Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Once on a Time

A.A. Milne
New American Library, 1988.
255 pages.

A.A. Milne is the very famous author of the Winnie the Pooh stories, known and loved by children and popularized by Disney. However, Milne wrote more than just stories of a loveable bear and not all of those stories are aimed primarily at children.

Once on a Time can be described as a fairy tale for adults. It is the story of King Merriwig of Euralia who finds he has to go to war, and his daughter, Hyancinth, who tries to manage the kingdom while her father is off doing brave deeds. There is courtship, romance, disillusionment and the full range of wonderful highs and lows that can be found in any masterful fairy tale.

But Once on a Time is not truly a masterful fairy tale. It is a work of sheer silliness. It is a comedy of manners and is about people pretending to be things they are not and learning to be the things at which they really are quite good. In that sense the story is a typical fairy tale for it does have a "truth" for us to learn.

Once on a Time, however, pokes fun of the stereotypical fairy tale format. It is an enjoyable book for someone who likes to read something entirely tough in cheek where almost everything can be understood two ways. As the King of Euralia recounts to his daughter: "The extraordinary things one encountered [in the forest]! Witches, giants, dwarfs...It was there that I met your mother." Did the king really mean what he said?

If you don't like tongue in cheek silliness, this is not a book for you. You'll think it's a waste of time. But if you like plain old goofy entertainment that so often has a double meaning, this is a great story.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Unmerited Mercy

A memoir, 1968-1996
by Marvin Olasky
World & Life Book, 2010, 131 pages

Marvin Olasky is the editor-in-chief of the Christian newsmagazine WORLD, a Presbyterian elder and was, until a month ago, a Christian college provost. He is a godly man and a good leader.

But it wasn’t always so.

In Unmerited Mercy Olasky shares how God brought him from “card-carrying Communist to Bible-carrying Christian” through a tumultuous 28-year period in his life. The tumult started soon after his entry into Yale in 1968, and peaked after a trip to the USSR where he was supposed to learn how to be a Soviet operative. The book concludes with Olasky serving as an advisor to President George W. Bush. Quite a transition!

Olasky makes clear, however, that it was not a transition of his own making. Indeed the most wonderful part of the book is how clearly the author shows God working in his life. It was God’s grace, and not his own smarts or initiative, that brought Olasky to where he is today.

Though it is a small book – only 131 pages – there’s a lot packed in it. Olasky has led a very exciting life. If you want to learn more you can visit WorldMag.com/OlaskySeries and listen to a series of interviews the author gave about each of the chapters of the book.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The History Book

DK Publishing, 2008.
299 pages.

I always think it's a good idea to interest kids in history (though, as I like to say, there's no future in it) and The History Book is a great way to get them started. This book is an ambitious attempt to cover the history of humanity in about 300 pages, so, predictably, it's going to have some flaws.

But first, what's good about it? It's bright and colorful and this is attractive to kids of all ages. It's short and snappy so you have enough to whet your appetite for more without getting bogged down in endless details. As well, it's lighthearted and silly which makes it far more readable than the history that most historians write.

So what are the problems with a book like this? Well, it's bright and colorful and that means serious subjects are sometimes treated in a cartoonish manner. You might not think this is always appropriate. It's short and snappy so details are sometimes limited. A few times, in an attempt to simply an event, it's arguable that they've simplified it so much that they've gotten it wrong. (Can you really simplify the history of Canada into one page?) As well, it's lighthearted and silly so the tone of the book sometimes seems sophomoric, or, more bluntly, childish (and I don't mean child-like).

All in all it's a pretty good attempt to write the history of the world. You may want to read it before you give it to your child since all history books have a bias in the way they write and this book is no exception. This will make it easier to talk about what your child has read.

It's a nice book and probably great for kids from about 10-15 years old.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, 2011, 637 pages

My wife was busy with some work on her laptop last night, and while I tried to restrain myself, I had to keep interrupting her to show her just how amazing this book is. It is a piece of art!

Wonderstruck could be described as part novel, part silent film. There are two stories, one in 1927, the other taking place 50 years later. Both are about children heading to New York. The action switches back and forth between the two, with the little girl's story - from 1927 - told entirely in pictures, and the boy's story told more conventionally with short "chapters." But because both children are heading to the same city, and visiting the same places, even though the action is separated by 50 years, the pictures in her story also show us what he is seeing. So there is a near seamless transition from the one story line to the other - it had me shaking my head at author Brian Selznick's creative brilliance!

I think I may be getting ahead of myself. Let's start again. This is a children's book, aimed at pre-teens, though I think an adult will appreciate it on a whole different level. It is huge - more than 600 pages thick - but only about a quarter of those have text, so it isn't the intimidating tome it looks.

Wonderstruck is about Ben and Rose. Ben lives in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, with his aunt and uncle, because his mother has just died. He never knew his father, and because any questions he raised would make his mother sad, he stopped asking. She never even told him his name. But after his mother's death Ben discovers what may be some clues to who his father is, and those clues point him to New York. After an accident leaves him temporarily deaf Ben decides he has to go to the big city to find his father.

Rose is a girl living in 1927, just outside of New York.  She can see the lights of the big city from the window in her room. She collects newspaper clippings about a famous actress, and runs away to New York when she learns the actress is starring in a play in the city.

I was soon wishing these two didn't live decades apart - I wanted them to meet, and help each other. And of course that is what eventually happens as the two story lines merge into one.


There are a few brief references to evolution, and God is entirely ignored. Ben's mother's attitude towards marriage is mentioned briefly, but its selfishness is not noted (she did not want to be married, though she did want a child). The story's worldview is hard to sum up, but includes the idea that we can find our "completeness"- we can find some sense of meaning in the world - by finding our roots. In other words, family or a form of ancestor/descendant worship have been inserted in the place of God. So, like a lot of secular books for children, this would be a good one for parents to discuss with their children. 


However, don't make too much of these cautions - this book is far less problematic than most preteen fiction. And it is far more beautiful. The author has seamlessly meshed two story lines, set 50 years apart. By telling one story in wordless pictures, he gives us a glimpse into what it might be like to be deaf, and by contrasting the 1920s with the 1970s he also creates a sense of timelessness - so many things might change in 50 years but people remain the same. It is simply stunning what Selznick has accomplished. It is a work that will be enjoyed by children, and appreciated by anyone, young or old, who enjoys great art.