Tag Archives: Christian

Book Reviews: May 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Sequels and Series

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and authors' bios.

The Berenstain Bears: Faith Gets Us Through by Stan, Jan, and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

One day for story time, I had just the two kids, regulars of mine. We finished the stories that I’d picked out for them, but we still had time, and they were still interested, so I had them pick out stories. They picked two, we read those, there was still time, so I had them pick out one more. The younger sister let her older brother choose, and this is what he brought back. Reading an overtly religious story in a public setting to children that I don’t know all that well and that I’m not directly responsible for made me uncomfortable—even though I consider myself Christian and religious—but I wasn’t going to disappoint or disapprove of any story that they chose. One of the bear cubs in this story—a side character, Scout Fred, not one of the well-known Berenstain family members—quotes Bible verses about faith and fear and God’s constancy. Even though he begins his quotes with “As the Bible says,” not giving book and verse, those Bible verses were as clunky in text as they often are in real-world conversations. The story, though, is exciting. Papa Bear leads the bear cubs into a cave. It looks frightening, but Papa Bear knows all about caves and God will protect them (some of the facts about caves, about stalactites and stalagmites were also clunky). They all fall into an underground river, but are carried out a chute and safely fall into a pool outside of the cave, protected by God, of course. Honestly, if there weren’t such emphasis on the didactic aspects of this story, I think I would have really enjoyed it. Without its Biblical quotes, it’s a story of an overly confident adult who think that he knows it all and doesn’t listen to the misgivings of the children in his charge, putting everyone in danger, though ultimately it all turns out all right.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, video, and author's bio.

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audiences: Ages 4-8.

Poor Pete just wants to dance, but his friends don’t think that he’s doing it right, and when they try to teach him, he steps on Squirrel’s toes and hits Gus on the nose. Pete is determined to get it right, so he keeps trying. Wise Old Owl swoops in as he has been doing lately in Pete books and saves the day: “It doesn’t matter how you move, as long as you are being you.” Those words solve every problem of the book. Each friend dances however they like to move. The whole story is told in rhyme and words like “groovy” sneak into the book to give it that ‘70s flair that is fairly unique to the Pete books. There is far less to this story, though, than there was to, say, His Four Groovy Buttons or I Love My White Shoes or the more recent Missing Cupcakes, a didactic message, yes, but not an educational one, not a primer’s lesson. Even so, adding another book to the repertoire of dance-along books is always valuable for rambunctious little ones.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and activity kit.

Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of my new favorites. I’ve spoken before several times about how much I love books that demolish the fourth wall and how much I love when anything plays with its form. This is one of those books. The business-savvy mice from Hotel Bruce return. Rupert, the most serious of the mice, is given his own book. He is going to make it a wordless picture book because they are “very artistic.” It goes all right when Rupert is alone. He can explain his premise, give the book its title, and say that it will have no words “starting NOW.” But his wordless book is quickly interrupted by his friends, Thistle then Nibbs, who want to help. Only, he has talk to explain to them why they can’t talk. They have to talk about not talking. And then Thistle and Nibbs have ideas about what type of illustrations and characters and plot this wordless book should have—and of course they have to talk to share their ideas. The illustrations change to keep up with their suggestions and their misinterpretations of each other’s ideas and Rupert’s erudite complaints, getting further and further away from Rupert’s original ideas, I’m sure. Those erudite complaints offer quick vocabulary lessons too. Poor Rupert spends a lot of this book telling the others to be quiet—until he is ultimately shushed when he complains that his book is ruined (this page reminded me very much of the clever format of Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales).

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

Jorge el curioso huellas de dinosaurio / Curious George: Dinosaur Tracks by CGTV based on characters by H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Based on the new world of Curious George as established in the television series, while out in the country, George takes his camera and photographs wild animals and their tracks for his collection. While searching for a fawn seen by his friend Bill, he finds a strange set of tracks and decides that they were made by a dinosaur with big feet with pointed toes and a dragging tail. Though at first excited, he does some research and realizes that some dinosaurs are dangerous. It’s near Bill’s house. Bill could be in trouble! There’s a nice bit of information here too, some of which is delivered dryly in the form of an info dump but most of which is conveyed gently through the illustrations. There’s also a well-constructed story with foreshadowing and a mystery with clues that a careful reader could follow. For a level 1 reader, this is a fabulous story. I read only the English in this book. English and Spanish text were on the same page.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, links to related articles, and author's bio.

Dragons Love Taco 2: The Sequel by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This sequel to Dragons Love Tacos opens on the same white, male protagonist and his dog surrounded by weeping dragons. Why? Because The New York Times declares NO MORE TACOS.   And dragons love tacos. So the boy fires up the time machine in his garage and with his dog and a few dragon friends travels back in time to the taco party of the previous book—but before the dragons ate the tacos with the spicy salsa. Unfortunately the first few times, they are too late, and the time machine keeps getting burnt in the inferno resulting from the dragons’ encounter with spicy tacos. When trying to tune up the machine, the protagonist mistakes extra spicy salsa for engine oil because he still hasn’t learnt to read the label first. Time machines have a bit of different reaction than do dragons but equally negative reaction to salsa. The past gets strange. But finally, the boy and his dragons escape from the past with some tacos, and they are able to plant one to grow into a tree and replenish the world’s taco stores. This is a fun story: ridiculous but with a problem big enough to drive the plot with some force. This book relies on its prequel more so than most sequels. I can see that as negative in that it requires prior knowledge or access to the prequel; this book doesn’t work well as a standalone. My initial thought though was that this book could be used in a classroom setting to explain book series versus books in a series; fewer picture books are book in a series. In fact, I’m almost not sure that I can think of another example. Particularly in the first few pages, the illustrations are particularly clever. Be sure to read especially the The New York Times article “Congress Deadlocked on Taco Issue;” as an adult, that one I found particularly funny.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and trailer.

