Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Box Socials

by W.P. Kinsella
1991, 222 pages

Box Socials is the story of how Truckbox Al McClintock got his chance at fame when he got to play against the Major League All Stars in Renfrew Park in Edmonton. Though that's the thread that holds the entire book together, what it's really about is life in small town Alberta in the 1940s. For me the book was fun, in part, because I grew up in Alberta and a lot of the places referred to in the story are places I know, though I think at least a few are made up.

If you don't come from Alberta, the book is still entertaining, for though it's set in a specific place it's really about any small and close knit community. That could be your home town, or possibly the church community you're part of. The characters you meet in this book have parallels in any community. There's the gossips, the jokesters, the steady folks who are always there to help, and the wise and understanding sorts. Perhaps you'll recognize some of the characters in the book, but it's more likely that you'll discover yourself in here, for we're all made up of parts of the better and worse people that we meet in this tale.

The story is told in a folksy sort of way which is a bit repetitious. This gives it a flavor like you might have if you were sitting out on your front porch and being told the story by one of the community old timers. It's a tale that really should be read aloud even if that's only done in your head.

Though the story is told in the first person through the eyes of Jamie O'Day, a boy of about 10 or 11, there are some scenes described that are a bit crude. There's few inappropriate words, because the narrator doesn't always know what he's witnessing and consequently describes it using euphemisms, but you will know what he's talking about. The descriptions are not graphic and are only a sentence or so. These are things that you will recognize in your community, too, and the hypocrisy that's often associated with them. However, you'll need to decide if that's something you want in your fiction.

Overall it's a well told story about life in a small community. Though it's set in the 1940s the characters could fit in well in most communities today. It's touching, warm, and funny. It's a surprisingly good book.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Girl's Like Spaghetti

Why, you can't manage without apostrophes!
by Lynne Truss
illustrated by Bonnie Timmons
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007, 32 pages

A children's book on the proper use of apostrophes doesn't sound like it would be all that engaging. A punctuation picture book? Who thought that would sell? But, as author Lynne Truss knew from her adult's punctation bestseller Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, there's a lot of comic potential in the misuse of punctuation. The title of that book was the punch-line for a joke:

A Panda walks into a  bar, orders a sandwich, and after eating it, draws a gun, shoots a couple of holes in the fellow next to him, and then walks out. The waiter rushes after him and demands to know why he did that. The Panda pulls out a badly punctuated dictionary and shows the waiter the entry on Pandas. It reads: "Eats, shoots, and leaves."

An extra comma in an unfortunate location led to two holes in an unfortunate fellow.

Spaghetti is a children's version of part of Truss's adult bestseller, and it uses a series of paired cartoons to explore how an apostrophe can make a world of a difference. For example, on the left hand side of one two-page spread, we see a whole bunch of dogs jumping on and licking a friendly older man. The caption reads "The dogs like my dad." On the facing page is a man with a dog that looks just like him, with the caption: "The dog's like my dad." An apostrophe can be pretty powerful!

The rest of the book continues with similar pairings - "See the boys bat" versus "See the boy's bat" and "Look, it's behind" versus "Look, its behind." It concludes with two pages that review exactly what the apostrophe was doing in each pairing, and how it impacted the sentence.

So this is a fun book that would be a fantastic resource for a school, especially Grades 2-4.

There are two other titles in this punctation picture book series. The first shares the title of Truss's adult bestseller  Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It tackles commas, and is as entertaining, but includes a minor instance of potty humor. The caption to a picture is "Eat here and get gas" and the picture shows someone in a restaurant flying around the room, being propelled by their gas. So any teacher with more than their share of giggling little boys may want to skip this one.

The other title is one I would advise everyone to skip. It is Twenty-Odd Ducks and tackles semicolons, question and quotation marks, periods and exclamations , hyphens, parantheses and colons. It is also entertaining and instructive, but marred by the concluding two page spread, which uses all the various punctuation marks to turn a speech by a student praising his teacher into a speech complaining about how horrible the teacher is, and how she has ruined them. It uses all the same words as the first speech, so it is quite a clever demonstration of how the power of punctuation, showing how it can make a speech mean its opposite.. But it is also repeatedly and incredibly rude to an authority figure that our students need to respect whether she is talented or not. I think the last thing we need is another book encouraging disrespect of teachers.

