Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Marcelo in the Real World

by Francisco X Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009, 320 pages

What makes a person foolish or wise?

Marcelo is a 17-year-old boy who perceives and understands the world a little differently than most.

He has a disorder similar to Asperger's syndrome which makes social interaction difficult. Marcelo has what he calls "special interests" in music and religion, meeting regularly with a rabbi to discuss the Bible and other spiritual texts. He is content studying at his special high school and working with horses and disabled children.

His father has other ideas. He thinks Marcelo's interests are foolish ones. And he feels if Marcelo tries to work in what he calls the real world, Marcelo will find he fits in just fine. And he ups the ante - if Marcelo doesn't succeed at a summer job at his father's law firm, he will go to public school for his final year of high school.

Well, he does do just fine, although he encounters a lot of misunderstanding along the way. His first challenge is his supervisor in the mail room, a beautiful and confident girl who had someone else in mind for the job. And his second is the son of his father's legal partner - a young man preoccupied with women and pursuing his own goals with no consideration for the needs or feelings others. How does a young man who thinks about ethics in concrete terms navigate the situations and choices he finds in a law firm where a client's profits supersede taking responsibility for flaws in their products? And still succeed at his job so he can go to the school he feels comfortable in?

I like this book for two reasons. Firstly, it presents a complex and nuanced depiction of a person with an increasingly common difference in the way he interacts with the world. And second, through Marcelo's questions and problems, the author raises some interesting issues around ethics and loyalty. Marcelo doesn't doubt that God is real, and that He has communicated to express His will. He does have doubts about knowing God's will in difficult and conflicting circumstances, and the exploration of that question highlights what all people have in common.

As readers we come to see Marcelo's way of seeing the world is both a hindrance and an advantage. We're not sure how his father feels about the choices his son makes - but there's no doubt that Marcelo has grown up and is making his own choices by the end of the story.

"Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise." (1 Corinthians 3:18)

A caution - there is some crude language in portions of the book. It's used to contrast Marcelo's perspective with that of the people around him, but it may disturb some readers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

TELLING THE TRUTH

How to Revitalize Christian Journalism
by Marvin Olasky
Crossway Books, 1996, 303 pages

The best media book you’ll ever read… and it’s free!

If you want to understand the media, if you want to understand how the news business should be done, if you want to know what it means to be truly objective (hint: it actually involves bias – biblical bias!) then you need to read Marvin Olasky’s Telling the Truth.

To give just a taste of the book, here is one of the more important lessons Olasky passes on, using whitewater rafting as an illustration.

We know the God, in his Word, gives us direction on how to please Him, and do what He wills. But in some situations it is clearer than others what his will is. And that is an important point to note, and concede. If we act as if an issue is clear-cut, when in truth the biblical position on the issue is only discernable after extended study, then we will be seen as unreasonable and even arrogant, both to other Christians, and particularly to non-Christians. This too-certain-by-half attitude will ensure that people who might learn from us, won’t want to talk to us. It’s important then, to remember that while the Bible addresses many issues, it does not speak directly to all issues.

In Telling the Truth, Olasky compares the Bible’s various degrees of direction to the six classes of whitewater rapids. Class one rapids can be navigated by anyone, while class six rapids are all but impossible.

Class one: Specific biblical embrace or condemnation. Gay Marriage is a hot topic these days, even in the churches. But the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality is so clear that it can only be misconstrued by those trying to twist Scripture. To pretend that this is anything other than a black and white issue is to act as if the Bible as a whole is meaningless.

Class two: Clearly implicit biblical position. As Olasky notes, “even though there is no explicit command to place our children in Christian or home schools, the emphasis on providing a godly education under parental supervision is clear.” So while not explicit, there is a clear implicit biblical directive to follow.

Class three: Partisans on both sides quote Scripture, but careful study does allow biblical conclusions. Some Christians, citing examples like the Good Samaritan, and quoting texts like “love your neighbor as yourself,” think that helping the poor means guaranteeing everyone a certain standard of living. But as Olasky notes, if in the Bible, “even widows are not automatically entitled to aid then broad entitlement programs are suspect…the poor should be given the opportunity to glean, but challenged to work.” With issues like these, looking deeper into Scripture allows us to find a more certain direction.

Class four: Biblical understanding backed by historical experience does allow us to draw some conclusions. While large government initiatives like, for example, a proposed national daycare program, may in many ways seem like wonderful ideas, we can look back through history and see what happens when governments exert more and more influence over daily life. There is no clear biblical directive for limited, smaller government, but Samuel’s warning in 1 Sam. 8 and Lord Acton’s historically verified adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” show us we should be suspicious of any government that seeks to constantly expand its sphere of influence.

Class five: A biblical sense of human nature provides minimal, but real direction. The malevolence of 9/11 shocked many people around the world. They wondered how anyone could do anything so evil. The same sort of reaction occurred 50 years ago when the truth was fully revealed about Hitler’s “Final Solution.” As Christians we know that man is by nature inclined to all sorts of evil, so while we might be saddened we shouldn’t be too surprised at those events. We should recognize that war and violence are more man’s norm than peace, and prepare likewise. So our biblical understanding of human nature shows us that we should prepare, even if it doesn’t make clear how we should prepare.

Class six: These issues are navigable only by experts, who themselves might be overturned. Some issues have no clear biblical position. These issues can range from the local (Should we put up a stoplight at this intersection?) to the national (How should we address the problem of illegal aliens already in the country) to the international (what should be done about Iran's nuclear program?).

It’s all too easy, in a world embracing lawlessness, to overreact and embrace the opposite extreme, but that is also wrong - it is legalism. But to be a true light to the world Christians must remember both to speak out clearly where God’s intent is clear, and to speak out more charitably where God’s direction is less clear.

This is just one of the lessons Olasky teaches in this amazing book. I can't praise this book highly enough: it is one of my ten favorite of all time, a book I have read and reread, and if you are thinking of going into journalism it is simply a must-read. And if you read newspapers or any sort of media, well you'll find it amazing too. And, yet one more amazing thing about it: it is available to be read for free online by clicking here.

That said, if you have any interest in writing or journalism, you'll want the paper copy to highlight and write notes in.. You can get one at Amazon.com here or Amazon.ca here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Loser

by Jerry Spinelli
HarperCollins, 2003, 224 pages

Donald Zinkoff's name is not the only thing that makes him conspicuous. All the things that make him conspicuous brand him either as a "loser" or simply as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.

In Jerry Spinelli's novel Crash, the bully who narrated the story showed us how unsatisfying it is to treat others as losers. In Loser, we see the story from the point of view of the one living with the various handicaps that lead him to be labelled and shunned by others.

Spinelli does not romanticize Zinkoff's life. Zinkoff never learns to write legibly. He is uncoordinated in sports. Finally, for the first eight years of his life, he has a stomach disorder that leaves him subject to sudden vomiting. He can react quickly enough to vomit in something, but not necessarily quickly enough to find the right container. Even his loving father's patience is sorely tested by this particular weakness.

And patience is part of the point. For Zinkoff's greatest weakness - and his greatest strength - is his inability to see himself and his life through others' eyes. He doesn't reflect on life; he simply lives it - to the fullest. When he is having fun, he yells "Yahoo!" He laughs uncontrollably for an hour when he hears a word that sounds funny to him.

There are two ways to respond to such transparent joy in life. One is patience and compassion - exercised by Zinkoff's parents and more sympathetic teachers - and the other is irritation and anger - shown by his less sympathetic teachers and classmates.