Ellie in Concert by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The cacophony of the other animals’ noises is keeping Lucy the giraffe from being able to sleep. Ellie is concerned for her friend. Inspired by the bird’s lullaby to her chicks, Ellie conducts the animals’ noises so that they become a lullaby too. This is a great way to incorporate an animal primer into a book with plot, and like the first book celebrates art, this celebrates music. Included are two tunes, proving Mike Wu to be a talented Renaissance man.

***

New Friends

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HaperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Tadgh Bentley won my heart with his book, Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups, and won another piece of it when a couple told me that he is a lovely man to talk to as well as having written a wonderful book. Samson is his second. Samson is a piranha with a refined palate. He may even be a foodie. He wants to go to fancy restaurants and try exquisite dishes, but the other piranhas are not interested, and the patrons and employees of those fine restaurants are off-put by his being a piranha with sharp teeth and a cannibalistic reputation. Samson’s disguises aren’t enough to get him service at any of those fine restaurants because they always slip enough to reveal him to be a piranha. At the last restaurant though, not every fish leaves; some are there in disguise too. Samson opens his own restaurant, to cater to those excluded from other establishments based on their appearance—and those with privilege who begin to come in disguise to his restaurant. Where Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups was a truly funny story, made more funny because the reader should fake hiccups through the whole of the text, this is a serious social commentary—masked in a funny tale of a fish. But a fish from whom others run and whom they stereotype, and who can’t get service at a restaurant because of his appearance is not a funny tale; this is a good introduction to how it feels to be discriminated against, how one shouldn’t judge a person—or fish—on their appearance or on the stories told about a group of which that individual is a part. Seeing it as social commentary, I’m not sure how I feel about the privileged fish masking themselves as underprivileged fish, but I’m choosing to perhaps not carry the metaphor as far as it could be taken; it probably isn’t meant to be taken that far, but I recognize where the metaphor could become problematic.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample audio, book trailer, pancake recipe and activity kit, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Little Ree by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In what I assume is an autobiographical story, Little Ree moves with her family from the city to her grandparents’ farm. She’s really excited, but country life isn’t what she is expecting. She has to get up early. Her bedroom is plain. The night is dark, and there are scary sounds outside. She is given a horse, but the horse doesn’t do what she wants. The illustrations are precious, and the story is told with a very realistic child’s voice. The whole of her story is told from her monologue addressed both to the audience and to the characters without any dialogue tags or narration. Little Ree is talkative enough that the story remains even apart from the illustrations. Little Ree reminds me a bit of Fancy Nancy and Eloise with her precociousness and clothes horse-ish-ness.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

A Trip to Busy Town by Sally Hopgood and illustrated by Steph Hinton. Pull-the-Tab-Top That, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3+.

This board book has some very fun, sturdy pull-tabs that creatively make use of the space with illustrations on both sides of the tab and answers to the text’s questions on the tab, revealed only when its extended. Be sure not to push the tab back in before turning the page as both sides are illustrated and the illustration on the back side of the tab extends the next page’s illustration. Told all in a rhyme, with text that asks questions of the reader, animal friends journey from the country, past various transport vehicles and machines, to arrive at the airport to pick up one more friend on the tarmac. I was really quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of this board book, the complexity of the text and illustrations. It can be found in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample illustrations, reviews, trailer, teachers' resources, and activity kit.

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegal. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2. 

Jameson feels invincible in his green pants. He can do anything in them. He is excited to be in his cousin’s wedding, but there is one caveat: He must wear a tuxedo—with black pants. It’s a wonderfully universal childhood problem: having to dress a certain way, to give up wearing what you want, to give up wearing your favorite piece of clothing to be able to do something that you want to do (arguably that’s an adult problem too). He has to choose between being in his cousin’s wedding and wearing his green pants. Ultimately, he decides to choose his cousin, but the moment that his duties are through, off come the black pants, and beneath he wears his green pants—so much better for cutting loose on the dance floor. The entirety of the cast is Black in a story that has nothing to do with race and everything to do with childhood, family, and societal expectations and mores.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, reviews, and author's bio. 

Moo Moo in a Tutu by Tim Miller. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Moo Moo has a lot of ideas, but this is the best idea in the whole world! She’s going to be a ballerina. Moo Moo is ever optimistic and Mr. Quackers is forever supportive. They’re a wonderfully fun new set of friends. The whole of the story is told entirely in speech bubbles and illustrations. After a rocky start, Moo Moo quickly decides that she is ready to share her talent with the world, and she gets onto stage at the ballet. Her reception is not very warm from anyone but Mr. Quackers, and she as quickly as she decided to become a ballerina decides to retire while at the top of her game.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and reviews of the illustrations.

