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Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

Contending for the Faith: the story of the Westminster Assembly

by William Boekestein and Joel R. Beeke 2022 / 40 pages I love the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism ("What is the chief end of Man? ...to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever") but didn't know anything about the assembly that crafted it, the Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have a Dutch Reformed heritage, whereas these were birthed by the English Reformation. That's why I was happy to discover that United Reformed pastor William Boekestein had teamed up with Heritage Reformed professor Joel R. Beeke to give us this fantastic, accessible overview. While it's for kids, it's also a great presentation for adults who want to know a little, but might not have the time or interest to dive all that deep. This Assembly is worth at least a dip. This was a pivotal moment in Church history, and quite the encouragement to see some of what God wrought in the lives of kings and queens, and pastors and persecutors that resulted in these documents. Contending for the Faith is really well done, with wonderful pictures and clear text. That said, I don't know that this will be the sort of book kids are going to pick up on their own – they might need a bit of encouragement. That means this would work best as a homeschool or institutional Christian school resource. Boekestein has also done three books, all very good, on the confessions which make up the Three Forms of Unity: The Quest for Comfort: the story of the Heidelberg Cathechism (2011, 40 pages), The Glory of Grace: the story of the Canons of Dort (2012, 40 pages), and Faithfulness under Fire: the story of Guido de Bres (2010, 40 pages), who authored the Belgic Confession. All are recommended! ...

Family, Movie Reviews

The Creation Adventure Team

A Jurassic Ark Mystery Family / Children 45 min / 2001 Rating: 7/10 Six Short Days, One Big Adventure Family / Children 38 min / 2002 Rating: 7/10 The folks at the creationist organization Answers In Genesis have created two frenetic kids' videos that feature a robot dinosaur sidekick and comic hijinks. What more could you want? In the first episode, Jurassic Ark Mystery, the Creation Adventure Team is out to discover when the dinosaurs died, how they lived, and whether there were any on Noah's Ark. We are treated to non-stop action, decent special effects, a number of clever spoofs, and a talking robot dinosaur named Proto. Renowned dinosaur sculptor Buddy Davis, his teenage friend Ivan, and of course Proto, explore a dinosaur museum and show how these “terrible lizards” did indeed fit on the ark. A Jurassic Ark Mystery is one of the most entertaining creationism videos available for children. The only video that might be better is the sequel: Six Short Days, One Big Adventurer where the crew helps a student give a presentation to her public school classmates about how God created everything. The videos come with a pile of extras. Our family spent at least half an hour afterward looking through them all, with our favorite being the features on how they brought the robot Proto to "life." Caution The only one I can think of is that, as is pretty typical for a Buddy Davis production, the action here is a little on the frantic side of things. Davis is clearly focused on keeping the kids engaged, but I've heard a parent or two complain about just how hyper this all seems. Conclusion This is a video that would be fantastic for parents to watch with their kids – it is informative and entertaining! But for parents who can't deal with too much hyperactivity on the big screen, you'll want to steer clear. They say this is for ages 7-12, but our 5-year-old really liked it too, and even our 3-year-old was content enough to stick around for the whole show. While these are available on some Christian streaming services (and on DVD), Answers in Genesis has made both available for free online viewing, though they've broken them up into several chapters. That isn't the best way to watch them but it is a great way for parents to get a preview – watch them for free at the links below: A Jurassic Ark Mystery Six Short Days, One Big Adventure ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Shane

by Jack Schaefer 1949 / 176 pages Sometimes I reread children’s literature because I enjoy being captured again by the quality of writing and the stir of imagination. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder alongside every Louis L’Amour western in my junior high library. Not one librarian said I couldn’t read them because I was a girl, and thankfully, those same librarians pointed me next to Zane Grey. At age 13 and 14, these westerns were deep to me, even if I did recognize the plot patterns. I loved them. Action, mystery, rescue, the setting sun, the lonely West, and often, a misunderstood man. In the same vein, Jack Schaefer’s very first novel creates a story that’s even more impactful. Shane(1949) began as a short story that was serialized in three parts in Argosy magazine in the late 40s. First titled “Rider from Nowhere,” it wasn’t intended for young children, though it’s certainly suitable. Through the eyes of a child narrator and from his opening description, Schaefer crafts a deeper cowboy character than most, perhaps because we witness Shane’s moral choices and his influence upon an entire family. Dressed with a “hint of men and manners,” Shane mysteriously arrives in the Wyoming valley alone on his horse. I know, I know. It begins like a cliche to our adult eyes. And yes, we soon find out that a few homesteaders are holding out against one greedy rancher. It may seem predictable to an experienced reader but that is not the case for young hearts able to view historical realism with wonder. The appeal is simple. Yet here is where the story veers because Schaefer shows us, rather than tells us, who Shane is as he meets and is hired by homesteader Joe Starrett. Shane carries a chill with him yet is careful of his dress. He’s not large yet he’s wiry and powerful. Within the first day of working for Joe, Shane’s presence alone dissuades the local peddler from cheating Joe. Young Bob shares, “You felt without knowing how that each teetering second could bring a burst of indescribable deadliness…a strange wildness.” Even with an aloof nature, Shane begins a friendship with Bob, sharing chores and sharing wisdom like “What a man knows isn’t important. It’s what he is that counts.” But there are moments when the mystery of who Shane is overshadows his behavior. When he shows Bob how to hold and aim a pistol, a fierce moment of memory hits and Shane freezes, his face described as a “gash.” Bob has to say his name several times to break the hold of the past. Many times, Schaefer describes how Bob recognizes there’s more to Shane, yet Bob, and yes the reader, never learn enough. The story unfolds, tensions rise, and the homesteaders must choose to fight the manipulative mob boss of a rancher. More than once, Bob must watch Shane fight to right a wrong. He sees, and we see, “the flowing brute beauty of line and power in action” as Shane overpowers the rancher’s men. By story’s end, we want more. Schaefer has furrowed our curiosity to a point where we love Shane as much as Bob and his family do, yet we all remain caught in the unknown of who he is and who he was. It remains a true mystery and begs us as readers to ponder, to resolve, to discuss not only who Shane was but also who we are. Christine Norvell blogs at ChristineNorvell.com where a version of this review first appeared....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration

by Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura 2021 / 160 pages After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were rounded up and placed in detention camps around the US. They lost their jobs, their businesses, and even their homes, not because of any crimes committed, but simply for their ethnic roots. This same indignity wasn't forced on German or Italian Americans, even though Germany and Italy were at war with the US. Just Japanese Americans. And despite the obvious discrimination against them, the vast majority went without protest, believing that quiet acceptance was a way of showing their loyalty and patriotism. What the graphic novel We Hereby Refuse recounts are the stories of Japanese Americans who did protest, in very different ways. One protester was an otherwise quiet young lady. Mitsuye Endo was a 21-year-old typist who lost her job when she was ordered to report to the internment camp. A lawyer asked her to sue the government for causing her job loss. He recruited her because she seemed the ideal candidate at a time when everyone was scared of Japan: she did not speak Japanese and didn't follow a Japanese religion like Buddhism or Shinto. She even had a brother serving in the US army. And she had also done everything the government had ordered her to. She was quiet and still she stood up, her case eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court, where she won. Another story shared is that of Jim Akutso, who repeatedly tried to sign up for the Army but was refused because of flat feet. After he was imprisoned in a detention camp he was found out he'd been drafted, but now he refused. His reasoning was that if his country wasn't willing to let him live freely, then he wasn't going to fight to protest the freedoms he didn't even have. His refusal was condemned by many other Japanese Americans, who thought his actions cast them all in a bad light. He was convicted of draft-dodging, and moved from the camp to a regular prison, and given a sentence that extend past the end of the war. Cautions I'm not familiar with the history here, so I can't really assess how fair the presentation is. I suspect that certain historical figures, particularly the Japanese Americans who acted as go-betweens for the prisoners and the US government, might dispute the way they are portrayed. However, the broad overview seems to be reliably done. I don't generally recommend books that take God's name in vain, but I'm making an exception here because this is not simply entertainment but educational, sharing an event that needs to be more widely known. For Christian parents or librarians who might like to strike a line through it, the abuse occurs just once, on page 128. Another caution concerns age-appropriateness. Near the end of the book, an older woman kills herself in despair. She's shown beginning to wrap a lamp cord around her neck, and while it doesn't get more graphic than that, the act itself isn't something young children need to read about. I'll also note that I've seen the authors making appearances on podcasts sharing their personal pronouns, so I rather suspect their politics and worldview do not line up with my own. But that difference wasn't evident in the book itself. Conclusion This was compelling, but I didn't find it an easy read. Some of that was due to my unfamiliarity with Japanese names, which had me confusing different characters so that I'd have to flip back and forth to keep things straight. But I was happy to keep flipping because it's a story worth knowing. We Hereby Refuse is a reminder that the government is powerful, and with power comes the need to use that power with great restraint. What happens when it doesn't act with restraint? We get victims by the thousands and tens of thousands, as happened here. Another lesson? The need for brave individuals to challenge government abuses, in the hopes of reducing the number of victims. This would be a great purchase for Christian schools, and for parents to buy and read with their children. The serious subject matter means this is probably for 14 and up. The 4-minute video below, offering some local news coverage, gives a good overview of the book. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Finding Winnie

by Lindsay Mattick 56 pages / 2015 It turns out that Winnie the Pooh, a teddy bear who had fantastic and entirely fanciful adventures, was named after a real bear whose adventures were quite something too, and of the genuine sort. Just as Winnie the Pooh starts with a father telling his son a story, so too Finding Winnie beings with a parent telling her child a bedtime tale. In this case, the storyteller is the great-granddaughter of the man who gave the first Winnie his name. Harry Colebourn was a vet living in Winnipeg. When the First World War began Harry had to go, so he boarded a train with other soldiers and headed east. At a stop on the way, he met a man with a baby bear, and ended up buying the little beast. To make a long story shorter, this bear - named Winnie after Harry's hometown – ended up in the London Zoo where a boy named Christopher Robin, and his father A.A Milne came across him and were utterly entranced. It is a wonderful story, but what makes it remarkable is the charming way it's told. This is brilliant, and a homage of sort to A.A. Milne's stories. It's true, so there is quite a difference between his Winnie tales and this author's, but the same gentle humor, the same whimsy, that same charm, is there throughout. This will be a treat for fans of Winnie the Pooh no matter what age. Both my daughters and I were entranced! Winnie by Sally M. Walker 40 pages / 2015 The same year a second picture book came out about the bear behind the bear that was also very good, very fun, and different enough that after reading Finding Winnie it is still an enjoyable read as well. Compared to most any other picture book Winnie is remarkable - really among the best of the best - but it does lack a little of the Milne-like charm of Finding Winnie, and so ranks second among these two books....