As unreflective as Zinkoff is, others do eventually make him uncomfortably aware that he does not measure up to their standards. One teacher assumes that he must be deliberately trying to annoy her, dislikes him for his illegible handwriting. Another gives a personality test that makes him aware that he has no best friend. His classmates reject him because of his poor performance at Field Day.

Zinkoff finds ways to cope with these setbacks, partly by immersing himself in the lives of other equally outcast characters in his neighbourhood. In the end, his love for his neighbour, like that of the rejected Samaritan in Jesus' parable, leads him to try to help find a little lost girl, but also puts his own life in danger on a dark, cold, blizzardy winter night.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: Spinelli's novel Stargirl uses evolution as an explanation for our unity with nature. None of his novels feature clearly Christian solutions to the conflicts involved, but several show sympathy for the role of religion in the lives of the major characters. Loser's main character goes to church, but faith in God does not really enter into his daily response to the world. However, the whole story serves as an example of the importance of loving even those who are not "cool." How much more should we as Christians seeks to love all the members, strong and weak, of the Body of Christ. Recommended to get discussion started - especially as a read-aloud by parents and/or teachers.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Mozart Question

by Michael Morpurgo
Candlewick, 2008, 80 pages

Violinist Paolo Levi has played everything from Bach to Vivaldi, and jazz to Scottish fiddle music. But not Mozart; never Mozart.

Rookie reporter Lesley McInley has been given the chance to interview this world-renown musician. She has been warned, though, not to ask “the Mozart question” – Levi doesn’t like it when he’s asked why he doesn’t play Mozart. That’s why McInley is surprised to hear herself begin with the one question she simply can’t ask.

And she is even more surprised to hear Levi answer.

His answer is beautiful, poignant and horrible – Levi tells the reporter his whole life story, how he had to practice in secret because his father wouldn’t approve, how his father was a violinist too, but would never play, and how mother kept a violin hidden away, on the top of a cupboard. And he explained how his father, a Jew, survived the Nazi concentration camps by playing violin in the camp orchestra. Their performances were played outside, by the train tracks, and timed for the arrival of each new convey of Jews – the Nazis had them play Mozart to calm the new arrivals as they were sorted and sent to the gas showers.

While The Mozart Question is intended for pre-teens (so it doesn’t dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust) adults are sure to appreciate it too.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Four Books for Christmas

The thing I love most about Christmas is the reminder that there is more to life than the day to day attention to our own affairs, which is such an easy mindset to slip into. Christmas tells us that we are all here together, that we are united in suffering and darkness, and that our great hope is the one who came into the world to embody and fulfill the two great commandments: to love God with all we have in us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Even the secular stories point to this theme. I don't like a Christmas to go by without seeing "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," and the morning scene from "A Christmas Carol."

Here are four books for children and their families that point readers away from everyday preoccupations and towards allowing God's love to flow through us.

Red Parka Mary
by Peter Eyvindson

Illustrated by Rhian Brynjolson
Pemmican Publications, 1996, 38 pages

Red Parka Mary is about the fears that keep us apart from one another...and the joy of new friendships.

The narrator is a boy who walks past the home of an elderly neighbour each day. Someone, sometime, told her he should be afraid of her...and so he is.

But one summer day she calls to him to bring a pail of chokecherries to his mother, and they begin to visit after school. Mary tells him about herself, and the boy listens, and comes to appreciate her hospitality and friendliness. He also sees that she has needs too. She wears three sweaters all the time, and is cold all winter, except when she bakes bread in her wood stove.

Close to Christmas time, the boy notices a parka that would be just right for Mary in a store window, and asks his parents to help buy it for her. In return, she tells him she has the biggest and best present for him in the whole world. What could it be, the boy wonders...and the answer brings us back to what really matters.


(Note: this book can be ordered directly from the publisher for a reasonable price, and may also be available in your public library.)



An Orange for Frankie

by Patricia Polacco
Philomel Books, 2004, 48 pages

Frankie is the youngest son in a family of eight children on a farm during the depression. They are all eagerly anticipating Christmas and the return of their father, who has gone to get oranges for the family - it's their traditional Christmas treat. The hallmark of this family is generosity - as the story opens they are getting ready for Christmas, and feeding breakfast to railway workers and hobos who are passing by the farm. Mother says that they have had a good harvest, and should share what they have. In fact, the very next thing Frankie does is give a hobo who has no shirt the sweater his sister gave him for Christmas last year, leaving him with a problem when she announces she's giving him a matching muffler this year and wants to see how well it goes with the sweater. After his father comes home he manages to lose his Christmas orange. Two problems that could make Christmas less enjoyable for everyone...but his wise parents manage to smooth things over and turn the day into a specially memorable one, centered on forgiveness and love.

Great Joy
by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick Press, 2007, 32 pages

"The week before Christmas, a monkey appeared on the corner of Fifth and Vine. He was wearing a green vest and a red hat, and with him was a man, an organ grinder, who played music for the people on the street."

Young Frances looks down from her living room window and notices the pair. She wonders where they goes at night - a question which is not encouraged by her mother. But she wonders and worries anyway, and watches for him in the night, discovering that he sleeps on the street, even in the snow. Her mother brushes off her concerns and declines to invite him to dinner.

On her way to the Christmas pageant, Frances invites the organ grinder to come, and inspired when he enters, she" recites her single line:

"Behold! I bring you tidings of Great Joy!"

Great joy indeed - Frances knows better than her mother what the message of Christmas means for all of us. And perhaps her mother comes to understand too.

Christmas is Here
Words from the King James Bible
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers, 2010, 32 pages


My final selection is a simple and also profound one. Lauren Castillo has pictured a family coming upon a nativity scene as they busily go about their Christmas shopping. As they take a moment to look, they are drawn into the story by the words of Luke from the King James Bible. There is a moment of peace and awe in which we all can contemplate the great love which our God has for us.

The illustrations for this book are beautiful and subtly done. Readers who have hesitations about visual depictions of God and angels will like this book. The author uses perspective and light in ways that subtly suggest the holiness of the incarnation. It's a lovely book to use with children and to enjoy as a family.

May the joy and peace of the season be with you all!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1999, 180 pages

This is a very moving book about overcoming prejudice that also works well as a read-aloud. The title character's real name is Jeffrey Lionel Magee and his hometown is Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. When he is suddenly orphaned because his parents' train plunges off a bridge, his aunt and uncle can not give Jeffrey the love an orphan needs because their house (one cannot call it a home) is permeated with their disdain for each other. When the boy can not stand it any longer, he runs off into the night, and never comes back. His running becomes one of the things that makes him legendary.

Jeffrey Lionel Magee wanders for a year until he comes into Two Mills, a town near his hometown. He becomes Maniac Magee when he joins first the local high school football team's practice and then a Little League baseball game and excels without even trying. In true tall-tale fashion, Maniac becomes a local legend in these and many other different ways, all without any deliberate attempt to show off. What makes his legendary status even more amazing is that he is still just an ordinary boy with a desperate need for love.