So to sum up, one highly recommended book in this series, one very much not so, and one somewhere in between.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Faithfulness Under Fire

The Story of Guido de Brès
by William Boekestein
Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, 32 pages

“Church history” and “picture book” are almost mutually exclusive terms, but William Boekestein, author (and URC pastor), and Evan Hugues, illustrator, show that they don’t need to be. Faithfulness under Fire is the story of Guido de Brès and how God used this man to craft the Belgic Confession.

De Brès was born in 1522, and once he learned to walk, always seemed to be on the run. Persecution drove him to leave his hometown of Mons, Belgium, and head across the Channel to England. We learn that, for the brief period of Edward VI’s reign, Protestants could find refuge here, but the king’s death prompted Guido to return to Belgium, where he became a traveling preacher. Preaching was against the law, so he was always on the move, and didn’t even dare use his real name. He had some calmer years studying in Geneva under John Calvin, but soon returned to preaching… and to running.

About midway through the book, we see a great picture of de Brès throwing the Belgic Confession over a tall castle wall. This is where the Catholic King of Spain lived – de Brès hoped he would read the Confession and stop persecuting Protestants. That didn’t happen. But God decided to use de Brès’s efforts another way – the Confession has since spread around the world and been a gift to strengthen and instruct millions of Christians.

As you may recall, Guido de Brès was eventually captured, imprisoned and hanged - that's how his story ends. A hanging might not seem a good way to conclude a children’s book, but as Boekestein makes clear this was not the end of the man, but only the means by which he entered “the comfort of his Lord” (and the hanging is never pictured).

I’m not sure if this is a book children will read on their own, but it will certainly keep their attention if mom or dad reads it to them. It is an exceptional church history resource, loaded with active, engaging pictures, accompanying a very readable simplification of de Brès’s life. That makes it a fantastic resource for elementary schools and church libraries.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Understanding the Koran

A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book
by Mateen Elass
Zondervan, 2004, 192 pages

To say it in a sentence, this is the most readable and most loving Christian book on Islam I've yet read, and while it isn't a very big book, there is a lot packed in it.

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

CONTENT: This is a 192-page introduction to the Koran by a Presbyterian pastor, who was raised in Saudi Arabia. It outlines how the Koran is a compilation of muddled Bible stories, Gnostic accounts, and Jewish folk tales, and it compares and contrasts Christian views on our Bible with Muslim views about the Koran.

CAUTIONS: In Chapter 6 “Is Allah a False God?” the author argues that, like the Samaritans in New Testament times (see John 4:22), Muslims worship the real God, but in ignorance. This is a controversial stance, but it becomes much less so when the author makes it clear he isn’t arguing for any sort of equivalence between Islam and Christianity or that Muslims can be saved apart from Jesus.

CONCLUSION: Introductions to Islam can generally be divided into those that have nothing but good to say about Islam, and those that have nothing but bad. The strength of this title is that it takes a third approach – the author is Christian, but one knows and loves Muslims, so while he is direct, thorough, and quite devastating in his critique of the Koran, he always remain calm, and never resorts to rhetoric. Understanding the Koran is small (and engaging) enough to be read in a few evenings, but the depth of material, and the review questions for each chapter make this one worth rereading at a more studious pace.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Caps, Hats, Socks and Mittens: A Book About the Four Seasons

by Louise Borden
illustrated by Lillian Hoban
Scholastic, 1989, 30 pages

What characteristics of each of the four seasons is important to a small child? Well, here are some highlights from this book:

Winter is a lot of stuff to put on and a lot of stuff to get off!
Spring is grass, grass, grass.
 Dad cuts the grass and cuts the grass and cuts the grass.
Summer is hot, hot, hot. 
 Lots of hot dogs. Hot dog and hot dogs.
Fall is lots of smells. Nuts and pumpkins and corn in husks.

(The comment about spring is the most amusing for our family.)

This book has been read to pieces by our children, and we're not done with it yet. It describes what children notice, and what interests them. It's a great teaching tool for the changes that happen through the year. And the illustrations are friendly-looking and contain lots of details to talk about.

It would be most appreciated by toddlers and preschoolers, and would also be good as a book for beginning readers.