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Book Reviews, Teen fiction

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

by Andrew Peterson 284 pages / 2008 My wife hasn't read this book, but she enjoyed it too. As I made my way through I couldn't help but read whole chapters to her, or, if she wasn't nearby, the next time she came by I'd update her about all the wackiest bits. And there are a lot of wacky bits. The "Dark Sea of Darkness" in the title gives a clue right off as to Peterson's goofy sense of humor. The subtitle is even better: "Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the fearsome toothy cows of Skree." While I read the first three chapters to my wife I'll restrain myself here, and pass along only the first few lines of the opening which is titled: "A Brief Introduction to the World of Aerwiar." Peterson wants us to know this takes place on an entirely made-up world so he begins with his own creation story: The old stories tell that when the first person work up on the first morning in the world where this tale takes place, he yawned, stretched, and said to the first thing he saw, "Well, here we are." The man's name was Dwayne, and the first thing he saw was a rock. Next to the rock, though, was a woman named Gladys, who he would learn to get along with very well. In the many ages that followed, that first sentence was taught to children and their children's children and their children's parents' cousins and so on until, quite by accident, all speaking creatures referred to the world around them as Aerwiar That gives a good taste of the fun that is to follow. The heroes of this epic tale are three siblings: Janner and his little brother Tink, and their littler sister Leeli. The villains are the Fangs of Dang, under the direction of the "nameless evil...whose name was Gnag the Nameless." Our story begins nine years after the Fangs sailed across the Dark Sea of Darkness and conquered the lands of Skree, and it is in a little cottage, in this conquered land, that the family Igiby resides: the three children, their mother, and their grandfather. The Fangs are cruel, bureaucratic, and they look exactly like "...humans except for the greenish scales that covered their bodies and the lizard-like snout and the two long venomous fangs that jutted downward from their snarling mouths." Oh, and they have tails. And worst of all, they think the Igbiy's have the lost Jewels of Anniera! Janner, Tink, and Leeli don't know anything about any jewels, but they're curious sorts, and they are eager to find out all they can. So Peterson is writing not just a fantasy, but also a mystery, and certainly a comedy. And he's managed to slip in a really good chase film too. Caution A word of warning might be due as far as the comedy is concerned. Some of it could be described as juvenile: no potty humor, but Janner does, at one point, discover a candle made of "snot wax." Peterson peppers the book with footnotes and for the candle he has this entry: 1. Snot wax is too repulsive a thing about which to write a proper footnote. Then there are the vile Fangs of Dang. Their name gives a good indicator of the line that Peterson draws: it leaves no doubt that they are a vile bunch, but Peterson isn't going to use vile language. And yes, the Fangs like to eat brown lettuce, maggot-loaves, and anything that wriggles, but this humor is all of a sort that will appeal to boys, gross out their sisters, and leave parents largely untroubled. Conclusion But what mom and dad are sure to love is the prominent place that parents have in Peterson's story. In most teen fiction parents are either dead or dumb; the teen hero is either an orphan or wishes he was. Here we have a well-respected mother and a grandpa who is doing what he can to fill in for the sibling's long-dead father. So when Janner makes a big mistake and doesn't know what to do he is smart enough – and he loves and respects his grandpa enough – to know he should go to the old man for help. This might be where the author's Christian faith most comes to the fore. Andrew Peterson is better known as a Christian songwriter, and while this is not a specifically Christian fantasy, the virtues lauded in this book are of the sort found in Philippians 4:8. These three siblings know they can look to their grandpa for guidance, for love, and to see what sacrificial leadership looks like. So I'd recommend this as a very fun and positive book for fathers to read with their boys 10 and up, or in some cases maybe even a couple of years younger if they can handle battles and lizard-like villains. This is a fun one that will have both dad and son laughing, and turning pages quickly. I'm learning too, that while there are some notable distinctions between "girl books" and "boy books" if a dad really loves a book, his daughter is quite likely to love hearing him read it. So this could be a very good dad/daughter book too, maggot-loaf aside, with little Leeli giving daughters someone to cheer on too. This was so good I was thankful to discover there were three more titles in this wild and wacky series, plus a short stories collection! The series has been republished now, with new covers and extra pictures inside, so be sure to get the newer version. It's also being turned into a TV series, and a sneak peek is available below. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