His need to find a home, to find a real family of some kind, brings him into the life of a chaotic but loving black family, the Beales, on one side of Two Mills; an old has-been former baseball pitcher who works as the caretaker of the local zoo; and a paranoid white family who are waiting for the great race war to start. The ways in which Maniac changes the people he lives with, and is in turn changed by them, brought tears to my eyes when I heard it read out loud in the audiobook version.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: At least one of Jerry Spinelli's novels (Stargirl) imples that we are all the products of evolution, and this one never brings any specific Christian resolution to the divisions in Two Mills. However, the book does show the Sunday worship of the Beales as living and beautiful, and Maniac's greatest yearning - to find a home - echoes, on  the earthly level, the deepest heaven-directed desires of all those whom God makes His children. Finally, Maniac's difficult navigation of the racial and geographic divide of Two Mills challenges us as Christians to consider how we, with so much greater reasons for unity, can break down the barriers between races, nations, and classes. A great book to share between children and their parents or teachers.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Evening Star

by Sigmund Brouwer
Bethany House, 2000, 317 pages

I picked this one up because I've read and really enjoyed two novels the author co-wrote with Hank Hanegraaff:
  • The Last Disciple: a post-millennial response to the pre-millennial fiction Left Behind series that is set in first century AD, and which portrays most of the book of Revelation being fulfilled in the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem. It was very well written, character driven, and very educational.
  • Fuse of Armageddon: another response, of sorts, to the Left Behind series, but this one is in modern day Israel, and shows how pre-millennial beliefs could be manipulated to by dastardly folk, to dastardly ends. A lot of action in this one, but it too, will give readers a theological education.
In Evening Star Sigmund Brouwer again switches genres, taking on the Western. Or that's the setting - the American frontier in 1874 - but it could as easily be called a mystery as Sam Keaton, from the moment he steps into the town of Laramie, has to solve one mystery after another. It all starts with the mysterious Indian that Keaton saves from a vicious beating. This good deed puts Keaton behind bars, and when this Indian next shows up, he's got a message from a mysterious woman named Rebecca, who promises to help Keaton escape. But before she can engineer his rescue, the town's Marshal, a mysterious sort himself, decides to help Keaton escape first and sends him off to find out about some gold that may, or may not exist.

So the mysteries abound in this very fast paced book but what brings some depth to it, and sets it apart, is the growth Keaton goes through. Early on, he's trapped in his tiny jail cell facing a very large, very angry man who has been sent to kill him. Staring down the wrong end of a shotgun barrel changes Keaton. When a pretty, and very willing young woman throws herself at him, Keaton turns her down, but finds himself
"... wondering why I had not pursued the company she had been offering.... Because of that shotgun I could not deny the nagging feeling that I was missing something, that life had to be bigger than finding ways to satisfy the varied demands of my body. I could not escape the feeling that deep down, I'd always known life had to be bigger, but along the way I had always chosen whatever distractions it took to keep me from wondering about God. Except now, try as I might, I couldn't ignore what some certainty told me was beyond. If I turned my back on whatever instinct now pulled me to seek answers, if I chose distractions like this Suzanne, I would have to fool myself real good not to find those distractions sour and hollow."
Keaton isn't done with his spiritual wrestling by the end of the book, but he has made a good start of it.

But while there is a lot to love about this book, it is worth noting that there is some adult material here - there is some grit. One example: Keaton recalls a time when he was seduced by a "wild" woman. It never gets lascivious but Brouwer does describe sexual temptation in a pretty frank way. So this is a book I would recommend for adults only.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Michael Vey: The Prisoner in Cell 25

by Richard Paul Evans
2011 / 326 pages

I got this to find out why Glenn Beck was so excited about it. Beck doesn't generally jump up and down about teen science fiction, but he was so impressed with Michael Vey: the Prisoner in Cell 25 that he helped publish it and plugged it on his show for weeks. After finishing it, I'd agree with his hype - you'd definitely be happy if your kids read it.

That said, I did have to read more than half the book before I came across what made it special. At first look Michael Vey seems a solid, but not so notable teen title. It is well-written and gets off to an intriguing start, but the protagonist is hardly unique - Michael Vey is an unpopular, bullied student, who seems unremarkable, but who is actually and secretly remarkable indeed. Does that sound familiar? It sure does. But in this case, instead of being a wizard, or the son of a Greek god, or the love interest of a werewolf or vampire, the boy in this story is special because he is electric. Michael Vey can "pulse" and essentially Taser anyone who might be bothering him. But people are searching for him and his mom, so instead of showing the school bullies who's boss, he lets them push him around - he has to keep his powers secret to keep him and his mom safe.

Michael thinks he's unique until he discovers that the most popular girl in school, a cheerleader named Taylor, also has special powers. When they start researching how they might have gained their powers, the people searching for Michael discover him and kidnap Taylor and his mom.

Now the entire book is a fun and frantic ride but it's here that the book becomes remarkable. SPOILER ALERT - what I am about to reveal happens about two thirds of the way through the book, and does spoil some of the tension, so if you are thinking of reading this book yourself, skip over the rest of this paragraph. However if you are reading this review to find good material for your kids, read on. The kidnappers present Michael with the choice of either electrocuting one of the boys who used to bully him, or watching as they electrocute his mom. What choice does he have? Who will die: his mom or the bully? In many other teen titles the obvious choice would be to kill the bully. In this one the choice is just as obvious, but is instead not to kill the bully, because, as Vey tells the kidnappers, "My mother would... rather die than see her son become a murderer!" Given an impossible choice, our hero picks the harder one and only moral one (Vey realizes we are not allowed to murder, even when our loved ones are being threatened).

It's our hero's character that makes the book remarkable - he'll do the right thing, even when it could come at a horrible cost. That separates Michael Vey from most other "heroes" in today's teen fiction and makes this book a great gift for your teenage children. And it could make for a great dad/son discussion afterwards about how making the right choice can come at a cost, but that it remains the right choice nonetheless.

You can get a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hitler Youth

Growing up in Hitler's Shadow
by Susan Campbell Bartoletti 
Scholiastic, 2005, 176 pages

As Remembrance Day/Verterans Day approached last year, I started asking people for the very best World War II book they'd read. This title was vigorously recommended by a school librarian who was doing her very best to get students to give it a chance. She acknowledged that it wasn't the sort of book that most students would casually check out - it is a big book, almost a foot by a foot, and thick too - but she was convinced that if they started reading it, they would be hooked. I think she's right.

Discernment label
(For more on this, see "Discernment labels" in our article section)

CONTENT: This is Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of its youth. Hitler was in power for 12 years and in that time an entire generation of children received their entire primary and secondary schooling from Nazi teachers, and on weekends spent their time marching in step at Hitler Youth camps. This is the story of their indoctrination.

CAUTIONS: While the book documents the Nazis’ indoctrination of Germany’s youth, and notes that some resisted, it doesn’t have much to offer as to why those few did resist. To say it another way, the author understands the Nazi lies, but doesn’t have much insight into the Truth that motivated many to oppose them. In that way it ends on a bit of a depressing note, because the author offers so little in way of how to oppose this sort of evil should it surface again.

CONCLUSION: There are a lot of books about the Nazis and World War II, but none quite like this one. In depth, it’s like a textbook – amazing research and overflowing with pictures of schoolchildren in Nazi uniforms and toddlers rigidly saluting – and in readability like the very best newsmagazine articles because Bartoletti lets her subjects speak in their own words. It is probably a bit much for early teens, both in depth and in content (though there are no graphic pictures, there are detailed explanations of what the Nazis did to the Jews, Gypsies and others) but would be a great book for mid to older teens as well as adults.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Crash

by Jerry Spinelli
Laurel Leaf, 2004, 176 pages

Crash is not just about a bullying football-loving kid named "Crash" Coogan who spends his whole life literally and figuratively crashing into other people; the story is narrated by him. The fact that Crash tells his own story will make the lessons he learns easier to swallow for readers who are perhaps just a little bit like him. (The novel is often read by Grade Five or Six students, but the first-person narrator makes it fascinating also for adolescents and adults alike.)

