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. You can pick up this version 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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Big Goose and the Little White Duck

by Meindert DeJong
169 pages / 1938

It all begins with a big boy buying his mother a big goose for her birthday present – she's always wanted one for a pet. But there is just one problem: to buy the goose he had to borrow money from his gruff grandfather.

Now the grumpy old man was more than happy to loan the money but only because he misunderstood what the big boy intended. He thought the boy was buying it for his birthday – for his eighty-eighth birthday just a few months away. He thought the big boy was buying it so that grampa could, for the first time in his long life, have a taste of roast goose.

So when they get the big goose home the grandfather stakes his own claim to the goose. He is going to eat it...unless the goose proves to be useful around the farm in some way.

This was a great read-out-loud book to share with my young daughters. Meindert DeJong keeps his sentences quite short, but there is a rhythm to them, and a flow from one to the next. The big goose is an excitable character, and the grandfather likes to bellow, which means that I got to be loud too. There is a lot of energy in this book so long as the reader is willing to let himself go and just scream and shout right along with this goose and this grump.

Now, if there is a villain in this piece, it is basically the grandfather, which struck me as a bit strange. I was also a bit leery because there are many books where the dad is just a big dumb goof, and this has a little bit of that, with the grandfather filling in for the dumb dad role (the boy's father is absent without explanation). But I think that would only be a worry if grandfathers started to become a common villain in more books. That it happens this one time is really not a problem – my girls were able to understand that grandfathers have a special role, and deserve respect, and need love, even if this grumpy gus wasn't really living up to any of that.

DeJong was an accomplished writer, winning both the Hans Christian Anderson and Newbery awards for children's literature, so while this is an oldie (1938!) it remains an absolute must-read. If mom or dad are reading it, this is good for ages 4 and up. If the child is reading it, this is at least a late Grade One book, and maybe more of a Grade Two title.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here and at Amazon.ca here. Canadians can also get it here at GoDutch.com where many other Dutch heritage children's books can be found.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith

by Barnabas Piper
174 pages / 2015

N. D. Wilson's foreword to this book ends with the words "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. And so it will be until the graves are emptied."

If this is the struggle you are going through (and I think it is for all Christians who are honest with themselves), this book will help. Barnabas Piper (yes, the son of that Piper) knows that kind of struggle himself. He makes clear, as did John Huss, that we show unbelief every time we sin.

Of course, many go through different types of unbelief - more intellectual, more emotional, more the result of bewilderment with God's work (including the presence of suffering) in their lives. Piper deals with these various types of unbelief by answering such questions as "What is belief?"; "Where does the prayer to seek help with our unbelief come from in the first place"; and "How do we believe?"

This is not a how-to book. Rather, Piper wants us to face our unbelief squarely, as did the father who first asked Jesus Christ to help him with his unbelief. Piper asserts that admitting our unbelief deepens our faith when we take our struggle before God.

Even though Piper is not writing an instruction manual, he does give some very good guidance in the appendices - one about how to read the Bible to meet God, and the other a list of books that will make our Bible reading and prayer richer.

If you think that Barnabas Piper's book could help your unbelief, you can get the book here at Amazon.com and here at Amazon.ca.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

5 fun "Toon Books" for reluctant readers

It's a fact: comics are under-appreciated.

We'll read our kids picture books and think it a great way to get them started reading. But what are picture books but an enticing pairing of words with pictures? And isn't that a good description of comics too? That's why I'm a big fan of good comics - the best can be used to hook readers, even reluctant readers, in much the way that picture books do.

Now some of the bias against comics - particularly in school libraries - is due to the relatively small supply of great comics books. Archie Double Digests and Superman are not great literature! But there are good ones out there. With that in mind, here are a few very fun comics (aka graphic novels) for kids who are just learning to read. Students in Kindergarten through maybe Grade 2 will really enjoy these.

These are all "Toon Books," a brand that has a good number of good books. But I did want to note that not everything they touch turns to gold. Among their others Toon Books are some boring books and, more troubling, quite a number showcasing a bratty hero or heroine. For example, Maya, from Maya makes a Mess, knows she knows better than her parents, and Patrick eats his Peas is actually about how Patrick tries tricking his mom so he doesn't have to eat his peas. It's not the end of the world if your child finds one of these other Toon books at the library and reads them - this is still a kinder, gentler sort of brattiness than happens in many other books. But it sure would be a shame to waste money buying lousy books when there are so many good ones to get!

