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Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

How to get our boys to read

In a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, Thomas Spence argues that the way some “experts” were trying to encourage boys to read was all wrong. Their strategy involved pitching boys books like Goosebumps, Sir Fartsalot, Captain Underpants and The Day My Butt Went Psycho. If we want boys to read, so this line of thinking goes, then let’s give them the potty humor they adore. That’ll make them readers, right? It might get some reading, but what it won’t do is give them any of the benefits that come from reading good books. Thomas Spence insists that instead of “meeting where they are at” we need to aim higher, and he quotes C.S. Lewis: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.” If we point our sons to what’s disgusting and encourage their interest, how can we expect them to learn and appreciate what is good? How can our boys become men if, instead of training them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), we reinforce their childishness? Instead of the gross, we need to fill our shelves with what’s great. We need to give our boys examples to aspire to, in books like Encyclopedia Brown, Saint George and the Dragon, The Green Ember, The Hobbit, Journey Through the Night, and Wambu: The Chieftain's Son. Of course, it’s one thing to stock our shelves, and another to get our boys to pull books off of them. How do we get them reading? Two tips: start early, and get rid of the distractions. Read to your son from the day he's born. Sure, a newborn won’t understand what’s being read, but he will love the time sitting on mom or dad’s lap. As he gets older, he’ll enjoy board books’ for their soft chewy corners and bright colors. Then simple stories can help him learn colors and numbers and all sorts of other words. A child who never remembers a time when he hasn’t been read to won’t have to be taught to appreciate stories – by the time he hits Grade One it’ll be in his DNA. But like any habit, this one can be broken. In his article Thomas Spence cites the findings of a Dr. Robert Weis, who linked video games in the home with lower academic performance. I’m sure a similar connection could be made between TV viewing and reading ability. The fact is, no matter how good the book, it can't compete with video games and TV shows for a boy’s attention – given a choice he’s going to watch a screen rather than read. If we want to raise readers then we need to limit their access to electronic media – we need to guard them against these distractions, indulging in them only in moderation. This is going to be tough. One of the reasons we parents like TV shows and video games is they can act as effective babysitters. A boy glued to the TV, or busy trying to make it to Level 3, isn’t going to be pulling his little sister’s hair. And if he’s busy then Mom’s probably got at least 20 minutes to hop into the shower, or get breakfast ready, or put away the laundry. A lot can get done when this babysitter is helping out. Now consider that not only does the TV have to be turned off, but mom or dad needs to read to the kidlets for 15, 20, 30 minutes a day, right from babyhood onward. For a busy set of parents this might seem like just another chore to add to all the others. But here’s a bit of encouragement: it isn’t going to be forever, and it does work. A child can read on their own at 6 or 7, and while it’s wonderful to keep reading with them after that, it’s not the same sort of necessity. At that point you can switch up from being the book reader to being the book supplier, pointing them to the very best ones (and I have suggestions on some really good ones here and here). Regular reading might mean you don’t have time to tidy the house, or your lawn isn’t mowed nearly as often as it should be. But are you going to look back and regret the length of your lawn? And will your son reap a real benefit from reading with you each day through Grade One and beyond? Reading daily, for just a half dozen years or so, and you’ll have helped him develop an appreciation of good books that can benefit your son for his lifetime....

Children’s picture books

Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat

by Andrew Wilson illustrated by Helene Perez Garcia 32 pages / 2019 The story, written in engaging rhythm, opens with Sophie crying because her sister broke her dollhouse and Sophie, in anger, pushed her over and then yelled at her parents. As she thinks about what just happened and meditates on how bad she is, she looks out the window and sees the Heidelberg’s cat from next door.  Surprisingly, the cat asks her why she is crying and Sophie tells her sad story. He invites her onto the rooftop and as they walk along, they chat. At first I thought, oh no, this is not a Reformed story, as Sophie tells her story and how she tries to be so good but fails. But then the cat sets her straight by explaining that no one can be good because we are all sinful. There is only one person who is good and that is Jesus. Only He can free us from our sins. The cat then uses Lord’s Day 1 from the Heidelberg Catechism and comforts Sophie with the words that “I am not my own” but belong to Jesus.  This is a lovely book for ages 4 and up who can understand the concept of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus....

