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 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


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.