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Category Archives: Children’s Books

Was Lost, But Now . . .

OK. I haven’t been writing much lately. Actually, I haven’t been writing anything lately. At least not here. I’ve written a couple of articles for my

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

church’s monthly bulletin, but that’s about it. Why? To be honest, I don’t really know. I guess you could call it a dry spell. I’ve been told writers get those periodically. Of course, I’m being generous considering myself a writer.

At any rate, I’ve felt a need for some new direction or purpose in this blog. That last quote I posted back in May has been rolling around in my mind. We definitely need to be more aware of what we put in our heads, especially the stories we consume. Naturally, I’m referring to the books we read, but I could just as well mean the stories we watch on TV or at the movies. The key word is “stories.” We need, all of us, to be telling ourselves better stories. And if this is true for us adults, it is even more critical that we make sure our children are hearing and seeing good stories.

Part of what has brought this into sharper focus for me is a new fantasy series I’ve started reading. It’s called “The Dark is Rising” sequence, by Susan Cooper. There are five books in the sequence; “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” What makes this series of particular interest is the author and her background. You can read a nice article and interview with Ms. Cooper here, but let me just give you an appetizer. She went to Oxford where she attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Then she worked at The Sunday Times of London where her editor was another author you may have heard of: Ian Fleming. Yes, she has the qualifications.

She also has the right story. But I’ll let Great-Uncle Merry explain that to you:

“You remember the fairy stories you were told when you were very small – ‘once upon a time . . . ‘ Why do you think they always began like that?”

Jane said, . . . “Because perhaps they were true once, but nobody could remember when.”

Great-Uncle Merry turned his head and smiled at her.

“That’s right. Once upon a time . . . a long time ago . . . things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing – the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil.”

And these stories about good against evil are still the great ones, the ones that resonate inside our hearts and minds. The reason for this is pretty simple. To quote Great-Uncle Merry once again, “That struggle goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting.” Though today it can be more subtle than a knight battling a dragon, it is there none the less. We are stirred because these stories remind us there are still great things to fight for. This is something all of us need to remember in today’s secular world where the line between good and evil is constantly blurred by the pernicious idea of relativism. Yes, ideas can be evil too. And there are a lot of them out there these days.

Dean Koontz wrote in one of his books that one can spend a lifetime fighting bad ideas. This is so true, and it’s a battle all of us can and should take part in. As for me, I think I will wage my campaign by promoting the good stories, both the great classics and the newer ones that hit the mark. Let’s all of us start reading and hearing and seeing the good stories again. It will take a conscious effort, because it is so easy just to settle for what is put out by today’s culture and media. But it will be worth it.

I plan to start by reviewing the first book of The Dark is Rising sequence, “Over Sea, Under Stone,” by Susan Cooper. And, yes, I promise it won’t take me another three months!

 

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Children's Books, What I'm Reading, Worries

 

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Supercalifragilistic . . . Um . . . Oh, To Heck With It!

I remember the day I went from being a book lover to an actual reader. No, I don’t remember the exact day or date, just the experience. It was Mary Poppins Bookson a weekend and I was at my grandparents’ house in Santa Ana, California. I was sitting in my grandfather’s big, comfy chair totally absorbed in a beautiful, hard bound edition of the complete Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers. I sat in that chair for hours and devoured page after page about that magical nanny. It was the first large hardback book I ever read all the way through and, being only 9 or 10 years old at the time, I was quite proud of myself.

I bring this up because the other day at my favorite thrift store I came across three Mary Poppins books, in paperback, conveniently banded together. I think I paid fifty cents for all three. It’s been over 40 years since I read Mary Poppins, and with the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” (you DO know who Mr. Banks is, don’t you?) out on DVD now, I’m really looking forward to revisiting these stories.

By the way, P.L. Travers wasn’t your run of the mill children’s writer. She was what you might call an intellectual adventuress (among other things). She had a fascination with the world’s mythologies and traveled extensively.  Back in the 80’s she was a regular contributor to the quarterly publication Parabola, which explored various myths and legends and their effects on culture and religion. Though she is no longer with us, she definitely left her own mark on our culture.

Keep your eyes on the East Wind!

 

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Book Hunting, Children's Books, Favorite Books

 

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Coming Soon to a Kindergarten Near You?

One of my weekly pleasures is reading the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It’s an excellent paper and one of the few left in the country that has a conservative opinion section. (There, I’ve outed myself.) But while the Journal may be a conservative publication, it is most definitely a secular one as well. Witness Alison Gopnik’s Mind & Matter column from this past weekend.

It seems that some scientists think that evolution, particularly the natural selection component, is too difficult for young children to understand. I’ve provided a link to the article above so I won’t go into all their reasoning for this seemingly obvious insight, however the upshot is that they recommend that children should be exposed to picture books that help them understand natural selection. As early as kindergarten. They’re afraid that these young minds may actually come to think that our earth and the life on it was created somehow by, gasp!, some transcendent, intelligent being.

These proposed natural selection “story books” are characterized in the article as “powerful intellectual tools.” I think it’s just a blatant attempt at indoctrination dressed-up in lab coats, clip boards and plastic pocket protectors.