Children’s non-fiction, Children’s picture books

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914

by John Hendrix 40 pages / 2014 I was raised with stories of the Dutch Resistance and the Canadian liberators fighting against the brutal Nazis – war, it seemed, had clear villains and obvious heroes. Later, though, I learned that right and wrong in war can be far more confusing: for example, in recent years we’ve seen US-backed groups fighting other US-backed groups in Syria. John Hendrix’s Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 presents parents with a tool to give our children a more nuanced understanding of war. In a style that is halfway between realistic and cartoon, the author tells us the events of Dec. 24 and 25, 1914. On the day of Christmas Eve, 1914, all along the frontlines, the shooting slowed, and that night the Germans could be heard singing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht – “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Then the next morning, on Christmas Day, in spots up and down the frontlines, German, British, and French troops spontaneously came out of their trenches and celebrated Christmas together. The next day they returned to killing one another. Does that make this book sound anti-war? I’d say it is more an underscoring of just how horrible war is. Fighting is sometimes necessary, which is why we are grateful for the courage of the Dutch Resistance and the Allied forces in World War II, who understood that stopping the Nazis was worth risking, and even giving, their lives. We need to remember their sacrifice because it was noble, and selfless, and good. But if war gives us examples to admire and imitate, there is also much that is foolish, and which we must learn to avoid. To give our children a more complete understanding of war, we need to show them that there are those who, under the guise of patriotism, rush to war even though war should always be a last resort. There are leaders who do not treat their young men’s lives as precious, and World War One is an example of that right up to the last day when 11,000 soldiers died in fighting that occurred after the peace treaty was signed. Commanders who sent their men out on offensives on that last day – some from our side – should be remembered as murderers. Shooting at the Stars is a gentle way of teaching the ethical complexities of war. It is gentle in that no blood or gore is seen (making this suitable for maybe Grade Three and up). The most war-like illustration occurs on a two-page spread where we see three corpses, as soldiers on both sides work together to bury their dead. What is striking is simply that there were men on both sides who could praise God together one day and fight to the death the next. That is a shocking bit of history. And it needs to be remembered. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

Children’s picture books

Dance at Grandpa’s

by Laura Ingalls Wilder illustrated by Renée Graef 33 pages / 1994 I'd expect most everyone has heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. Not only are the book loved by children and parents alike, they spawned a 1970-80s TV series that was wildly popular too. If by chance you aren't already familiar, the series is based on the author's own experiences in the late 1800's as a small child living the pioneering life. This picture book, Dance at Grandpa's, is an adaptation of Chapter 8 from the first novel, Little House in the Big Woods. While neighbors are far-flung, they do come together for special events, and this time everyone is invited to Grandma and Grandpa's big cabin. Laura, her Pa, Ma, big sister Mary, and baby sister Carrie, get bundled up in gloves, boots and coats, then covered up with blankets on the sleigh, as they head on their way to Grandpa's. Everyone brings their children so as the big cabin fills, Laura finds that there are "every so many babies lying in rows on Grandma's feather bed." Her pa then takes out his fiddle and the dozens of couples begin to dance and swirl. Laura discovers there's also food of all sorts, including wonderfully sour pickles! When the dancing finally stops Laura heads to bed, and come morning her family heads back home on their sleigh. As with any adaptation the obvious question is, why not just read the original? Our family has previously enjoyed the original novels as audiobooks – from youngest to oldest, everyone liked the novels, and probably more than these picture book versions. So, again, why read the picture book adaptations? There are a couple of reasons. First, my youngest can't read yet, but after going through the picture book once together, she could then "read" through it on her own, which she quite enjoyed. Second, our middle daughter is learning to read and needs books that are easy, but still have an interesting story. Many of the books at her level are so boring she finds they just aren't worth all the effort it takes to read them. But the books in this series are fun and familiar, and she has enjoyed working through a number of them. There are 14 picture book in all in this "My first Little House books" series, all of them based on the first three novels in the original series. The first two novels, Little House in the Big Woods andLittle House on the Prairie, are about Laura's childhood, and the third, Farmer Boy, is about her husband's childhood. One little annoyance we found was that the books were not published in chronological order and aren't numbered, so it was hard to figure out which to read first. For the most part it doesn't really matter, with the exception of the three based on chapters from Little House on the Prairie where one does lead into the next. So you can read most of them in whatever order you'd like, but, if you do want to tackle them in the proper chronological order, this is what it would be: Based on Little House in the Big Woods Winter Days in the Big Woods Christmas in the Big Woods A Little House Birthday Sugar Snow Dance at Grandpa's Going to Town Summertime in the Big Woods The Deer in the Wood Based on Little House on the Prairie Going West Prairie Day A Little Prairie House Based on Farmer Boy Winter on the Farm A Farmer Boy Birthday County Fair CAUTIONS The one caution I'll pass along concerns not Dance at Grandpa's, but another in the series. A Little House Birthday is based on Chapter 5 of Little House in the Big Woods and, just as in the original, the story here is all about how bored Laura is with Sunday. Her parents are very strict: "On Sundays they could not run or shout or be noisy. They must sit quietly and listen while Ma read stories to them They might look at pictures, and they might hold their rag dolls nicely and talk to them. But there was nothing else they could do. One Sunday Laura could not bear it any longer and she began to play with Jack and run and shout. Pa told her to sit in her chair and be quiet, and Laura began to cry. So Pa took her on his knee and cuddled her and told her a story." Eventually, she falls asleep and, waking up the next morning, she realizes with relief, "It was Monday, and Sunday would not come again for a whole week." So she's got quite the attitude about Sunday, and her parents really aren't helping things. Now, a story like this is no big deal when dad or mom are reading it – then we can explain that Sunday isn't a day of "don'ts" but a day of "get tos" – we get to have time off from our daily work and get to spend it together as God's people praising, and learning about, Him. Laura's parents made Sunday the worst day of the week and we can share with our kids that this is simply not the way the Lord's Day should be celebrated. CONCLUSION To this point we've read 11 of the 14 available and enjoyed them all (though we did have to have a talk about A Little House Birthday). I'd recommend them as fantastic books for Grades 1 and maybe 2. With girls as the primary characters, boys might not like most of them, but perhaps they'd be interested in the three based on Farmer Boy (I hope so, but I haven't tested these out on any boys). However, if your girls are anything like ours, they'll enjoy them all. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

