books.

But great comics are still in scarce supply, and horrible ones are everywhere. So if your teen is devouring one graphic novels after another, we recommend a lot of great ones on the blog. And if they tear through those, well here are some quite good, if not necessarily great, graphic novels that you can steer them to next.

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean
by Sara Steward Taylor and Ben Towle
78 pages / 2010

Amelia Earhart was an American who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She is known best for this feat, as well as her mysterious disappearance during an attempt to fly around the globe.

This biography is a small slice of Earhart's life, taking place primarily in the small Newfoundland town of Trepassey in the week before Earhart's 1928 Trans-Atlantic voyage. We get to see the preparations through the eyes of young girl, Grace, who is the towns self-appointed journalist.

It is a beautifully illustrated story, done, in black, white and blue – it isn't full color, but a reader may not even notice. The story is also engaging. And while their is a undercurrent of feminism throughout the book, it is a not the strident sort of today. This is the kind that said, "Women are people too." Or, "Women are capable too." In other words, it is a reasonable sort, the kind that Christians can get behind too.

That's not to say that Amelia Earhart's feminism was the Christian sort. She was by some accounts a very liberal women - she got married by neither promised to be, nor required her husband to be, faithful. But that doesn't come up in this graphic novel – this is the G-rated version of events.

But while feminism isn't a problem here, there is one notable issue that gets glossed over, and parents need to point it out. Amelia Earhart is famous for doing things that had already gotten others killed. And she herself died while attempting another one of these feats. In this book she is held up as a hero, but is it heroic to risk your life doing something that is both incredibly dangerous, and not necessary?

This is a question worth asking, particularly among the young people who would be most interested. God gave us our lives, and He tells us to make the most of them. That's why our lives are not to be valued lightly, or endangered needlessly.

The only other caution? I'll mention that there is one instance in which God's name is used, but I think it is appropriately. When a sailor goes missing, a woman says, "God save 'im."

Earhart remains famous to this day, and this beautiful and engaging comic is a wonderful way to learn a little about her. The only reason I rate this is just good, and not great, is because of the way Earhart is presented as a hero to admire. She was admirable in some ways, but in what she was best known for – the reckless endangerment of her life – she most certainly was not.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Cast Away on the Letter A
by Frédéric Othon Aristidès
48 pages / 2013

When you look at a world map, and then focus in on the waters between Europe and the Americas you'll find the words "Atlantic Ocean" there somewhere in big and bold letters. What if those weren't just letters? What if, in some crazy mixed up alternate but parallel Earth, those were actually letter-shaped islands in the middle of the ocean?

That there is the premise of this little story. Philemon, a French farm boy, falls into a well, and the currents in the well sweep him past fish and sharks and , and eventually deposit him on the sandy shores of the first letter A in the "Atlantic."

That is a crazy beginning, and as you might imagine, this is a crazy island, with two suns, and exploding clocks that grow out of the ground, and a centaur butler. Philemon eventually finds another human on the island, Bartholomew the well digger, who fell through a well he was digging and end up stranded on the island, looking for a way back for the last 40 years.

This is surreal, crazy, Alice-in-Wonderland, type of fun. And as you might expect from a story that takes place on the A in Atlantic, there are lots of surreal jokes throughout, like full-size ship in a bottle sailing through these waters.

The only caution is a minor one - a few characters express anger using made up curse symbols like these: "#@?!!" Philemon's father, who is only a minor character is this first story, is an ill-tempered sort, and makes use of these symbols a few times.

Two more of Philemon's tales, The Wild Piano, and The Suspended Castle, have also been translated from the original French. They are even stranger, and the stories take seemingly random turns – they border on being nonsense. I like a little absurdity every now and again, and so quite enjoyed the first, but the next two were simply too weird for me.

