Saturday, September 28, 2013

Harold and the Purple Crayon... and a red crayon too!

Harold and the Purple Crayon
by Crockett Johnson
64 pages, 1955

Harold is a little boy with a big purple crayon and an even larger imagination. The book is delightfully simple - Harold lives in a blank-canvas of a world, and with his purple crayon he can create the adventure he wants to embark on. As his adventure begins Harold is faced with a problem:
One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight. There wasn't any moon, and Harold need a moon for a walking the moonlight. 
So Harold uses his purple crayon to draw the moon, and then to draw a path to set out on.

One of the funniest situations occurs when, after drawing  "a terribly frightening dragon," Harold is so scared by his own creation he backs away, and "His hand holding the purple crayon shook." So what happens when you draw with a shaking hand? You draw waves! So Harold ends up backing away from the dragon into water he had just accidentally created! Fortunately the quick-thinking Harold rectifies the situation by drawing a boat to climb into.

Children will appreciate the imaginative storyline, and the simple illustrations – attractive but also do-able for children as young as four or five. So Harold's adventure may inspire your children to create some adventures of their own!

You can pick it up at here, and here.

by Aaron Becker

40 pages, 2013

While Crockett Johnson wrote sequels to Harold and the Purple Crayon I think Aaron Becker's Journey might be the most worthy successor.

There are some notable differences: Harold's world is a blank page, ready to be drawn on, while Journey has lavish full color spreads; Harold is narrated, while Journey is a completely wordless book. But in both books a child equipped with a large crayon and an even larger imagination sets out on an adventure of their own creating.

Journey begins with a bored little girl trying to get her mom, her dad, or his sister to come play with her. But her family is too busy, so the girl retreats to her room where she happens upon her red crayon. She draws a red door on her wall, and opens it to an entirely new world. A quickly drawn red boat allows her to float down a forest stream to a castle that has moats running all throughout it, and friendly guards who wave her through. Like Harold, she too, in a moment of quick thinking, conjures up a balloon to save herself from a big fall. The adventure continues into the clouds, where she comes upon a strange king, his stranger airship, and a beautiful bird that looks almost as if someone - someone with a purple crayon - had drawn it!

I loved "reading" this with my three-year-old daughter, asking her as we turned each page to tell me what was happening. Sometimes I had to point out certain details in the pictures to help her along, but for the most part this was a book that she could, to her delight, read to her daddy. Simply wonderful!

Becker has turned now this into a trilogy, with the girl being joined by a chalk-drawing friend for a Quest in book two, and then coming full circle, and meeting up with her father in the chalk world in book three, Return. I've read both to my girls, and we loved every bit of it – they are just as charming, and also wordless, so the girls get to search out the pages, and figure out the story right along with dad.

But these two sequels got a little mystical. In the second book, Quest, this mysticism is so minor it is hardly worth mention – a quest for other chalk colors takes them diving underwater to an ancient Greek-type temple, and then up in the mountains to some Buddhist type temple. No biggie.

In book three, Return, they end up in a cave where drawings on the wall show their previous adventures, and also prophecies about how they will beat the bad guy who is chasing them. They follow the directions, and yes, it works just as the drawings foretold. Now, there are no words in these books, so there are no details as to how these drawings came to be, and what person or being made them. And, as the dad "reading" this with my daughters, I can choose to point out the details as I like and I just didn't focus my daughters' attention on this prophetic angle. But the author, in creating a world where chalk drawings can come alive, is now also creating a bit of a "chalk religion" in book three, and I found that a bit disconcerting.

All in all, I'd recommend book one and two with no cautions – these are great imaginative books that I'd consider buying, because they stand up to repeated viewings. But book three is one I'd be up for borrowing from the library, but not so interested in owning.

You can pick up Journey at here, and here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Citizen Scientists: Be A Part of Scientific Discovery From Your Own Backyard

by Loree Griffin Burns
photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz
Henry Holt and Company, 2012
80 pages, Paperback

When I was a kid, I liked to look at bugs, frogs, and other creepy things.  When I grew up, I graduated to an interest in birdwatching.  And when I became a teacher, I enjoyed biology units in which I could encourage my students to learn more about the natural world around them. 

Citizen Scientists is a book that can help kids (and grownups) begin to recognize some of the detail and beauty of creation.  It's about how ordinary people can contribute to actual research projects - a "citizen scientist" is someone who helps professional scientists collect information in the field.  There's four sections, each covering monarch butterflies, winter birding, listening for frogs in spring, and looking for ladybugs. 