Like these....

Benjamin Bear in Brain Storms!
by Philippe Coudray
27 pages / 2015

Benjamin Bear is a series of fun one-page comics that all present humorous solutions to problems. One example: Benjamin wants an apple but it's too high on the tree. So he kicks the tree, sending a shower of apples falling to the ground. So, of course, he stacks these up so he can stand on them to reach the apple that was just out of reach before.

There are 27 of these one-page comics in the book, and Benjamin is the star of most of them, but he also has a rabbit friend making appearances, as well as a lady bear friend. They are charming, and silly in just the sort of way that kids love. I'd recommend them from 3 (though they won't get them all) to maybe 9. There are two others to enjoy: Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking (2011), and Benjamin Bear in Bright ideas (2013).

The author Phillipe Coudray has also teamed with his brother Jean-Luc to co-author a similarly-themed book, A Goofy Guide to Penguins (2016), in which there are 30 one-page comics, all about penguins. It’s another very fun one.

You can pick up Benjamin Bear in Brain Storms! at Amazon.com here or Amazon.ca here.

Little Mouse Gets Ready
by Jeff Smith
28 pages / 2009

The best way to describe this would be as a 28-page joke. I don't want to spoil that joke, but the set-up involves a mother mouse telling her "Little Mouse" that he needs to get ready, because they are going to the barn. So Little Mouse gets busy, buttoning, and pulling up his socks, and figuring out how to get his shoes on. The illustrations are cute, Little Mouse is just like a little kid, so any child who still has problems with buttoning their shirt will sympathize with this little guy as he puts in the tough work of getting them all done right. So that's the ideal age range, maybe from 3 through Grade 1, but after that kids would see this as just a "baby book."

The only downside is that it doesn't stand up to repeated use - kids will enjoy reading it the first few times, but afterwards, when they see the joke coming, it does lose some of its charm. So this would be better as a library pick-up, rather than as a purchase.

That said, if you do want to buy it, you can get it at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

We dig worms!
by Kevin McCloskey
30 pages / 2015

This is as boy a book as you'll find – a book about all sorts of worms, from small to one that is ten feet long (and there's even a bit on the gummy sort).

We learn that worms have no eyes or nose, and that they have cold blood. We learn they do important work, eating, leaves and bugs and bringing air to plant roots. We even get a peak inside worms and see they have 5 hearts!

And there are oodles of other facts about worms. It's a book any little boy would find fascinating, all the way up through Grade 2.

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

Otto's Backwards Day
by Frank Cammuso
28 pages / 2013

This is a clever story about palindromes - words that are the same backwards as forwards, like the name "Otto." It's also about a little self-absorbed boy named Otto, who thinks birthdays are all about the presents (and who cares about the people!?). In other words, this bratty little boy has it all backwards! 

When Otto is told by his Dad that he has it all backwards, he ends up in a backwards world, where everything is "topsy turvy." It's fun to visit a world where you get in trouble for picking up trash, and where Otto has to ask the Ogopogo's three questions and if he gets them right Otto will face his wrath. It's all mixed up, with backwards spelling, and a robot friend who can turn into just about anything, so long as it is a palindrome...like a "kayak" or a "race car." By the end, Otto learns his lesson and realizes that the best part of any birthday is the people you get to spend it with.

Lots of goofy fun, with just one caution: there is an instance of "pottyesque" humor - in the backwards world everyone wears their underpants on the outside, so Otto has to as well. There is nothing immodest about it - only silly in a way that might not be the sort of thing we want to encourage among some more rambunctious boys.

Otto has another adventure, in Otto's Orange Day. It's fun too, but features a genie, and I don't quite know what I think of genies – an all powerful, supernatural being – for this preschool to Grade One level. Hmmm...what do you figure? Otto uses his wish to turn everything his favorite color, orange. He likes the orange world at first, but it turns out orange lamb chops are not that good, and when he wants to change things back he realizes there is a problem: the genie only gave him one wish!