What do you think?

 
 

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From a Little House to a Big Farm

At the end of “Little House on the Prairie,” the second of the classic nine-book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Laura and her family were Farmer Boysetting out from their home for parts unknown. In “Farmer Boy,” the third book, we start out a long way from the prairie. We find ourselves in New York State at the very large farm of the Wilder family, home of Laura’s future husband, Almanzo. And again, as in the first two books, we are allowed an enthralling glimpse into American life in the late 19th century.

Instead of the adventurous wanderings of a pioneer family, this time we see the equally challenging existence of an American farm family. Trust me, it could be nearly as harrowing as life on the frontier. From cutting blocks of ice from the nearby “pond,” to hauling wood in sleds over treacherous, snowy roads, to a race to save a corn crop from freezing in the pre-dawn hours, farming was a physically taxing and emotionally stressful occupation which required a person’s complete commitment. Much like it is today, I would guess, except without all the technology.

Fortunately for Almanzo, and the reader, life on a large farm with a big family had many joys as well. For one thing, Mother’s cooking. That woman could cook! And could that Almanzo eat: “Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’ n’ onions fried together. He ate roast beef and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes and creamed carrots and boiled turnips, and countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly.” Think he was done? After all that, Mother “put a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding on his bare plate, and handed him the pitcher of sweetened cream speckled with nutmeg . . . Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bit.” Not a book to read while you’re hungry.

As in the previous books, there really isn’t a plot as such, more of an examination of life at that time and place in America. More important than a story line, though, are the virtues Laura Ingalls Wilder allows us to witness in these books. We see the love and loyalty of close families, the respect of children for their parents (though not always obedience!), as well as hard work, dedication, perseverance, courage, duty, honesty and kindness. These are the true building blocks of American civilization and we forget about them today at our nation’s peril.

That’s a pretty good reason to make sure today’s children are exposed to these books.

 

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in Book Review, Children's Books, History

 

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Big Classic on the American Prairie

Little House BooksOnce upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads.There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.

I love this opening. Ernest Hemingway would love this opening. Heck, Hemingway would love this book. For all I know he may have read it. If he did, I’m sure he smiled.

The above sentences introduce the reader to a series of true American classics, the “Little House” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That’s right, “Little House on the Prairie” was not a single book but the second in a series of nine books about growing up in the American pioneer days. More than just books for young people, these books are considered by many to be valuable records of an important time in our nation’s history.

I’ve wanted to read these books for many years but put off starting until I had all nine volumes. Then a couple of weeks or so back, while browsing around one of our favorite thrift stores, I came across the reason I frequent such places. Sitting on a shelf in the children’s book section was a brand new boxed set of all nine “Little House” books put out by Scholastic Inc. I mean the paperback spines weren’t even creased! The price: $3.99. After I put my eyes back in my skull, I grabbed the set and hugged it to my chest.

So far I’ve read the first two books: “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie.” In straightforward, efficient prose, Laura tells the story of what it was like growing up in the late 1800s with her Ma and Pa and sisters, Mary and Baby Carrie. These books aren’t about plotting and characterization but rather they are the treasured recollections of a young girl plainly told. The chapters are connected episodes explaining what living on the nation’s frontier was like, including descriptions of the many skills they possessed and the labors they performed to get through the seasons, especially the long winters.

And, yes, you do get to know the characters, but they are revealed by their actions and responses to the situations they find themselves in. Very much like the way one comes to know a person in everyday life. Pa is confident in his abilities, possesses a joy for life and a deep love of his family. And he’s pretty good with a fiddle too. Ma is more subdued, an excellent cook, gardener, seamstress, and calm as a rock in the face of trials and unexpected encounters with bears. Mary, the older sister, is the good little girl, never raising a fuss. Of course, Laura is the one who’s curious about everything and willing to challenge Ma and Pa’s boundaries to find out what’s going on. And Baby Carrie is . . . well, a baby.

Though the chapters are episodic, they aren’t disjointed. The thread of a frontier life remembered connects them to each other and to the reader in a way that mere fiction seldom accomplishes. As I read each chapter, the more I kept in mind that these were Laura’s actual memories the more affecting her descriptions became. Whether because of encounters with Indians, prairie fires racing toward the house, the dangers of digging a well or of dealing with wolves or bears, one comes to realize that each day was truly an adventure for these brave families who chose to move westward. Even something seemingly as simple as Pa going to town could be cause for anxiety:

Before dawn, Pa went away. When Laura and Mary woke, he was gone and everything was empty and lonely. It was not as though Pa had only gone hunting. He was going to town, and he would not be back for four long days.

The simplicity and directness of Laura’s words convey a sense of vulnerability that’s hard to match.

I’ll be starting the third book, “Farmer Boy,” soon and I’ll do a review of that and a few more as I read them. But do yourself a favor and get these books and read them. Read them for yourself and to your children. They are true American classics and remind us of how the American character was formed and what it is that makes this country and its people something special. It is so important that we keep these memories alive, both for ourselves and, even more so, for our young.