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2017.

Boastful Danny McGee says that he can drink the sea, and in the way that siblings will, his sister disagrees, and Danny sets out to prove her wrong. And he does. And then he proceeds to eat everything in a stampede of quick rhymes in a Seussian lilt. At the end of the book, there’s nothing but himself and his sister on a blank, white page, and Danny McGee thinks that he’s proved his sister wrong, but there’s one thing that Danny hasn’t eaten—and she eats him. The combination of rhyme and rhythm and the sibling interaction that I think will seem very familiar to most siblings might make this a book popular with the children. Frankly, I was a little off-put by the lack of comeuppance for Frannie and that she seems to scheme to let Danny eat everything only so that she can show him up and eat him. I know I’m reading too deeply into the story that is meant probably just to make kids laugh, but it seems like her gluttony, her violence against her brother is pardoned because he’s a younger brother and because she is patient and because he did wrong first. I don’t know why her patience seems so conniving to me—maybe it’s the violence described in a singsong rhyme—but it does.

***

Books That Aren’t So Much About a Character

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, and authors' bios.

Books That Drive Kids CRAZY!: Did You Take the B from My _ook? by Beck and Matt Stanton. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This was an excellent book for those beginning to read. It was good for a small story time audience (I had only 2 children). The book’s text puts underscores in place of Bs and so the kids had the chance to sound out the words with the simple illustrations to prompt them. The mystery (and it was really only a mystery to the younger of my two audience members) of what the text said was more intriguing than the plot—the plot, such as it was. There was silliness, but maybe not much of a story. The plot is that the reader has caught some malady that prevents her from saying the letter B, so the reader comes up with a tongue twister filled with Bs to see if she can say the letter. And she can’t until the very end. That’s where the interaction with my story time audience came in: “It sounds wrong when I read this page. Can you still read this page like it should be read? Can you tell me what’s happening in the picture?”

****

Click to visit the illustrator's page for links to order and sample illustrations.

Baby’s Big World: Music by Rob Delgaudio and illustrated by Hilli Kushnir. BoriBoricha, 2017. 

This book is more a concept book than a story. It’s an informational board book that asks what music is and describes the way that notes stand for particular sounds that help to make music, and it asks what music you (the child listening to or reading the book) will make. The characters are all round-faced children and toddlers but those characters are of every gender and race, each handled with attention to detail, and each character unique.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: American Born Chinese Smashes Stereotypes and Issues Challenges Directly

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Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is another book that I was introduced to by A. LaFaye in that same History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University, and is another that I have read many times since that class. This is an award winning graphic novel about Jin Wang’s struggle to fit into a predominantly Caucasian America as a Chinese American. It parallels with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, a powerful monkey who wants to be a god, but whom the gods refuse because he’s a monkey. Told with a laugh track and canned applause like a 90s television comedy, the third strand of the story, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” features the worst of Chinese stereotypes in Chin-Kee, a cousin of all-American Danny who so embarrasses Danny that Danny has to change schools each year after Chin-Kee’s visit. The three tales intersect at the end of the book with a lesson to learn to be happy as one is rather than wishing to be something one is not.

This was the first graphic novel I was able to enjoy, though a few others had been put into my hands prior, including Tamora Pierce’s White Tiger, which I’d have loved to have enjoyed. I cannot pretend to have a breadth of knowledge about either comic or manga illustration styles. I have had difficulty particularly with the American comic book format. When confronted with the form, my mind can focus on either the text or picture but not on both. A. suggested that this is a more common problem than I ever would have expected and related to the same reflex that makes me cover my eyes during horror films. In American comic books and horror films, the action is generally directed out of the page at the audience, so I flinch from horror films and dodge the illustrations in American comic books, glossing over the pictures, missing the details they add to the story, and catching only the dialogue. I also don’t approve of the hypersexualization of characters that seems pervasive in comic book illustration.

Yang’s style is more confined to the pages, even the fight sequences only occasionally having a limb extended out towards the reader. His colors are brighter, though I’m not sure what effect that would have on my reading ability unless the brighter colors are more welcoming in the same way that picture book illustrators recommend bright colors to keep a child’s attention and to create a stimulating image. The characters are not hypersexualized but rather of fairly average body type. Most of the illustrations feature forward facing characters and often direct stares, placing the reader in the position of a character, of a confidant or aggressor or opponent, creating empathy in many cases and inviting introspection and close reflection of the characters’ words.

That’s one of things I love best about this book: It issues a challenge to the reader while being readily accessible, even with its graphic novel form inviting more reluctant readers to read. It takes its challenges of stereotypes to every level, going beyond its text, challenging the belief that a graphic novel cannot have literary value (though this is becoming a less firmly held belief among critics, educators, and parents, I believe). Its illustrations blend manga and American comics while creating something new, its form a metaphor for the story’s message. It speaks openly about racism and race and prejudice.