Family, Movie Reviews

The Incredible Journey

Family 1963 / 80 minutes Rating: 8/10 What do Elsa and Anna, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Pollyanna, and even Huey, Duey and Louie all have in common? If you said, they'd all been featured in Disney films, you'd be right, but that's not the answer I was looking for. They all lack, and what many a children's story protagonist lacks is, parental supervision. Dead or otherwise departed parents are pretty common in children's fiction and films, and it isn't as nefarious as it might seem. Parents need to be out of the picture because otherwise the story would end before it even got going. How could Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan have explored the wardrobe if they'd been back in London with mom and pop? Parents still home when the Cat in the Hat stops by? He'd never make it past the front door. And Jack and Jill would never have tumbled if their mom had been there to tell them: "You're not old enough to climb the cliff face– it's dangerous! How many times do I have to tell you to use the path on the other side of the hill?" In The Incredible Journey the parents are once again missing, but this time there is a twist: the Hunters aren't so much parents, as owners, and their "children" are two dogs and a cat. While the Hunters are heading to Oxford, where dad is going to teach for a semester, family friend John Longridge has volunteered to take care of their pets back at his own cabin, some 200 miles away. But then he leaves too, heading out on a long hunting trip, and entrusting the animals' care to his housekeeper Mrs. Oakes. Then, when the note he leaves her falls into the fireplace and gets burned up, she thinks he has the animals. The result: when the trio head out on their own, no one is missing them. Luath, a Yellow Labrador, is the leader of the group. He wants to go back to their family, and convinces the other two, Siamese Cat Tao, and Bodger, an English Bull Terrier, to start off with him. While Luath knows the right direction, he doesn't realize that home is more than 200 miles, and a mountain range, away. That's the set up for their incredible journey. On the way, they have to contend with hunger, whitewater, bears, a lynx, and, unfortunately for Luath, a porcupine! Cautions The big caution here would concern the tension. At one point it seems like that cat has been swept away by the river to her death, and the two dogs are left mourning. The only way my kids could get past that was with the reassurance that the dogs were wrong and the cat would actually be okay. Conclusion There's a 1993 remake, where the animals are voiced by big-name celebrities. I like this version better, where a narrator explains what's going on in the different animals' minds. It's a more realistic approach, almost akin to a nature documentary, where we're observing something that could really have happened. Despite what you might read elsewhere, this didn't happen – it is not based on a true story. There's been some confusion on that point because the author of the book that inspired the film said the pets were based on her own – they are based on true pets – but her pets never went on any such journey. What makes this such a wonderful film is the loyalty the animals have for one another. Bodger is old, and a drag on the group, but that only means that he gets to set the pace – Tao and Luath would never think of leaving him behind. Our whole family, from 8 on up really enjoyed it. The appeal for the kids is the pets – our girls love pretty much any story with dogs or cats in it – while the appeal for the adults was the uniqueness of it. This is an old-school Disney film, so it was easy to predict that everything would turn out fine in the end, but these animals took us on quite the journey with twists and turns that weren't so easy to predict. And that sure was fun! ...

