Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Innocent Heroes: Stories of animals in the First World War

by Sigmund Brouwer
186 pages / 2017

Animals had a bigger part in the First World War than most of us realize. Author Sigmund Brouwer has taken stories of World War I animals at their most heroic, and paired them with stories of these animals in their perhaps even more important everyday work too.

While all the animals stories are based on real events, these animals served in a wide variety of Allied forces (Belgian, American, French and more), so, in the interests of making a continuous, compelling storyline, Brouwer fictionalized the accounts, placing them all in the confines of just one Canadian platoon, the Storming Normans.

While each chapter is built around the story of one particular creature –a cat, a bird, two dogs, a horse, a mule, and a lion – the book's main characters are three fictional Canadian infantry soldiers: Jake, Charlie, and Thomas, who help and are helped by these "innocent heroes."

In the trio of Jake, Charlie, and Thomas, the author gives us soldiers who couldn't have more different backgrounds, with Jake a farm boy, Charlie the city-dwelling son of a millionaire, and Thomas a Cree Indian. There is fun to be had in this "odd couple" set-up, particularly that of Charlie and Thomas: the snooty Charlie doesn't know anything about natives, but doesn't let that stop him from thinking very little of them, and Thomas, without hardly saying a word, manages to teach Charlie a lesson or two (which Charlie has to learn the hard way) and, eventually, wins him over as a friend.

It's clear the author had three goals with this book. He wanted to:
  1. share the story of these brave animals
  2. give readers an idea of what Canadian soldiers experienced in the trenches of World War I
  3. teach readers about how Natives were treated on the front lines and back home in Canada during this time period. 
This third element comes out in Charlie's early obnoxious treatment of Thomas, and also later when Thomas shares a little of his experience on his reserve, and in a residential school. However Thomas' quiet nature means this is only done in passing. It is only in the book's last chapter, after the soldiers have returned home, that we get a longer look at Thomas' life, and how natives were impacted by government policies back then that wouldn't, among other things, allow them to leave the reserve without permission from a government agent.


One criticism some might have with this book is that it is not entirely realistic. All of our animal and human heroes survive, and though Brouwer details some battle scenes, I don't think we even read of enemy soldiers dying.

But considering this is intended for a pre-teen to teen audience, that's just keeping things age appropriate. In a two or three-page interjection at the end of each chapter, Brouwer includes a short account of the real animal that inspired the chapter, and in these short accounts he gives a few more of the grim details. But it is still done in an age-appropriate manner. In fact, though I did have to mute a few of the more descriptive details of a rat crawling on a soldier's face, Brouwer's tactful approach has allowed me to read this to my 5 and 7 year old.

The only other criticism might be that, when it comes to Natives' treatment, we hear only one side - the harm done to the Natives by the government. I don't know enough of that time to do anything but wonder if there was also harm being done to the Natives by the Natives too. But, I will say again, this is a children's story, so we can't expect it to dig too deep. Brouwer raises an important issue, and does it in a delicate manner appropriate for his audience.


My highest praise for a book is that it is so good I have to read it to my family. We're half way through this one, and my wife, and two oldest girls want me to keep going. And this even after one particularly touching chapter - the tale of a brave pigeon – left both me and my most sensitive daughter with tears in our eyes. I should also mention that other sections have had us laughing so hard I couldn't be heard over the howls!

Brouwer has weaved these animals' stories together into a compelling book that tackles some tough topics at an age-appropriate level. And he even manages to conclude it with a happy ending. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

You can pick it up at or, or ask your local library to get a copy.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Why We Pray

by William Philip
109 pages / 2015

This book, written with humour, common sense, and Biblical wisdom, is a brief, easy-to-read response to questions that many of us may have: Does prayer intimidate you rather than refresh you? Do you wonder whether your heart is really in it?