I don’t admittedly know enough about Chinese mythology or folklore. I believe though that in the spirit of the melting pot, Yang melds Chinese mythology and Christian mythology. The emissaries of Tze-yo-tzuh, an all-powerful god who created the world and everything in it, are a bull, lion, woman, and eagle. A man, bull, lion, and eagle are traditionally used to depict the four Christian Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Journey into the West taken by Wong Lai-Taso and the Monkey King is to see and bring gifts to a humble man in a brown robe and a woman in a blue mantle with a young child. The couple and child look like the traditional representations of Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, and Wong Lai-Taso’s and the Monkey King’s journey west to give them gifts then parallels the journey of the wise men (from the East) to present their gifts to the Christ child in the Christian story.

Yang creates a wonderful piece of fiction, complex and intricate.

*****

Yang, Gene Yuen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Yuen Yang, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of buying an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and buy it through Bookgrail?

Book Reviews: November 2014 Picture Book Roundup: It’s Blue… or Maybe Green?

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Away in a Manger illustrated by Lisa Reed and Randle Paul Bennett. Candy Cane-Ideals, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The text and audio of this book are the first two verses of “Away in a Manger,” sung by “Junior Asparagus,” who is unfortunately one of my least favorite musical talents among the VeggieTales cast. The illustrations are bright and colorful, and VeggieTales fans will appreciate seeing familiar faces in a probably equally familiar tableau. I witnessed one parent trying to read this book (or it might have been its sister book, Silent Night) to a child, and stumbling to an awkward halt when it turned out that the audio button was the text in its entirety. That rather detracts from the book’s ability to lead to interaction between a parent and child. A parent can turn the pages, but the time spent on each page is limited and the parent’s voice is lost amid Junior’s warble.

*

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Step Into Reading: Level 2: A Pony for a Princess by Andrea Posner-Sanchez and illustrated by Francesc Mateu. RH Disney-Random 2002.

I was drawn to the book by the promise of a pony but was a little worried by the book being a Disney spinoff. I was more impressed with this book than I expected to be. The plot is well formed. A deductive thinker could reason the plot from details. Belle sees a barrel of apples, and later decides to return to the barrel to sate her hunger, only to find the barrel empty, then logically she seeks to discover what happened to the apples. I do think it unlikely that a wild pony could be so easily caught by a trail of sugar cubes, but this is a Disney story, and Belle qualifies as a Disney princess, so I will forgive the implausibility and call it more of an inevitability.

****

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Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. G.P Putnam & Sons-Penguin Putnam, 1996. First published 1994. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was at least a second read. Good Night, Gorilla is something of a classic. I think the illustrations are what make this book. The zookeeper goes about saying goodnight to the animals (making it a plausible animal primer), but on the first page, the gorilla steals his keys and follows him through the zoo, unlocking cages. The whole of the zoo follows him home and into his bedroom. Too many responses to her “Good night, dear” alert the zookeeper’s wife of the trouble, and she calmly gets up out of bed, takes the gorilla’s hand, and leads all the animals back to their cages. The gorilla and the mouse escape even her watch and follow her once more back to the bed that she shares with the zookeeper. I appreciate the presentation of a more alert, more able wife.

***

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Peekaboo Barn by Nat Sims and illustrated by Nathan Tabor. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 0-3, PreK.

This lift-the-flap animal primer comes with a free app download code. This is the first of a few books I’ve since come across with app companions. Apparently, this book was an app first. The animals are cartoonish with bug eyes that are mildly disturbing. Sometimes there’s only one flap on a page, sometimes there are two. At first read, this was confusing, as I didn’t know to look for two flaps and would open the barn doors to discover only one of the animals whose sounds I’d just read. Then I noticed that the loft doors also occasionally opened. I’m not sure if as a toddler reader, this variation would be exciting or confusing. If I’m being finicky, the animals are not seen or entering the barn, but the scene never changes, the sun never moves across the sky. It would have been very simple to introduce more plot into this book.

*

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That’s Not My Snowman… by Fiona Watt. Usborne, 2014. First published 2006.

There’s not much exciting about this winter edition of a series of touch-and-feel primers that spans all manner of creature, machine, and… sculpture. I do puzzle what sort of squishy nose one could give a snowman. I prefer to have logical connections between the illustrations and text. The inclusion of the ever-present mouse in this series adds a nice element of continuity to the story and the series.

**

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Waiting Is Not Easy! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I am a fan of Mo Willems and of Elephant and Piggie in particular. I was not expecting the mixed media illustrations in this book nor the subtle hint of the passage of time as the white space becomes darker. I think both the messages of patience and of the beauty of nature are valuable to today’s children, so used—as we all are—to instant gratification. I like it even better on a second reading, particularly I enjoy Piggie’s answers to Gerald’s questions Piggie about the surprise.

*****

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Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2014. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 2-6, Grades PreK-1.