Animated, Movie Reviews

Life at the Pond

Life at the Pond is a series of five videos that have a lot in common with VeggieTales. Both combine simple animation with sophisticated humor – these are children's videos that parents can appreciate too. Both teach moral lessons that line up with what God teaches. But while many of the VeggieTales videos "sanitize" familiar biblical stories (ex. David's descent into murder and adultery is turned into a story about wanting someone else's rubber ducky) The Pond steers clear of any disrespectful treatment of Scripture by setting their stories in the present day. (I'll note , though, that the original audio programs do sometimes have 5-minute news-type reports from biblical times, with, for example, an on-the-scene report of Jonah's time in the belly of the whale. Our family has enjoyed these otherwise fantastic audio programs, but we hit "next track" whenever it gets to these bits.) The stories all take place at, of course, a pond, and the four stars are all aquatic: • Bill the Duck is a regular joe; we are Bill the Duck • Tony the Frog fills the role of wisecracking comic relief • Floyd the Turtle is the most child-like, and often the straight man setting up Tony's zingers • Methuselah the Alligator is older, and a voice of biblical wisdom This is aimed at the pre-school set, but there's enough humor for parents and elementary-aged kids to enjoy too. I'd break these into two age groups, with There's Something Funny in the Water and The Little Things good for even the youngest children, and the others, with more tension, would be 5 or 6 and up. There's Something Funny in the Water 27 minutes / 2004 Rating: 8/10 In the first video we get two 15 minutes stories. Bill the Duck hides the fact that he is afraid of heights, because he doesn't want to be made fun of, and then Bill, Tony and Floyd all learn that it is important to keep our promises, even when doing so cuts into our fun time. These are stories kids can relate to, and parents can appreciate too, right from the get-go. The video begins with the familiar FBI warning against copying the film and Bill and Tony walk in from the sides to take a look. Bill: Has the video started? Tony: No it's just the FBI warning. Bill: And after this, what? CIA warning? FDA? NRA? Tony: The NRA puts up a warning, I pay attention! Big Mouth Bass 32 minutes / 2005 Rating 7/10 This time around Sarah, a big-mouth bass, is swimming off with whatever toys land in the water. She's taking them because "toys lead to noise!" and she wants quiet! This bass is a grouch, and scary too. So when she goes missing – a bear has taken her away as a pet fish – the Pond friends don't know whether to "save her ...or celebrate!" It's a lesson about loving your less than lovable neighbors, and reaching out beyond your friends group (Luke 14:12-14). Our three-year-old found the fish here too scary. Even though the bass turned nice by the end it didn't matter – she started off mean, so this video was deemed too scary (the accompanying Jaws music probably didn't help). However, what's scary for a three-year-old wasn't for our five and seven-year-old. Tony the Frog is my favorite character, and as he goes looking for Sarah he mutters some good lines to himself: "After I find Sarah I can go look for the bully who pushed me around last year. And then, if there's still time, a quick trip to the dentist to have some teeth removed. Anesthesia? Not today Doc, not today." The Little Things 29 minutes / 2007 Rating 8/10 When the carnival comes to town all the Pond friends get jobs. Three of them get great jobs (running rides or the food stands) but Floyd the turtle has to do the clean up. He wonders why he got the worst job, and eventually realizes it's because the circus owner saw the careless way he treated his toys. And because Floyd wasn't good with caring for "the little things" the circus owner didn't want to trust him with anything bigger. So, as the Dove review put it, for younger children the lesson is simply, don't break your toys, while older children can apply that more broadly to: “If you can’t be trusted with the little things then you can’t be trusted with the big things either.” The only caution would be that in the song at the end it mentions how you will "reap what you sow" and while that is a thoroughly biblical thought (Gal. 6:7-8, 2 Cor. 9:6,  Prov. 22:8) our kids also need to know that by God's grace His children will not get our just desserts in the end. The Alligator Hunter 29 minutes / 2007 Rating: 7/10 There are two stories again. In a parody of The Crocodile Hunter, Methuselah the Alligator is nabbed by a reality-show crew of kangaroo, so they can release him later somewhere far away. While Methuselah gets away, the kangaroos then capture his friends! Methuselah saves the day by returning and shaming the kangaroos into letting everyone go. This was way too tense for our youngest, and wasn't that popular with our older kids either (kidnapping doesn't seem the best subject for a children's show). The second episode is much calmer and funnier. Floyd the Turtle turns out to have selective hearing: whenever someone tells him to do something he can't hear them. He doesn't even hear it when his friends tell him to get out of the way of a falling tree branch.! Selective hearing is, of course, a malady common to many a child, so this can make for a fun illustration when the malady next strikes. The Rise and Fall of Tony the Tiger 29 minutes / 2009 Rating: 8/10 When Tony the Frog starts a paper route, it isn't long before his ambitions turn it into a business empire. He ups his speed by first adding a bike, then using a machine gun mounted on a HumVee to fire them at subscribers, then dropping them from an F-18 fighter jet. It's all going to his head and his friends realize he's made his business an idol...but how can they get Tony to realize? The F-18 sequence is quiet frantic and might be a bit much for younger kids, but Tony's friends, eager to help, and happy to forgive him, makes this a sweet one. ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

Hidden Heroes

Documentary / WWII 50 min /  1999 Rating: 8/10 Among the “hidden heroes” of World War II were the thousands of Dutchmen who opened their homes to Jews and others who were hiding from the Nazis. They did this at great personal risk, and yet they did this in huge numbers. They were ordinary Dutchmen, but they displayed extraordinary courage. Where did this courage come from? As this film chronicles, in many, many cases it came from their Christian convictions. This is truly an extraordinary documentary and it should be shown in all of our schools on Remembrance Day – it tells in short, compelling interviews and quick docudrama clips what our parents and grandparents lived through and what they did to oppose the evil of the Nazis. This is an inspiring movie for anyone, but for those of Dutch descent, it is a must-see. And you can watch it for free below. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Nicky & Vera: a Quiet Hero of the Holocaust...

by Peter Sís 2021 / 64 pages Nicholas Winston never set out to be a hero but he also knew what needed to be done. When the Germans were taking over Czechoslovakia in chunks, before World War II has officially begun, Jews in the country were trying to get their children out. Winston knew how to get this done, pushing the paperwork, bribing the right people, and arranging for families in England where the children could stay. He ended up saving 669 children, most, or all of whom, were Jewish, and he didn't have to brave bullets to do it. That is the important lesson of this book: that there are quiet ways to do vital work. It was quiet work, but no less life-saving than what Allied soldiers did fighting to end the Nazi reign. And in its quiet manner, Winston's actions were more like the important work we are called to do today – our fights are not in the trenches, but writing our MPs, or making donations to the right organizations. We can, for example, save lives by donating to pregnancy crisis centers, and do so at no risk to ourselves. But we need to be persistent, seizing opportunities when they come, creating them when they don't, and working around obstacles as they appear. Winston was not Christian so far as I can tell (it doesn't come up in the book), but his example is still one we can benefit from. This would be a great picture book for a school library, to be pulled out and showcased around Remembrance Day each year....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Don't let the pigeon stay up late!

