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Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop

by Larry V. and Mark Kummer 2014 / 32 pages In some respects, this is Tikki Tikki Tembo in a modern setting with the two brothers being Dutch instead of Chinese. One is named Bob, and the other Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop. The brothers are both bakers, but Bob specializes in plain and delicious, while Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop is more concerned with fancy appearances - his cakes look great, even if they don't taste that way. As in the original, a long name eventually proves hazardous, but there's more to this story. When his long name causes the destruction of his bakery, Larry Bendeco Johannes Von Sloop is blessed with a brother who is more than happy to help him out. While this is an imitation of the original, the author has given it a creative twist that makes it the equal of its inspiration. It's read-out-loud fun and will be a sure hit with the kids....

Book Reviews, Children’s non-fiction

God’s Big Book of Animals

Edited by Shirley Rash 248 pages / 2019 Did you know that baby elephants drink three gallons of milk each day? Or that “woodcock” means “roosters of the forest” And did you know female great white sharks are actually larger than the males? God's Big Book of Animals is GIGANTIC - it's bigger than any other book I've read. It is filled with amazing information about intricate animals – like the great white shark! – all created by God. Each of the 60 animals are given 4, bright, beautiful pages full of descriptions, fun facts and pictures. Plus each animal has their own 14 x 10 inch full-page photo. More examples: “Turtles do not have teeth. They have strong, jagged jaws that help them take bites.” “Komodo dragons are also called monitor lizards.” “Elephants have long trunks, longer then any living animal. Their trunks are heavy, and can weigh over 300 pounds! They move their trunks from side to side, and when they want to rest, they lay it on their tusks. God gave elephants the ability to lift pieces of straw and push heavy pieces of wood.” “A group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a swarm of butterflies, or a rabble of butterflies.” “Baby octopuses can hatch in different colors. They can be orange, red, yellow, or different shades of blue.” I think kids 7 and up would love this! But even kids younger would like the many pictures inside....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

The old house

by Pamela Duncan Edwards 2009 / 32 pages This is a sweet picture book about a self-absorbed house who learns to think about others. Why is the house self-absorbed? Well, "no one had lived in it for a long, long time," so it was quite lonely. And when people passed by, they would often say, "Did you ever see such an unhappy old house?" The house does have friends - birds, a squirrel, wildflowers, and a large oak tree - who do their best to encourage it. But it feels so empty inside that when people do come by to see the house would quickly leave again. "The only thing to do with that dump is to knock it down," a man sneered. But then, one day, a family stopped by. They liked the house. They had never lived in a house before. But just as they were considering whether to buy the old house, it let out "one of its big, sorrowful sighs," and the family quickly left. "I think it might have rot," said the father. Poor house! When the family comes back for a second look, the house takes a long look at the family and saw wishful, uncertain, eager faces. "This family needs me," thought the old house... and it shook off its self-absorbed sorrow and stood tall. But the family left once again. I won't tell you how it ends, but I will note that the house's friends – the oak and the squirrel – were encouraged that finally, the house had stopped feeling sorry for itself. That makes this story with a moral that any kid can understand. Both my older daughters, 3 and 5, really enjoyed it....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Bug Zapper: The Ant Arrives!

by Tom Eaton 2018 / 108 pages Bug Zapper is a superhero that fights a bevy of bug-themed villains like Mean Mosquito, Butterfly Bob, and the Black Ant. His powers are the ability to jump really far – I think he's jumping and not flying – and, like his namesake, a nasty jolt of electricity that stops bug villains in their tracks. This is more of a gentle spoof of the superhero genre than a genuine batman or spiderman-type comic. Yes, villains do get zapped, but no one gets really hurt. Artist and author Tom Eaton makes good use of bright colors and simple lines – the drawings strike me as a little Peanut-esque – to create a comic book that'll draw kids in. It's hard to walk by this without picking it up for a peek. There are two books so far – Bug Zapper and Bug Zapper: The Ant Arrives! – and both my Grade Three daughter and I thought the second was the better of the two with just a bit more action and humor. But the first has the Bug Zapper's origin story, which every Bug Zapper fan will want to know. And the first also has an interesting plotline about bias in reporting. Robert, an elementary student who would love to be the Bug Zapper's sidekick, also writes about him for the school newspaper. Amber, the daughter of one of Bug Zapper's archnemeses, also goes to the school and accuses Robert of being biased for writing such a nice piece about a hero while saying nothing nice about villains. Then the teacher gives Robert an assignment to write his next article about a supervillain! But does being unbiased means saying nice things about both sides? That's what Amber thinks. But Robert knows that good journalism is more about being fair, trying to share the truth as accurately as he can. That's some pretty weighty material for a comic that's otherwise just lighthearted fun! And Tom Eaton pulls it off well. I would think this best for Grades One to Three, but the video version will let you gauge how it matches up with your children. You can find another video and color sheets at bugzappercomics.com. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Finding Narnia: the Story of C. S. Lewis and His Brother