William Philip, a Scottish minister who used to be a cardiologist, wanted to continue to deal with "matters of the heart" in this book. Rather than lecturing us on how important it is to pray more, he explains how prayer is a response to who God is. Philip uses examples from politics, sports, and his own life to clarify the four Biblical reasons why we may and must pray. As well, thoughtful questions at the end of each chapter invite us to ponder just how our own relationship with God is reflected in prayer.
We may pray, first, because God is a speaking God. He spoke creation into being and shaped it by his word, so creation "speaks" back visibly by displaying His power (see Psalm 19:1-6). God wanted more from human beings, though, because He made us capable of responding audibly. When we cut off the conversation through the sin of Adam and Eve (including hiding from God), He restored the relationship through Jesus Christ. Real prayer is responding in faith to God's call in Jesus Christ.

The second reason we pray is because we are "sons of God" (even the "daughters"!). Philip says that the reason we are called sons of God is because we, like sons in the ancient world, have an inheritance. We can pray to our (adoptive) Father in heaven because of the work of God's (natural!) Son, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ was (and is) such a faithful Son, God gladly accepts us as His children - so we have the right to appear before Him. Like any loving father (only much more so!), God wants to hear His children speak to (and with) Him.

It is because, in the third place, God is sovereign that our prayer is so meaningful - though some do not necessarily see it. If God is so great, and is working out His infinite plan, some ask, then why pray at all? Philip compares our part in God's plan to being on an unbeatable sports team. Would any of us quit simply because we are so sure that the team is going to win? In His infinite power, God is not only a willing father, but also able to grant whatever we ask that is within His will.

Finally, God is the Spirit who dwells within us, and this makes sense of the requirement that we ask only what is within His will. The presence of the indwelling Spirit makes prayer into the conversation that God intended to have with us before the fall into sin. This gives us both hope and a significant responsibility. God wants us to pray for whatever we think we need, but He also speaks to us by His Word and Spirit, so that as we pray, our Biblically informed consciences enable us in time to see what His will is, and in the meantime to ask that He grant us only what is according to His will. In other words, as Philip tells us, prayer is to "think God's thoughts after Him."

If you think that William Philip's book can make  clear why we pray to our speaking, Fatherly, sovereign, indwelling God, you can get the book at here and here.

(If you want to know about another book that makes clear how prayer is an expression of God's relationship with His children, read this review.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Martin Luther

by Simonetta Carr
2016 / 62 pages

This is the perfect book for any 4th grader and up looking to do a school project on the Reformer. Like the other entries in Simonetta Carr's series of "Christian biographies for young readers" Martin Luther is a gorgeous book. It is a beautifully bound, with thick pages and includes 12 full-page paintings among its 44 illustrations.

It is also well-researched, and wonderfully detailed. I've read more than a dozen works on Luther, and was pleasantly surprised to be learning new things from a children's book. For example, I don't think I'd ever before heard that Martin had a special relationship with his young brother Jacob, nor that Jacob might have been with him when Luther was "kidnapped" on his way home from the Diet of Worms. And it was interesting to learn that Luther's famous "brand" - the Luther rose – was designed for him at the request of his protector, John Frederick of Saxony.

What makes this book special is how much Carr has managed to pack in its 60 pages. But that also means this while this is a picture book, it is probably too much for children in Grades 1 or 2. I think the best bet is Grade 4 and up.

Overall, Carr gives a generous assessment of Luther, focussing on this strengths. But she is willing to at least note his faults, the biggest of which is what he wrote about the Jews in his later years. He suggested Jews' books and money be taken, their synagogues burned, they be prevented from travel, and their rabbis killed if they wouldn't stop teaching their religion. Carr makes brief mention of it, noting that he "wrote against the Jews" and there is no "excuse for writing what he did."

I'd recommend this as a wonderful educational resource, and by that I mean that while it makes learning easy, this isn't the type of frothy, brightly-colored picture book that young children will pick up simply for entertainment. It will need a teacher's or parent's prompt. But any child who reads it will have an excellent overview and understanding of the man.

You can pick up a copy at here and here. And for other Simonetta Carr biographies, click on the "Simonetta Carr" label below.