 

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Book Hunting, Book Review, Children's Books, History

 

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Attila the Hun . . . For Kids!

Well, actually, the book is called “The White Stag,” but it’s about the history, albeit legendary, of Attila’s origins. The White StagWritten by Kate Seredy and published in 1937 (the copyright was renewed in 1965), it has since been released as a Puffin Newbery Library edition which I was fortunate enough to find at my local library’s book sale.

Recommended for ages 8 – 12, this book contains all the elements this 59-year-old kid finds irresistible. This fine blending of history, heroic legend and mythology purports to tell the tale of the early history of the Hungarian, or Magyar, race. As Seredy describes it in her foreword, “Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book. It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”

Most of the tale proceeds before the coming of Attila. After Old Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord passes on, his sons Hunor and Magyar, the Twin Eagles of Hadur, migrate westward from wild Altain-Ula. Led by the miraculous White Stag, they journey in search of their new homeland, “a land, rich in game and green pastures, between two great rivers rich in fish, surrounded by mountains . . . “

This story has all the wonderful elements that can capture a young person’s imagination. Historic legend, fantasy, adventure, action, exploration and heroic characters. As Hunor and Magyar lead their people west, they must deal with magical creatures, including a pair of moonmaidens, the stern tribal prophet Damos, their pagan god Hadur and even a tribe of people called the Cimmerians (is that you, Conan?).

Attila is born in the final chapter, the grandson of Hunor. His coming was foretold in tribal prophecies and heralded by the old prophet Damos: “Attila is born! Attila, with the mighty voice and wings red as blood. Attila who will lead you into the promised land, the Red Eagle, greatest of all warriors, Attila.” Indeed, the Red Eagle leads his people into the promised land, but not before facing a crisis that threatens his tribe and his beliefs.

Despite the pagan motif, this is a story that displays the virtues of persistence and faith in the best of lights. There is an air of the biblical epic here and Seredy even includes some references to scriptural tales from the Old Testament as part of the tribe’s ancient memories. Using strong, lean prose, Seredy conveys a sense of great time passing in a mere 94 pages, including her own illustrations, which are wonderful.

Get this book for your young reader. When they’re finished with it, you read it. You won’t regret it.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2013 in Book Review, Children's Books, Old Books

 

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An Open Letter to Meghan Cox Gurdon

Dear Ms. Gurdon,

Every Saturday I cruise down to the local market to get the weekend Wall Street Journal. It is one of my weekly pleasures to come home from church Sunday morning, enjoy a nice brunch and open the pages of a good newspaper. In particular I enjoy the Review section, mainly for the books. I have to say I’m surprised, but extremely happy, that you have a regular column on children’s books in the Wall Street Journal. After reading reviews of books about the history of mahogany and a travelogue based on the origins of noodles (really, WSJ?) your weekly exploration of children’s and young adult books is a welcome oasis.

Last week I received the July/August issue of Imprimis (a bit late) and was pleased to see your picture and byline on the front. Your topic, “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books,” was immediately appealing, with the added bonus of referring me to an article you wrote for WSJ in 2011 titled “Darkness Too Visible.” I knew that the young adult category was growing increasingly dark, but I was thinking of all the titles with vampires and zombies and such. I didn’t realize you were writing about human monsters. They’re even worse.

What I don’t understand is how books with such things as abductions, rape, self-mutilation, parental molestation, and oral sex can be labeled as “young adult.” Even less understandable is how writers, librarians and others see your reasoned and intelligent critiques as a threat to freedom of expression. Encouraging taste and discrimination in choosing and producing juvenile literature is a bad thing? Who knew?

While we’re on the subject of darkness in today’s books, have you seen the novels your colleague, Sam Sacks, has been reviewing in his “Fiction Chronicle” column? Granted that these are for adults, but the books he reviews contain debilitating grief, depression, misery, addiction, isolation, loneliness, breakdowns and family tensions. His words. From this weekend’s column. I can’t wait to walk past those books at Border’s. Does Mr. Sacks actively seek these novels? Are they sent to him? Does he see his therapist once or twice a week?

But wait, there’s more! Forget the books. There’s another kind of darkness lurking around the Review pages, the kind that sneaks into people’s subconscious, burrows in and sends roots all through their world view. In the “Mind & Matter” column, written by Robert Sapolsky and Alison Gopnik, human life is observed through the lens of materialist science. Biology, neurology, anthropology, psychology, chemistry and, of course, evolution, pretty much explain all our behaviors. Which basically means we are merely meat machines marching to orders we have no control over. Puts a smile on my face.

OK. I know. This wasn’t much of a letter. More of a rant, actually. But I really did mean what I said about your “Children’s Books” column. And your piece in Imprimis gives me hope that there are people still fighting to let some light into this ever darkening world. Keep up the good fight, Ms. Gurdon, and know there are lots of us out here cheering you on.

I’ll do what I can in my small corner, too.

All the Best,

Rob

P.S. –  Could you slip Mr. Sacks a copy of “The Wind in the Willows” or “The Hobbit” maybe? Thanks.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2013 in Children's Books, Ideas

 

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