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Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Mr Putter & Tabby: 25 sweet stories

by Cynthia Rylant illustrated by Arthur Howard 44 pages / 1994-2016 It's always fun to find a children's book that is interesting enough for parents to read repeatedly without getting too bored. And it is an absolute treasure when you can find an entire series of such books! Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter and Tabby books – 25 in all – are exactly that sort. Mr. Putter is an older retired man with an older, quite sedentary cat named Tabby. And next door, they have a wonderful neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry, who has a "good" dog named Zeke. They go on the sort of adventures that older people do – a boat ride, a cooking class, painting the porch – and their two pets help liven things up. These are quiet, sweet stories that will have you and your child smiling throughout. My wife and I enjoyed reading them to our then three-year-old, who was only disappointed with one story, but that was because I told her it was the one "where Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry finally get married." She was very sad to discover I was just joking – this perfect couple hasn't yet become an official couple. We are still hoping, though! I would recommend these for the 3-9 year-old age group. They are great books for parents to read to both pre-school and even elementary-age children because parents and children will enjoy them. And they are very fun books for children who are just learning to read to tackle by themselves. I've included short reviews of all 25 titles. There's no real order to them, except maybe the first two. Those would be best to read in order at the start. I would highly recommend the whole series, with just one caution. Mr. Putter and Tabby Take the Train has this elderly couple flouting a "no pets" rule – not the best example in a book for young children – but that is the exception to a series that's full of charm and warmth. 1. Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea Mr. Putter has some wonderful English muffins he would love to share, but no one to share them with. And when he goes to the pet store looking for a cat, all he finds are kittens, far too full of energy. But when he visits the animal shelter, Mr. Putter finds a cat who's certainly not overly energetic. Tabby's joints creak, her fur is thinning, and she seems a bit deaf in one ear... just like Mr. Putter! It's a wonderful match! 2. Mr. Putter and Tabby Walk the Dog This marks the first appearance of Mr. Putter's wonderful neighbor Mrs. Teaberry. When she slips on a kiwi (the fruit, not the bird) and twists her ankle, soft-hearted Mr. Putter quickly volunteers to walk Mrs. Teaberry's dog, Zeke. But Zeke is no model dog – for Mr. Putter he is a nightmare! At least until Mr. Putter and Zeke have a man-to-dog talk! 3. Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake Mrs. Teaberry inexplicably loves fruitcake. Or, at least, Mr. Putter finds it inexplicable. For Christmas, Mr. Putter decides he wants to make her a cake that won't hurt her foot if she drops it. But he has never made a cake before! Another sweet story about this wonderful elderly couple. 4. Mr. Putter and Tabby Pick the Pears Mr. Putter loves Fall because that's when he can pick the juicy pears from his tree and make pear jelly. But this year Mr. Putter's cranky legs aren't cooperating – he can't make it up his ladder to pick them. But that isn't enough to stop this inventive senior. Mr. Putter remembers how, as a kid, he used a slingshot to knock things down. He fashions his sling, takes careful aim at his pear tree, and gives it a go. It turns out, however, that his slingshot is much more powerful than he thought, and Mr. Putter spends the next several hours launching apples high, high, high into the air, until they disappear over his house. Great fun... though it does nothing to get his pears down. And it leaves him without any apples too! Fortunately, Mrs. Teaberry comes to the rescue. 5. Mr. Putter and Tabby Row the Boat On this very hot summer day, Mr. Putter figures out a great way to stay cool. He takes Tabby, and his neighbor Mrs. Teaberry, and her good dog Zeke, out on the lake. And on an island in the middle, they eat their lunch and he and Mrs. Teaberry share "tall tales" from their lives. This is the first book that had me hoping the author would soon write "Mr. Putter & Tabby Pop the Question." 6. Mr. Putter and Tabby Fly the Plane  Mr. Putter may be old, but he still loves toys (even though he knows he isn't supposed to anymore). In this adventure, Mr. Putter and Tabby enjoy flying a radio-controlled toy plane... and give it to someone who enjoys it even more. 7. Mr. Putter and Tabby Take the Train What could be better than going on a train ride? The only problem, it turns out, is that trains don't allow pets. But this rule is bypassed when Mr. Putter backs Zeke into a backpack, and Mrs. Teaberry carries Tabby on the train in a picnic basket. One caution: This focuses on how to cleverly get around rules. So, if I was getting a dozen of this series for my school library, I'd give this one a miss. But I might still take it out of my public library and then, while reading it to my girls, teach them that even such wonderful old folks can misstep now and again. 8. Mr. Putter and Tabby Toot the Horn Mrs. Teaberry decides that since she and Mr. Putter like music so much, they should be in a band. But what sort of band can they be in, since neither knows how to play an instrument? 9. Mr. Putter and Tabby Paint the Porch Mr. Putter's porch is looking a little shabby. But when he gets out the pink paint, a squirrel decides he might want to help. Soon little pink paw prints are everywhere! Fortunately, Mr. Putter has a wonderful neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry, who is happy to help him clean up the mess. 10. Mr. Putter and Tabby Feed the Fish Mr. Putter and Tabby both love visiting the fish store. But when Mr. Putter brings three goldfish home, Tabby starts having troubles – he can't stop watching them! However Mrs. Teaberry is once again able to help. How nice it is for Mr. Putter and Tabby to have such a wonderful neighbor! 11. Mr. Putter and Tabby Catch the Cold "When Mr. Putter was a boy, he had almost liked colds. He always got spoiled." But now that he's old, it's not good to have a cold – there's no one to spoil him! Or is there? Mrs. Teaberry and her good dog Zeke make sure that this is "the best cold Mr. Putter ever caught." 12. Mr. Putter and Tabby Stir the Soup Mr. Putter and Tabby both love soup, but there always seems to be something stopping them from making it: either they don't have the onions, or the beans, or the macaroni. And then, when they finally have all the ingredients, their trusty stove decides not to work. But no worries – Mrs. Teaberry would be happy to let them use her stove. And, of course, Zeke won't be a bother, right? One caution offered: Mr. Putter says "Jiminy!" at one point, which some regard as a mild expletive. 13. Mr. Putter and Tabby Write the Book When a snowstorm keeps him indoors, Mr. Putter decides to become a mystery writer. He soon discovers there is a lot of preparation involved in getting ready to write – snacks don't just fix themselves! When Mr. Putter's writing strays from mysteries and towards the many good things he sees all around him, Mr. Putter is a bit discouraged... until Mrs. Teaberry cheers him up! 14. Mr. Putter and Tabby Make a Wish With a shock, Mr. Putter realizes that today is his birthday, and while he thinks he's too old for cake, candles, and presents, he still wants a celebration. So he calls up Mrs. Teaberry. She is happy to come over... but she first needs to do some chores. While Mr. Putter waits, increasingly impatient, Mrs. Teaberry is preparing a surprise! One caution offered: Mr. Putter says, "Good heavens!" 15. Mr. Putter and Tabby Spin the Yarn Mrs. Teaberry is a very good neighbor and also a cook and a baker who loves to share her culinary creations with Mr. Putter. But Mr. Putter has started to wonder if he's a good neighbor – what does he do for her? So he decides to do something nice by serving tea to Mrs. Teaberry's knitting club. But being a good neighbor turns out to be quite a bit harder than Mr. Putter thought! 16. Mr. Putter and Tabby See the Stars Mrs. Teaberry likes to feed Mr. Putter. And Mr. Putter likes to be fed by Mrs. Teaberry. But one night he so enjoys himself that he doesn't notice just how many of her jelly rolls he has eaten. Later that night he does notice – his grumbling tummy won't let him sleep. So he and Tabby go for a walk in their neighborhood. And who do they meet? Mrs. Teaberry! It seems her good dog Zeke also had too many jelly rolls, and his tummy wouldn't let him sleep either. Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry tell each other "stories in the moonlight. They told secrets. They make each other laugh." This is another sweet, simple story that will have you rooting for Mr. Putter to get down on one arthritic knee. 17. Mr. Putter and Tabby Run the Race With Mrs. Teaberry's encouragement, Mr. Putter enters a seniors' race. And, with the help of Mrs. Teaberry's good dog Zeke, Mr. Putter runs quite a race! 18. Mr. Putter and Tabby Spill the Beans Mrs. Teaberry is very good at coming up with new things for her and Mr. Putter to do. Of course, sometimes these new things don't work out. But they are always an adventure. This time around Mrs. Teaberry wants the two of them to take a cooking class: one hundred ways to cook beans! To Mr. Putter this doesn't sound like it will be much of an adventure. "But he wanted to make Mrs. Teaberry happy." Fortunately, Tabby and Zeke are able to turn this into an adventure after all. 19. Mr. Putter and Tabby Clear the Decks Mr. Putter thinks that Mrs. Teaberry is a genius when she decides they should have an adventure on a sightseeing boat. But as much as Mr. Putter likes the boat, Zeke likes it even more. When he decides he doesn't want to leave, it is up to the boat's captain to talk Mrs. Teaberry's good dog into letting go of the mast. 20. Mr. Putter and Tabby Ring the Bell Mr. Putter gets all nostalgic about school and arranges to visit a first-grade classroom. And Tabby and Zeke arrange to make this a very memorable visit! 21. Mr. Putter and Tabby Dance the Dance Mr. Putter may have two left feet, but Mrs. Teaberry thinks he is a wonder! I wonder when he is going to ask her to marry him! 22. Mr. Putter and Tabby Drop the Ball Mr. Putter decides that, as fun as napping is, they really need to take up a sport. He finds his old baseball glove and calls up Mrs. Teaberry, who knows just the right team to join, where one of the players is 100 years old! No one is very fast... except Zeke. Oh, Zeke, put down the ball! 23. Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page Mr. Putter loves to read out loud, and Tabby loves to listen. When the library invites patrons to come "Read aloud to your pet at Story Time" Mr. Putter decides to go. But he makes a mistake. He tells Mrs. Teaberry. She loves new things, so she wants to do it too. But Zeke in a library? 24. Mr. Putter and Tabby Smell the Roses Mrs. Teaberry's birthday is just around the corner: what can Mr. Putter and Tabby get her? She likes her garden, so Mr. Putter decides to take her to the Conservatory. But can Zeke behave himself in the midst of so many flowers and plants? Well, no, and suddenly the bananas and lemons are flying everywhere. But even after the rambunctious mutt gets them all booted out, that doesn't put a damper on the celebrations. Mrs. Teaberry even manages to make lemonade out of the lemons. 25. Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slopes While this isn't the happy conclusion to the series that we were hoping for – Mr. Tabby and Mrs. Teaberry are still only neighbors – it is another fun episode. This time Mr. Putter is a bit tired of winter and needs a little excitement. He remembers the sledding he used to do as a boy, and just knows his adventurous neighbor is bound to have some toboggans!...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Science Comics: a quality quartet