by Caroline McAlister 48 pages / 2019 C.S. Lewis wrote, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” Lewis, known by his family as Jack, and his brother Warnie were best of friends even though they were very different. Trains and ships fascinated Warnie, while imaginary worlds with heroes and knights enthralled Jack. McAlister traces their lives from the schoolroom to adulthood describing their experiences leading to the creation of Narnia, a magical kingdom which has enchanted generations. Paired with beautiful illustrations, we gain insight into their collaborative work. Although one drawing shows Jack in church, McAlister does not dwell on Lewis’s conversion nor connect his Christian faith to the fantasy world he created. However, fairly extensive author’s notes at the end of the book include a paragraph about his conversion.  Lanan also has detailed notes about her illustrations. It is worth reading them and turning back to the drawings to appreciate her care to detail and historical accuracy. This book is recommended for ages 4-8 but, Mr. Lewis, I’m happy to say that our grandchildren and I equally enjoyed this book. I recommend it to any Narnia fan. It would be a great addition to a church, school or home library....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

In Grandma’s Attic         

by Arleta Richardson 144 pages / 1974 When Arleta was a little girl she would visit her grandma, where she’d play up in the attic. There Arleta would find old treasures that she’d bring to her grandma, who would share stories about them, and about when she was young. The first story is about how Mabel (Grandma) and her friend Sarah-Jane got into trouble with hoop skirts. They wanted to wear the wiry hoops to make all their friends jealous of them, but they were not old enough yet. Then Sarah Jane finds out that her cousin, who can wear hoop skirts, has two old ones that she is going to give up.  Sarah-Jane’s mom says that they can wear them for play, but Sarah-Jane thinks it is a good opportunity to make a big entrance at church. And that Mabel can wear one of the hoop skirts too! The one thing that they don’t know is how to sit down with hoops. When they walk down the aisle and sit in the front seat, the hoopskirts spring up, which made their dresses fling up onto their faces! That is super funny! This was embarrassing for the girls but they also learned a lesson, how pride can go before the fall. All of the stories are funny and also teach the reader the lessons that the mischievous girls gained while growing up. This book is great for readers who are comfortable with reading chapter books. And if you like these stories there are three more books in the series....