How much like him are most of us? Crash is a bully; are most of us bullies? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but his reasons may not be that strange for many of us. Crash's meanest tricks are done to his neighbour Penn Webb, whose Quaker background is highlighted by the fact that his first name is also the last name of the American Quaker William Penn, for whom the state of Pennsylvania is named. Crash despises  Penn because as a Quaker, Penn is therefore a pacifist and a vegetarian; he wears outdated clothes and has one toy; his parents look painfully old; he lives in a house remodelled from a garage; and finally, he has joined his school's cheerleading squad.   For many of us, Penn's oddness might not be a motivation for bullying - at least not physical bullying - but it certainly might raise our eyebrows and get our tongues wagging behind his back or to his face, despite what Paul says in Ephesians about using our tongues to build others up rather than tear them down.

Crash not only views Penn as hopelessly weird, but he sees himself as superior because of both his more fashionable possessions and his much cooler position - new sneakers and membership on his high school's football team. This, in his mind, justifies his bullying of Penn through cruel pranks that  either seek to humiliate Penn or destroy his meager possessions. How often do we not use our own sense of moral, mental, physical, or material prosperity to justify our shabby treatment of others?

Ironically, it is the "loser" Penn who has everything Crash wants - the attention of his parents, the interest of the cute girl in their class in school, and the simple contentment that eludes the perpetually angry Crash. When Crash goes through his own personal crash, he finally begins to see that he needs to stop trying to take Penn down a peg and start trying to live up to Penn's example.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: Jerry Spinelli's novels always feature non-conformists - some obviously cool and some less so - and so can be great ways to get a discussion going on when we need to stand out from the crowd, when we need to be countercultural. While another of Spinelli's novels, Stargirl, sees our unity in the (false) idea that we are all products of the ancient and (supposedly) majestic forces of evolution, Crash does not carry any of the same anti-Christian baggage. As Christians, we may be disappointed that Crash's change of heart is not an explicitly religious conversion, even if it is motivated by the example of a Quaker. However, Crash's new attitude does involve a casting down of some of the idols in his life - idols that tempt most of us, right from Grade Five on. How much greater an example do we have for dethroning the idols in our hearts - our example died for us and dwells within us.

Friday, October 28, 2011

THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS

From this World to that which is to come
CrossWay, 2009, 240 pages
by John Bunyan
edited by C.J. Lovik & illustrated by Mike Wimmer

Bunyan’s allegorical tale is about a man, burdened by his sins, who has no hope. In despair he cries out for help, and that cry is answered by Evangelist, who knows where hope can be found. He tells the sin-burdened man that he must flee the City of Destruction, and journey to the Celestial City. And along that straight and narrow path he will come to the foot of a cross, and it is there that his sin-burden will be lifted. But along the way there will also be trials – as we journey with this pilgrim we see him being slowed or sidetracked by people with names such as Worldly Wiseman, Mistrust and Atheist. But, through God’s grace, he perseveres.

Pilgrim’s Progress was first published 333 year ago, and since then has been translated into more than 200 languages. Aside from the Bible, it may be the best-selling book ever. This particular version has been updated from the original’s 17th century English. Editor C.J. Lovik used a light, delicate touch, but the results are dramatic – this is quite simply the best edition of Bunyan’s tale you will find. Thirty full-color, full-page illustrations only add to the volume’s attractiveness and accessibility, and extensive footnoting ensures that the modern reader will be able to understand the full depth of the story.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Little Ships

The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II
by Louise Borden
illustrated by Michael Foreman
McElderry Books, 1997, 32 pages

In May of 1940, half a million British and French soldiers were trapped in on three sides by German forces. They had their back to the sea, and the Germans seemed intent on pushing them right into it. But then the call went out all over the English coast for ship owners to come bring their boats to save these stranded soldiers. And they came, by the hundreds. In total 861 ships set sail for the shores of France, for the beaches of Dunkirk, including hundreds of small fishing boats and pleasure craft. This is one of the most stirring examples of courage, in a war that was filled with them, because this the most ordinary sort of courage - ordinary courage  these were ordinary men the soldiers' old neighbors, their fathers and hometown friends heading out into danger simply because they were needed. They brought back more than 300,000 soldiers.

That's the story this little picture book sets out to tell, and it is quite a story. The author tells it from the perspective of a fisherman's daughter, who, because she is a seasoned sailor, goes along with her father and their little ship, the Lucy. This is a read-out-loud book, as the author Louise Borden lays out lyrical sentences - this isn't poetry, but it has a clear cadence and rhythm that springs up from the page.

The illustrations are water colors, which ably captures the mood and the scene, but the pictures themselves are not that eye catching - the colors are all muted. That's one reason I think this book may have to be read twice to be appreciated: it is a book about quiet courage, and the pictures are quiet too. But the text, read aloud, and the somber tones of  the illustrations have a cumulative impact. It really hits you in the end. But the worry is that children might stop after only a few pages.

So to conclude, this is a great book for a teacher to read out loud to their class. There is a fair amount of text per page, and the intense story line also makes this a book best suited for Grade 2 or older, and while they may not be wild about it at the start, I'm confident they'll appreciate it, and the courage of these hundreds of ordinary men, by the time they get to the end.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Counterfeit Gods

by Timothy Keller
Dutton Adult, 2009, 240 pages

Can I recommend everything by Tim Keller? No (see below), but I can recommend this book.

John Calvin once said, "The human heart is an idol factory. " It makes sense that God's prohibition of idolatry is the first commandment. The reason: we are all idolaters, and every violation of the commandments is also the breaking of the first commandment - desiring some created blessing so much that we are willing to do anything to get it, without caring how God wants us to use his blessings.

The brilliance of Tim Keller's Counterfeit Gods is that it takes this plausible idea, and makes it compelling, by showing how idolatry in action has played out both in the Bible and in today's world - and shows the solution.

Keller introduces the concept of idolatry as an explanation of the suicides of executives in response to the economic meltdown of 2008 and the utter disillusionment of Beatrice Webb and H. G. Wells after the rise of Hitler. The first chapter shows how the understanding of idolatry makes sense of one of the most puzzling stories in the Bible from the life of Abraham.

Keller also looks carefully at the lives of Jacob and Leah to analyze our own and our culture's idolatrous attitude to sex and love. He examines how the first sight of Jesus casts down the idol of greed in the life of the tax collector Zaccheus - an idol institutionalized in our day as "the culture of greed." Our culture's idolatry of achievement and success as ways to validate yourself is critiqued through the Biblical example of the Syrian general Naaman. The self-glorification of Nebuchadnezzar foreshadows our own and our culture's idolatry of power. Finally, Keller shows how the hidden cultural idols of profit, self, and nationalism can even subtly diminish our service to God, as the latter two did especially in the self-righteous ministry of Jonah.