by Mo Willems 2006, 34 pages My kids and I love this for two very different reasons. They love it because they get to interact with the book. Pigeon desperately wants to stay up late. But a sleepy-looking fellow at the start of the book (the bus driver from the previous book Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus) asks us to make sure the pigeon goes to bed. But the pigeon, like many a child we all know, doesn't want to go to bed and has all sorts of excuses as to why he just has to stay up a little while longer. "I'm not even tired!" "How about five more minutes?" "Can I have a glass of water?" "Pleeeeeeaaaasssseeeeee!" "I'll go to bed early tomorrow night instead!" "My bunny wants to stay up too!" He has all sorts of strategies - sulking, whining, begging, reasoning - but it's the children's job to respond to each one with a firm "No!" They love laying down the law! I love the book because it gave me a helpful word to sum up my children's bedtime behavior. "That's enough guys," I'll tell them, "You're being pigeons and it is time to stop." They know exactly what I mean, and on a good night pointing out what they are doing in this quick and clear way is all I need to bring bedtime to a close. I'm not going to say it works every time - this isn't magic - but I do think any parent will benefit from having this bit of verbal shorthand in their parental toolbox. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Bell Mountain

by Lee Duigon 267 pages / 2010 Jack and Ellayne are two children on a mission from God: they are going to ring the bell that King Ozais built on the top of Bell Mountain. But there are a few things in the way: They’re just kids who don’t know anything about mountain climbing, traveling through the woods, or living off the land. They’re not sure there really is a bell on the top of Bell Mountain – no one alive has ever seen it. An assassin has been sent to stop them. They think the end of the world might happen when they ring it. It’s quite the mission, and quite the opening for this, the first book in author Lee Duigon 13-going-on-14 book series. The setting seems to be a medieval one: travel is conducted by horse and oxen, people live in walled cities and villages, and they fight with swords and spears. But when Jack and Ellayne meet a little squirrel-sized chirping man-creature named Wyyt it becomes clear this is not our world. Here Man once had the power to fly through the skies, but no longer – something happened long ago that left behind destroyed cities and set technology back a thousand years. In this post-apocalyptic world the national "church" (or Temple) has become so corrupt that no one reads the “Old Books” anymore but instead only the Temple’s interpretation of the Old Books is shared (if this makes you think of the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church, I’d agree that the author’s Reformed bona fides are showing). As the author puts it, people have forgotten how to listen to God. They don’t even know how to pray – that’s something the priests do for them. Now God is going to use two little children to rectify the situation. This is definitely a children’s story. The heroes are children, the tension level is appropriate for ten and up – lots of peril but nothing nightmare-inducing – and the plot, while nicely layered, is simple enough for children to follow. But there is a depth that will make them enjoyable for adults as well. Lee Duigon is simply good at what he does. I knew from the get-go this was a quest story, but I was always eager to find out what was going to happen next and so were my girls. I've read each of the 13 books in the series to them them, and they've always been eager for the next one to come out. The only way to purchase this series in Canada seems to be via the Chalcedon Foundation website store (chalcedon.edu/store). The Chalcedon Foundation is Reformed, as is our readership, but they are also Christian Reconstructionists, which most in our readership are not. It might be worth noting, then, that anyone who objects to Christian Reconstructionism would not find that a reason to object to anything in these books – it doesn’t come up. I'd recommend these for Grade 3 and up if they're reading them, but if dad is doing the reading, then they'd be good for kindergarten-aged children too....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Pro-life - Abortion

Horton hears a Who!

by Dr. Seuss 1954 / 72 pages  This fun children’s book has a surprisingly clear message – it’s seemingly pro-life! In typical Seuss style, the rhythm of the narrative captures its audience. However, what seems to capture readers even more, is Dr. Seuss’ repetition of the phrase “a person’s a person no matter how small.” In this story Horton the elephant finds a small creature, called a Who, on a speck of dust. Horton soon becomes aware of many Whos living on this speck of dust; they in fact have an entire town of Who-ville. Horton bravely defends and protects the vulnerable tiny people from others who mock Horton and try to destroy his speck of dust because they do not believe that there are any Whos living there. Horton’s fierce determination and perseverance are both heartwarming and admirable. begged, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!” The Whos finally make themselves heard and Horton’s doubters accept the Whos as persons. They even join Horton in protecting them. While children may enjoy this story on its most basic level, adults can easily pick up on its underlying theme. It’s been discussed that some of Seuss’ work has been overanalyzed – ideas have been concluded that Seuss had not intended. Yet some of Seuss’ work has had real underlying messages. For example, his story Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now? was written with the intention of replacing the above name with Richard M. Nixon (when he then stepped down as president of the USA). Seuss does not seem to readily confirm Horton’s pro-life theme, but its clarity seems to generate fairly conclusive evidence of his pro-life stance. Several pro-life organizations currently use Seuss’ book to advocate the right to life for all persons. Dr. Seuss writes an exciting story with a poignant theme. Room on your bookshelf can be made for this story, no matter your age! Use it to spark some controversial conversation! Because, remember, a person’s a person no matter how small! This review first appeared in the July/August 2005 issue....