Comics that are hilarious and instructive? That's impressive! What's less impressive about this “Science Comics” series, is that quite a few of the titles give a nod, or a full-on bow, to evolution, and others push climate catastrophism. For materials intended for kids, that's a good reason to give them a skip. But the quartet reviewed below are the exception, and just give us the facts and history and hilarity. So, two thumbs up for these four, but be aware that others in the series are not always as praiseworthy. Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared by A. Wilgus & Molly Brooks 122 pages / 2017 This is the history of powered aviation as told by the Wright brothers' only sister, Katherine. She’s a lively and curious narrator, interacting with not only her brothers but other early aviation innovators as well. While this is history, as part of the "Science Comics" series, it digs deep into the science of how flight works, which makes this a comic even an adult could appreciate... though it is probably aimed at Grade 4 and up.  Skyscrapers: The Heights of Engineering by John Kerschbaum 128 pages / 2019 This is as funny as it is educational. The narrator is a flying superhero, and while he is never named, his red cape and boots and his blue full-body long johns sure look familiar. He’s also able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound… except that he just tripped over the tip of a new, really, really tall one. Boy, are they building them big these days! When his sort-of sidekick Quiz Kid show up, the two travel to and fro through time to find out how we learned to build up up and away! They get into why arches work, and how they distribute forces, the tensile and comprehension forces on stone, how concrete is made, and what technological leaps were made that’ll allow us to build a mile high. What makes this such a fun read is the comic duo: “superman” playing the straight man, and the Quiz Kid his foil. The only cautions would be a “Holy holes” utterance by Quiz Kid about how deep a foundation was. Rockets: Defying Gravity by Anne Drozd and Jerzy Drozd 120 pages / 2018 The comedians this time are all sorts of animals – pigeons, chickens, sheep, monkeys and even bears – who were the test subjects that served as the very first astronauts. There is a lot of science in this one, to the point that I'm not sure I understood it all. But I enjoyed it all! We're taken back in time, to meet Isaac Newton and get introduced to his three laws of motion. Then we're shown how those laws were in play with man's firsts attempts at flight, via balloons. We also get to meet some of the animals that were the first passengers. The animals, including a very enthusiastic bear, take us traveling around the world, to China and Europe, to see how rockets were used for both warfare and entertainment. We repeatedly pop back to the near present, watching the space race between the USSR and USA. Then the whole thing finishes off with some of the developments being made in private rocketeering today, by Elon Musk and others. There is so much packed into this one that I could see teens reading it again and again. There is a "dang" or two, but no other cautions. The sheer intensity of education on offer here means this is probably best for teens and up. Bridges: Engineering Masterpieces by Dan Zettwoch 122 pages / 2022 A quartet narrates this look at bridges all over the world. Each has their favorite type: Bea likes beams, Archie favors arch bridges, Trudy prefers triangles, and the youngest of them all and still a student, Spence likes suspension bridges. We are also introduced to the different loads that engineers have to consider, and the different forces they have to contend with, including compression, tension, torsion, and shear. This quartet also challenges readers to have a bridge-building contest at their school to experiment with what bridge types might be best. The only cautions? A passing mention of millions of years, and a bridge early on that, legend says, was built by the Devil to give himself a place to sunbathe. That's it....