All these exposures of the idols of our hearts would be merely disheartening (pun intended) if, as Keller shows, God did not provide a Way of escape in the person of Jesus Christ. Keller shows how setting our hearts, eyes, and ears on Him and His kingdom counsels and comforts us, in two main ways. Using counselling case studies, Keller shows how the fact that Christ has shared our suffering turns the loss of even the genuine blessings of loved one, prosperity, success, and the approval of others from causes of sinful despair to sources of sorrow in the midst of hope. Most of all, we can resist the incursion of idols into our hearts by learning to make Christ our true and lasting blessing - the Way, Truth, Life, food, drink, and love of our hearts.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: As I said at the beginning, I cannot recommend everything that Keller has written. The Reason for God, in particular, shows a willingness to accommodate Biblical interpretation truth to the supposed authority of secular evolutionary scientific theory. I noticed that Keller used no examples from Adam to Noah in Counterfeit Gods, perhaps he doesn't quite know how to fit them within his theistic evolutionary framework. However, the Biblical examples he does use are applied to ourselves and our culture in insightful, practical, and comforting ways. Thus, while I cannot recommend The Reason for God (because arguably, and ironically, it makes an idol out of secular science), I highly recommend Counterfeit Gods.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Blood of Lambs

by Kamal Saleem (with Lynn Vincent)
Howard Books, 2009, 340 pages

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Added October 17, 2010 - I've just had a review pointed out to me, in the Christian magazine Books and Culture, that questions the legitimacy of this autobiography. The review was written by a history professor at Calvin College, Doug Howard, and you can find the link to it here. I don't know quite what to think, but thought it was important to pass along this information.
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This one knocked my socks off.

The author, Kamal Saleem was involved in terrorism from the time he was seven, recruited by the Muslim Brotherhood (the very same group that is so very often in the news right now) to smuggle arms into Israel. The Blood of the Lambs is the story of his past and his present. We learn about his upbringing and his early years as he is taught the trade of terrorism. Kamal grew up in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1960s, the son of a devout Muslim couple, and it was at his "mother's kitchen table, surrounded by the smells of herbed olive oils and pomegranates, that [he] first learned of jihad." She told her little boy that salvation was to be found through an external struggle - through fighting and killing Islam's enemies. She told her little boy: "even the most sinful man is able to redeem himself with one drop of an infidel's blood." With this sort of religious grounding, it was no wonder that Muslim Brotherhood found this young lad willing and eager to go on whatever mission they proposed to him.

In alternating sections we are taken to the more recent past, starting in 2007, with the author, now a grateful and humbled Christian, on a tour of the United States trying to alert his adopted country to the danger of radical Islam. 

This back and forth is a riveting way of telling his tale - it sets up the stark contrast between what radical Muslims are up to, and what the West is ready to believe. For example, in one section we follow Kamal as his group attacks a Christian stronghold in Beirut and blows up the top floor of a hotel to kill the soldiers positioned on it. Then in the next section, where we are taken thirty years into the future, the author shares one college paper's reaction to his speech: people can "easily dismiss... Kamal Saleem, for offering us nothing but that fear." 

CAUTIONS

Though the violence in this book is described with care and tact, there is quite a lot of such content. There is also some brief mention of sex, the most explicit being those describing Muslim attitudes towards women. So this is not a book for the pre-teen set, and should only be given with care to those under 14 or 15. However the size of the book, at 340 pages, is probably all that's need to dissuade those not yet mature enough for its contents.

CONCLUSION

My brother-in-law thought this book should be in every church library. He called it a difficult book, not because it was hard to read (it is a fast-paced, page-turner, thanks to its excellent co-author, Lynn Vincent) but because it offers insight into a horrible world. As he put it, "We don't know how blessed we are!" While we encourage our children to work hard at piano, or take up a sport, Kamal's parents encourage him to be a terrorist. While we live in countries where we have known nothing but peace in our lifetime, the Middle East is in the constant turmoil of wars, revolutions and terrorism. And while we worship the God who tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, many in the Middle East worship a god who tells them that they can earn their way to heaven by killing their infidel neighbor. 

So who would enjoy this book? Anyone who likes thrillers - there is a lot of action. And anyone who regularly reads Christian biographies will find this a beautiful story of God's amazing grace. And finally if you read to learn, and want to know more about the Middle East, or Islam, or terrorism, then this book is an education indeed. 

This is a book that really every adult should read. We must not be naive about these horrors, and we must pray for the people caught in them. May they find their way to the one true God!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Persuasions

A dream of reason meeting disbelief

Canon Press, 1989, 95 pages
by Douglas Wilson

In Pilgrim’s Progress, we follow the pilgrim Christian and see the people and problems he meets on his journey. The very first person is Evangelist, who tells him about a Celestial City, and sets him off on the path to it. Now in Douglas Wilson’s Persuasions, instead of following Christian, we stay with Evangelist, and listen in as he converses with the many other travelers who are on this road.

The people he meets are all heading in the wrong direction, away from the City and towards the Abyss, so Evangelist tries to make them aware of the peril by exposing to them the inconsistency of their beliefs.

These people each represents a worldview and the first one Evangelist meets is Randy, a young man who has made a god out of sexual immorality. When Randy finds out Evangelist is a Christian, he mocks monogamy: “Making love to one woman for life… That’s like buying one record and taking it home and playing it over and over and over again.” But Evangelist is quick to corrects him: “I’m afraid your analogy is a faulty one. It is not like buying one record; it is like buying one instrument and learning how to play it. If you are committed, boredom is not a danger.”

Evangelist doesn’t instantly convert Randy, but he does get him thinking. And in the encounters that follow he does the same for many others, including:

- an evolutionist
- a feminist
- an agnostic
- a liberal "Christian" scholar
- an Antinomian
- an atheist
- a woman who is dismissive, because of the hypocrisy in the Church
- a pantheist
- a Roman Catholic
- and a man troubled by the doctrine of Election.

There are 13 encounters in all, each of which is entertaining, and highly educational. I would recommend this book to any adult or older teen, but it would make a particularly good gift for anyone making their profession of faith.

I should also note one instance of a character using God's name in vain. It happens only once, but I find it curious that in Christians books it is not all that rare to find characters taking God's name in vain, and yet you will never find them using the F-word. The reason for that is clear - were they to use the F-word, Christian readers would protest, and write the author asking why he would use such language in his book. And yet when God's name is used in vain, we Christians are silent.

Curious.

I sent a query about this to the book's publisher (I couldn't figure out how to contact the author himself) and was sent back this link to a video of Pastor Wilson speaking about "cussing characters" - how Christian authors should deal with obscenity, swearing and vulgarity. I wanted to pass on the link, because I think it is a very helpful outlook on this general topic, even though it left me wondering how the pastor would respond if I could have asked him about the specific instance occurring in this book (I suspect he might today acknowledge it as a mistake).

To conclude, a remarkable book with this one mar.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Michael is "Right"

by Michael Wagner
Marnick Press, 2010, 180 pages

This is a book Christian parents in Canada should give to any of their college-bound kids, before they head off to campus.

In the interests of full disclosure I should note that Michael Wagner is a regular contributor to Reformed Perspective, the magazine I edit (and Michael Is "Right" was published by Marnick Press which is owned by Martin VanWoudenberg who has also written for RP!). About 100 of the 180 pages are articles that were first published in RP, with most of the rest from other publications, and a few written just for this book.

But the very same reason I keep publishing Mike is the very same reason I'm recommending his book - he writes well, about things that matter. His particular specialty is introducing readers to secular professors, writers and scientists - people with little regard for God - but whose research backs up the Bible. He also highlights pivotal secular types who have directly attacked the Bible, and then goes on to explain the faults in their logic.

