Monday, October 28, 2013

Saint George and the Dragon

retold by Margaret Hodges
illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
32 pages, 1990

There are a lot of "powder-puff" stories for the pre-K set – stories where everyone is nice, they do nice things, and a nice time is had by all.

I'm all for niceness, but there is a certain lack of drama to these stories. And after reading one after another of them to my three-year-old I noticed she was having a hard time dealing with stories that included disagreements, disappointment or suspense. Anything that wasn't the nicest of nice was becoming scary to her.

Steps needed to be taken to rectify this situation, and what better approach than to tell her stories of valor, self-sacrifice and dragons!

Admittedly the first go around wasn't a success. With no dragon books at hand I made up a story about daddy fighting a dragon in defense of my daughters, and then getting eaten by the fierce beast! Now, I knew this dramatic turn would push my little one's limits, but I was going to quickly follow it with my climactic reemergence, sword in hand, out of the belly of the now dead dragon. A fantastic ending, if I do say so myself. But, alas, my daughter wasn't around to hear it...she had already fled the room.

For my second go I decided to turn to the experts and get an actual book, one of the very best dragon fighting stories ever made by man (or retold by woman): Saint George and Dragon. In this account, taken from Edmund Spenser's classic Faerie Queene, the brave Red Knight is asked by Princess Una to come save her land from a dreadful dragon. And come he does, along with his dwarf companion.

The battle that then commences is beyond epic. The fearsome dragon has "scales of brass fitted so closely that no sword or spear could pierce them" leaving the Red Knight no opportunity to slice into him. It is only "the strength of the blow" that gives the dragon pause. The first day's battle ends when the Red Knight's thrust glances off the dragon's neck, but pierces its left wing. In fury the beast throws the knight and his horse to the ground and then bellows
"the like was never heard before - and from his body, like a wide devouring oven, sent a flame of fire that scorched the knight's face and heated his armor red-hot." 
The knight falls, and the dragon thinks he has won.

But that was just Round 1! The spot where the knight fell, it so happens, was an ancient spring which cools his armor and restores his strength. So much so that the next morning he was ready to do battle again. Two more rounds follow, with the dragon losing a paw, and a length of tail before ultimately succumbing to the Red Knight in Round 3.

My daughter loved it! She needed some reassurance midway through the battle that the knight was going to win, and I should also note I didn't give it as dramatic a reading as I could have - vocally I tamped down on the tension. But there was still plenty of suspense, loads of actions and a full on disagreement between knight and dragon. And my daughter handled it all.

So why should little kids be exposed to drama? Because stories, in addition to be a source of entertainment, can also serve as a means of education. We don't live in a powderpuff world - there are dragons that need slaying. What's more, Christians need to teach their children that the fiercest dragons out there can be and must be slain. God calls us to battle, so while stories about tea parties and talking puppies have their place, at some point training must commence. We have to be properly prepared for disagreements, disappointments, drama and dragons.

I leaned something from my little girl when I saw how she could make it through the scary parts so long as she was assured it would all end well. Lots of scary stuff in life too, but what do we have to fear, knowing as we do that God has already won?

So to sum up, this is an epic tale, retold in the very best way imaginable - my English teaching brother assures me no one has done a better job than author Margaret Hodges. The illustrations are detailed, and while not gore-free (we do see blood spurting from the dragon's tail when it gets cut off) certainly not gory. Both children and adults will enjoy time just pondering the pictures - when people talk of visual feasts, this is what they mean.

The only caution I can add is a bit comical - there is some small elfish immodesty in these pages, with the clearest example in the last picture here. The elves are not part of the story (they are a part of the larger Edmund Spenser tale Faerie Queen, of which this is an extracted part)  but appear on the title page, and in small pictures that frame each page's big center image. The elves, in one or two instances, are entirely naked, but the pictures are so small as to be easy to miss, and the elves themselves so child-like as to be quite innocent-looking. Nothing lascivious here and I mention it only so that those who might find such pictures objectionable aren't surprised by them.

Children from 3 or 4 to as old as 8 or 9 will love this story. And their dads will enjoy reading it to them.

Buy Saint George and the Dragon at this link and will send a tip our way at no cost to you.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Code name Habbakuk

by L.D. Cross
2012, 130 pages

In 1942, as the Allies faced mounting losses in the Atlantic from German U-boat attacks, they began anxiously exploring new ways of protecting their shipping. The oddest possibility they investigated was "Project Habbakuk" - a secret plan to build gigantic, unsinkable aircraft carriers out of ice. Ice, it was suggested, could be an ideal ship building material: it floated, was inexpensive, easily available, and after an attack ship's repairs could be done by simply spraying on some super-cooled water wherever dents and holes might be found.

Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic proponent, and probably the reason the idea was given serious study. But it was up to the Canadians, with our suitably cold climate, to build the first scale model. So that's why a crew of dozens soon found themselves secreted away in the middle of the Rocky Mountains building a 1,000-ton ice boat on the surface of a frozen lake.