Family, Movie Reviews

Back of the Net

Sports / Family 2019 / 86 minutes Rating: 7/10 Cory Bailey is an American teen science nerd whose next stop is a semester-long trip on a research ship departing from Sydney, Australia. But after arriving at the Sydney Airport, she boards the wrong school bus, and ends up on the wrong campus. Now instead of spending a term studying aquatic life, she's at a soccer academy. And she's never played before in her life. Adults are going to be able to predict where this is going right from the get-go, but no worries mate, because they aren't the target audience. And the pre-teens this is aimed at are going to enjoy Cory's fish-out-of-water experience. This is really just a light, feel-good film, with Cory going from friendless to gaining a bunch of bosom buddies. There's also a charming jock who doesn't really get science, but can appreciate Cory's passion. The Australian accents and scenery also add to the appeal. There is a villain, of course, but even rich girl Edie isn't all that nasty. She's really just misunderstood, don't you see? Cautions The cautions here are mostly of the too-good-to-be-true nature of the story. Cory might have been a fish-out-of-water to start, but by film's end, everything has turned up roses, and in every possible way. Adults will know this isn't realistic, but the pre-teens might need a reminder that even as confidence can often be key, "believing in yourself" isn't some kind of miraculous guarantee of victory. Another concern is the budding romance between Cory and a very nice boy. While there's just one peck on the lips exchanged (and another attempted kiss), Cory's friends do a fair amount of "ooooh"ing to tease Cory. Sure, it's funny, but parents may want to point out that it's also just plain silly: these kids are too young to be thinking of marriage, so they don't need to (and shouldn't be trying to) contend with all the drama that comes with dating. The other cautions include three instances of "Oh my gosh," and a beach scene in which two boys are shirtless (though in long shorts). Conclusion Back of the Net strikes me as a cross between one of the better Hallmark films and an old-school Disney TV movie, or in other words, a sweet if predictable story, with decent production values and pretty good acting. Pre-teen girls will love it, and the rest of us won't mind it. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Mister Invincible: local hero

by Pascal Jousselin 96 pages / 2020 My dad wasn't a fan of superhero comics because he figured that Superman and Batman were too much like God-substitutes. And when you consider how many DC and Marvel characters are gods (Thor, Hercules, Loki, Odin, Eros) or are super-powered beings able to fight toe-to-toe with gods (Hulk, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, etc. and etc.), he might have been on to something. But Mister Invincible is not that kind of superhero. His superpower isn't laser beam eyes or invulnerability: he's just the only comic book character to realize he's in a comic book!  As Gene Luen Yang explained it in his own New York Times review: "He can poke his head past the borders of his current panel to see into the future or the past. He can pass objects and even himself from one panel to another, moving through time and space." This is such a brilliantly original work that there's nothing else to compare it with. And that originality makes it a hard one to properly describe. But I'm going to give it my best go. In the opening one-page comic strip, we see Mister Invincible, in the top row of panels, look down and notice that further on down (in his future) a lady and her little boy are being robbed. So, he jumps down a row to land on one of the clueless villains. Then, to take down the second bad guy he relies on an intervention from future him, from further on down the page. Future Mister Invincible is looking up (to his past) and shoots the robber's gun right out of his hand.... using the bad guy's own gun, which future Mister Invincible picked up from the ground because, as we just saw in the past, the bad guy dropped it. You might have to read that last paragraph a couple of times before it'll start making some sense. That's true to the comic, which also requires repeated readings to follow. Normally, that kind of confusion would make a comic annoying. But what's different here is that it all really makes sense – it's like a puzzle most kids will be able to decipher, but one that no one gets at their first go. Still don't quite get it? Let me show, rather than tell, sharing an excerpt of a couple of rows from one adventure. I've handed this comic to just about everyone who's walked into our house this last week, and for anyone under 20, it's stopped them in their tracks. They've sat down and just started reading and rereading. I think a lot of adults will enjoy it too – anyone who appreciates a good logic puzzle. Cautions There are some minor language concerns with the bad guy calling his minions "morons," "maggots," and "toilet monkeys," and a bratty kid calling one of the villains a "fat loser big butt." Not a lot of that, but there is some. Also, one of the villains reforms her ways from caring only about money to caring about the planet, and that care is shown with her, in just one panel, marching with environmentalists singing, "We've only got one planet." True enough, but that sentiment is often used to justify policies that prioritize the planet over the people (particularly the poor) living on it. Those two concerns are minor when the comics' intended audience is considered. The little kids who'd titter at the juvenile insults probably wouldn't be interested in Mister Invincible because its puzzling nature would be a bit above them. The only other concern is a practical one. I think this is such an imaginative work it should be in every school library but, unfortunately, there is a foldout page that might not stand up well to library usage. Maybe librarians can reinforce that page ahead of time. Conclusion The French original is called Imbattable or "unbeatable" which is a better descriptor than "Mister Invincible." It's not that you can't hurt him - he's not invincible. It's just that with his creative comic-crossing abilities, you can't beat him. And I don't know whether you can beat this comic. It is utterly creative and so much fun to read again and again. I'd recommend it for ages 10 to 110....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Miracle Seed