The books 29 essays are collected in 6 chapters addressing:

1) Canada’s Christian heritage
2) Charter rights vs. Human rights
3) The Sexual Revolution
4) The Government’s attempts to be Big Parent
5) Christian political activism
6) Responses to liberal libels of God’s Truth

So while this title would make a great gift for almost anyone, it is an absolute must-read for any high school graduate heading off to university. For them it would serve as an effective vaccination against the odd, and perverse ideas they will be exposed to on campus.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Children of Hurin

by J. R. R. Tolkien,
edited by (his son) Christopher Tolkien
Del Rey, 2010, 320 pages

It is no accident that this is the darkest of the tales of Middle Earth. An expansion of one of the tales of The Silmarillion, it is Tolkien's response to the pagan elements that he believed formed the background of Anglo-Saxon legendry. This is not a story for children, but it is a tragedy suitable for adult Christians, who may see their own weaknesses in its tragic hero Turin - who, as one of the "children of Hurin," both suffers under, and brings about, the curse on Hurin's family.

Tolkien saw the stories of Beowulf, the Grendel-killing and dragon-slain hero of Anglo-Saxon literature, as essentially pagan, even though they mention God and feature descendants of Cain as Beowulf's opponents. In Tolkien's tales, the proud boastfulness of a Beowulf (even if God is given some credit for his success) can only lead to disaster. In this story, as Turin becomes more and more proud, his arrogance eventually leads him to oppose the Valar themselves - the chief servants of Illuvatar, the creator of Middle Earth.

Turin's sin is what the ancient Greeks called hubris - raising himself to the level of God (or for the Greeks the gods). In Greek tragedy, when human beings are guilty of hubris, they experience divine wrath - a fate that, like Oedipus's in the plays of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, is worse than death. Turin's sin is also very much like the first sin of Adam and Eve - seeking to be like God. Tolkien shows how such sin inevitably leads to destruction - pride going before a fall, as Solomon warns us in Proverbs.

At the same time, Turin is a warning for all of us, for he is more than just an arrogant superhero/antihero who gets taken down in the end. His pride also sometimes takes forms that even the humblest of us are sometimes guilty of - self-pity and whining. The tale helps us see that even these less prominent sins involve setting ourselves up as judges of, and therefore demeaning, God.

The Children of Hurin is for mature readers who can stomach seeing the bitterness of the conflict of the races of men, elves, and dwarves (somewhat like the racial and ethnic conflicts of our own time); the cruelty of a cunning and powerful dragon very much like Smaug in The Hobbit; and the destruction of a tragic hero. Most recent editions, including the paperback linked to by this post, feature illustrations by Alan Lee - who contributed his artistic skills to the Lord of the Rings film trilogy - that skillfully complement the somber nature of this tale.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective

by Donald J. Sobol
Puffin Books, 1963, 88 pages

Idaville is a small town with a very impressive record - no one, absolutely no one, gets away with breaking the law. Most of the credit goes to Police Chief Brown, but if people would believe it, he would let them know that the town's most puzzling crimes are solved at the Brown's dinner table by his ten-year-old son Leroy! His son, known as Encyclopedia by his friends, also runs his very own detective agency, charging 25 cents a case, plus expenses.

The Encyclopedia Brown series are great books that each include 10 mysteries for readers to solve right-along-side our pint-sized detective. In this, the very first one, all the information needed to solve the mystery is included in the story, and the solution is found in the back. And though the mysteries are simple enough that boys and girls in the 9-14 range will be able to solve many of them, they are still subtle enough to present a challenge to adults (I have to admit I has to peek at the back to figure out 2 of the 10).

As you might guess from Encyclopedia's pay rate, this is an old book. It was first published back in 1963, so even though many more books have followed, with the 29th and last published in 2012 (a year after the author’s death) the whole series has an old-fashioned feel and appeal to it. For example, Encyclopedia often has run-ins with the Tiger gang, but this is very much a 1960s sort of boys' gang - they run minor scams, try to trick kids out of their allowance, and might even start a tussle or two, but the very worst that would result is a black eye, or fat lip.

I read these as a kid and loved the mini-challenge of each mystery. I was happy to see the series was still in print, and that new ones were being written, but I did notice when I checked out one of the latest ones, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs, that two of the ten mysteries required the reader to know a little something that wasn't included in the story (for example, "The case of the giant shark tooth" could only be solved if a reader knew that sharks constantly replace their teeth). So the earlier titles are just a bit better than the most recent - no outside knowledge needed.

All the main characters, but one, are boys, so these are basically boy books, but they are great for anyone, boy or girl, who likes wrestling with problems. And dad might enjoy it too.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Battles of the Bible: 1400 BC - AD 73

by Martin J. Dougherty et al
Amber Books, 2008, 224 pages

When I saw Battles of the Bible I confess I immediately knew I had to have it. I'm a history nut and every time I read a story in the Bible I  want to know more details than the Bible recounts.

Battles of the Bible brings to light the brilliance of the military strategies employed which surprised me, though it probably shouldn't have considering who inspired those strategies. It also does a solid job putting the Israelite battles into a historical context. The brutality that many accuse the Israelites of perpetrating wasn't something unusual, and, in the context of the time, was even expected. With the strictly Biblical battles, however, I left a little disappointed. The book doesn't tell you much about the battle strategy that the Bible doesn't.

The pictures in this book are gorgeous being either shots of the battle sites or paintings from Middle Ages or Renaissance era. They are full color for the most part and help to bring the battle stories to life.

Where the book really shone was its recounting of Bible-related battles that fell outside of the Bible itself but still helped understand the Biblical history. How did the tiny grew of Maccabean rebels manage to throw off the Selucid empire? Why is Masada such a potent symbol even in modern day Israel? It's with these sort of battles that Battles of the Bible really opened my eyes and gave me  a greater understanding of the Jewish culture.

This is a great book, a beautiful book, and one that will broaden your understanding of the greater Biblical history. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Silmarillion

by J. R. R. Tolkien
Harper Collins, 416 pages

No, I`m not going to tell you why it is called The Silmarillion... not yet!

If you`ve read Tolkien's The Hobbit, and then The Lord of the Rings, maybe you have become curious about what Middle Earth was like well before the War of the Ring. Or perhaps you just wanted to hear the full story of Beren and Luthien that is summarized by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings as the tale of Beren and Tinuviel.

That story is only one of the tales in The Silmarillion, but it was clearly one that meant much to Tolkien himself, since he had the names of Beren and Luthien inscribed on the gravestones of himself and his wife respectively. Beren is one of only three mortal men who married elves; another, of course, is Aragorn himself. (The third? Read The Silmarillion to find out!) The story tells of a love that, like the love extolled in the Song of Solomon, is stronger than death. Beren`s love for Tinuviel is so strong that it braves the stronghold of the most Satanic figure in all of Tolkien`s worlds. (Sauron? No, the one before him! See next paragraph.)

Which brings us to the value of  The Silmarillion for a Christian reader. When Tolkien conceived of Middle Earth, part of his purpose was to give England an alternate mythology parallelling the history of our own world, as God's word. Therefore, this book tells of the creation of Middle Earth by Illuvatar; the fall of Morgoth, his chief servant; and all the epic conflicts that arose from the struggle between Illuvatar and Morgoth (including epic wars and a massive flood).

Tolkien`s version of the creation has its own beauty that may remind some readers of the way Aslan sang Narnia into being in C. S. Lewis`s The Magician`s Nephew. Similarly, the fall of Morgoth shows metaphorically how sin brings discord into the world. All the struggles of elves, dwarves, and men that result show the nobility of love and heroic sacrifice and the ugliness of pride, treachery, and betrayal. Many of the verses in Proverbs that show the importance of patience and self-control are well illustrated in Beren and Luthien's tale and other stories of the various races' correctly and incorrectly motivated wars against Morgoth and others of Illuvatar's servants (the Valar). Parallelling the Genesis Flood, the anger of the Valar toward the ingratitude and mistrust of men and willingness to follow Sauron's demonic guidance brings on a huge flood - the drowning of Numenor - and a permanent change in the form of Middle Earth.

