Monday, December 28, 2015

How to train a train

by Jason Carter Eaton
48 pages / 2013

This is good old-fashioned goofy fun. What if trains were like pets? What if they liked to fetch, and had to be bathed, and, of course, trained? In this guidebook for training trains a seasoned train trainer tells us how to find, select, catch, care for, name, and, train our new train.

The pictures really make the book special, so to give you a feel, here's a couple from the training sessions. When it comes to training your train you'll want to start with the basics, like "play dead."

And of course the always popular "fetch"!

Your kids will be sure to like this one, though because the story was quite simple I was glad we got this one from the library. We'll probably borrow it a few times through the years, but since none of my girls are really into trains, I don't feel a need to own this one. But for a child into trains, the pictures in this are pretty amazing: detailed and lively, with all sorts of trains depicted. You can pick up a copy at by clicking here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Redeeming Love

by Francine Rivers
1997 / 464 pages

Whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover must have been thinking about Francine River’s novel Redeeming Love. When it first appeared on bookshelves it was marketed with a Harlequin Romance-esque cover – a beautiful woman looking forlorn, vulnerable, and oh-so-in-need of a strong man.

Despite the front picture, people were buying the book in bunches and the sales clerks at all three of my local Christian bookstores gushed over it. Two Reformed ministers recommended it to me. Still, I couldn’t look at the cover without rolling my eyes – I couldn't bring myself to buy it.

A year later it came out with a much more subdued cover, one that I could walk around in public without the other boys making fun of me. Finally I was able to buy it and read it.

It was worth the wait. A powerful, poignant, even brilliant novel, it tells the story of Michael Hosea, a settler in the California of 1850. The story is in many ways the retelling of the book of Hosea, and the true power of the story is in how it forces the reader back to the Bible to reexamine a small prophetic book many have overlooked. You can’t help but study the book of Hosea after reading this novel.

If you are well acquainted with Hosea you’ll understand why this novel comes with a “PG-13” rating. The prophet Hosea, after all, marries a prostitute, and Francine Rivers closely parallels those facts in her account. So some disturbing subject matter is dealt with that probably isn’t suitable for young teens.

Now, I'm always leery of books that purport to be fictionalized retellings of biblical stories, and with good reason. I remember one novel about the apostle Paul that left readers with the impression that him and James actually disagreed as to the importance of works, which is entirely untrue. Francine Rivers also has a number of fictionalized biographies of biblical characters and because fact is mixed with fiction it is so very hard, after reading one of those stories, to remember just what the Bible really says. So, I don't thinking fictionalized Bible tales are all that great an idea.

But because this is inspired by, rather than purporting to be, the book of Hosea, Redeeming Love is something else entirely. It would be hard to confuse this with the original source material. And yet, it is an insightful parallel of Hosea that might make this somewhat mystifying Bible book a little more understandable for some readers. And it is simply a really good read! 

You can buy a copy at by clicking here.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Severe Mercy

by Sheldon Van Auken
243 pages / originally published 1977

Another "really old read," but one that I've heard about a few times over the years, and finally read only recently. C. S. Lewis and his admirers do that to you. Sheldon "Van" Vanauken and his wife Jean "Davy" Vanauken not only admired C. S. Lewis, but they met him, spent time with him in his Oxford haunts, and corresponded with him - activities many a Christian English teacher would envy them for (certainly this one would!).

However, all that was after they met each other and set up what they called the "Shining Barrier" for their love. As Sheldon recounts it, they met as fellow pagans, and lived together in a blissful love (both before and after marriage) that few couples ever experience. This seems like simple arrogance, but as he explains it, their relationship had a kind of intentionality that should be characteristic of every Christian marriage. They even named the events that threatened their intense and exclusive love for each other in ways that showed that they were aware that maintaining such an intensity was a kind of warfare. For instance, they called their refusals of other possible commitments names like the "Air Force Defeat" and the "Squadron Defeat." Vanauken also uses words like "inloveness" to describe their emotion and passes on the poems he wrote during their courtship, and the two of them deliberately chose a nomadic lifestyle, boating on the Atlantic, that kept them from getting distracted by other involvements.

Nonetheless, it is not the "Shining Barrier" that makes the teaser on the top of the cover of my copy accurate: "A real-life love story, full of wonder and hope." Clearly, Christians cannot find hope in even the most ideal love story from the 1970s unless it also demonstrated God's love. God's love does manifest itself when the Vanaukens begin to meet, with considerable initial skepticism, various Christians on the campus who make Christianity both more and more intellectually credible and more and more relevant to the modern world. This already puts them somewhat in the orbit of C. S. Lewis, who spent much of his life pursuing both those objectives. Actually meeting him makes their change even easier.
When the Vanaukens do become Christians, they have difficulty integrating their old lifestyle with their new understanding of who God is in Christ. In that past life, they had even determined that if one were to become gravely ill, the two of them would die together, in, for instance, the deliberate sinking of their boat. Now they understand that that would be self-murder, but Sheldon still becomes jealous of his wife's increasing commitment to Christ when they move to the States.