Documentary, Movie Reviews

Expelled: No Intelligence allowed

Documentary 95 min /  2008 Rating: 8/10 Comedian Ben Stein (who once also wrote speeches for Richard Nixon) is our guide in this film that dares to question Darwin. Stein travels the world doing interviews with scientists who have lost their position merely because in their writings they have allowed for the possibility of there being an “Intelligent Designer” involved in the creation of the universe. That does not mean that these scientists necessarily believe what the Bible says about creation – far from it. Many believe in evolution, but see problems with it. And for bringing up those doubts they are being denied tenure and even fired. So what can we expect by looking at this documentary? Let us first say that Reformed people believe the Bible to be God’s Word. So we don’t need to hear Stein’s defense of “Intelligent Design.” We already know what’s true – we have the first six chapters of Genesis to let us know that God created the world in six days. And it is important that as parents and teachers we keep this knowledge before our children. But as our children get older and start studying at higher institutions they are confronted with Darwinian theory. I am sure that sometimes it must be difficult to hold on to faith when confronted by a world that keeps reminding us that our point of view is “just a belief" and that the rest of the world – those who do not believe in the Bible – believes in what Darwin taught. There is a danger that some of our children might even compartmentalize their faith, thinking the Bible is good for Sunday, but is not to be believed when it comes time to do science on Monday and the rest of the week. Nothing is further from the truth. So this film can be an encouragement to struggling Christians by showing them that not all people believe the Darwinian theory and that even in the secular world there is room for other ideas. How best can we use it? I have thought long and hard about this. I think it is important that parents see this one with their children – children shouldn’t see it alone. Parents can rent or buy the documentary (the DVD has an accompanying leader’s guide) and go through it with their older children to show what is being taught and how. If used together with the guide we can arm our children to see how the Bible and the created world reveal God’s glory. So I recommend this documentary provided it is used in the right way. "Expelled" can be bought and streamed most anywhere. Watch the trailer below and watch narrator Ben Stein's engaging 3-part interview with R.C. Sproul about the film here, here, and here. ...

Animated, Movie Reviews

The Phantom Tollbooth

Animated 1970 / 89 minutes Rating: 7/10 This is a peculiar movie based on a peculiar book, and as such, will have only peculiar appeal – this is not for everyone. Things begin in "live-action" with Milo, a boy bored by everything, returning home from school to discover a mysterious package in his bedroom. It's a tollbooth – a talking tollbooth! – that invites him on an adventure if he has the gumption to go. So Milo hops in a miniature car, and the moment he drives through the tollbooth, the whole film switches over into animation, taking him to a weird and wacky world that couldn't be depicted any other way. Both the book and the film are a morality tale, but of a secular sentiment. The bored boy is going to learn that all those things he's being taught in school – numbers, and letters, addition and spelling, subtraction and writing – are far more interesting than he's ever realized. He'll make this discovery by visiting the kingdom of Digitopolis, where numbers rank at the top, and the kingdom of Dictionopolis where words are said to be supreme. But this is a topsy turvy world, where a watchdog actually has a watch inside him, and a spelling bee, is a bee that can spell! Some of that craziness is the way this world has always been, but things got worse after the kings of Digitoplosis and Dictionoplois banished their sisters, Rhyme and Reason. As the kings should have known, without Rhyme and Reason, things can get too silly, too quickly! That's why they task Milo with rescuing the princesses, equipping him to contend with the demons of ignorance that he'll meet along the way. These demons include the Terrible Triviam, who tempts people to do unimportant tasks now, instead of the thing they really should get to. Then there's the Demon of Insincerity, the Hideos Two-Faced Hypocrite, the Over-bearing-Know-It-All, and the Threadbare Excuse, all able to derail industry and the search for Truth. But Milo is ready to fight! Caution One caution would concern the demons, which might be scary for children. But these aren't Satan's minions – these are personifications of temptations (like in Pilgrim's Progress) that are trying to ensnare and delay Milo. The other caution concerns the princesses Rhyme and Reason. Logic is an outworking of God's character, but in this secular story, logic – Rhyme and Reason – are the "gods" of the film (though they aren't described as such) able to completely transform the kingdom and save the day. It will be worth pointing out to kids how logic is not itself foundational, but lies on the foundation of God Himself. Conclusion This will be of interest to any who've read the book. For those not already familiar with the story, the closest thing I can liken it to is Alice in Wonderland, not in plot, but – I'll say it again – peculiarity. If your family is the sort that would be up for the surreal Alice, then they may love this adventure too! That said, this takes a bit to get into - you might need to watch half an hour before you get a feel for what sort of movie this is. And also note, this is a film to be paused and discussed to be properly appreciated, whether to explain the wordplay to kids, or to point out to them the lesson Milo is learning. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Tikki Tikki Tembo

retold by Arlene Mosel 1968 / 48 pages My full first name is Jonathan, but long ago I learned there were benefits to using a shorter form. In basketball, for example, if a teammate was streaking up the sidelines and yelled for a pass, by the time he got out all three syllables of Jon--a--than he wasn't open anymore. But "Jon!" would get my attention, and him the ball, much quicker. Tikki Tikki Tembo is about this same lesson but in a very different setting. We are told that long ago Chinese families would honor their firstborn sons with long names, and give their other sons very short names. Our story takes place in a small mountain village where a mother had two sons. The second was simply called Chang while the first was named Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo. If these two played sports we can be sure who'd be making all the great passes and who wouldn't even make the team (try fitting that name on a jersey!). Of course, they didn't have basketball in ancient China, so their names come into play a different way. This is a charming book so I don't want to give away the ending. Let it suffice to say that as in basketball, so too in aquatic events it is better, and less hazardous, to have a shorter name. The story is wonderful, the illustrations fun, but more than anything else this is such a joy to read out loud: Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo is not only a long name, but a lyrical one, and each time it gets repeated in the story it gets funnier. This is a classic for a reason!...