Of course, we do not find the specifically redemptive sacrifice(s) of The Lord of the Rings in The Silmarillion, but the willingness to risk one`s life for others repeatedly brings former enemies together (think of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the actions of David toward Saul), and the events that lead up to the reign of Sauron and the making of the One Ring are also detailed.

All very interesting, you might say, but why read a reflection of Biblical truth and not just stick to reading the Bible? Certainly the willingness to read and reread our Bibles, to study the Word, to let it dwell in us richly, is a mark of true faith. However, Christians also want to see that truth reflected in art, in music, and in literature - even in fiction. Even the Puritan John Bunyan saw that, which is why we have Pilgrim's Progress. The beauty of fiction is that it may recapture for us the 'strangeness,' the wonder of Biblical history to which we have become too accustomed:
Yes, this is how ugly sin is, how beautiful virtue is, how great and terrible judgment is. You mean that judgment on pride and blasphemy and wickedness would bring a permanent change in the world? Yes, it did, and yes, it will!

So why is this book called The Silmarillion? Well, because of the Silmarils, jewels crafted by Feanor, an ancient elf whose sons' great oath brought many years of conflict to Middle Earth. Why the Silmarils are so important to elves, men and the Valar, you`ll need to read the book to find out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Beatrice's Goat & One Hen

These two picture books will open children's eyes to what is involved in helping the poor in Africa, and may get them excited enough to want to get involved. Both are aimed at children 5-9, so you might wonder, what could such young children do to help anyway? Well, as these two books show, even a very little can go a long way... if it is used creatively and industriously.

Now there are some clear similarities - both are beautifully illustrated, and both present poverty-fighting ideas that have been proven effective. But they have very different strengths. The first - Beatrice's Goat - is the better written, with a tight, engaging story. The second - One Hen - present the newest and perhaps most effective means of helping: Micro Finance Loans.

Beatrice's Goat
by Page McBrier
illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter
Atheneum Books, 2001, 40 pages

This is the story of a little African girl named Beatrice, and how she, and her mother and five younger brothers and sisters all came to live in a "sturdy mud house with a fine steel roof." The house is new, as is the blue wooden furniture inside, and it's all because of a goat named Mugisa.

The goat was a gift but one that required quite some care. A pen had to be built, and each day food had to be brought, and water fetched from the stream, and of course Mugisa had to be milked too. It was this milk that changed Beatrice's life. Not only was it an important source of nutrition for the family, to help them grow stronger and be more healthy, but there was enough left each day to sell to neighbors and friends. So because of Mugisa and her milk, Beatrice was able to get the money needed for her to attend school! And Mugisa was a gift that kept on giving. When she gave birth to two kids, after they grew into adult goats themselves, the family sold them and was able to use the money to build their new home.

This gift of a goat is an example of charitable giving which is, as they say, not a hand out, but rather a hand up. Mugisa required care and work, but allowed the family to greatly improve their situation. World Vision is involved in this type of charitable venture, so if, after reading this book, your children want to become involved, they can go to http://donate.worldvision.org/ and donate an animal to a family in need. A goat might be a bit expensive, at a cost of $75 US, but 3 ducks can be given for just $18, an amount that an excited determined child could raise with just a little help from mom and dad.

The book is beautiful and attractively written, and it tells a story well worth hearing.

One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference
by Katie Smith Milway
illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes
Kids Can Press, 2008, 32 pages

It's another beautifully illustrated picture book, and is based on a true story. Kojo is a small boy from Ghana who has to help his mother take care of the family after his father dies. He is fortunate enough to get a small loan - a micro loan - with which he buys a hen, and by selling her eggs he is soon able to pay off the loan, and buy more hens. Through hard work he eventually builds up his flock until it provides him and his family enough money to feed them, and send Kojo to school.

Each page has 100-200 words of text making it a book most suitable for grade one or two - it is quite text heavy for a picture book. But the book is designed so that it can be read to younger children too, with each page including, in a large font, a one line summary. One example: "These are the eggs that Kojo sells from the hen he bought"

A problem with this book is that the longer text is written in a stilted passive style. Definite improvements could have been made quite easily. For example, here's a line from early on in the book:

"Kojo tugs the knot tight and hoists a bundle of firewood onto his head... As Kojo nears the house he can smell his mother's fuju cooking, their main meal made from cassava and yams. He begins to walk faster."

It's a strange choice the author made, and one that could easily be improved on. Why not make it more active?

"Kojo tugged the knot tight and hoisted the firewood onto his head... As Kojo neared his house, he could smell that his mother was cooking fuju, a meal made from yams and cassava. He started walking faster."

See, how hard was that?

That means this is probably not going to be the sort of book your children will ask you to read to them again and again, but it is still a wonderful educational resource that will teach them about an important way we can help the poor in Africa, via Micro Loans and MicroFinancing. Because these are very small loans it is, again, easy for a child to get involved - almost anything they raise or give can be used to help someone. World Vision is also involved in this type of charitable giving, and you can find out more about it by looking for MicroFinance on the menu at http://donate.worldvision.org/.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species

by Michael Keller and Nicolle Rager Fuller
2009 / 192 pages

This is a decidedly odd recommendation - I am recommending a good adaptation of a horrible book.

Darwin's Origin of the Species is the foundational book for the theory of Evolution and author Michael Keller and illustrator Nicoller Rager Fuller have, here, done a good job of condensing the content of Darwin's book. By reading their version, instead of the original, a good understanding of Darwin's theory can be had in an hour or two, instead of a day or two. That is one reason I am recommending it.

Still, why would we even want a good understanding of Darwin's theory? The theory is bunk, so why waste our time learning about it?

It may be bunk, but it was once pretty influential bunk. It is, in fact, a book that changed the world because it offered an explanation to those that did not want to acknowledge God, of how life might have developed without Him. Even many Christians were convinced back in 1859, when Origins was first published, and tried to reconcile the Biblical account of Creation with Darwin's account - they thought his theory was so clearly true that the only way the Bible could also be true is if it was made to fit with what Darwin wrote. Inside the Church and outside, this book was causing tremors.

That's why it is still worth reading, though today even evolutionists disagree with almost all of what Darwin wrote. When he was writing it we hadn't yet learned how incredibly complex the cell was, and knew nothing about genetics, so Darwin assumed that life was far simpler than it has proven to be. He developed his theory while operating largely in the dark.

And yet, despite being full of what everyone today recognizes as errors, this book swayed many to deny God, and pushed many who still believed to try to accommodate the Bible to this new theory. Is there a lesson to be learned from this that we can apply today? Aren't we again being confronted with scientists saying they have it all figured out, and with Christians who say we should reinterpret the Bible in light of the latest scientific theories? As Yogi Berra said, "This is deja vu all over again." But while God's Word continues to be attacked, it continues to endure - that is a good take-away lesson.

Now the problem with this graphic adaptation is that it is written by evolutionists - the authors are www.AnswersInGenesis.org, www.Creation.com or www.ICR.org where all of Darwin's "evidences" for evolution are evaluated, and rebutted. I'm a frequent visitor to these sites, so as I paged through this graphic adaptation I was struck again and again by how Darwin's best arguments - including the ones still in use today - have been thoroughly dismantled by Creation scientists.
obviously fans of Darwin, and present his theory without critique (or, at least, without Creationist critique - they offer some improvements on his theory, updating it in parts). So this is not a comic you would simply hand to someone without warning or explanation. I recommend it only be used when combined with the websites of Creationist groups like

This is why I am recommending this book - if Christians were better aware of Darwin's theory, I think we would be a lot less intimidated by it. Of course this is not a book to give to the undiscerning. I would only recommend it to someone who was going to dedicate time to studying Evolution, and was going to put in the effort necessary to find answers to any questions the book raises.