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

46 children's books to foster the love of reading and learning

We are "People of the Book" so reading should be, and is very important, to us. The goal of all reading is to become readers of the Good Book. It is not enough to teach our children the ability to read; we must also nurture our children to be aware that the content of books should lead us to the author of the Good Book. The following is a treasure trove of books that tries to help with attaining that goal. To make a list of favorite books is a daunting task. No sooner is the list completed and another treasure is found and could be added to the repertoire of great books. I hope you get reacquainted with some of your favorites and that your own list of great books will grow. Almost all of these selections are picture books that preschoolers and children in the early grades will enjoy, but there are several "chapter books" which are intended for children who are in at least Grade One or Two (these exceptions are noted in the reviews that follow). Happy reading with your children! OLDIE GOLDIES Some books are timeless gems. Even though they have been written many years ago, these classics have stood the test of time and continue to appeal to children today. On occasion these classics have been updated - “Disneyfied” - and have lost a lot of their substance, so make sure your read the original version. Make way for the duckling by Robert McCloskey Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are looking for just the right place to raise their brood of duckling in New York City. Caps for sale by Esphyr Slobodkina Some monkeys take on the saying of “Monkey see, monkey do” and get into monkey business with a hat peddler. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel Help is slow to come for a Chinese boy with a long name who falls into a well. Frog and Toad are friends by Arnold Lobel Get every Frog and Toad book in this series and you will not be disappointed. The story of Ping by Marjorie Flack First published back in 1933, this is the story of a funny duck and his misadventures living on the Yangze River. The world of Pooh by A.A. Milne Watch out for the many Disneyfied versions of this story, as only the classic original retains the author's lyrical charm. This is a chapter book, so it might seem to be something intended for grade school children, but even young children are likely to enjoy it. Joseph had a little overcoat by Simms Taback Joseph’s worn coat becomes smaller pieces of clothing until he makes it into a button that he then loses, but that is not the end for, “You can always make something out of nothing.” Stone soup by Marcia Brown When hungry soldiers come to a town of greedy inhabitants, they set out to make a soup of water and stones and the whole town enjoys the feast. The tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter Mrs. Rabbit tells her bunnies not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden, but Peter does not listen and gets into all kinds of mischief. BOOKS TO TICKLE THE FUNNY BONE We have all hear it at one time or another: “I don’t like to read.” One way to hook your reluctant reader is to start with humorous books. No one can walk away from a book that makes them laugh and humorous books will then help build bridges to other types of books. A book that tickles the funny bone will help the child who doesn’t like to read become one who loves to read. More parts by Tedd Arnold A hilarious book where a boy fears that the idioms he hears all around him (like "give me a hand") are to be understood literally. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs by Judi Barrett Imagine a town where meals rain from the sky! Disaster strikes when the town is bombarded with massive-sized portions of food. Knuffle bunny: a cautionary tale by Mo Williams A small girl, not yet able to talk, tries to get her father to understand that her beloved bunny has been left behind at the laundromat. The principal’s new clothes by Stephanie Calmenson This is a respectable twist on the Han Christian Andersen fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hairy Maclary from Donalson’s dairy by Lynley Dodd A rhyming story about a cheeky little dog and his pals who gets into mischief. A FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS Can your child recognize the names: Beethoven, Bach or Brahms? How about Monet or Michelangelo? Even if you are not the artsy type once you read these tales you will have to admit these artists lead colorful lives that make great stories to read. Hallelujah Handel by Douglas Cowling Handel, living in the Charles Dickens era, uses his music to help some of the destitute homeless boys of England. This is 48-page book, so most suitable for children in at least Grade One or Two. Camille and the sunflowers by Laurence Anholt Based on a true story of a boy and the famous painter Vincent van Gogh. Berlioz the bear by Jan Brett A story based on the composer Berlioz and his strange sounding double bass. Linnea in Monet’s garden by Christina Bjork A young girl visits Monet’s garden in Paris. This book contains many pictures of Monet’s paintings, and also quite a bit of text, so it is best read to slightly older children. Katie meets the Impressionists by James Mayhew Katie visits the museum and becomes part of the famous painting of the Impressionists. The Farewell Symphony by Anna Harwell Celenza Here is the story behind Joseph Hayden’s famous Farwell Symphony. This picture book has quite a bit more text than average so it is best suited to grade school children. SNOOZERS It is good to set aside at