I'd recommend Cast Away on the Letter A to boys from 9 to 12.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Ogres Awake!
by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost
2016 / 34 pages

Jame Sturm has written a book, Adventures in Cartooning, in which an elf teaches a knight about cartooning as they set out to rescue a princess. It's a fun book, but marred by the occasional golly and I think, one geez.

This is a sequel of sorts, but without those verbal miscues. The knight returns, however much of the cartooning focus is set aside (though the first two pages, and the last two pages of the book do show kids how to draw some of the characters).

In this outing the brave knight discovers giant ogres asleep outside the castle. When he alerts the king, he urges everyone to ready themselves for battle. But instead of battle, they are intent on making something in the kitchen instead. A potion perhaps? Nope [SPOILER ALERT] they are making soup, to put the low-blood sugar ogres in quite a bit better mood after they partake.

It's a fun silly funny adventure and kids will really like it. The only downside is the short size - just 34 pages.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Jim Curious: A voyage of the heart 
by Matthias Picard
2014 / 52 pages

This is a very, very fun book. Our hero, Jim Curious, emerges from his house equipped in a deep sea diving suit, and as he slides into the sea, the pictures transform – now everything is 3D! This is a large format book, more than a foot tall, and the author makes full use of the giant pages to give us so much to see and explore.

It is also a wordless book, with the story comprised of Jim Curious exploring, and us just marveling at all there is to see. He passes by a sunken pirate ship, World War II fighter, and grocery cart, then floats right up to a giant whale, and, finally, discovers the ruins of an underwater city. Here the adventure takes a surreal twist as Jim finds a door in the bottom of the sea. As he opens it, where does it lead but back to his own house – somehow this is his own front door! But this time, when he walks through and emerges once again from his little house, things have gone all topsy turvy. The air is now where the sea had previously been, and sea is where the air had been – whales and fish and octopi are swimming past the windows of his house! It is a funny ending to this gorgeous visual feast.

The only downside to the book is that it does require 3D glasses (two pairs are provided) and also has one double foldout section, where the pages fold out from the middle. Jim Curious is clearly intended for young readers but the glasses and the double foldout are just not the sort of thing young children will do well with: the foldouts are going to get torn or crumpled and the glasses will be broken or lost. That means that, despite the book being wordless, it still needs to be read with mom or dad present.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

The Wright Brothers: A Graphic Novel
by Lewis Helfand
illustrated by Sankha Banerjee
2011 / 72 pages

While the artwork is just okay the two subjects are absolutely fascinating. Orville and Wilbur Wright – the first to develop powered flight – were inventive right from their childhood. Of course, childhood inventions aren't always so successful: one notable failure we get to see is the Wrights' attempt to make their own chewing gum out of tar and sugar.

The first twenty pages are devoted to the Wrights' early years, before they did any flight experimentation. Orville, while he was still just a teen, started off with a toy printing press and grew his business until eventually the Wrights were running their own newspaper and printing company. The printshop's success allowed the brothers to pursue other interests, and the next thing they tackled was bicycles. Back then bikes had a big wheel in front, and the modern version, with two wheels of the same size, had only just been invented. This new type, called a safety bike (because it was so much easier to get on) caught the Wrights' attention, and before long they had opened a shop and started building and selling their own.

While this is a Wright biography, it is also a history of powered flight experimentation, making it all the more interesting. There sure were a lot a failures (some fatal!) before the Wrights finally showed the way.

Now I haven't even gotten into the most interesting part, the actual flight experiments. But rather than share every bit of the story, I think I'll conclude with the only caution I can come up with. It concerns how the Wrights weren't so wild about school - Orville skipped a whole month at one point - and their parents didn't mind. That might not be the best example for the young readers who will be looking this over.

