Monday, May 29, 2017

Akimbo and the Lions

by Alexander McCall Smith
1992 / 66 pages

Alexander McCall Smith is best known as the author of the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency but it turns out he's written a number of children's books as well. And they are good. Really good!

Akimbo is a boy who has access to all the coolest animals in Africa – his dad is chief ranger in charge of a wild game reserve, which means that from one book to the next Akimbo is having adventures with snakes and baboons and elephants and crocodiles, oh my!

In Akimbo and the Lions he accompanies his father to trap a lion harassing a small village. But things don't go as planned – instead they trap a cub and scare the momma away. That means someone needs to take care of this wee little lion, and Akimbo convinces his dad that he is just the boy for the job!

McCall does a wonderful job of balancing the tension in the book. There were moments where my 5 and 7-year-old were covering their mouths (and sometimes their eyes) but these moments didn't last too long.

This is just a good old fashioned adventure, perfect for their age group. It is short – a book that can be read in an hour – exciting, sometimes sweet, with gentle humor along the way too. And in this first story, there is absolutely nothing to object to – Akimbo doesn't talk back to his parents, or teacher. No sex, no language, no weird philosophies.

The only downside would be God's absence. In an adventure where God's creation has such a big role, it would be only natural to give God his credit for these wonderful creatures. But it seems that Akimbo and his parents are not Christians. And if I was going to add one other nitpick I'll also say this is not the sort of children's book that works equally well as an adult book (this is no Narnia, for example). The story is too simple and predictable for u older folk. I only mention that because, since this is by a well known, and well-loved adult-fiction author, that might raise some expectations. But while these are very good kid's books, they are kid's books.

There are five in all, in this order:
  1. Akimbo and the Lions
  2. Akimbo and the Crocodile Man
  3. Akimbo and the Elephants
  4. Akimbo and the Snakes
  5. Akimbo and the Baboons
The others

In addition to Akimbo and the Lions we've now read three others in the series.

Akimbo and the Crocodile Man was a bit scarier as there is an actual crocodile attack. It all turns out fine in the end, but that extra bit of tension means I was glad we did read things in order, starting with Lions before Crocodile Man – that order meant even in Crocodile Man's scariest bit, my girls understood that this sort of book was going to have a happy ending.

Akimbo and the Elephants had Akimbo going behind his dad's back to stop ivory (which comes from elephant tusks) poachers. He has good intentions, but lies a number of times, and even steals some ivory to serve as bait for the poachers. We had to explain to the girls that Akimbo was doing something downright dumb here - that he should be talking his plan over with his dad. So while we enjoyed reading it together, I would have some reservations about my children reading this by themselves.

In Akimbo and the Baboons a "baboon lady" comes for a visit. This is a visiting scientist who has come to study that baboons, and Akimbo and his cousin Kosi get jobs as her assistants. The author believes in evolution, and while that only comes out clearly in a section in the back – "Brilliant baboon facts" where McCall notes baboons are not in the same genetic family as human beings – the scientist, Jen, notes a few times in the story, how the baboons are "a lot like us" or "just like us." True, in some ways, but when we read between the lines here, we can see this is about being similar in an evolutionary sense. I'm making too much of this – my kids didn't even notice – but always want to share the problematic bits of a book, so that no-one will buy the book unaware.

So if I was getting these for a school library, I would get the first two – two very enthusiastic thumbs up! – but maybe give the third a miss, and the fifth a note in the front.

What's the ideal age range? I'd think kids in Grades One and Two are sure to enjoy them.

Akimbo and the Lions is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cat Tale

by Michael Hall
40 pages / 2012

This is just such a clever and fun book to read out loud. The front cover gives a good clue as to what this is going to be about - three cats, their tails swaying, but the title refers to another sort of tale. Yes, this is all about homonyms - words that sounds alike, but have different meanings.

Every page features a homonym or two. So, for example, at one point the cats have used a box to hide from bees, and then on the next page the cats are doing "...their best to box some fleas."