least one traditional time each day for reading. The best time to read to wiggly children is at night when they are tired and ready to go to bed. The snoozer books in this list deal with the ritual of going to bed and hopefully will help your active child relax and soon drift off to sleep. The napping house by Audrey Wood Grandma takes a nap and her grandchild climb on top of her, and then one thing leads to another, and disaster leads to delight. Goodnight moon by Margret Wise Brown A little rabbit is tucked in bed but he must say goodnight to everything in the room as it grows darker and darker. Llama, llama, red pajama by Anna Dewdney Baby Llama has a hard time sleeping and needs his mama’s assurance that, “She’s always near even if she’s not right there.” The prince won’t go to bed by Dayle Anne Dodds A little prince in a medieval world will not go to bed and nothing will help… except a goodnight kiss. Russell the sheep by Rob Scotton Even sheep count sheep when they can’t sleep. Goodnight, goodnight construction site by Sherri Duskey Even the equipment at the construction site needs to lie down and rest after another day of rough and tough work. Ira sleeps over by Bernard Waber A little boy must decide if he wants to take his teddy bear to a sleepover at his friend’s house. GIRLS WITH SPUNK I like girls with attitude - the right kind of attitude that is. I'm not talking about the kind of attitude that is obsessed with ones' self and with what's popular in the world. No, I mean the sort of attitude that is determined to learn what it means to be an image bearer of God. Here are some of those sort of girls. Fancy Nancy by Jan O’Connor Nancy is a girl who loves everything fancy; even the words that she uses are fancy. The courage of Sarah Nobel by Alice Dagliesh A young girl journeys into the wilderness, in this chapter book, and there overcomes her fears of wolves and savage Indians. Hannah by Gloria Whelan This 64-page chapter book is set in the pioneering days. When the new teacher persuades a family to allow their “poor, blind Hannah” to attend school, the young girl learns how to read and write. The story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles This is the true story of an American six-year-old girl who was the first black to attend an all-white school; it is a story of courage and faith. Ramona by Beverley Cleary There’s never been anyone quite like Ramona, a girl with boundless energy and mischievous antics. My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston Arizona was a girl who loved to sing, dance, read and dream of visiting faraway places, though she never did travel. Instead she became a teacher who influenced many children. The gardener by Sarah Stewart Set in the Depression era, a young girl is sent to live with her crotchety uncle because her family is struggling financially, and she tries to brighten the world around her. BOYS WILL BE BOYS Readers often make connections to what they are reading. Children will identify with and want to be one of the characters in a story, which thus becomes a role model for the reader. Therefore, what your child is reading is also developing who they are becoming as an adult. A good book should have characters that we wish our children to emulate. Here are some such characters. First flight by George Shea Young Tom Tate has volunteered to try out the Wright brothers’ first flying machine. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown Stanley becomes flattened when a bulletin board falls on him and he discovers that there are some things only a flat person can do. The Kingfisher book of great boy stories This 160-page anthology includes passages from such stories as Winnie-the-Pooh, Flat Stanley, The Jungle Book and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is a great way to get a “taste” of children’s classic literature. Zella Zack and Zodiac by Bill Peet A zebra and ostrich help each other survive in this zany tale. ELDERLY HERO AND HEROINES As a doting grandparent I have learned there is a unique bond between the young and the elderly - both understand that the other needs special care and attention, and both are happy to reciprocate. The following books beautifully portray this loving relationship. So grandparents, find a great book, cuddle up with a child, and read. You’ll be surprised what you have in common. When lightning comes in a jar by Patricia Pollacco Grandma’s ritual of catching lightening bugs in a jar will be remembered for generations to come. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox Young Wilfrid loves his friend from the nursing home because she has a long name like him, and he wants to help her find her lost memory. Grandfather and I by Helen Buckely Family life can be very busy. But Grandfather always has time to walk with his grandson and look around “just as long as they like.” The old woman who named things by Cynthia Rylant An old woman who has outlived all her friends is reluctant to become too attached to anything she might outlive. So when a stray dog starts visiting she certainly won't give it a name - she doesn't want to become attached! However, when it goes missing she has a change of heart... Grandpa’s teeth by Rod Clement It’s a disthasther when grandpa’s false teeth go missing. Mr. Putter and Tabby catch the cold by Cynthia Rylant I smile and chuckle every time I read a Mr. Putter and Tabby book. The Wednesday surprise by Eve Bunting A granddaughter teaches her grandmother to read. Now one foot, now the other by Tomi DePaola Grandpa teaches Bobby to walk when he is young, and later in life when grandpa has a stroke Bobby helps his grandfather....

