Thursday, November 28, 2013


by Patrick McDonnell
42 pages, 2008

I love reading wordless books with my four-year-old daughter - when the pictures tell the story, it means she can read to me. With South I spent the first few pages telling her what was going on, but once the setting was clear, she happily took over with only occasional help from dad.

South is by the creator of the comic strip Mutts, Patrick McDonnell, who imports one of the strip's characters into this comic-like book: Mooch the cat. Now cats might not seem all that sympathetic to birds, but when Mooch comes upon a poor cute little bird who, we see, has been left behind by his flock when they headed south, Mooch lends a paw. Mooch really is a stand-up sort of cat, so he takes bird under his wing (so to say) and the two of them set out to reunite this lost little one with his family. Since cats can't fly, the journey takes place on foot.

Soon enough bird is united with flock, and it comes time for Mooch and bird to say their goodbyes. It was at this point that my daughter was a bit overcome - goodbyes are always hard to say. But we reassured her that Mooch and bird would see each other again, when Winter turned to Spring.

This is a fun little book, that might be best described as a 38 panel wordless comic strip. So it is a very quick read, and might be the sort of book that is better to borrow than to buy. But I sure hope your library has it!

If you do want to pick up a copy, you can get it at here, and here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gifted Hands

by Ben Carson
240 pages, 1990

If you've seen the Hallmark movie of the same name, let me tell you, the book is even better! Ben Carson grew up in poverty, with only one parent, but her prodding, his own hard work, and many clearly God-given opportunities, allowed him to become a brain surgeon.

The title of the book comes from a passage where Carson explains that he chose neurosurgery because of an "acceptance of my God-given talents of eye-and-hand coordination – my gifted hands – that fitted me for this field." Carson is a charming author because, while he knows he is gifted, he also knows he is flawed. And he knows Who to give credit to for the amazing work he has accomplished.

This biography concludes in 1987 right after the operation that first garnered him national attention: the separation of conjoined twins who were connected at the head.

But I read the book after seeing his appearance at the 2013 American National Prayer Breakfast, which got people talking about him as a potential presidential candidate. With President Obama just two seats away, Dr. Carson gave an outstanding speech on the perils of our country's fiscal irresponsibility. It was a soft-spoken, brutally pointed rebuke of Obama's trillion dollar deficits.

So if you have an interest in medicine, or in the background of this rising political figure you'll find this fascinating.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Amusing Ourselves to Death

by Neil Postman
208 pages, 1985; revised edition 2005

Interesting to call this book a classic. It's not quite 30 years old, and arguably it's hopelessly outdated, focusing on television when we live in a worldwide web world. However, for years I heard it referenced by many other authors I admired, so I finally decided that it was "really good" enough to make a PowerPoint on for my fellow teachers.

Why is it so good? To begin with, Postman goes even further back to that Canadian media maven, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "The medium is the message" to explain how every new technology carries with it new ideas about the structure of the world. For example, idols tell us (falsely) that the gods can be seen, clocks carry the message that we need not live by the rhythms of nature, and books imply communication with an unseen audience – as does electronic communication, though in a different way.

As well as conveying different views of the world, different media value different ways of knowing and kinds of knowledge. For example, an oral culture uses proverbs and traditional wisdom to settle disputes, while a literate culture is not impressed by such sources, unless they are backed up by codified, written knowledge.

Postman applies these general principles to American culture (and we can also apply it to Canada!). He demonstrates how Early America’s widespread literacy fostered a society that valued sustained argument, as proven by the widespread reading of serious books, the greater number of newspapers per capita in America than in the British nation that founded the colonies, and the frequent attendance by the 'masses' of lectures and services with complex sermons. Postman calls this period in America the Age of Exposition, in which large crowds attended debates by Lincoln and Douglas with each speaking for an hour at a time, lawyers were considered heroes rather than villains for their logical skill, and even advertisements emphasized arguments over images.

The turn away from exposition resulted from three new technologies giving Americans access to what he calls decontextualized information: telegraph news services that allowed people to follow news that had no local significance to them; photography, which allowed people direct visual experience of a remote setting without exposition or description; and television, which turned knowledge into entertainment.

Postman looks particularly at how television's emphasis on entertainment has distorted various realms of American life. In politics, the 1984 television presidential debate was won in the court of public opinion by the candidate with the best one-liners, and the emphasis on current trends has ended the use of intelligent historical argument. In news coverage, the phrase "Now... this" alerts viewers to the fact that we are leaving one 90-second item for the next unrelated item, the visual appearance of news anchors may get them hired or fired, and many rely on USA Today and People for the equivalent of TV news coverage. Even religion is dominated by televangelism and megachurches inspired by their approach to worship that requires nothing of the worshiper, particularly no real communion of saints. In education, the use of television [and Youtube videos?] has led to experiences for students that give little context and exposition and ask for little effort.

Postman ends by warning that the scenario of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the public is kept sedated by soma (an appealing drug) is analogous to television's pop culture sedation of our minds today, and far more likely than George Orwell's oppressive Big Brother world of 1984. In many ways, I think we live in a world that has generous dollops of both, in which Hollywood, "epic fail" videos on Youtube, and the NSA combine to keep the public under watch and uninterested. How we got here, Postman tells us. How it applies to today's world, and what we can do about it, is something thoughtful Christians will begin to ponder when they see how technology, so powerful in the good it can do (e.g.,,, etc.), can also end up Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

John Owen

by Simonetta Carr
62 pages, 2010

Simonetta Carr has created one of the best children's resources about Calvin and has now done the same for John Owen. But there is a difference between the two. While her book on Calvin is the best of a considerable bunch, her book on Owen is the best by default – I don't know if there are any other contenders.

Why this dearth of attention for Owen? He wasn't (quite) the pivotal figure Calvin was, which may explain it in part. But I think there is another reason. While Calvin had a hard life, Owen's life might best be described as complicated, and to a degree that doesn't lend itself to the type of simplified summaries children's biographies need. 

Politically he was involved in three English Civil Wars in which the country went from a monarchy to a republic and back to monarchy again. He was also involved in theological battles to allow for the pure preaching of God's Word – he was a "Noncomformist"who spoke out against the arminianism and intolerance of the Anglican Church. While his fame kept him from prison, the threat of it was always hanging over him. We know little of his personal daily life, but here too he had burdens to bear: John Owen has 11 children, and buried them all. And then there are his writings: Owen is renown as one of the most influential, and theologically dense, English Puritan authors.

To capture this man in a way that children will be able to understand is quite a challenge. And, to be blunt, I don't think Carr quite manages it. Her summary is too much timeline - what he did when - and too little story. We don't get a feel for the man. That said, this is likely the best children's biography that could be written for the man. 

Now that I've damned this book with faint praise, I want to highlight why this is indeed a really good read.

First off it is a  good overview, and easy to follow. Children unfamiliar with the time and place will have no difficulty understanding what is going on. That is no small feat!

Second, Carr has, again, peppered the book with pictures – 37 over its 62 pages – with more than a dozen of them full-page paintings by Matt Abraxas, commissioned just for the book. That gives it a welcoming, inviting feel.

Third, it fills a gap. Church history is a subject that most Christian schools teach, but I don't think many students keep studying it as adults. So even though there are adult biographies on Owen, there was a pressing need for a children's version – we really should have an understanding of what God wrought through this man. Thankfully we now have this very readable introduction.

So I recommend this as a wonderful school resource - all our libraries should have a copy. With a teacher's encouragement children will find this an easy book to read, and a good introduction to a man they knew nothing about before.

You can pick it up at here, and here.

RELATED REVIEWS: Other children's biographies by Simonetta Carr