Each section shares a quick story about a child who has made a hobby of observing nature, explains about the creature or creatures being examined, gives the reader information about how to get started, and has a list of resources (both books and online) to help the reader learn what they need to know in order to find and identify each creature.  There's also information about why keeping track of what animals live where is important information.

What I really like about this book is that it isn't just something to read and then put aside - putting the information to use could lead to some great family time outdoors, learning and exploring together.

There is a focus on American places and creatures, but there is enough overlap with Canadian ecology, and enough additional resources suggested that it's still useful and interesting for Canadians.  Recommended for ages 8 and up.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Chosen

by Chaim Potok
304 pages, 1987 (originally published 1967)

This is the last novel some of my students will ever read, since we deal with it in the regular Grade 12 English course. For non-readers, it's not a bad way to end your reading career, since it is a thoughtful look at the difficulties of growing up as members of a small religious group in the midst of a society that attaches little or no value to your convictions. In other words, though it deals with members of two different Jewish communities in New York during the Second World War, The Chosen gives students in our Reformed Christian school a good sense of what may face them after graduation.

The narrator of the story, a teen named Reuven Malter, is the son of a brilliant Orthodox Talmudic scholar (a professor of the Jewish scriptures and commentaries) named David Malter. Reuven's father uses rationalistic methods to understand the seeming inconsistencies in the transmission of those sacred and near-sacred books - analogous to liberal scholars who used higher criticism to cast doubts on the reliability of the Bible. Despite this somewhat unpromising parentage, Reuven is devout in his belief in God, and eventually wishes to become a rabbi.

Strangely, Reuven, through the most entertaining (and violent) opening baseball game I have read in fiction, meets and befriends Danny Saunders, the son of a Hasidic rabbi whose beliefs are much clearer and perhaps even simplistic - a bit like Reformed believers who face the temptation to place more stock in tradition rather than the Bible it is based on. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, speaks directly to God, calling him the Master of the Universe; speaks only Yiddish; and uses the methods of his Hasidic forebears to raise Danny in a way that repels both Reuven and his father.

In spite of the injury done to him by Danny, and his lack of sympathy for Reb Saunders' parenting method, Reuven is drawn into the strange and mystical world of Hasidism in his concern for Danny, who, ironically, is also rejecting his seeming destiny in his choice of psychology for a future career.

In the course of Reuven and Danny's intense friendship, we see the value of such friendship; the difficulty of varied American Jewish groups in reacting to the Holocaust and the beginning of the state of Israel; and the challenge of secular worldviews (especially Freudian psychology) to the faith of those who believe in God, in his control of the universe, and in the truth of human responsibility. As well, the novel makes clear the anguish of those who do not understand or trust in either God's providence or His redemptive work in Christ.

It should be clear by now that this is not a Christian novel - but it is a novel that affords ample opportunity to Christians to discern the blessings of their faith by contrast with mysticism, materialism, and other worldviews. As well, it shows the challenges of trying to live within a secular society, challenges that are exacerbated by further division within the faith. However, exactly because it is a faithful portrayal of Jewish life in New York in the War, it also, sadly, reproduces the language of some Jews who, naturally, have no respect for the name of Christ - mostly during this intense conflict of the opening baseball game between the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. Once past this conflict, the novel sheds more light than profane heat.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Wings of Dawn, oops, I mean The Orphan King and Fortress of the Mist

Wings of Dawn
by Sigmund Brouwer
450 pages, 1999

There is a danger in overhyping a book. One of my very favorite novels is Sigmund Brouwer's Wings of Dawn. It is a book I've shared with many of my niece and nephews, and while each has enjoyed it, none has been nearly as effusive in their praise as I, and that is, I'm sure, partly due to the raised expectations created by my own enthusiasm for the book.

But it is a very good book. What grabbed me was the inventiveness of the premise. It takes place in the 1300s, and the hero of the story is a young man of seemingly humble abilities - Thomas is but a servant. He is, however, a servant who has at his disposal the wisdom of that present time, from the four corners of the world, in the form of some very helpful books. So, for example, he knows the secret of making a powder that burns the throat and blinds the eyes which can make it seem, to those not in the know, that Thomas has a wizard's ability to cast blindness on his enemies.

He has more tricks in his bag, all things that would seem magical to ordinary peasants and even lords and kings at that time, but tricks that someone, somewhere in the world, had, in fact figured out by this time in history. So it is at least theoretically possible that someone could have gathered all this knowledge together and, in doing so, given themselves the ability to seem quite the wizard.