Articles, Book Reviews

100+ read-aloud suggestions…

I’ve been reading out loud to my girls since they were born, and now that they are older we're still reading, ending each day with a chapter or two of something. That means for years now I've also been on the hunt for that next great book to read, talking to others and searching their bookshelves to find out what their favorites are and what they might recommend. If you're looking for that next book too, or maybe the coronavirus quarantine has you thinking about reading to your kids for the first time, here are some favorites that our family and others have sure loved. Many of these can be checked out electronically from your local library. Otherwise, consider buying the e-book version of one of the chapter books – it's an investment that'll pay off in the hours you and your family can enjoy these stories together. While there are 35+ recommendations below, some are of books series, so the total number of books recommended amounts to well over 100, and all of them fantastic! PICTURE BOOKS All of these have big bright pictures on every page, and the first three are rhymed, which makes it a lot easier for a beginning Dad to get off to a good reading-out-loud start; these will make you sound good! A camping spree with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen – it has 2 great sequels. The Farm Team by Linda Bailey – about a hockey-playing barnyard. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel  – a favorite of millions for the last 40 years. Charlie The Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond – while the 10 sequels can't quite match the enormous charm of this, the original, your kids will love them too. Don’t Want to Go by Shirley Hughes – Shirley Hughes has dozens of other wonderful read-aloud picture books. The Little Ships by Louise Borden – this is a stirring WWII account suitable for the very young, about the bravery of ordinary folk. James Herriot’s Treasury for Children – a big book with 8 sweet stories for animal-loving children. Mr. Putter and Tabby series by Cynthia Rylant – an old man and his cat, and his wonderful neighbor and her trouble-making dog - 23 books in all. Piggie and Elephant series by Mo Willems – an Abbot and Costello-like duo of Piggie and Elephant getting into all sorts of antics. 29 books, most of which require from the reader only the ability to do just two different voices. BOOKS WITH PICTURES There are pictures in these selections, but not on every page. These are slightly longer, more involves stories which your children will not be able to read on their own until the later part of Grade 1, or the beginning of Grade 2, but they’ll love to hear them a lot earlier than that. Bruno the Bear by W.G. Van de Hulst – one in a series of 20+ classic books that are impossible to find except here. Winnie the Pooh & The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne – it’s worth getting the big collected treasury to read and reread again and again. The Big Goose and the Little White Duck by Meindert DeJong – a gruff grandpa wants to eat the pet goose! Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling – the gorgeous Jerry Pinkney adaption is the very best. Prince Martin Wins His Sword by Brandon Hale – epic story, in rhyme - this is just so fun to read out loud, and there are 3 sequels! CHAPTER BOOKS Once the kids are hitting kindergarten or Grade 1 mom and dad can read books they might read for themselves only in Grade 5 or 6, or even as adults. That can make reading aloud more fun for parents, as the stories will be of more interest to them now. The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – this is not the easiest read aloud – the sentences can be quite choppy – but girls everywhere are big fans, and there are 8 sequels. I will note, there was more tragedy (the pet dog Jack dying, Mary becoming blind, etc.) than I was expecting. Still, our girls really enjoyed their mom reading the whole series to them, even though there was, on occasion, tears flowing. The Bell Mountain series by Lee Duigon – only downside to this 12-book Christian fantasy series is that each title leads into the next; it’s one big story with no clear ending in any of the books. But we've read all 12 so far and are eagerly anticipating #13! The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson – A laugh out loud hilarious adventure for older children (maybe Grade 3 and up), with 4 main books, and then a book of short stories too. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – much more of a children’s tale than Lord of the Rings and shorter too (maybe also best for Grade 3 and up). The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton - the author is Christian though that doesn't come up directly anywhere; it's just good silly fun. Treasures from Grandma's Attic by Arleta Richardson – a clearly Christian grandma talks with her granddaughter, telling stories about way back when she was a little girl. This wouldn't work for boys, but our girls absolutely love it (and there are 3 sequels every bit as good). Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Arleta Richardson Innocent Heroes by Sigmund Brouwer – Brouwer has collected true stories about the amazing feats different animals managed while working in the trenches of World War I, and then told them as if they all happened in just one Canadian army unit. This is probably my wife's favorite book on this list, and the girls sure liked it too. There were one or two instances where I had to skip a few descriptive words, just to tone down the tension a tad - war stories are not the usual fare for my girls – but with that slight adaptation, this made for great reading even for their 5-9-year-old age group. The Last Archer by S.D. Smith Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien Sir Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis The Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers Brave Ollie Possum by Ethan Nicolle AUDIO PRODUCTIONS Half of the following are multi-voice and with great sound effects, but even the three that are simply being read are spectacularly well done. These are great for long car rides, and would be appreciated by all ages, though I’ve arranged them here by target audience, youngest to oldest. The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince – Lamplighter Theatre Teddy’s Button – Lamplighter Theatre Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims by Rush Limbaugh Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – the LifeHouse Theater production is just 97 minutes, so quite compacted. But it is very well done, and a great first exposure to this classic for young and old alike The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (as done by Focus on the Family theater) Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (and read by Glenn Close) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (as done by Focus on the Family theater) Jon Dykstra, and his siblings, blog on books at www.ReallyGoodReads.com....

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...