by Martin Lemelman 2023 / 80 pages In 70 AD, after besieging Roman forces destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple, they went on a destructive rampage through the rest of Israel, killing thousands of Jews and enslaving thousands more. And, as this graphic novel shares, they also cut down and burned groves of Judean Date Palm Trees. Eventually, a small group of Jewish forces retreated to the hilltop fortress of Masada. Numbering under one thousand, they tried to outlast a Roman force ten times their size, but it was only a matter of time. And when the Jews lost, they left behind broken weapons, scraps of clothing, and pots to be buried by the drifting sands... only to be uncovered by archeologists millennia later. Amongst those pots was one that contained Judean Date Palm seeds. The Judean Date Palms that remained after Rome's rampage didn't fare well without people around to tend them. Even the wild varieties started dying off, though we're told it is unclear whether that was due to changes in climate or perhaps the activities of the Crusaders one thousand years later. All we are sure of is that in our modern day the Judean Date Palms were only known by their accounts in the history books – they had been extinct for hundreds of years. The comic continues the story in 1963, when that the jar of seeds was discovered. The six seeds inside were put in a drawer and forgotten about for 40 more years. Then a medical researcher got involved.  Dr. Sarah Sallon wondered if what she'd read about the Judean Date Palm's healing powers might have been true. And that got her wondering if those six seeds could be used to revive the species! As the title gives away, the trees did have an amazing comeback. It was quite a process, involving inventiveness and imagination – who would have thought it could be possible to sprout seeds thousands of years old? Caution The author is Jewish, and that comes out in a couple of quotes from Jewish commentaries. The first, opening the book, is nonsense, and a young audience might need to be told that nowhere in the Bible does it say, "There is no plant without an angel in heaven tending it and telling it, 'Grow!'" The only other caution is that the title miracle is never ascribed to God – He is not mentioned. Conclusion This will be fascinating read for students curious about science or history – there's more than a bit of both here. I'd recommend it for Grade 6 and up, including adults who will appreciate this as a quick, light read about an intriguing topic. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

God’s Daring Dozen: A Minor Prophet Series

by John Brown and Brian Wright Illustrated by Lisa Flanagan 2021 / 40 pages each Christian Focus Publications I’ve never been a fan of children’s Bibles. When our kids were young, we never used them during our daily family worship. We always just read straight from the Bible. I figured they would get enough Bible stories at school – and they did. My negative attitude about story Bibles is due to a couple of factors.  One is their tendency to moralize everything and the other is to miss the One to whom the whole Bible is pointing: Jesus. So I was a tad skeptical about this series of storybooks based on the Minor Prophets. I looked at the first four volumes in this series: Obadiah & the Edomites, Habakkuk’s Song, Haggai’s Feast, and Zephaniah’s Hero.  They’re meant for reading to kids ages 4-6, but kids ages 7-10 should be able to read them for themselves. I read through them for myself and mostly appreciated the approach. They’re well-written, capturing the message of these books, and helping kids see how they point to Christ. The illustrations are colorful, bold, and appropriate. I don’t have any young children at home anymore and no grandchildren yet either. However, I have a daughter who works as a nanny.  I asked her to test drive these books with the children she cares for. These were kids on the younger side of the target audience and she found they had a hard time focussing. However, she did say that they would probably work well in the Christian primary school environment or perhaps Little Lambs (Sunday School) at church. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great

by Jessie Hartland 2015 / 216 pages What makes something a really good read? It can be the writing – some writers can turn anything into a page-turner. It might be the subject – newspaper accounts often lack artistry, but the facts themselves grab and keep our interest. And other times it comes down to the purpose of the piece. I've reviewed novels that didn't cut it as entertainment, but that was okay, because their main purpose was education. And this packaging of education as fiction made learning much more enjoyable than this same material would have been, had it been in textbook form. So, for learners, these novels would be really good reads. So if Steve Jobs: Insanely Great were read as simply a graphic novel biography, it is only middling. But if read to a different end? Well, this is an absolutely fascinating account of the tech industry's development from the 1960s through the 2000s. As a biography I picked this up because I am a bit of an Apple fan, based solely on the fact that my two Mac desktops both lasted twice as long as any of the five PCs that preceded them. I appreciate the quality. And that had me curious about the man who started it all – surely there must be lots to learn from an entrepreneur who turned his home-based business into one of the biggest companies on the planet! But as it turns out, in Jobs' life there are more examples of what not to do than examples worth imitating. He was a genius, undeniably, but genius is something you either have or don't. He was also driven, and while I think most of us could benefit from being a little more driven, we don't want to be like Jobs. He abandoned his young daughter for a time because she got in the way of his pursuits. So yes, he was self-absorbed, and also impatient; he smoked pot, and invented and sold a device which stole from the phone company. I'm not trying to say Jobs was an especially horrible person. It's only that I most often read biographies for examples who will challenge and encourage me. And this is not one of those sort of biographies. As a tech industry history For a generation who grew up with the Internet and smartphones and Netflix, it might be hard to imagine a world without computers. But when Jobs was born, personal computers hadn't yet been invented, and business computers were the size of buildings even though their computing power wouldn't match today's most basic calculator. In this account of Jobs' life, we also get an insider's look at the development of the personal computer and all the technology it spawned. As we go from decade to decade, author Jessie Hartland occasionally interrupts the story to provide a two-page spread on the technology of that time. For the 1960s, it was the record player, transistor radios, rotary phones and black and white TVs with no remote controls! And what a leap we see, in just a decade – in the 1970s there are color TVs, now with remote controls, and the first video game consoles have been invented. Invention after invention, we see it all progressing forward to our modern day. You might have to be a bit of a geek to like this, but that's all it would take – just a smidge of nerdy DNA – for anyone to enjoy this as a history of the tech industry. Cautions There is passing mention made of Jobs' interest in Zen mysticism, and as noted earlier, it shares that Jobs also smoked pot. So this is not one for young readers. But the style of the pictures, and the large amount of text means they wouldn’t pick this up anyway. Graphic novels are often a great means to grab reluctant readers, but I will note this is not that sort of graphic novel. It is much more book than comic, with lots of text, and the illustrations, while helpful, are not the eye-catching, action-packed sort of visuals that will draw the casual reader in. Conclusion So who would love Steve Jobs: Insanely Great? I’d recommend this to older teens and adults who have an interest in computers and technology. For them, this will be really fun, informative, and readable. I know I enjoyed it immensely. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Katie Luther: the Graphic Novel