That one caution aside, this would be a fun one for Grade 3 and up.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die

by John Piper
127 pages / 2006

First of all, two notes about the tags at the bottom of the review, and one challenge:
  1. Yes, you can definitely read this book "in an evening or two," but please don't. Instead, Piper's book would be ideal for reading or sharing with others, perhaps in the weeks leading up to Easter, every year or two – one two-page chapter per day. Each of the fifty reasons is an occasion to deepen our gratitude to God, who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
  2. Second, although I have included the tag for "apologetics," this is not a book for debating with non-Christians; however, it is an excellent way to become grounded in just how much the death of Christ is good news. Again, worth reading regularly to keep ourselves aware of the beauty of Christ's work accomplished on the cross – and that's something that's worth sharing!
  3. Here's the challenge: How many Biblical reasons could you give for why Jesus came to die? Five? Ten? (That would probably be my upper limit!)
So, after a couple of suggestions about how and why to read Piper's meditations, here's a little bit of what's in Piper's work. The introduction deals with the connection between "Christ and the Concentration Camps." Piper begins with the devastating but necessary and meaningful answer to the question of who killed Jesus: "God did" - because "God meant it for good." For that reason, as Piper says, the
"controversy about which humans killed Jesus is marginal. He chose to die. His heavenly Father ordained it. He embraced it." 
God's "embrace" of the purpose(s) of Christ's death was shown by Christ's resurrection. Piper's introduction ends with a consideration of how Elie Wiesel, the well-known Jewish historian of the Holocaust, links the death of a single victim of the concentration camps to the death of Christ, asking
"Is there a way that Jewish suffering may find, not its cause, but its final meaning in the suffering of Jesus Christ?"
Piper's repudiates the anti-Semitism of some Christians by noting that Jesus, himself a Jew – with all Jews as His early followers – died a meaningful death, so that much "more important than who killed Jesus is the question: 'What did God achieve for sinners like us in sending his Son to die?"
Fifty two-page chapters answer this all-important question. The first should be obvious to any Christian: "To Absorb the Wrath of God." The last takes us back to the introduction: "To Show That the Worst Evil Is Meant by God for Good." Piper ends with a prayer that is also an appeal to his readers – that they would accept Christ's death as meaningful and purposeful for themselves as well, "the most important event that ever happened."

A bibliography of books that address the historical reliability of the Bible in chronicling Christ's life is a further resource to address those still doubting the accuracy of the New Testament.

If you believe that knowing the Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die will strengthen your ability to glorify God and make His greatness known to others, you can get it as a free pdf here or you can buy a paper copy at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Captive Maiden

by Melanie Dickerson
2013 / 304 pages

It's Cinderella reimagined, with all the famous bits still there: it has the carriage (but it was never a pumpkin), the slipper (but not made of glass), the ball, (but now it's more of a jousting tournament), and the fairy godmother role (though she not a fairy or a godmother). Author Melanie Dickerson gives new life to the story by taking the magic out of it, bringing in an additional villain, and making the key characters sincere Christians.

My big reservation would be one I have for all romance literature. Dating life is fully of fluttering hearts and many moments of uncertainty, and the whole crazy thing is wonderful and scary and thrilling too. But there is more to love than just young love. The problem with romance books is that they celebrate just the one stage of love – the beginning – to the exclusion of all that comes afterwards. But “afterwards” is very important, and so if a teen girl ingests too many books about ball-attending, sword-fighting, head-turning Prince Charming, they may well overlook that wonderful fellow right in front of them – the Bible-believing, hard-working, eager-to-be-a-diaper-changing, ordinary Joe.

Dickerson has written a half dozen of these fairytale retellings, and whereas one is great fun, I think two is already one too many. A good literary diet requires some variety - these aren’t the sort of books that should be ingested one after another. I've also had a chance to look through three of her other "fairytale reimaginings" and while I don't have any real objections to the others, the teen angst is more noticeable (Does he love me? Really? Truly?), the romantic fluff is more grating (repeated descriptions about how beautiful she is, or how handsome he is), and the inventiveness is not quite the same. So I think this this one is the very best. And one might well be enough.