If that were all that happened, the story might be one of gradually adapting themselves to the structures of American Christianity even while Sheldon continues to make idols both of the woman he loves and of their relationship. However, God, with the "severe mercy" of the title, acts to break the back of what Vanauken realizes in hindsight is a pagan loyalty to their love within the "Shining Barrier." The problem with that Barrier is that it shut out not only "the little foxes" that the Song of Solomon tells us can threaten a married relationship, but also God Himself, and the people whom He puts in our path to serve. It is that service to Christ in Davy's working with those learning about Christ that provokes Sheldon's jealousy.

How does Sheldon cope, then, when God, over a period of several months, brings Davy, through a mysterious illness, to that ultimate separation from her husband, death? And of more than marginal interest to an English teacher like myself, how does the presence of C. S. Lewis help him cope?

If you are intrigued by the answers to those questions (recognizing that the Christianity of Oxford that guides the Vanaukens for most of the story is certainly not the full-orbed understanding of Reformed faith, liturgy, and church structure), you can purchase A Severe Mercy here.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Picture books to promote writing

If your kids are anything like mine, once we've read a book about something they want to go do it. So whether you have an already budding writer, or just want to encourage a child to give it a try, here are a couple picture books that could get kids writing.

The Plot Chickens
by Mary Jane and Herm Auch
32 pages / 2010

Henrietta the chicken can read and she wants to write. And though she can't talk, she can cluck and "Buk, Buk Buk!" sounds enough like "Book, book, book!" to get the librarian to provide her with ample reading material. When she decides to write a book she finds a "how-to" guide on the library shelves, and sits down at her typewriter with book in hand, going one by one through eight important "writing rules."

The first - "You need a main character" - has her fellow hens auditioning for the role, but when they find out from Rule Three that the main character has to confront some sort of problem, they all chicken out. So Henrietta invents an entirely original main character, and we follow Henrietta as she tells her tale, using each rule to add something to the story.

Each page has some humor, and kept the attention of both of my kids, ages 4 and 6. More importantly it got the oldest in a writing mood. This would be an absolutely fantastic resource for a Grade One class, or for any child who might have the writing itch.

I will add that I have a bit of a dispute with the final of the eight rules. Rule Eight says "the main character must solve her (or his) own problem" and while that is a good general rule, taken on an ultimate level it actually runs counter to a very fundamental truth. We don't solve our own biggest problem (which is causes so many others)! Jesus had to come precisely because of our own inability to merit our own way back to God.

That said, many a Christian book is bad precisely because it crafts problems for characters and then has God step in to solve them in a way that is entirely unlike how God actually intervenes to save us from ourselves – miracles are far too commonplace in Christian books. Which shows that Christian would do well to consider Rule Eight, even though it isn't ultimately true.

You can get at by clicking here.

Show Me a Story: writing your own picture book
by Nancy Loewen 
32 pages / 2009

This is really two books in one. The first is about a Canadian goose named Webster who is tired of flying in V-formations and wants to try some other letter. The second, interspersed right through the first is a how-to for writing pictures books.

On the first page readers are told to just go through and enjoy the story first, and then, on the second go through they can pay attention to the writing tips that appear on every two-page spread. The tips explain just what is going on from a writer's perspective. For example, on the first pages we're told about how the first thing a story will do is introduce us to the main CHARACTER and then set up the PROBLEM or struggle they will have to deal with in the rest of the story. And here "in the beginning of the story we also learn where and when the story takes place. This is called the SETTING."

This is a decent enough story, but its main purpose is to serve as an illustration for each of the 15 tips as they are laid out. And it accomplishes that task brilliantly!

Show Me is a must for any school, and a good one to buy for any aspiring young writers in Grades One through Four. You can get a copy from by clicking here.

Which is better?Comparing the two books, The Plot Chickens has the better story - my kids loved it and had me read it again and again. They also found it more of an inspiration to grab some paper and a pen and give writing a try... even though neither knows how yet.

My daughters weren't interested in re-reading Show Me A Story. However, I found Show Me A Story a more straightforward tool, laying out the writing tips better, and in a clearer fashion. And that's why we've given it (and not the other) to a young aspiring writer we know.

So each has a different strength and weakness.