You can pick up Otto's Backward Day at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

Tippy and the Night Parade
by Lilli Carré
32 pages / 2014

This is a nice one for girls. The story begins with Tippy's room in a big mess. Her mom wants to know how it happened, but there's a problem: even Tippy doesn't know. There's a snake under the bed, a pig in the sheets, a turtle on the carpet, and bats flying overhead. How'd they all get there?

Tippy and mom get to tidying up, and Tippy heads to bed, still wondering how her room got so messy. That's when we see how it happened - Tippy, it seems, is a sleepwalker, and so off she goes, on a trip through the woods, picking up friends here and there, before they all head back and she tucks herself back into bed with a zoo's worth of animals to keep her company. It is a quiet little story, that might be perfect as a bed time story to girls from 3 to 8.

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

RELATED REVIEWS: other good children's comics for reluctant readers



Wednesday, December 7, 2016

True Right

Genuine Conservative Leaders of Western Canada
by Michael Wagner
128 pages / 2016

Feeling like you're the last true conservative left in Justin Trudeau's Canada? Then you need to read Michael Wagner's True Right and find out that all through Canada's history great, solid, courageous conservative men have stood up to the socialist hordes.

The author sets for himself the ambitious task of laying out what makes a true conservative conservative, and takes his inspiration from a long-time leader in Western Canada, the writer, editor and all around troublemaker (in the best possible sense), Ted Byfield.

So what then is a true conservative?

Someone who knows who God really is, and knows the government ain't Him.

And what exactly is in the book? It's divided into 17 short biographies of political leaders who shaped Western Canada. Wagner explains why some were true conservatives and some weren't. There's controversy to be had in the "weren't" camp, where the author places some big and well-loved names...but his reasoning is hard to argue with. Among the 13 "were"s most readers will find a pleasant surprise or two, meeting stalwart gentlemen who they'd not previously known. What an encouragement to hear that we’re not alone! Yes, even in Canada there have always been true conservatives, good and godly men, who were willing to stand up and fight, win or lose.

You might differ with Wagner on some of his assessments – I think in noting these men's strengths, he's sometimes overlooked a notable shortcoming or two – but you'll most certainly come away encouraged. True conservatives are a rarity in Canada, but as Wagner shows, there have been some who have fought big battles and, win or lose, have remained true to God.

You can pick up a copy in Canada at Amazon.ca or, in the US, at Amazon.com.

In the interests of full disclosure I am friends with Michael Wagner, and have worked with him on Reformed Perspective for years. So when he asked if I would write an endorsement for this book, I was very happy to do so!

RELATED REVIEW: Another by Michael Wagner

The perfect book to give to a high school graduate: Michael is Right

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Snow White

by Matt Phelan
216 pages / 2016

This is Snow White inventively reimagined as a 1920s Depression-era American tale. The "king" is a stock trader who has managed to survive the stock market crash. The stepmother is still a queen, but this time of the Ziegfield Follies, a popular Broadway show. The mirror is now a stock ticker, and the seven dwarves are seven street-smart kids. Prince Charming? Well, I shouldn't give too much away!

Though over 200 pages, this is a very quick read, because it is much more pictures than text - several times there are stretches going on for pages, where there are no words at all.

It's hard to pick exactly who'd be the ideal audience. Fairytales are typically for children, but this is too somber to attract little ones. Done in a black and white, it has a dark, noir style...all but for the last few pages with their happily-ever-after full-color conclusion. So this is something adults could enjoy it, but I don't know how many would pick it up. This is listed as for teens at my local library, and I'd agree that is the ideal audience. However, I'd suggest this as better to borrow from the library, rather than buy. It is simply too short a read – maybe half an hour? – for the $27 Can. purchase price.

Cautions

There are no real cautions to offer - if a child is old enough to read the original, then they will be old enough to read this one. There is a drop or two of blood here and there, but no gore. The worst is probably the pig or cow heart we see in full color at one point. And there are no language concerns either.

Conclusion

This is an inventive, and very intriguing tale, done with style. Adults can't help but appreciate it, but it's really teens who will most enjoy it. But get your library to make the purchase, because it is so expensive. Still, if you are looking to buy it, you can get it at Amazon.com here or Amazon.ca here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Other Fairy Tales Reimagined