Monday, April 28, 2014

Little Red Riding Hood

by Trina Schart Hyman
28 pages, 1983

This is a story about a little girl and the big wolf that gobbles her up. If that is a bit of a shock to you, then the version you were told as a child was likely some modernized, bubble-wrapped rendition in which grandma is shut up in a closet rather than eaten, and the woodsman arrives before Red Riding Hood takes a trip down the wolf's gullet.

But in Trina Schart Hyman's retelling we hear the traditional tale. First the wolf eats his fill; then he gets his comeuppance.

So why is this traditional tale the better by far version? There are many reasons, and they start with Trina Schart Hyman's art. There is so much to see in each picture, and as a fun bonus, she has hidden Red Riding Hood's black cat on almost every page, there to be found by a sharp-eyed child.

But the peril is another key reason. Our world is not always a safe place, and to prepare our children for it, we need to introduce them to the real world in bits and pieces. One good way to teach them about how bad the real world can be is by introducing them to some of that nastiness – in a measured dose – via fairytales. If you take the peril away from the story so that Red Riding Hood is saved before she is ever really in danger, you have a nice story for a two-year-old, but it is not a story that stretches or challenges anyone older.

But what if, instead, the wolf "ran straight to the bed, and without even saying a good-morning, he ate up the poor old grandmother in one gulp"? That is scary.... briefly. Only a few pages later the woodsman comes to save the day and skin the wolf, so this is only a small dosage, but one that can serve to fortify children in preparation for the days ahead when they learn what the world is really like.

As for age recommendations, well, this is a story my two-year-old does always enjoys (but probably doesn't fully understand - she likes looking for the cat on each page) but it's one that my four-year-old needs to be in the right mood for. She finds the wolf a tad on the scary side.

I have but one caution: at one point the woodsman makes use of the word "jiminy" which some consider a "substitute oath." The woodsman isn't actually taking God's name, but is used this word in place of taking God's name in vain. I don't have a problem with this, but make mention because I know some readers might, so I want you to be aware.

This gorgeous book can be purchased at Amazon.com here

Monday, April 21, 2014

Miracles and Massacres

by Glenn Beck
2013 / 290 pages

The US has two kinds of homegrown critics: those who hate the country and its foundational values, and those who love it and expect it to live up to those values.

Despite the "as far as east is from west" difference between the two groups, some lump both these groups together, labeling all critics as "haters." However, loving your country doesn't mean being blind to, or silent about, its faults.

And there is no better illustration of that than Glenn Beck's newest book Miracles and Massacres. Beck loves his country passionately, and it would be hard for anyone to hang the label "hater" on him. In Miracles Beck celebrates some of the very best moments in the country's history, as well as some of its very best men and women. And what Beck also wants to note in the sharing of the 12 historic tales in this book, is that America's best men and women can be found everywhere. For example, in the last chapter, about the apprehending of the 20th 9/11 bomber, Beck highlights the significant role that an ordinary immigration official had in finding this missing terrorist.

But what makes this a good antidote for my-country-right-or-wrong-itis is that the very patriotic Beck also include stories of America at its worst. Right alongside the story of the brave Jack Jouett, whose Paul Revere-like ride may have saved America when it was at its weakest, we read of the My Lai Massacre, where American might was put to horrific use. This infamous Vietnam War event occurred when American soldiers, expecting to find the enemy, instead found a village of unarmed Vietnamese men women and children, who the soldiers then proceeded to round up, line up, and gun down.

Even in this horrific account, Beck still highlights the good and the heroic - an American helicopter pilot intervened to save some of the villagers from his rampaging fellow soldiers.

There are ten more chapters, some highlighting the heroic, and others the horrific, both of which Beck believes we must remember. He wants us to remember the heroic so we can imitate them, and remember the horrors so we will never again commit them.

The only difficulty I had with the book is that, as a fictionalized historical account, it was hard to separate the fact from the fiction. Beck set out to make a readable account, so he wrote each chapter like a story, and that meant he had to make up dialogue and insert fictional characters to flesh out the bare-bones account captured in history textbooks. He succeeded - this reads like a great page-turning novel. But unless readers are willing to go to other sources afterwards, they will be left uncertain about any of the details. For example, in the account of the My Lai Massacre I think the helicopter pilot who intervened to save some villagers was a real person, but I'm not certain. The only thing I am certain about from Beck's account is that American soldiers massacred unarmed Vietnamese villagers.

I might also add as a caution that mature subject matter like this makes it a book suitable only for older teens and adults.