Mother of the Reformation by Susan K. Leigh illustrated by Dave Hill 95 pages / 2016 My daughter recently asked, "Why aren't there more girl heroes? Why are the heroes always boys?" I explained that some of the heroes we read about are soldiers - generals and others – and that these are all boys because boys are bigger and stronger, so they make better soldiers. But that conversation also set me off in search of good examples of heroic women. And one very good example is Katharina Luther. An "ordinary" hero? This graphic novel biography is a sequel of sorts. In 2011 comic the same author and illustrator came out with Luther: Echoes of the Hammer. This sequel is slightly smaller, but every bit as good. Of course, not everyone will be impressed. I showed it to a friend and flipped through the page to share highlights from Katie Luther's life and he suggested that running a household was just something that women back then did. So, hardly amazing or exceptional. There's something to that. On the one hand, Katharina was extraordinary: as a nun she read Martin Luther's writings, even though that would have been a risky thing to do. Then, at the risk of grave punishment, she planned an escape from her convent. The first attempt was found out, and she was punished. But she tried again, and got out under cover of night, hidden away with 11 other nuns in empty barrels – she had conviction and courage! As the comic makes clear, she was also a remarkably capable woman – Luther's household was often very large, with 30 or more students, and as many as 11 children under their care (some of whom were nieces and nephews), plus many others, eating at the table. It was quite a feat to run this all, which was more restaurant and hotel than house. On the other hand, in many ways what Katharina did is what women have done through the ages: she was an able helpmeet, supporting her husband in his role, even as she took care of the children and managed the house. This supportive role is ordinary in the sense that many wives do this every day, but that hardly makes it unimportant. Supportive roles don't get the same recognition that leadership positions do, but they are every bit as vital. So this is a book I'm going to share with my daughter in the hopes that Katie Luther will inspire and encourage her in whatever role - whether ordinary or extraordinary - God sets before her. Conclusion At 95 pages, this is a comic that takes some time to get through, so it is not a casual, quick read. The artwork is just as the cover depicts - solid, colorful, and full of detail. There's also a lot of information packed in here, so anyone, whether teen or older, who wants to learn about Katharina Luther will enjoy it. That's why this would also be a good resource for schools. However, this is not a comic most students will pick up on their own. But if it were given as an assigned reading, the graphic novel format does make this pain-free reading for almost any student. It's a far easier read than any book, and more educational than many....

Soup and Buns

Poise, aka self-control

“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” – Proverbs 10:19 ***** The lights inside the large sanctuary dimmed, and I sang the first two stanzas of my memorized solo. Suddenly, my mind went blank. Blank! Panic rose, as there were no lyrics available to me. But I had learned during voice lessons that poise should be the immediate reaction to a problem. I stood in position quietly, praying “Help!” Thankfully, my experienced pianist kept on playing, spoke the phrase that I had missed, and followed me when I resumed singing. After the concert, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment as I faced everyone. But the Chorale members empathized, and my friend in the audience said, in surprise, “Oh, I thought you were just pausing for effect!” Dictionary.com defines poise as: “a dignified, self-confident manner or bearing; composure; self-possession.” Perhaps we could also think of it as a type of self-control. I chose not to act on my strong, surging emotions, in order to achieve a higher purpose: in this case, not ruining the concert nor embarrassing myself. Another example occurred years later. I drove our son David to Baltimore for an overnight college visit during which our six-year-old Amy and I would visit with friends about 90 minutes past there. The 2-hour drive developed into a 7-hour ordeal due to an overturned HazMat truck on I-95. We survived the situation with acceptance and good humor until after we dropped David off at midnight. I ran out of poise then as fatigue overwhelmed me. With no fortitude to drive another 90 minutes, I phoned my friends that we would stay at a motel and come in the morning. The night clerk at the motel refused to take a check and I had not taken a credit card with me – $57 cash, period. In my exhaustion, I shouted at her, a counterproductive move, indeed. Then I looked at Amy. To this day I can remember her little face, eyes wide, mouth open, beginning to be frightened by my actions. I stopped my words and stood there quietly, praying. The poise that characterized me from then on did not reflect the tumult inside of me, but it subdued Amy’s fear, and brought the clerk back to the counter. Thankfully, I found some school fundraiser change in the depths of my purse, which I borrowed for this emergency. The clerk slowly counted each nickel and dime, testing my self-control for endless minutes until we reached $57. Never was I so happy to climb into bed! These are two examples of reasons for practicing self-control. But I admit to finding it easier to control emotions in these situations than when my temper is flaring or my goals are being thwarted. Then the task has always been much more difficult. It doesn’t help that our culture emphasizes “being real” and “expressing oneself” by always saying exactly what is on our mind. Thus, too often, we feel entitled to act and react in whatever manner we decide, especially when someone has infringed on our happiness. “Consideration” seems to be a lost art. The fact is that we are all sinners, prone to do what pops first into our heads and what feels best to us at the moment. As the refrain of the song Thank You, Lord states: But it goes against the way I am to put my human nature down, And let the Spirit take control of all I do; ‘Cause when those trials come, my human nature shouts the thing to do, And God’s soft prompting can be easily ignored.   Honest emotions need to be expressed, but the time, manner and place must be carefully considered. More often than not, our first thought derives from our self-centered hearts; therefore we fall into anger, impatient behaviors, and gossip. Jeremiah 17:9 states that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” We must take care not to absolve ourselves too easily! Developing poise – a moment, or ten, to stand quietly and think and pray despite the hurricane-force emotions within us – is our responsibility of love to God and others, and thankfully, self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Self-control means stopping to consider more aspects of the situation than were visible to us in the initial moment, including the feelings of others. Let’s practice poise when we are surprised or overwhelmed and stand quietly from the outset; we will surely find help in our time of need. “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.” – Proverbs 21:23 Find more of Sharon’s articles by clicking here. This column is one of several dozen collected in her book “Soup and Buns,” which you can purchase by contacting the author at sharoncopy1@ gmail.com. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Super Pancake