I am biased towards Wolff’s books and this one in particular. Wolff is a professor at my alma mater. This book I saw as an unbound proof when she read it to us. I saw it later read at a local library story hour and witnessed the unbiased enjoyment of it from the children and the librarian. Wolff’s illustrations are jewel bright, and the text does not seem overly formulaic as many primers can seem, though Wolff does keep some repetition in the line “Baby Bear sees [color]” to give the story a familiar structure and rhythm. Wolff does not shy from poetic language within her text, but she keeps true too to the toddler understanding of the world with Baby Bear’s speech, as when Baby Bear asks who is waving at him, indicating an oak leaf stirred by a breeze. I had not considered till reading a particularly detailed review on Goodreads that the closing line makes the book fit appropriately too into the bedtime story mold.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Young Wizards at War Expands to an Epic Scope

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On this blog, I’ve only reviewed the first (and there I spoke more of the style and themes) of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, but I’ve read now through the eighth.  The first, So You Want to Be a Wizard?, introduces readers to the protagonists Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, who work together as wizards to combat the Lone One and Its creations, entropy and death.  The wizards are heroes of Life and work with the Powers That Be, more commonly known throughout history as angels and gods of various religions.  The Powers That Be all serve the One, who is essentially God, and I would argue, the Christian idea of God.  Wizards exist across species and across the universe.  The seventh book in the series, Wizard’s Holiday, saw Kit and Nita away on an exchange program.  While they were off-world, a trio of alien wizards came to live at the Callahans’ and helped Nita’s sister, Dairine, to heal our sun and protect Earth.  [SPOILER] Kit’s and Nita’s away-mission came to an early end when the species that they were living with evolved beyond a physical form and left the planet. [END SPOILER]  They come home and join Dairine; the tree-like Filif; the insectile Sker’ret, a near relative of the Stationmaster of the Crossings, a hub like Grand Central or King’s Cross St. Pancras for transport to other planets; and the humanoid young king, Roshaun, whose specialty is suns and stars.

Wizards at War opens with a warning from Tom and Carl, the area seniors.  A strange increase of dark matter throughout the universe has been warping the universe and changing its description, making wizardry impossible as wizardry depends on accurately describing the universe.  Older wizards past their peak, like Tom and Carl, are losing their ability to work wizardries—and as the dark matter continues to increase, they lose even the memory of wizardry.  Nita and Kit are appointed as temporary seniors, and the fate of the world has fallen into the hands of children alone.

Wizards at War reunites us with many of friends from previous books—Darryl, S’ree, Ronan and the Power the resides inside of him—and introduces us too to a few more, including a set of twychilds, twins Nguyet and Tuyet who are able to amplify power by bouncing it back and forth between them.  The mission of our heroes brings us to a world so lost to the Lone One that it is listed as irredeemable by the Manual.  There they again must battle the Lone One by empowering one of the natives of the planet to do so.  [HERE BEGIN THE SPOILERS] She—yes, she, though her culture is male-dominated—is a new form of the Lone One, a form of the Lone One that chooses Life instead of Death.  The Lone One like all of the Powers and the One lives outside of Time.  Therefore it’s possible for two forms of It to exist at once, the One inside of Memeki and the One that controls Memeki’s planet.  The One that controls the planet seeks vengeance against the wizards who help Memeki to unlock her power.  The ensuing battle on Earth’s moon claims many friends.  I’m still uncertain how many are lost for good and how many may be resurrected in one form or another, even if they have lost their wizardry. [END SPOILERS]

Like many of the recent books, this one focuses on the Choice, the Choice between Life and Death, God or Darkness.

Of all of the recent books, this one is perhaps the most complex in scale, cast, and concept.  This is epic in a way that Duane’s series has not been before.  Like its title suggests, this is a wartime novel of the vein of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or maybe more accurately J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The large cast includes expendable characters and warriors whom the audience will hate to lose.  All the characters have accepted death as a possibility in the face of their foe and no one seems safe anymore.  Still the certainty that good will triumph over evil remains (mostly I think because of the series’ Christian mythological background) and still the lines are clearly drawn [SPOILER] (though with Memeki’s coming to power, I suppose that is not as true as it was). [END SPOILER]

I will be very interested to see how the series progresses from here.  There is one more published book for me to read and I think there will be others besides in time.

****

Duane, Diane.  Young Wizards, Book 8: Wizards at War.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, Inc., or Delacorte Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Because I Could Drown (631 words)

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You and I, we enjoy one another’s company, I don’t think there’s any denying that on either side, but when it comes to the big things in life, while I hope that we can have a rational discussion, I fear that there won’t be understanding without an alteration of the heart, and I know the ground I stand on, and I won’t move.  

I don’t adhere to any particular branch of Christianity because for me Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with God, but I have chosen to believe the Christian history of God.  I believe that the Bible is God-inspired.

Is it the only God-inspired text?  Maybe not.  Maybe other sacred texts are God-inspired too because a lot of them hold similar root messages.  I don’t believe that prophets are infallible.  Peter climbed out of the boat, and he walked on water, but then he doubted and he sank.  Paul started as a hunter of the Christians and became one of the greatest teachers of Christianity.  David killed his friend to steal his wife.  The differences in the texts might be moments where the prophet doubted and he felt the winds and he felt the waves or even where he sank.  I don’t know.

What I know is that God is real.  He’s a friend of mine, and He watches out for me daily.  I see him in the eyes of my friends and in the way that their hearts bend towards the less fortunate and towards one another.  I feel him in the little moments of a car crash barely avoided, a kind word from a customer, something that goes right when I didn’t think that it could, that time that I got a 90 on the Latin test that I didn’t study for until breakfast that morning and the words of which I didn’t know when I left for class.