On and on it goes, with flea then becoming flee:
They flee a steer.
Of course, sometimes homonyms have the same spelling, so on the next page it is still steer, but a different sort:
They steer a plane.
It took my girls, all seven and under, the first reading to figure out what was going on - it was all a bit mysterious to them as to what the joke was. But that was, in part, because I was still figuring it out, so I wasn't reading it with the proper emphasis - I should have been giving a little extra oomph to each homonym as they appeared.

But that delay wasn't frustrating for them; it is a fun, colorful book with attractive pictures, so that was enough to keep them intrigued during the first go-through. And on second reading, when I explained the joke to my youngest (the seven-year-old was starting to catch on) they just loved it. This is the perfect sort of joke for this age group - simple enough for them to get it, but clever enough for them to spend a lot of fun time exploring how it works from page to page.

So great fun for all my girls from three to seven. And that's probably the proper age range for it - any younger and they won't understand, and any older and the picture style would make this seem too childish (even if 40-year-old me still enjoyed the humor). This would be a fun book for the home, but make an absolutely fantastic resource for a Grade One classroom.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here (and if you do use these links to make a purchase, Amazon will send us a small tip, at no cost to you).


Sunday, May 14, 2017

When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy

by John Piper
268 pages / 2004

Both my fellow blogger and I have reviewed several really good reads from John Piper (and his son), but for struggling Christians, this is perhaps his best read yet.

Behind this book is the idea of Christian Hedonism. At first glance this may look like a contradiction in terms, but Piper summarizes it as the understanding that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him. We are intended to, as the Westminster Catechism puts it, "glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Piper makes it clear that the Bible commands us to take joy in God.

But how can God command a feeling? And how can we change our feelings? The answer is that God Himself gives us what He commands. Even before we feel joy, the Spirit gives true believers in Christ the desire for that true joy.

We know that God also uses both methods and means to work in our hearts, after he enables us to recognize the weakness or even absence of that joy in our relationship with Him. Piper shows us those methods and means, so that we can "work out [our] own salvation, ...for it is God who works in us.."

What are the methods? They involve the following:
  • fighting for joy at the same time as we depend entirely on God for the ability to fight;
  • learning to see the glory of God through enlightened eyes and ears; and
  • seeking consciences cleansed by our justification in Christ.
The means should be familiar to Christians, but Piper's discussion of those means shows us both their value and the most effective ways to use the means of
  • God's word, the Bible (including proper Scriptural meditation, memorization, and making its meaning clear for our lives);
  • prayer (without ceasing, focusing on the Giver rather than His gifts, praying our I.O.U.S.); and
  • God's whole creation (using our physical senses to see the glory of God).
What is true Scriptural meditation? What does the formula I.O.U.S. mean, and how does it deepen both our prayer and our reading of God's word? How can we "use" the world properly rather than being tempted by it? You'll need to read the book to find out!

A final question: What if all these means seem fruitless? Piper shows us how to hold on when the darkness persists, when we still live with spiritual depression, and encourages us by showing us the power of a renewed focus on Christ's saving work, as well as how depressed believers in church history have either found relief for their depression or have become a source of relief for others.

If you believe that John Piper's book will help you when you don't desire God, you can get it at amazon.ca here, and at amazon.com here.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Adventures of Lancelot the Great

by Gerald Morris
illustrations by Aaron Renier
92 pages / 2008

I've read some Gerald Morris in the past - this pastor is quite famous for the Arthurian stories he's written for teens – but I had no idea he could be so funny.

Morris is once again writing on King Arthur and his court, but these book are meant for younger crowds, maybe Grade 2 and up (though if daddy reads it, even kids as young as 5 will probably enjoy it). And to play to this younger audience Morris has crafted some fantastic, chapter-long jokes.