by Megan Wagner Lloyd illustrated by Abhi Alwar 2023 / 170 pages Have you ever thought your breakfast could be heroic? If you have, this book is for you, with every character coming from the most important meal of the day. Our humble hero is Peggy Pancake, who comes from a suburban family of pancakes. Our story starts with Peggy late for breakfast (which seems to be cereal and milk) and missing the school bus. Not the best start to a day. When she gets to Winfred Waffle Elementary, a new kid, a croissant, is getting picked on  by the “bacon bullies” and when Peggy stands up for him they become friends. Things take a dramatic turn when Dr. Egg, the town’s leading scientist, gives a lecture to the kids, and the bacon bullies snag a vial from his backpack and put it in Peggy’s lunch. What they meant for ill, ends up giving Peggy superpowers. But because she didn’t know what the bullies had done, she doesn’t know why she can suddenly fly. There’s the usual, learning about her powers section, and then she has to face off against the villain of the piece, Dr. Breakfast Sandwich and his henchtoast. Fortunately, she has a sidekick to help her, Luc, the croissant. Cautions would be a little breakfast food violence as Peggy beats back the bullies, and Peggy not being as forthcoming as she should be with her parents about her superhero identity. She does this to protect them but I don’t like the idea of kids keeping any secrets from their parents. Still, it is a minor element, as she did tell them right away when she first got her powers; they just didn’t believe her....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Little Red Riding Hood

by Trina Schart Hyman 28 pages / 1983 This is about a little girl and the big wolf that gobbles her up. If that is a bit of a shock to you, then the version you were told as a child was likely some modernized, bubble-wrapped rendition in which grandma is shut up in a closet rather than eaten, and the woodsman arrives before Red Riding Hood takes a trip down the wolf's gullet. But in Trina Schart Hyman's retelling we hear the traditional tale: first the wolf eats his fill; then he gets his comeuppance. So why is this traditional tale the better one? The peril is a key reason. Our world is not always a safe place, and to prepare our children for it we need to introduce them to the real world in bits and pieces. One good way to teach them about how bad the real world can be is by introducing them to some of that nastiness – in a measured dose – via fairytales. If you take the peril away from the story so that Red Riding Hood is saved before she is ever really in danger, you have a nice story for a two-year-old, but it is not a story that stretches or challenges anyone older. But what if, instead, the wolf "ran straight to the bed, and without even saying a good-morning, he ate up the poor old grandmother in one gulp"? That is scary.... briefly. Only a few pages later the woodsman comes to save the day and skin the wolf, so this is only a small dosage, but one that can serve to fortify children in preparation for the days ahead when they learn what the world is really like. The biggest selling feature is, however, Trina Schart Hyman's remarkable art – there is so much to see in each picture. And as a fun bonus, she has hidden Red Riding Hood's black cat on almost every page, there to be found by a sharp-eyed child. As for age recommendations, well, this is a story my two-year-old always enjoyed (but probably didn't fully understand - she liked looking for the cat) but it's one that my four-year-old needed to be in the right mood for. She found the wolf a tad on the scary side. I have but one caution: at one point the woodsman makes use of the word "jiminy" which some consider a "substitute oath." The woodsman isn't actually taking God's name, but is used this word in place of taking God's name in vain. I don't have a problem with this, but make mention because I know some readers might, so I want you to be aware....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Adventures of Lancelot the Great