Somehow or another, you’ve turned your face from God, but I don’t think He’s turned from you, and maybe I’m here to throw you a life preserver, but I don’t know that I can be certain of you in a lifelong partnership.  If I pull you back on the boat, will you be able to find the life preserver if I need ever it?  Will you remind me where it is when I forget?  I want you on the boat–I want that badly–but I want a seasoned sailor–one who knows the Captain and knows the ship–to help me when I’m flailing in the water–and maybe that’s horribly selfish, it’s definitely a thought driven by fear, but it’s how I feel.

I hope you can understand that I can’t give up my First Husband for my second.  I need the second to be able to accept and love my First Husband or the partnership becomes unequal and the marriage fails to be what I want it to be, not that either is head but that each is the helpmeet of the other, the one that makes the other work best in the role that each is given by their gifts.  Because I won’t give up the One Man that I’m sure that I can depend upon for anything, despite anything, the One Man without flaw who I could find in the whole of the universe.

And I’m sorry if that hurts.  Hurting you is not what I want.  But I can’t trust my body to one with whom I cannot trust my soul.

And I hope that we can be friends still because I truly do enjoy your company, and I don’t want to lose you from this, but I had to let you know how I felt.  I had to let you know my fears.  No relationship can exist without openness.

Gwen’s a thief!  She stole this first line to write “As Loud As We Laugh,” which you can find on her blog, Apprentice, Never Master.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking and worrying about a lot lately.  And while we’re talking about fears, I’m not sure how I feel now about putting this out on the Internet and attaching my name to it, but when I wrote it, I was pretty certain that it needed to be available for the wider consumption of the Internet in some form at some time.  Then I remembered that I’d been asked if I was participating in this week’s legal theft.   I used this line for legal theft because the timing was opportune and, yes, I was interested to see what would become of it if I sent it out of context into the world.  I hope you all will take my words and fears as an opinion of an individual and not a wider population, and I hope you won’t judge me and especially not others harshly for what I’ve said.  But I hope this is what some of you need or want to hear; for whatever reason, I hope it comforts or uplifts you.  I hope you can see the hope and strength I have in my first marriage.

Book Review: So You Want To Be a Wizard May Be Nine People’s Favorite Thing

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Diane Duane and I were introduced by a friend in my junior year of high school.  I fell in love with her Young Wizards quickly.

I’ve since then read and reread each book in the series up through the seventh (Wizard’s Holiday), and have only failed to continue on because the books (beyond the first few) are difficult to find in bookstores and must be ordered online.

Rereading most recently the first of the series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, I was again blown away by both the power and beauty of Duane’s prose, the intricacy of her world(s), and the beautiful blending of magic and fantasy with (Christian) mythology and science.

There’s a lot that Duane does well and a lot that I love.

1) Duane blends different mythologies (one Power claiming to have gone by the names Athena, Prometheus, Thor, Lugh, and the Archangel Michael) and scientific theories into a single, cohesive myth.  I did not for some time recognize so starkly that what Duane was doing was creating a magic system to work against the background of Christian mythology.  The fifth book, The Wizard’s Dilemma, (if I remember rightly) is the first to name the Starsnuffer or Lone One as the fallen Lucifer and the first to name the One as God.  Many ideas have been shared throughout time by Christians and Christian theologians about the power (or lack thereof) behind other gods: that all gods are God, that those other gods as demons, that they are men’s inventions and powerless.  In Duane’s myths, the other gods are angels (or both angels and the other gods are Powers), servants of God but not God Himself.  I could argue and have argued with myself about this issue, but Duane’s interpretation, though I know she writes it primarily as a work of fantasy, sits well with me—which perhaps is good and perhaps is dangerous.  I choose not to overthink it.  I don’t think that her interpretation has any real effect upon my interpretation other than to exist as another opinion.

2) Duane’s magic is affected primarily by the Speech, a language spoken by all things (or which all things can speak, but some forget).  The Speech is used both to ease negotiations because of its universality and, because one cannot lie in the Speech and promises made in the Speech must be kept, to help to persuade an object or person to change or to remind it what it should be, a wizard’s purpose being to help and to aid Life.  It falls into a category with other fantasies that laud the power of words, language, or secret names.  Especially, Duane’s Speech reminds me of the Old One’s speech from Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence and the way that knowing the true names of things gives one power in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the very similar idea that Rick Riordan borrows from Egyptian mythology for The Kane Chronicles.  Of those, I feel like Duane best uses language (you all can disagree with me; LeGuin’s prose I admit comes very close to having the same power as Duane’s, but LeGuin is writing for a different audience, and I prefer Duane’s speed and immediacy to LeGuin’s epic style).  I feel Duane embodies with her prose what she preaches by giving her words the power that words possess in the Speech.  Her imagery is vivid and poetic so that what should not or cannot be I can see clearly in my mind almost without fail.

3) There is little diversity in fantasy.  Most human heroes and heroines resemble an Anglo race (probably because we are all secretly emulating Tolkien, who was British in a time when Britain was less diverse than it now is).  Kit Rodriguez is a rare example of a Hispanic American in a fantasy where his race is not made into an issue or highlighted in any way.  He simply is Hispanic and his family speaks Spanish mixed with English not as an act of defiance, I feel, against the fantasy-world norm, but as a matter of fact.  Yes, Kit’s ethnicity is more obvious than Ged being copper-skinned but because Duane can include snippets of a recognizable language that is not the language in which the book is primarily written, her fantasy being low rather than high.  (Snippets of a high fantasy language build a fantasy world but can only infrequently be a ready identifier for readers of a race different from other characters of the same world.  For example, without them being labeled as such, would a casual reader recognize any difference between Dothraki, Braavosi, or High Valyrian?  Or Elvish, Dwarvish, and Orcish for that matter?  High fantasies have in some ways to work harder to create ethnicity because the reader knows none of the ethnic identifiers before entering the fantasy world.)