To sum up, it's a very cool premise, and pulled off by an excellent storyteller.

The Orphan King
by Sigmund Brouwer
220 pages, 2012

When I learned the author had reworked the one book into at least four, to give him room to further flesh out the story I was quite excited. The first three, The Orphan King, Fortress of Mist, and Martyr's Fire have been released, with no date yet on the fourth. Wings of Dawn was 450 pages, and each of these stories is 220+ so it looks like the story will be expanded by at least 100 per cent. After finishing the first three I am very pleased. It is very much the same story, but he has managed to improve on what was already excellent.

In The Orphan King we are introduced to Thomas as a servant intent on conquering a kingdom. You might think that sort of task would take an army, but all Thomas wants is one single solitary knight. But what knight in his right mind would sign up for such a suicidal task? To make matters even more challenging Thomas has a enemy who is intent on either killing him or recruiting him but Thomas has no idea who it might be. Unsure of who to trust, it seems if this boy is really to conquer a kingdom, he is going to have to do it alone!

Fortress of Mist

by Sigmund Brouwer
220 pages, 2013

Thomas has his kingdom, and an impenetrable castle. But can he keep it? And can he figure out who to trust? In Fortress of Mist Thomas takes part in two enormous war campaigns, and emerges unscathed, due to the knowledge contained in his books. But he discovers that it is those very books that his mysterious enemies are after. Thomas still doesn't know who to trust, but learns that just as there is a hidden enemy after him, there also seem to be hidden friends who want to help.

Some of the added depth to the expanded storyline in this trilogy is more on Thomas's rejection of, and reluctant search for, God. Thomas has had a hard life, orphaned as a child, then raised by monks who had no love for him. So he wonders how a good God could allow so much evil. It is a question asked but unanswered in the first book. In the second he gets to know a good Christian man, and starts to see the difference between the "christianity" of the corrupt Church, and Christianity as it is outlined in the Bible. In the second book, as in the first, Thomas's investigation into who God is only amounts to a few pages, but it is well integrated into the story - this is no clumsily presented Christian subplot. The life and death situations Thomas faces drive him, quite naturally, to start asking about the most important issue of life: why are we here?

Martyr's Fire
by Sigmund Brouwer
216 pages, 2013

Thomas took his kingdom with trickery, but now a group with even better tricks has arrived in Magnus. Fifteen "priests" of the Holy Grail are swaying the people to their side, under the threat of eternal condemnation, and they have signs and wonders providing their credentials as God's spokesmen. With the people now against him, Thomas seems destined for a stay in his own dungeon. But he still has one friend in Magnus and with his help Thomas might still escape to fight another day!

The author devotes a few pages in Martyr's Fire to exploring just what faith is, and unfortunately, he gets it wrong. Brouwer seems to believe that faith is simply a blind leap into the unknown that we have to take because we have no other options. He makes it out to be almost irrational - just believe! But, as apologist Sye Ten Bruggencate noted, we have a pump, in our chest, made out of meat, that works continuously for 70-80 years, fueled by donuts. So it is hardly a blind leap to belief there is a loving God, who made us. Sometimes if might feel like there is no evidence of God, particularly when we are neck deep in sin, doing our very best to avoid Him. While it might feel that way sometimes, that isn't how it actually is.

But this discussion of blind faith only amounts to a few pages and the rest of the book is a rollicking ride. Boys in their teens, particularly if they are at all interested in knights and castles, will enjoy this immensely... or at least if their uncle doesn't overhype it. And this is something their dads can enjoy too, if they understand it is actually aimed at a teen/young adult audience.

Blades of Valor
by Sigmund Brouwer
????, 2014

This is a solid, but not spectacular ending to the series. There were a few too many instances where the only reason things aren't brought to a quick and final resolution is because Thomas won't trust the very lovely and in-love Katherine, and vice-versa. That distrust was a part of the other books too, but by the fourth it has started to wear a little thin. So while I liked that the original one-book version of this story, Wings of Dawn, was expanded, it probably would have been better to expand it to just three books and not four.

That said this is still a solid ending to a really great series.

Inexplicably the publisher decided to release the fourth book only as an e-book (which is why I haven't listed a page count). And that is beyond annoying. I have paperback versions of the first three books, but have to loan out my Kindle for someone to read the fourth? It so bothered me I've emailed the publisher twice, but gotten no response. At this point it looks like they are not going to release the fourth in paperback at all.

If they don't, then get an old copy of Wings of Dawn instead, because you are going to want to share this story with your friends.