by Gerald Morris 92 pages / 2008 This has all the adventure you’d expect from an Arthurian tale, but way more humor. And maybe the best way to review it is to share one of those jokes. Sir Lancelot wants to be one of King Arthur’s knights because “They have the bravest hearts, the noblest souls and the shiniest armor in all the world.” Lancelot is a little obsessed with his appearance but on his journey to Camelot, (to introduce himself to the King) he gets caught in a rainstorm, and his armor ends up getting “splashed all over with dirty spots.” When at last the rain stopped, Sir Lancelot turns his attention to his spattered appearance. Moving his lance to his left arm, he draws a towel from his saddlebags and begins scrubbing at his armored legs. Soon he is absorbed in the task, paying no attention to where his horse is taking him. When he does finally look up, Lancelot sees a knight bearing down on him. Thinking it one of those roving evil knights and “having no time to shift his lance to his right arm…he met the knight’s charge left-handed, popping his attacker very neatly from his saddle.” Almost without pause, another knight attacks him, and then another and another, which gets Lancelot quite annoyed, as this near constant assault really interferes with his cleaning efforts. But he quickly dispatches them one after another. This happens 16 times in all, and after the 16th knight was dispatched, Lancelot hears clapping. It turns out he had wandered into a tournament unawares and won it quite unintentionally while using his lance left-handed. Then, when he finds out the King himself is the host of the tournament and wants the noble knight to join the Round Table, Lancelot is distraught. Why? “Look at me! I’m all covered with mud! And I did want to make a favorable first impression!” The rest of the book is more of the same – my girls were laughing out loud, and I was having a great time too. Wizards, and sorcerers, and magicians, oh my! I have no real cautions to offer for this book. The most juvenile humor in the book is when Sir Lancelot gets shot in the behind with an arrow. That gets some good laughs from the kids, but doesn't get anywhere near the realm of potty humor. I will say I was a little surprised when one knight ended up dying (after eating a poisonous pear) because Death doesn't make an appearance in most kids books. But it isn't a big part of the story and didn't seem to shock my girls. So the only real reservation I have has nothing to do with this book, but rather Book 3 in the series. Morris has written 4 books in all in this The Knights' Tales series, and as happens in the Authurian original magic and sorcerers make appearances. In the Bible God condemns sorcery, so when a positive portrayal of it pops up in fiction, that should give us pause. In Book 2, Sir Givret the Short, the only magical reference is where the magic is clearly and admittedly fake - Givret pretends to be a sorcerer to scare an evil knight (Givret is short, but he knows how to use his brains). So no reason to be concerned here. And in Book 4, Sir Balin the Ill Fated, a seer pronounces doom and gloom, though by book's end it seems that she was, most likely, a fraud. The problem is, kids might not get that. There is also a wicked invisible knight who can use magic to turn himself invisible - I don't have much of a problem with that, as the wicked do indeed try to make use of magic. My concern is about when magic use – which God condemns – is portrayed positively. That's what happens in Book 3, Sir Gawain the True, where a friendly sorcerer befriends Sir Gawain. Friendly sorcerer? Now, the sorcerer is not Morris's creation – he is a part of the original Arthurian legends – and that seems a factor to consider. But I have to admit as to not knowing quite what to think – good sorcerers are a lie, so should we be encouraging our kids to read books where this lie is furthered? And at the same time, Arthurian stories have history to them, and it strikes me that this is a lot like learning about Greek gods – they can do "magic" too – but knowing about them is simply a part of being educated. Of course there is a big difference between reading about something for educational reasons and reading the same things simply for entertainment. We can tolerate some things for educational reasons – for example, news reports that might have graphic violence – that we would have reason to avoid when it comes to entertainment. So it would seem positive portrayals of sorcerers are more problematic in entertainment than they would be in strictly educational settings. And as this is more entertainment than educational, I do continue to have problems with Book 3. Conclusion Three out of the four books in this series are just good, silly, feudal fun. They could be, and I'll predict, most certainly will be enjoyed by kids all the way through Grades 5 and 6....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

The Gardener

by Sarah Stewart and David Small 38 pages / 1997 Lydia Grace Finch's family has fallen on hard times. So their little girl is being sent off to the big city to live with her baker uncle Jim to help him around the shop. The story is told via Lydia's short letters home, where she updates the family on her efforts at making her somber uncle smile. She's also, as the title indicates, quite the gardener, an interest she shares with her grandma back home. One of the care packages from her grandma even contains little plants that amazingly survive the postal trip. Though she's living in her uncle's apartment, Lydia fills everything she can with plants, and finds room on the roof to create her own secret garden. Will all her flowery beauty manage to prompt a smile from her uncle? This is a sweet story, and the art fills every corner of every page. Two thumbs way up! If you liked this, you'll also enjoy three others by David Small. One Cool Friend is about a boy, Elliot, and his father visiting the aquarium. When the boy spots a penguin exhibit, he asks his dear old dad for one. Dad thinks he means a stuffed one, and says yes. But Elliot did not. The confusion continues as Elliot takes a smallish one home in his backpack and turns his room into an antarctic setting. Fun throughout, with a twist at the end just for parents (as I don't know that kids will catch this last joke). In Imogene's Antlers, a girl is surprised to wake up one morning with a set of antlers on her head. It doesn't phase her, though, and she runs with it, using them to dry laundry and hang donuts. It's her optimistic outlook that makes this such fun. In the sequel, Imogene Comes Back, her antlers are gone, but now she has a giraffe neck, and the next day an elephant nose... and she's still as upbeat as ever!...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Illiad

by Homer and adapted by Gareth Hinds 2019 / 272 pages The Illiad is a Greek epic that depicts just a part of the siege of Troy. It begins with a helpful intro that shares how Helen was kidnapped by the Trojan's Prince Paris, much to the dismay of her Greek husband, the Spartan King Menelaus, who rallied his allies to besiege Troy to get her back. But there was no quick rescue to be had. Our story begins in the tenth year of the siege, and focuses on all sorts of subplots and subcharacters including many a Greek god. The gods squabble, picking favorites among the soldiers, and offer secret help to them – secret because Zeus also has his favorites and he doesn’t want any interference. Two characters star: the Trojan's Prince Hector, brother of Paris, and the Greek half-god Achilles, who seems capable of defeating armies almost by his ownsome, in large part because he is favored by Zeus. However, neither he, nor Hector, are fated to live long. The story ends with Hectors death, and the story really doesn’t feel all that complete, even as it is loyal to the original in this respect. For how the siege of Troy ends, we’d have to turn to Homer’s The Odyssey (Gareth Hinds has an adaptation of The Odyssey too, but it is marred by a few panels depicting naked women). As a graphic novel adaptation, this is impressive. There is some gore – this is a war story after all – but any kid up for reading this would be old enough to deal with the not-overly graphic pictures of spear and sword wounds. The large size gives the author room to go quite deep (though it is still abridged some) and the visual format, along with key footnotes here and there, help make the story more accessible than it is in the original. Now, why should Christians even care to read about Greek gods and myths? We don't study much about Baal and Asherah after all, and they even make an appearance in the Bible. Well, whereas Baal is almost entirely forgotten, the Greek gods, and the mythos around them, continues to make appearances in today's culture, whether in teen fiction (Percy Jackson), the comics and TV (Hercules), or on the silver screen (Zeus, the Amazons, etc.) References to Achilles' heel, and the Trojan Horse are still in use too. Many of us may not have the time or inclination to study the book, but this comic adaptation allows a reader to quickly get a passing acquaintance with one of Western Civilization's key epics. That seems a very good tradeoff for the minimal time required. So who'd enjoy this? Most kids will find it too tough, so it really is limited to anyone interested in delving into the classics. Even those who intend on reading the book should give this a look – I suspect it could make taking on The Illiad much easier. Two thumbs up for a very good adaptation....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian refugees