4) This first novel in particular is almost an anti-bullying book, with Nita Callahan deciding to try to befriend her bully at the end of the novel, [SPOILER] having just realized that even the most wicked can be exchange their ways for good if given the chance to do so. [END SPOILER]

This first novel, So You Want To Be a Wizard, reads more than some of the others as a simple, late middle-grade fantasy adventure.  There is a clear villain against which the young heroes must compete for the fate of the world.  The conflict is a simple, primarily external one.  Later novels delve deeper into difficult issues (parent’s death, cancer, autism), but even in this first, Duane creates or borrows a terrifying villain and doesn’t shy from killing protagonists—or rather allowing them to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

*****

Duane, Diane.  Young Wizards, Book 1: So You Want To Be a Wizard.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1996.  First published by Delacorte 1983.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, Inc., or Delacorte Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

As a note: this is a review of the original text.  Diane Duane is currently working on updated versions of the stories subtitled as The New Millennium editions, which, I hear, include updated technology and corrected facts and figures.

Title borrowed from the song from [Title of Show], “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.”

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A Christian’s Defense of Fantasy and Particularly Harry Potter

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A quick look around my blog will tell you that I’m not the bookseller to ask about books that are “nothing like Harry Potter because I’ve heard too many negative reviews about it being satanic.”

Chances are that this customer is probably the bookstore equivalent of a “Christeaster”1, and I will never see her (at least till next year) to give her a history lesson in fantasy and a lesson on not judging a book by the outcry of a few—but that doesn’t prevent me from doing so here, does it?  Maybe she’ll even stumble upon this post while looking for articles to bolster her delusion.

Fantasy in general is not satanic.  In fact, it can be a great vehicle for Christian morality and theology.  The Chronicles of Narnia have brought nonbelievers and believers a greater understanding of the nature of God for nigh sixty years now.  This portal fantasy series (the same subset as Harry Potter) is written by one of the best-known names in Christian inspiration and especially Christian fiction—C. S. Lewis.  Lewis is especially well-remembered because he brought his Christian message to those outside the faith, something well-known modern Christian writers like Rick Warren and Joyce Meyer cannot claim to anywhere near the same extent.  His stories scaled the walls of ivory tower Christianity and wiggled into the hearts and bookshelves of many within and without those walls.

Yet, while Lewis’ books I would argue are Christian fiction, they are not so because of Lewis’ profession of Christian faith but rather by his decision to include Christian allegory in his texts.

Lewis’ friend and fellow Christian J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I would argue, is the founder of modern-day high and epic fantasy and a hero of many modern fantasy writers.  His books, despite Tolkien’s public profession of faith and J. K. Rowling’s silence on the subject, are as Christian as Harry Potter.  Neither Tolkien’s nor Rowling’s books preach Christian theology like Lewis’ Chronicles, but their books teach a good triumphs over evil worldview, that not only the mighty can have great influence, that friendship and loyalty are immensely important, the power of persistence in the fight against evil, forgiveness, the possibility of redemption from great sin and evil….  Harry Potter’s Christian morality is in fact stronger than that of its main fandom rival, Twilight, though Twilight is written by an openly religious Christian writer.

When Harry Potter’s morality began to waver, Rowling had made it so clear that Harry’s actions were illegal and punishable by life in prison that I can only assume that she meant to lead the fandom into the discussions that we had about Harry’s uses of the Unforgivables, as Les Misérables asks if Fantine’s prostitution is forgivable or Jean Valjean’s thievery and evasion of the law.

While some may have picketed Harry Potter (oddly, Meyer’s declared Christianity seems to have widely saved Twilight from the same condemnation), just as many Christians and Christian media outlets, including the magazine Christianity Toady, have positively reviewed the series.

So, don’t judge a book by a few negative reviews.  Don’t judge a book by its genre.  Don’t judge a book by how open the author is about his or her faith.  Do your research.

1A term for those who show up in church only on Christmas and Easter.

This rant is not endorsed by the authors or the estates of the authors here mentioned nor any of their publishers.  It is an independent, honest rant by a fan.

Book Review: The Monster in the Hollows Lumbers Before It Soars

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Visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and reviews.

How can you tell that you’re enjoying a book?  Someone in a Barnes & Noble café turns around to ask what you’re reading because he’s heard you giggling to yourself.  And you later catch yourself gasping and talking aloud to the book.  And you spend the rest of the night disturbing co-workers as you talk to other books that are misplaced on the shelves.

Thanks, Andrew Peterson.