Wings of Dawn

Wings of Dawn by Sigmund Brouwer Chariot Victor 1999 / 456 pages Why would anyone go through all the trouble of building an immensely strong castle in the middle of the North York moors in England? Why else but to hide a secret organization of intellectuals who are protecting the wisdom of past ages. The plot of this novel is based on the tension between two secret societies. The first group, the Druids, have their roots in early British history. Brouwer proposes that after the Druids were repressed by the Roman Empire they went underground and plotted to regain power. The second secret society grew from the first. According to Brouwer, Merlin was the best and brightest of the Druids and he was slated to bring the Druids back to power, but Brouwer’s legend has it that he was converted to Christianity by a simple priest. As a result of this conversion he is said to have foiled the Druid’s plan and established his own secret society, the Merlins, to counteract the efforts of the Druids by using and conserving the knowledge of the Ancient Civilizations. But now it is 1312 A.D. and after centuries of struggle, Magnus, the castle Merlin had built to carry on his struggle, has fallen under the control of the Druids. The only hope for the Merlins is a teenage boy who either carries the secrets needed to regain the ascendancy or has been turned to the Druid cause. This young man, Thomas, becomes the centre of the conflict between the Merlins and the Druids. Always unsure of who he can trust Thomas conquers and loses Magnus. He is forced to flee from England to Palestine and is chased even there. He returns to England where the conflict even involves the king’s immediate family. Although this is an excellent novel, Brouwer falls short on a few points. First, although Thomas’ uncertainty about who he can trust works well early in the novel it drags on much to much. The same questions are raised again and again about the same people even when they seem to have proven their loyalties earlier in the novel. Additionally the characters that Brouwer develops lack depth. One finds the rough but noble knight, the fair lady, the wise old man, and the evil scheming villain. Even Thomas himself has that youth destined for glory feel, like some medieval Luke Skywalker. Still, despite these failings this is an exciting piece of historical fiction. In a historical sense the accuracy with which Brouwer recreates the time and setting of the novel is excellent. Naturally, certain events are changed to reflect the existence of the Druids and Merlins but the book feels right, historically. Brouwer also provides chapter-by-chapter historical notes that explain how the novel could fit into history. Even the questions about who Thomas can trust, although they are overused, provide an “I can’t put the book down” level of tension for much of the novel. However, the most gripping part of Wings of Dawn is the way that knowledge proves itself the true power. The secret Merlin and Druid societies take so many unexpected twists and turns in their pursuit of knowledge that all the reader can do is hang on and enjoy the ride. As a Christian novel, Wings of Dawn very successfully manages to be solidly Christian in nature without feeling the need to scatter the pages with incessant sins and weaknesses or seemingly superficial conversions. Thomas begins the novel as a somewhat materialistic agnostic and he, as well as the other characters, has his weaknesses but they aren’t frivolously exploited for sensational reasons. He is soon converted to Christianity but his conversion is simple and believable. Really, when the book deals with overtly Christian themes, they are themes that one can identify with. One sees faith carrying Thomas through extreme trials but he experiences realistic doubts and shows realistic weaknesses. In the final analysis Wings of Dawn is an excellent novel. Its sound historical background gives it an authentic feel. It provides an excellent level of tension and uncertainty and the twists and turns it takes keeps the reader guessing throughout. I would strongly recommend Wings of Dawn to anyone interested in an entertaining Christian novel. This novel was originally published under the title Magnus. –  Richard Veldkamp...