It was an exciting read, and is a must-read for anyone who is naive about the horrors that America - though arguably the greatest country in the world - is capable of. You can buy it at Amazon.com here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens
1861, 384 pages (2001 Dover Press edition)

This is the only "really good read" from my classroom that I have not reviewed yet, but I have read more of it aloud than any other classroom novel study. At 454 pages in our classroom edition, the one-third that I have read to my Grade 11 and/or 12 students every two or three years means that I have read over 1000 pages of this novel in the years I have taught at this school...

And what a delight it is to read any Dickens novel out loud! (Honest, my students liked it too!) At least one of the reviews on Amazon compares Dickens' vivid characters to those of Shakespeare, and it is truly a treat to give those characters voices. Let me give a few examples.

The opening chapter should remind you of the spookiest part of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, since it too is set in a cemetery. In these eerie surroundings, the narrator, the young orphaned Phillip Pirrip (shortened to Pip), gazes upon the graves of his parents and siblings. The sudden appearance of an escaped convict (still in irons) literally turns his world upside down.

Why literally? Because the convict holds him up by his feet while he is threatening him. The way the rest of the chapter (and many after) is written powerfully shows Pip's experiences both from his child's understanding and his viewpoint as a much older adult narrator. Pip feels both terror and compassion in the presence of the convict, and so do we as readers.

These are only two of the many characters in Great Expectations. Pip's efforts to help "his" convict seem to be futile, and he moves on to a less compassionate phase in his life, as he deals with his cranky sister Mrs. Joe, who regularly and self-righteously abuses both Pip and his gentle adoptive blacksmith father Joe Gargery, bragging how she "brought you up by hand." One mark of Dickens's skill in creating characters is that when Mrs. Joe disappears from the scene, as horrid and cruel as she is, you miss her.

While Mrs. Joe serves as a compelling example of how not to raise your kids - a lifelong concern of Dickens, who spent a part of his childhood working in a shoe blacking warehouse during the day and returning to his family in debtors' prison at night - the real turning point for Pip comes at around 12 years old when he visits the eccentric Miss Havisham, who introduces him to the beautiful Estella, around the same age. Pip's infatuation for the snobbish Estella makes him receptive to Miss Havisham's hints of "great expectations" for his future, an upper-crust upbringing that will make him feel both worthy of Estella, but also superior to the solid, conventional wisdom of Joe Gargery.

Pip's journey to London to find his great expectations brings him into further contact with such characters as the obsequious corn merchant Mr. Pumblechook and the ruthless lawyer Mr. Jaggers, such naive and impressionable friends as Herbert Pocket, and such wise guides as Jaggers' assistant Wemmick. His experiences there leave us wondering what he will really be like when he is old enough to court Estella. Will she wait for him? Will he be worth waiting for? What will be the price of his great expectations? To whom will he have to pay that price?

While Dickens' novel does not, by any means, give any of the characters a strong Christian character arc (though the worthy Joe is a churchgoer), it does present Christian readers with the question of what we might make our great expectations - i.e. our idols - in this life (romance? material or social success? educational achievement?); and what we might do, or who we might betray, to get them.

The book gives us two answers to some of those questions, since Dickens wrote two endings, but the questions themselves, and the characters who give those questions life, will stay in your mind long after you choose your favorite ending. (If you need it read aloud, just call me!)

You can get a free e-book version here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Little Jake and the Three Bears

by Robert H. Jacobs, Jr.
31 pages / 2007

After enduring a cold winter Little Jake realizes the solution to his chill is a thick warm bear rug to throw on his bed. So, after visiting the game warden and getting a license, Little Jake goes hunting.

The first bear he spots is too small, and the next, too big. But on his third day of hunting Little Jake finds the perfect bear and makes the perfect shot; it never feels a thing. The story concludes with Little Jake under his bearskin bed cover, warm and eating delicious bear sausage.

The pictures are Disneyesque and children 8 and under will enjoy this twist on the original. One caution worth mentioning is that Little Jake thanks the bear for his warm fur and tasty meat – too reminiscent for my liking of pagan religions that express kinship with the beasts. But parents can alter this and have Jake thank God instead.

It is an excellent teaching tool for citified believers, Christians who recognize that God has given us the animals for food and for clothing, but who still have some emotional qualms about hunting. That describes me. My head knows better, but I I've seen too many clips of Bambi to be able to appreciate hunting. So I want to teach my children to feel the right way about it. God, in his love, made animals tasty; children should know it is all right to kill and eat.

Buy Little Jake at www.littlesportsman.com.