The Monster in the Hollows is the third in The Wingfeather Saga, an altogether slower book than its predecessors, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten.  Along with changing his publishing house, Peterson here changes his style somewhat—I venture for the worse, pining for the quippy and informative footnotes and diagrams of the previous two books, and being somewhat lulled by the time spent in the all but Fang-free Green Hollows, where the worst of troubles seemed to be bullies and suspicion.  I read Peterson for the nail-biting, edge-of-my-seat fantasy thrill ride, and the middle of this novel delivered to me a middle-grade school story.  Further, as exciting as is Sara Cobbler’s rebellion in the dreaded Fork! Factory!, I was not as interested in her tale as I was in that of the Jewels of Anniera.  Because Janner had left behind the Fork! Factory!, I wanted to do so as well.  Though I understand Peterson’s desire to include Sara’s story, both to color the middle of the story that slowed in the Green Hollows and to multiply the heroic deeds of his female characters, I do not yet see how it connects other than to make more interesting the woman who might become wife to the Throne Warden when he’s older than thirteen.

Too, at moments, Nia’s assurances that love is stronger border upon preaching, a slippery slope upon which falls the reputation of many an otherwise enjoyable Christian novel.  I think Peterson manages to keep himself from that slide, but I hope that he edges further away from the precipice in the next book.

From all this, the end of the novel does wonders to redeem itself, returning to the page-turning cliff-hangers, bone-chilling cruelty, Fangs, and last-minute escapes (not to mention the surprising revelations) through all of which Peterson’s word-smithing and well-honed storytelling shines.  Peterson in this novel proves himself almost as ruthless a killer as George R. R. Martin (and I mean that as a compliment), taking from the Wingfeathers as quickly as he gives.  The next and final story in his saga, Peterson alerts the reader, will follow the heroic pattern: his world is gearing for war, and now we are forced to anxiously wait while Aerwiar arms itself.

Humorous diagrams of the previous books that point to the toothy cows’ pointy teeth are replaced by detailed (so much so that some of the titles of books on a shelf are legible) renderings of characters and scenes at which it is hard to turn one’s nose up in which colors subtly shift and musculature and facial features are well-defined.

I read this book alongside The Hobbit, and that slowed my journey through the Green Hollows as much as through Middle Earth.  Perhaps if I had read it alone and more quickly, the Green Hollows would not have seemed as plodding.

***

Peterson, Andrew.  The Wingfeather Saga, Book 3: The Monster in the Hollows.  Nashville: Rabbit Room, 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Rabbit Room Press or Andrew Peterson.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Black is Colorful but Too Forceful

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There are many spoilers in this article, and they are unmarked but very revealing.  Ye be warned.

Black, the first book in the Circle Trilogy by Ted Dekker tells two stories that I have yet to connect as thoroughly as the hero, Thomas Hunter, comes to believe them to be.  Thomas lives in two worlds: the present-day Earth, where he somehow becomes the center of a plot to release and a plot to stop a powerful biochemical weapon, and the utopia that Earth will become if that weapon is released, where God is very present, and evil is contained in the lower hemisphere.

Honestly, I kept hoping that Black would get better.  Like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature, the plot of Black is gripping.  With the world dependent on the governments’ belief in one man’s outlandish dreams, the threat of a biochemical weapon that will eradicate the human population in three weeks, and (in Thomas’ dreams) the threat of demonic, oversized bats, it’s difficult not to race towards a conclusion, to be dragged along by the intricate plots and schemes of madmen, assassins, unlikely rescues, death threats, and deaths.

I have a difficulty liking novels that rely so heavily on such fear and danger because I feel like I’m being tricked into hurrying through the novel; I feel like the author has me by a nose ring and is dragging me along with them forcefully.  I don’t read because I want to; I read because I have to, and I don’t like feeling forced and rewarded with nothing more than more danger, threat, and fear.  (I realized as I wrote this paragraph that a) I may need to reevaluate my own style of making journeys more interesting, and b) Rick Riordan frequently uses the apocalypse coming plot, but he rewards me with humor, mythology lessons, and generally victory and so his books seem to rely less heavily on threat, and I consequentially love their breakneck pace.)

Further force is employed by the ending, which is perhaps the most precarious cliffhanger I’ve ever read (if, at least, I consider The Lord of the Rings a single book).  If I want to discover which world is real, if the virus is stopped, who lives and who dies, I will have to complete the trilogy because the book ends with no conclusion and Thomas at gunpoint.

What Dekker does do really well in Black is bring reality to fantastical dreamscapes and less-fantastical fictional realities.  It’s easy to question with Thomas which reality—the Earth as we know it, or the Earth of a hypothetical post-apocalyptic future—is “real.”  With his description of setting and feeling—perceptions, emotions—Dekker creates the realities of these worlds.

As Christian literature—which it very plainly is, the future world’s plot being a retelling of Eden and the Fall—Dekker escapes some of my usual critique of being too “preachy” by placing God in a dreamscape where he manifests himself most as a small boy too wise for his years called Elyon.  Dekker has some very interesting ways of describing God’s love for the world and for Man, but I don’t think that for me, personally, his descriptions were very illuminating.  Perhaps that was his point: that it is impossible to fully explain or comprehend God, but that we can feel his love without fully understanding.

**1/2

Dekker, Ted.  The Circle, Book One: Black: The Birth of Evil.  Nashville: WestBow-Thomas Nelson, 2004.

This review is not endorsed by Ted Dekker, WestBow Press, or Thomas Nelson, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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