Maybe the best way to review it would be to share one of the jokes. The very first has to do with Sir Lancelot's wish to join the Round Table. He wants to be one of King Arthur's knights because, "They have the bravest hearts, the noblest souls and the shiniest armor in all the world." Lancelot, at least in the early going, is a little obsessed with his appearance and Morris has great fun with this. On his journey to Camelot, to introduce himself to the King, Lancelot gets caught in a rainstorm, and his armor ends up getting "splashed all over with dirty spots."
When at last the rain stopped, Sir Lancelot turned his attention to his spattered appearance. Moving his lance to his left arm, he drew a towel from his saddlebags and began scrubbing at his armored legs. Soon he was absorbed in the task, paying no attention to where his horse was taking him. 
Looking up, Lancelot sees a knight bearing down on him, and thinking him one of those roving evil knights and "having no time to shift his lance to his right arm...he met the knights charge left-handed, popping his attacker very neatly from his saddle."

Right after, another knight attacks him, which is getting Lancelot quite annoyed, as it is interfering with his cleaning efforts. But he quickly dispatches that knight too. And then another attacks! This happens 16 times to Lancelot's dismay, and after the 16th knight was dispatched, Lancelot hears clapping.

It turns out he had wandered into a tournament unawares, and won it quite unintentionally, while using his lance left-handed. Then when he finds out the King himself is the host of the tournament and wants the noble knight to join the Round Table, Lancelot is distraught. Why?
"Look at me! I'm all covered with mud! And I did want to make a favorable first impression!"
The rest of the book is more of the same – my girls were laughing out loud, and I was having a great time too.

Wizards, and sorcerers, and magicians, oh my!

I have no real cautions to offer for this book. The most juvenile humor in the book is when Sir Lancelot gets shot in the behind with an arrow. That gets some good laughs from the kids, but doesn't get anywhere near the realm of potty humor.

I will say I was a little surprised when one knight ended up dying (after eating a poisonous pear) because Death doesn't make an appearance in most kids books. But it isn't a big part of the story and didn't seem to shock my girls.

So the only real reservation I have has nothing to do with this book, but rather others in the series. Morris has written 4 books in all in this The Knights' Tales series, and in the other three (not this one though) magic and sorcerers make appearances.

That should really be expected in an Authurian story; magic is a big part of the original after all. But in the Bible God condemns sorcery, so when a positive portrayal of it pops up in fiction, that should give us pause.

In Book 2, Sir Givret the Short, the only magical reference is where the magic is clearly and admittedly fake - Givret pretends to be a sorcerer to scare an evil knight (Givret is short, but he knows how to use his brains). So no reason to be concerned here.

And in Book 4, Sir Balin the Ill Fated, a seer pronounces doom and gloom, though by book's end it seems that she was, most likely, a fraud. The problem is, kids might not get that. There is also a wicked invisible knight who can use magic to turn himself invisible - I don't have much of a problem with that, as the wicked do indeed try to make use of magic. My concern is about when magic use – which God condemns – is portrayed positively.

That's what happens in Book 3, Sir Gawain the True, where a friendly sorcerer befriends Sir Gawain. Friendly sorcerer? Now, the sorcerer is not Morris's creation – he is a part of the original Arthurian legends – and that seems a factor to consider but this is the one book in this set I might not check out of the library again.

I have to admit as to not knowing quite what to think – good sorcerers are a lie, so should we be encouraging our kids to read books where this lie is furthered? And at the same time, Arthurian stories have history to them, and it strikes me that this is a lot like learning about Greek gods – they can do "magic" too – but knowing about them is simply a part of being educated.

Of course there is a big difference between reading about something for educational reasons and reading the same things simply for entertainment. We can tolerate some things for educational reasons – for example, news reports that might have graphic violence – that we would have reason to avoid when it comes to entertainment. So it would seem positive portrayals of sorcerers are more problematic in entertainment than they would be in strictly educational settings.

What do you think? Anyone have some thoughts to contribute?

Conclusion

Magic concerns aren't relevant in Sir Lancelot the Great so I recommend it unreservedly. It was one of my favorite books this past year because of how much it made our girls laugh.

While magic makes a minor appearance in Books 2 and 4 I would also recommend them because this is magic of either the fake kind, or the magic use is done by villains.

The only one I would not recommend is book 3, Sir Gawain the True. Or, at least, I won't be recommending it until I have a better understanding of proper and improper use of magic in literature.

You can pick up a copy of Sir Lancelot the Great at Amazon.ca here and Amazon.com here.