Documentary, Movie Reviews

Beyond the Gates of Splendor

Documentary 96 min; 2005 Rating: 7/10 In 1956 a team of five missionaries were killed by the Waodani tribesmen they were trying to befriend. The murders caught the attention of the world, but what happened next wasn't widely reported. Beyond the Gates of Splendor tells the story of what happened when one of the missionaries' widows and a sister came to live with the very people who had killed their loved ones. They did so at the risk of their own lives. At the time of the missionaries' contact with them, the Waodani were a murderous people, not only to newcomers but with each other too. The documentary drives home that point with one native recounting his family tree by pointing out where each member of his family had been speared to death – his uncle over there, his dad a few years later by that bigger tree, another uncle further away in the bushes. “Waodani children grew up understanding they would spear and live, or be speared and die.” No one died of old age. But as brutal and vengeful as the Waodani were, the bloodshed stopped when the women's example was used by the Holy Spirit – some of the tribe turned to God. Caution Readers should bear in mind that, due to the native style of dress, there are frequent, though very brief moments of National Geographic type nudity, including topless Waodani women, and a lot of naked backsides. There are also some descriptive conversations about violent deaths, and some imagines shared of the missionaries' dead bodies. Conclusion While an animated video, The Jim Elliot Story, and a dramatized feature film, End of the Spear, have also been made about the missionaries, this documentary was needed to fill in the rest of the story – how the tribe lives today – and to bring more to the fore the spiritual transformation God worked, changing these rebellious murderers into repentant children. While some Christian films can be preachy, Beyond the Gates trusts that the facts of the matter will speak for themselves. That makes this a very good presentation of an astonishing story. Be sure to check out the trailer below. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood

by Nathan Hale 128 pages, 2014 A few decades ago a cartoonist decided to tell the story of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II via an animal metaphor. He made the Jews mice, and the Germans cats, the good folk dogs and the collaborators were pigs. It was a dark story, of course, but the use of the animals made it slightly less gritty, and thus more bearable. In Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, author Nathan Hale has done something similar for World War I. Each nation is assigned an animal: the Germans are eagles, the English are bulldogs, the Belgians are lions, the Ottomans are otters, the Russians bears and the Americans get stuck being bunnies, because eagle has already been taken. Hale does a good job of laying out the facts, and detailing the slaughter that amounted in the millions, but also lightening things up with doses of humor whenever he can. I knew the basic facts of World War I already, but learned a lot from this overview. Of course a comic, particularly one presented in metaphor form, shouldn't be regarded as an authoritative source, but it does provide a useful overview. Now if I want to find out more, I've now learned enough to know what I might want to read more about. This book is one of in a series of "Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales" referencing both the author Nathan Hale, and the more famous American spy Nathan Hale who lived 250 years ago, and who appears in this series as the narrator. A couple cautions to share: this is a historic account that details the death of millions, so even though it is in animal/comic form parts of it would be too much for the very young. I'm not talking about gore - there isn't any - but rather the story itself. Also a language advisory: a couple of "good heavens"s pop up, a "holy moley" and in one instances a character says, "ye gods" (page 73). I'd recommend this for children 12 and up, though some kids might be able to handle it as young as 10....

Book Reviews, Teen non-fiction

Nero

by Jacob Abbott 2009, 202 pages How do you make history come alive for teens? Sometimes it means turning to an author long dead. Jacob Abbott died 125 years ago, but a quick read through this volume explains why his books endure. The original 1853 edition of Nero is available for free in many places online, and is well worth downloading to your Kindle. But it does benefit from the updating that publisher Canon Press has done to their version. Some longer 70-word sentences have been broken up and editor Lucy Zoe Jones has also replaced a few obscure words like "declivities," "salubrity," and "preternatural." Little else was required. Now, Nero's life might not seem like appropriate material for a biography aimed at teens – this Roman emperor indulged in every sort of immorality. However Abbott is both a tactful and talented writer. He doesn't delve into the salacious details, so younger readers will only encounter a broad overview of Nero's wickedness. But Abbott does tuck in a bit more information in between the lines, there to be read and understood by older, less naive readers. It's an impressive feat. Like many good teen books, adults will enjoy this as well - it is a engaging introduction to a key figure in both Church and Western history. For Canadian readers, this edition is available at Christianbook.com. In the US you can find it at CanonPress.com. where you can find more of these great updated Jacob Abbot biographies like: Cyrus Xerxes Alexander the Great Hannibal Julius Caesar Cleopatra Alfred the Great William the Conqueror Elizabeth I ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Owly: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer

by Andy Runton 2004 / 160 pages This is two stories in one, and at about 80 pages each, they have room for some real fun. In the first, we get introduced to Owly, who, as you may have guessed, is an owl. The forest creatures are afraid of him because, well, he’s an owl, and they know that typically owls eat creatures like them. But not Owly. He’s a kinder gentler owl, and all he wants to do is feed his fellow birds seeds. Sadly, no one trusts him, and Owly is all alone… until the night of the big storm! Then Owly finds a worm, half-drowned, and nurses it back to health. Worm, realizing he hadn’t been eaten, trusts and befriends Owly, which is the start of something beautiful. It’s never really explained what Owly does eat, but we can be certain that it isn’t cute little worms! In the second story, Owly and Worm meet a couple of hummingbirds and have a great time until the little speedsters have to head south for the winter. But don’t worry, they’ll be back come Spring! It’d be more accurate to call these “talkless” rather than “wordless” because, even as the dialogue between Owly and his worm friend is limited to symbols and punctuation marks – a question mark when one of them is puzzled and an exclamation mark when they are excited – there’s the occasional shop sign or even a whole encyclopedia page entry on hummingbirds that does require the reader to be able to actually read. If you’re considering getting this for your school library, you’ll be interested to know there are two editions of this story, the first in black and white with this symbol-based dialogue, and the second, now titled simply Owly: The Way Home (2020) that is in full-color and adds in a minimal bit of verbiage between the characters. While I really like the original near-wordless version, it was sometimes a bit hard to decipher what Owly and his pal were saying to each other, so the second editions are probably the best way to go. Everything in this series seems to be gentle and kind including Just a Little Blue (1st edition 2005 /2nd edition 2020, 130 pages), Flying Lessons (2005/2021, 144 pages), A Time To Be Brave (2007/2022, 132 pages), and Tiny Tales (2008, 172 pages)....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Snow White

by Matt Phelan 216 pages / 2016 This is Snow White inventively reimagined as a 1920s Depression-era American tale. The "king" is a stock trader who has managed to survive the stock market crash. The stepmother is still a queen, but this time of the Ziegfield Follies, a popular Broadway show. The mirror is now a stock ticker, and the seven dwarves are seven street-smart kids. Prince Charming? Well, I shouldn't give too much away! Though over 200 pages, this is a very quick read, because it is much more pictures than text - several times there are stretches going on for pages, where there are no words at all. I first thought it would be hard to pick exactly who'd be the ideal audience. Fairytales are typically for children, but this seemed too somber to attract little ones – done in a black and white, it has a dark, noir style...all but for the last few pages with their happily-ever-after full-color conclusion. Some of the historical touches only adults would pick up on, but how many of them would pick it up? It's listed as for teens at my local library, but our Christian school library also got it, and there it seems more of a tween hit - my own tweens have taken it out a few times already. Cautions There are no real cautions to offer - if a child is old enough to read the original, then they will be old enough to read this one. There is a drop or two of blood here and there, but no gore. The worst is probably the pig or cow heart we see in full color at one point (in keeping with the original story). And there are no language concerns either. Conclusion This is an inventive, and very intriguing tale, done with style. Adults can't help but appreciate it, but it's really tweens who will most enjoy it....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Directed Verdict

by Randy Singer 2002 / 486 pages There are lots of layers in this intense courtroom drama. When the Saudi religious police uncover a secret church, Charles Reed, the American pastor, is tortured and killed, and his wife Sarah is beaten and deported on trumped-up drug charges. From there the action takes place both in an American court where lawyer Brad Carson helps Sarah bring suit against her torturer, and in Saudi Arabia, where the small church struggles to continue, their members fearful and shaken. The large law firm defending the torturer is willing to cheat, so what might their murderous client be willing to do? Sarah Reed’s team is growing to admire her courage but none of them share her Christian scruples, so what might they be willing to do behind her back to help her get justice? I was struck by the missing obligatory conversion scene that is central to so much Christian fiction. Sarah's legal team of Brad Carson and Leslie Connors weren't Christian at the beginning of the book, and still weren't at the end. That might not seem a feature in a Christian book; fictional though they may be, we don't want our favorite characters heading towards hell. But because it happens so often, it's quite the twist when we witness someone planting and watering, but don't get to witness the harvest. This quick read got me picking up the sequel Self Incrimination where Leslie is handed a copy of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. It turns out that Singer wants the best for his characters too, but he's more patient about it, waiting until book two for the reaping. I wasn't as fond of this sequel, not so much because it had the obligatory conversion scene, as that it had our two favorite lawyers defending a murder suspect who seemed guilty, guilty, guilty. And they are trying to get her off! Is that what the heroes of the story are supposed to do? I don't want to give too much away, so all I'll note both lawyers aren't Christian during most of the trial and trial preparation. So if they aren't acting entirely right, maybe it's because they don't know what the right thing to do might be. Still, author Randy Singer doesn't really help readers figure it out either, and ultimately the resolution is tainted by what seems sentimentality over justice. To sum it up, I absolutely loved the first book and wasn't as impressed with the sequel. If Directed Verdict has you looking for another great Singer courtroom drama I'd steer you to Rule of Law instead...

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