by Don Brown 2018 / 104 pages This is not a pleasant read because it lays out a tragedy for which there seems no ready solution. In 2011, Syria descended into civil war after the dictatorial ruler, President Bashar al-Assad, used his military force to attempt to squelch protests. But the deaths that resulted only sparked more protests. Soon Assad's own soldiers were joining with the protesters. And for the dozen years since then, the country has been in a constant state of conflict. And with constant warfare comes refugees. Of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million, at least 5 million have fled after their homes were destroyed or their friends, neighbors, or family members were shot and killed. That's what this book is about: the millions of Syrian refugees' search for safety and security. As Don Brown explains, many Syrians were forced to leave with little or nothing to their name. While there was compassion for them early, as the thousands fleeing turned into millions fleeing, the refugees became an increasing expense for any nation that allowed them in. So borders started being blocked, barbwire went up, and anyone who wanted to leave had to turn to smugglers, some of whom would deliver on their promises, sneaking the refugees across the border. But others would prey on the fleeing Syrians, taking their money but doing little or nothing for them. It is a sad, sad story, and it continues to this day. What Don Brown doesn't get into much is the legitimate security concerns countries have about letting thousands and hundreds of thousands of refugees in. Most are Muslim, and many are undocumented, making it easy for radical elements to hide amongst them. So, countries would want to check credentials before letting a refugee in. But how can you check credentials they don't have? At the same time, the Bible tells us that whoever is generous to the needy honors his Maker (Prov. 14:31). So, how can help be offered on this enormous scale? Cautions While Don Brown is very restrained in showing the impacts of the war, there are a few panels where, even as most of the violence occurred just out of frame, some blood is shown. That, and the overall topic matter, means this is one for high school. Conclusion I think the strength of the book is that Don Brown spends his time explaining the problem without pretending to have a solution. There is no simple solution. But there is a pressing need. And there are some individual actions that can be done, like praying for God's intervention. The peace that no one seems able to bring, only He can accomplish. Another possibility is donating to Syrian relief efforts like the Canadian Reformed World Relief Fund....

Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

On writing (and writers): a miscellany of advice and opinions

by C.S. Lewis 191 / 2022 Not everyone can attend a Christian Writer’s Conference, or take graduate-level writing classes. But if you like to write, and want to improve your skills, (and maybe even write for RP!), one place to obtain a good amount of useful advice is in the book On Writing by C.S. Lewis. Though not as tidy as other “How to” books, with some repeated advice, Lewis’s golden nuggets of writing-truth challenge and encourage writers. He advises about writing children’s books, fantasy, and theology, and he spends a good amount of time critiquing well-known writers of his time. Here are just a few examples of the wisdom he offers: “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing. Ink is the great cure for all human ills.” “In the author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story….It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out.” If you want to be a writer, “What you want is practice, practice, practice…even if it’s thrown into the fire in the next minutes, I am so much further on.” “Writing should delight readers, not just label an event delightful. It should make them feel terror, not just tell them that an event was terrifying. Emotional labeling is really just a way of asking readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’” “Write for the ear, not just the eye.” Read your writing out loud. Another admonition that surprised me is that he strongly proposes that we re-read books in order to “savor the real beauties.” In subsequent readings, we progress without the “surprise” of knowing the ending; in doing so, we will discover “surprisingness” within the plot structure and style. If I were still teaching English, I would write excerpts from this book on the board to discuss with my classes each day. I think that writers/prospective writers will benefit from Lewis’ experience....

Family, Movie Reviews

Never Give Up

Family / Sports 2023 / 79 minutes RATING: 6/10 This is great family viewing for the peek it offers into the very different world of the deaf. Never Give Up is the true story of Brad Minns, left deaf by a high fever at the age of three, back in 1968. His parents made the unusual decision at that time, to teach Minns to lip-read and have him try to take on the challenge of a regular school, instead of going to a deaf institution. While his classmates and even his teacher aren't all that welcoming, the game of tennis becomes an outlet and a refuge. Here his hearing loss doesn't make him all that different. It's still not an even playing field – deaf players can't hear how the ball sounds coming off their opponent's racket – but as Minn's first instructor tells him, he can use his eyes and his heart to make up the difference. When Minns beats his big brother, he starts realizing he could become great at this. One of the more unlikely tennis comebacks serves as the backbone to this film – it opens with Minns down two sets, and down five games to none in the third. In flashbacks throughout the match we learn about how he got here and how those early life challenges and triumphs gave him the perseverance to keep fighting even when he's that far down. CAUTIONS The only caution to note would be a hazing scene. When Minns tries out for the US national deaf tennis team, someone hides his rackets right before his first match. Then, after he wins and heads to the showers, they hide his clothes. With no other option, Minns comes to the team meeting "wearing" nothing but a two-foot by three-foot sign which reads "Used tennis balls here." That sounds worse than it is – the signage has him covered more modestly than even the biggest pair of shorts. CONCLUSION I wanted to give this a 7, because our whole family enjoyed it. Who doesn't like a family-friendly, sports underdog story, that teaches you a bit about a different world, and even acknowledges God with a few quiet and respectful nods? But I give 6s for good films that have something notably subpar, and that's the acting here. It's just not very good. It's not so bad that it's annoying, but it is in the range of what you'd find in a low-end Hallmark movie. I'll add that there are some nice production touches too, including the soundtrack featuring Huey Lewis' The Power of Love (playing when Minns was down 40 to love), and some unique "sketched" opening titles. The tennis match itself is solidly shot – believable if not all that suspenseful. So, a 6, but significantly, a 6 that everyone in our family enjoyed. Never Give Up is in theaters across the US starting on Sept. 1, and will be available to stream in Canada some time after. ...

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