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

RELATED REVIEWS: other graphic novels about evolution



Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien
Mariner Books, 2005, 1178 pages

If you've haven't heard of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you must have been living on a desert island (without the Internet). As a teacher, I'm pleasantly suprised by the number of people who still read the books (rather than simply assume that the movies accurately convey Tolkien's world). The fact that people still read the books is a good thing, because the movies simply cannot do justice to the scope of J. R. R. Tolkien's vision.

For instance, the movies cut off the beginning and end of the story - the meeting in the Old Forest with Tom Bombadil and the the scouring of the Shire. While the movies' theme seems to be the importance of the underdog (hobbits to the rescue!), the books have a clearer grasp of the power of sin and its resulting curse. The Old Forest is "thorns and thistles" in abundance - nature resisting and even threatening man as a result of sin. The movies show the great power of the destruction of the Ring (partially parallelling Christ's triumph over sin and death the cross), but only the book shows that there are still other battles to be fought against sin, in the scouring of the Shire.

This is the harsh beauty of the entire trilogy - the revelation of the need to fight against sin - but not only externally; also internally. Many characters are tempted by the Ring, because they see it as the way to accomplish their own ends (good or ill) - Galadriel ruling over the world in beauty, Denethor using it to defeat Sauron, Boromir seeking to keep his father's love. The Lord of the Rings reveals the terrible danger of believing that the ends justify the means.

Most of all, Tolkien's trilogy is a vivid portrayal of two Biblical themes. The first is the temptation and destructive power of idolatry - destructive to both self and others. As you read, note the swath of deception and destruction wreaked by the path of the Ring from Sauron - one version of Middle Earth's Satan - to Isildur and down through the three Ages of Middle Earth to many other characters.

The other theme is the comprehensive nature of the redemption needed from the Ring. Christians know that they have been redeemed by the power of Christ in His threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Some glimmer of how great Christ's work was and is can be seen in the fact that three characters are needed to show the analogy to His work in Tolkien's world. Pondering how each of the three main characters - Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf - parallels some various aspect(s) of Christ's threefold office can help us see how complete (and how much greater) Christ's redemptive work is.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Big Picture Story Bible

by David Helm
illustrations by Gail Schoonmaker
Crossways Books, 2004

We have a child raising challenge in our house- while our children are both very smart, they are slower than average in the area of communication. But like all parents who take the spiritual development of their children seriously, we want them to start learning their Bible. We were puzzled how to begin...until our daughter started to read, and Grandma found this book!

First, the illustrations are beautifully done. Brightly colored, interesting use of perspective to fit story and emotionally expressive, the illustrations alone provide a lot to talk about.

The adaptation of the Bible story is extremely well done too. Although many details and even whole stories are left out, there is just the right amount of text on each page for beginning readers to be drawn into reading themselves. The author has done a great job selecting stories and details to highlight (and sometimes interpret) the big themes of the entire Bible. God made people in His image to rule creation in loving ways, but Adam and Eve chose to "not let God be king over them"...and so it went. God's plan to redeem and restore His people is highlighted in each story, and the purpose God has for us is made clear through the repetition of themes of obedience, leadership, and the fulfillment of God's gracious plan.

The drawback to this book is it's size. It's approximately 9 by 9 inches and over an inch thick. My daughter is carrying it everywhere and it's awkward, for example, trotting through the airport with it tucked under her arm or dangling it from the handy ribbon bookmark. But if your child is willing to just read it, that might not be a problem.

We'll be using this one for awhile...and I'm enjoying sharing important truths with my child at a level she can understand.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What does love look like?

by Janette Oke
Bethany House, 2001, 32 pages

reviewed by Jeanette Dykstra

It’s very hard for shy little Emily to be the “new girl” in a first grade class. This book details how Emily is welcomed into her new class and how she tries to be unnoticed after a kind introduction by her new teacher. She listens to her class discuss “things that are real but which you can’t see.” Love is given as an example and the class decides to try to draw the idea of love. The different pictures the class comes up with are very interesting and can certainly instigate some discussions between the adult reader and the listening child.

One picture shows two girls – one holding a broken chocolate bar and handing a big piece to her friend. A boy in class, Bradley, has drawn a big brown square because love is like a big, big blanket, big and warm enough to wrap up the whole world. A girl on crutches shows a picture of a big circle because to her a circle has no rough edges to hurt people or corners for anyone to get pushed into.

The happy feelings illustrated on the many pictures make Emily feel more at ease. Then she gets up to show her picture. Although still a little nervous she goes up to the front of the class and shows her picture. Now everyone is looking at her and her picture, and suddenly her new teacher begins to clap. Then the children join in. Emily’s picture is about the ultimate love, God’s love of mankind. Everyone agrees that her picture of a cross should go up on the special merit board.

This book is a great learning tool and beautifully illustrated by Cheri Bladholm using a real grade one class as models. As a former teacher I found this book to be “real” and not contrived. I would gladly have used it in my classroom or as a grandma to read to my grandkids.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pinocchio

by Carlo Collodi
Puffin Classics, 1996, 262 pages

The first read-aloud I remember enjoying (because my teacher read it to us, her class, in school) is Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. The hard-edged morality of the book is far better than in the Disney movie, as Pinocchio learns about the consequences of sin, rather than about “believing in yourself.”

The original story starts with a fight between two old men in an Italian town when a block of wood insults one of them and (of course) the offended party assumes that it is the other senior who has called him names. Two things about this opening show the difference between Collodi's and Disney's versions. In Collodi's version, ordinary people fight, because they are sinners like you and me. (Don't worry; they do reconcile - eventually.) Secondly, children are sinners, too. Pinocchio is conceived and born in sin; he is a brat even as a block of wood before he is formed into a puppet.

Collodi's version is not a story of a puppet who becomes a real boy by showing his true heroic character. Instead, it is a bildungsroman - a story of a rather wooden personality growing up by learning to see his own immaturity through suffering. The book of Proverbs tells us that the way of the transgressor is hard. For Pinocchio, it sure is. How much better, though, for kids and their parents not to have to learn that the wages of sin is death through personal experience, but instead by, for instance, seeing a foolish puppet get hanged (and rescued - there is grace in this story, too!).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

You Are Special

by Max Lucado
Crossway Books, 1997, 31 pages

reviewed by Jeanette Dykstra

This is not the usual sugary “you are special” kind of book. It is an interesting little story about a small village peopled by wooden puppets. They have all been made by the woodcarver who lives in a small hut above the village. Each one of the puppets has a bunch of gold stars and gray dots which they put on each other throughout the day. Popular, good-looking, athletic and smart puppets get a lot of gold stars, whereas the shy, average-looking, clumsy and ordinary puppets get mostly gray dots. Punchinello is in this last group and he doesn’t think much of himself. The more gray dots he gets the worse he feels. Until he meets his maker.

It is an especially good book to read with small children (ages 5-7) who are not in the “in” group. It gives these children a different way of coping with their lack of popularity and their clumsiness. Their “maker” values them as His unique creation and He loves them. With this reminder, the awkward child can cope better.

You can buy You are Special at Amazon.com by clicking here.