That said, this is a clever retelling and Dickerson does a good job of keeping us wondering what new twists and turns she is going to add to this familiar tale. I'd recommend it for teen girls, but an adult can enjoy it as a light fluffy read.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Andi's Pony trouble

by Susan K. Marlow
61 pages / 2010

This was a very popular book in our family – it's a book about ponies and horses, so what's not for a little girl to love?

Andi is a 5-year-old girl, going on 6, who dreams of owning her very own horse. This is a much more realistic possibility for her than many girls today, since Andi lives on a farm in the West in the 1870s. She already has a pony, named Coco, but she doesn't appreciate him like she should - Coco can only trot, and that not fast enough for Andi's liking. So, since she's just about 6, Andi thinks her birthday would be just the right time for her mom to give her a horse.

That's the set-up, and of course there has to be some difficulties along the way. So as little Andi tries to prove she's big enough for a horse everything goes wrong. The author, Susan Marlow, does a good job of interjecting some comedy throughout - at one point Andi ends up with eggs on her head, and that, along with the illustration by Leslie Gammelgaard, had our girls giggling.

The author is Christian, and it shows – one clear lesson taught in the book is that parents are to be respected, and children don't know everything. Andi doesn't understand why her mother won't let her have a horse, but by books' end she comes to understand her mom knew best all along. Andi also gets into some minor naughtiness, but afterwards asks her mom, and her pony Coco, for forgiveness.

Our daughters loved Andi's ambition and adventurous spirit, and that made this a fun read for me too – it's always great to come along for the ride as our kids laugh their way through a book.

There are 11 pictures spread throughout, which helped make this a visual enough read for our just about 5-year-old who doesn't normally have much patience for anything other than picture books. I'd recommend it for 5 to 8. The only downside is that our horse-crazy girls are now even more so!

You can buy a copy of Andi's Pony Trouble at Amazon.com here and at Amazon.ca here.

Other books in the series

There are 5 other books in the series, and so far we've had a chance to read 4 of them. While I'll give a "two thumbs up" rating to the first, I've started having a problem with the way the author lets us hear Andi's thoughts. Andi knows she shouldn't say disrespectful things, so for the most part she doesn't. But she thinks them quite a lot... and that means there really is quite a bit of disrespectful dialogue in these stories. I think we'll still read the whole series since my daughters do really love them, and aside from the internal back talk Andi is quite fun. But I own the first and am not feeling the need to compete the set. Checking out the rest from the library is good enough.

I will also add one reservation about Andi's Indian Summer. This is the second book in the series and quite fun. However, in an attempt to teach kids not to be racist the author downplays the caution children should have around strangers. Andi and her friend Riley get lost and a helpful Indian man meets them. First he tells them they have to come with him. They protest, and say they have to go back because Andi's mom will be worried. Then he tells them he knows Andi's mom and she would be fine with him taking them back to his home.
"Andi and Riley looked at each other. This Indian was not taking no for an answer"
The author wants children not to be fearful around Indians. Fine and good. But what about strangers? I was reading this to my 4 and 6 year old, so I interrupted the story to explain that even if someone tells them "I know your mom and she says it would be okay" they need to come to me or their mom to check. I might be making too much of this – Andi was well and truly lost, so she didn't have much of an option. But this stranger was giving just the sort of charming, ready answers that I want to prepare my daughters to ignore. So this is not a book that a young child should read on their own – it needs mommy or daddy to do some explaining.

We've enjoyed Andi's Fair Surprise (about the family heading to the State Fair). Andi wants to bring her baby horse Taffy to the fair, to exhibit, just like her brothers are doing with cows and calves. But she's not allowed to. That gets her grumpy, but she learns in the end that you know what, Mom knows what she's talking about – will wonders never cease! This is a good fun little story that our daughters really enjoyed.

In Andi's Scary School Days Andi heads to school for the first time and doesn't want to go. The lesson Andi learns here is that school is not so bad after all. Good lesson for kids who are scared of school or hate it – not such a great thought to put in the heads of children looking forward to school.