It's a weird and wacky story, but it gives genuine insight into just how desperate the Allies were in 1942. An aircraft carrier made out of ice? It should have been a laughable. But with supplies low, and losses high, the Allies were looking for something - anything! - that could turn the course of the war their way. Author L.D. Cross does a great job of delivering the fascinating and highly amusing tale of Project Habbakuk's inspiration, testing and ultimate demise.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature

by Gene Edward Veith
256 pages, 1990

For the last few months, I have reviewed the "reads" that were "really good" enough to be novels we studied in my high school English courses. Reading Between the Lines is one of the books that I enjoyed reading as a resource for my teaching of English literature.

Why? Because it both provides and stimulates insight into what it means to read, and to judge, literature as a Christian. It starts with a chapter on how reading connects us to God through His word, and how our culture values images partly because we no longer want to be people of the Book. The second chapter reminds us that we cannot read uncritically, because although literature gives us vicarious experience, it can also give us the vicarious experience of sin - in other words, stimulating the lust and anger that Christ said were equivalent to the physical sins that they lead to. In this chapter Veith also appeals to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book from the 1980s analyzing the television-based values of our culture that could also be applied to the use of the internet today. (More on Neil Postman's book next month!)

The next section deals with the forms of literature: nonfiction - the art of truth-telling; fiction - the art of story-telling; and poetry - the art of singing. For each form, Veith analyzes the elements involved, and profiles several Christian authors who admirably exemplify that form: for instance, C. S. Lewis, John Bunyan, Flannery O'Connor, John Donne, the Bible itself, George Herbert, and T. S. Eliot. Several of these profiles either significantly influenced my own taste, or formed valuable background material for my instruction in English literature.

The next section, on the modes of literature, discusses tragedy and comedy as the literature of damnation and salvation (including how they parallel the Bible in part or in whole); realism, which is literature as a mirror of the social world of the author; and fantasy, which is literature as a lamp, shining light into the realities of human nature and faith through invented worlds.

The final section, on the traditions of literature, takes us from the Middle Ages and the Reformation - the literature of belief; the Enlightenment and Romanticism - the literature of nature and the self; and Modernism and Postmodernism - the literature of consciousness and self-consciousness. This historical overview of literature over the past 1000 years or so is an excellent introduction to how literature demonstrates and influences worldview. The final chapter looks at how writers, publishers, and readers influence the making of literature. The book ends with a reading list of suggestions for Christian readers.

One of the reviews on made it clear that some of the references to Christian authors are a bit dated in a book more than 20 years old, but this book has been one that I've not only thoroughly enjoyed reading, but looked forward to rereading when the occasion called for a refresher of my background knowledge of writing and writers. If you not only want to enjoy great literature but appreciate it, you'll enjoy reading this book as well.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Good advice from a great book

If there's one thing that makes a book for me it is good dialogue - conversations that are substantive
and feel genuine. Thus I appreciate Sigmund Brouwer.

In his The Lies of Saints the hero of our story, Nick Barrett, is helping out another private investigator. The reason he needs to help her is because Kellie Mixson is laid up and the hospital, the victim of a particularly nasty car crash. Nick is a good friend, and the perfect gentleman – he knows she has a boyfriend, so he would never think to act on his attraction.

Or so he thinks. But a pastor that knows both P.I.s – the eighty-something Samuel Thorpe – is more than a little concerned. He knows that what a man intends can change quickly, given the wrong sort of circumstances. So when Nick pops by for a visit, Pastor Thorpe decides this is the time for a needed, awkward conversation.

"It's a fine line," Samuel said, "Between ministering and tending another man's business. I'm generally averse to offering advice unasked for and, always so conscious of my own shortcomings, loath to take notice of another's. You'll bear that in mind as I speak." 
"It's a ticklish business to be friends with a woman, particularly one like Miss Kellie. She's fine-looking, and smart and of good character. I'm certain you're not blind to that. I doubt for that matter, that it's escaped her notice that a woman could do worse than land a man like you. But as you mentioned, she's in a committed relationship, Nick." 
"Yes, I have mentioned that before," I said. "But I don't see how this is an issue we need to discuss." 
"It's not only an issue of honor," he said, "but of the slow or fast erosion of your soul. Every moral decision you make, Nick, affects your soul. This woman, I can tell, has a hold on you. Don't do anything to hurt her. Her boyfriend. Or you." 
Sam straightened and began pacing again. "Now I'm not suggesting that you have or intend to do anything inappropriate. But it's like driving a car. Good drivers aren't the ones who can handle a car in a skid and keep it on the road. Good drivers are those who recognize when conditions are bad and take action not to get into trouble in the first place." 
"Kellie's in trouble," I said. "She needs help. That's all I'm doing."
"You don't have to justify your motives to me. Just beware of them yourself. All I'm saying is if there's trouble way up the road, it'd be a lot better for you to see it coming and slow down before you reach it."
Canadians can get Lies of Saints at, and Americans can find it here at