The Bark of the Bog Owl

by Jonathan Rogers 2014 / 248 pages Our hero, Aidan Errolson, is a medium-sized twelve-year-old with dreams that are far bigger. When we join his story he's just putting the finishing touches on a letter: My Dearest King – You will be glad to learn that I am still available for any quest, adventure, or dangerous mission for which you might need a champion or knight-errant. I specialize in dragon-slaying but would be happy to fight pirates or invading barbarians if circumstances require. I would even be willing to rescue a fair maiden imprisoned by evil relatives. That would not be my first choice, since I am not of marrying age. Still, in peaceful and prosperous times like these, an adventurer takes whatever work he can find... For Aidan, it's all that peace and prosperity that's the problem. While his father was a great warrior, and his grandparents carved out a settlement on Cornwald's wild eastern frontier, Aiden's only excitement comes from the imagined foes he fights in defense of the flock he's been tasked to tend. However, things quickly take a turn. First, Aidan hears the bark of the Bog Owl, a creature that has never been seen. Then the Bog Owl turns out to be one of the feechiefolk, who are no less the stuff of campfire stories, akin to impish elves, or fierce boogeyman, and like them both, entirely made-up. But this feechie boy is anything but... and he wants to wrestle. Second, Bayard the Truthspeaker makes an unannounced stop at the Errolson farm to see, so he says, the "Wilderking of Corenwald." And Bayard declares that it is none other than little brother Aidan. That's quite the surprise, and quite awkward too, because Corenwald already has a king, and the Errolson family are his most loyal supporters. Now, if you're a bit quicker than me, this last bit might be ringing some bells, reminding you of Samuel's visit to the house of Jesse (1 Sam. 16). This is where my middlest caught on, but I needed several more chapters. I finally figured it out when Aidan fights a giant. With a sling. And five stones. In my defense, this is only very loosely based on David – Aidan has to deal not only with a giant, but cannons too, and there's no feechie folk in the original either. That it is inspired by, but does not pretend to be, the story of David is part of what makes this so intriguing. While there'll be no confusing the two tales, Rogers' account will have you reflecting on what a tough position David was in, the king not yet crowned, loyal to, and yet chosen to replace, the failed king. Requirements I usually list any possible cautions for the book being reviewed, but there are none for Bark so I'll list one requirement instead: this absolutely needs to be read aloud. The feechie folk dialogue, as it is paced and misspelled, will have you speaking with the most delightful accent, without even trying. Jonathan Rogers makes it easy for a dad to sound good. Conclusion I really can't praise this one enough. I started reading it on my own, and had to stop midway and start again with my girls because this was simply too good not to share. The Bark of the Bog Owl has been compared to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not so much for story similarities, but because both are clearly Christian and utterly fantastic fantasy. Bark of the Bog Owl is a book that, if you do read it to your children, you can be sure that one day your grandkids will hear their own parents reading it to them too. The two sequels – The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking – complete the story. This is really one epic tale split into three parts, so be sure to buy the set. You can preview the first 2 chapters here. And for a second opinion, read Hannah Abrahmason's take at Reformed Reader....

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

Bell Mountain

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

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Hobbit: an illustrated edition of the fantasy classic

by J.R.R. Tolkien  adapted by Charles Dixon illustrated by David Wenzel 1990 / 133 pages There's a hierarchy so unfailingly true it could be carved into stone: the book is always better than the movie, and the movie better than the graphic novel adaptation. But this otherwise unfailing rule does have an exception! I'm not going to start talking all crazy and tell you that this comic is better than the book – that has never been and never will be! – but it is better than the film! It is even better than many a book, paling in comparison only to its original source material. For those unfamiliar with the epic tale, this is the story of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, which is basically a human-like creature though half the size, and with twice the hair on their feet. Hobbits are homebodies so Bilbo isn't exactly sure how he joined a dwarfish expedition to steal back their treasure from an enormous talking dragon. Small and retiring though he might be, Bilbo is big in character, and while he doesn't think himself brave, in meeting up with trolls, goblins, giant spiders, and the even more gigantic dragon, he ends up doing many a brave thing. This is an old fashioned epic tale with good eventually triumphing over evil...but not without paying a price. That's the original, and the 133 pages of this graphic novel adaptation provide the space to capture it all. Illustrator David Wenzel has given this a classic look for this classic tale - there's a reason that in the 30 years since this adaptation first came out, no one has even attempted to improve on it. Its size and depth do mean this isn't for the casual comic fan, but for fantasy fans 14 and up, this will be such a treat!...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews

Dawn of Wonder

by Jonathan Renshaw 2015 / 708 pages This might, at first glance, seem to be your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-dares-girl-to-jump-off-of-a-thousand-foot-high-bridge-into-the-icy-cold-stream-below-and-girl-shows-him-up-by-actually-doing-it, story. And, as many a fantasy tale contains, there are swords, courageous heroes, battles to be fought (and sometimes with large, very toothy creatures), and evil not yet here but lurking ominously. Our hero, Aedan, is not yet thirteen but he has a sharp mind, and he'a had a hard life, which makes him wise beyond those few years. So when an officer comes galloping into the village with warnings of slavers on the way, Aedan is the first to suspect the man might not be the ally he seems. But when no one will listen, his foresight isn't enough to save his not-yet-a-girlfriend-but-already-his-best-friend Kalry. In the adventures that follow Aedan is equal parts determined and desperate, willing to do and try whatever it takes to retrieve, or revenge, his lost companion. The book's size is not so typical – the 700-page first-of-the-series would make for a good doorstop. And not just any story would get my nephew recommending this to all his brothers and sisters, and any friend within earshot too. It is atypical too, in that it accomplished what no other book has managed: it made me look forward to running. I only let myself listen to the fantastic audiobook reading when I was out jogging, and at 30 hours long, it got me out the door roughly 60 times. It is Christian, but not obviously so. The author is content to let the deeper tale – the moral of this story – come out gradually. I should add, I don't know the author is Christian but like the best bits of Narnia, or Lord of the Rings, this book is simply too good, and too true, not to be rooted in the Word. The only downside is that Book 2 still seems to be a good ways out. Fortunately, there is a sense of resolution to Book 1 – it's as satisfactory a cliffhanger as a reader could really hope for. So I'll pass on a most enthused two thumbs up, and express my gratitude to my nephew for being insistent that I should read Dawn of Wonder; I can't recall enjoying a fantasy novel more! To give you an idea of the research the author invested in his novel, the video below is of him investigating whether it is possible – as one of his characters did – to make a decent bow in a single day using just a knife. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Green Ember

by S.D. Smith 365 pages / 2015 “Rabbits with swords” – it’s an irresistible combination, and all I had to say to get my two oldest daughters to beg me to start reading. As you might expect of a sword epic, this has a feudal feel, with rabbit lords and ladies, and noble rabbit knights and, of course, villainous wolves. This is children’s fiction, intended for preteens and early teens, so naturally, the heroes are children too. The story begins with siblings Pickett and Heather being torn from the only home they’ve known, pursued by wolves, and separated from their parents and baby brother. It’s this last detail that might warrant some caution as to how appropriate this would be for the very young. It isn’t clear if mom, dad and baby Jack are dead…but it seems like that might well be, and that could be a bit much for the very young (I’m planning on skipping over that bit when I get to it with my preschool daughters). They escape to a community that is hidden away from the ravaging wolves, and made up of exiled rabbits that once lived in the Great Wood. Their former and peaceful realm fell to the wolves after it was betrayed from within, so now these rabbits in exile look forward to a time when the Great Wood will be restored. Or as one of the wisest of these rabbits puts it, …we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed…. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. Though God is never mentioned, and the rabbits have no religious observance of any kind, author S.D. Smith’s Christian worldview comes through in passages like this, that parallel the way we can recall a perfect past, and look forward to a perfected future. It’s this depth that makes this more than just a rollicking tale of rabbits in peril. There are three full-size sequels – Ember Falls, Ember Rising, and Ember's End – as well as five small books that occur in the same rabbit world, but follow different characters. The Last Archer and its sequels, The First Fowler and The Archer's Cup, could serve as a good intro to the whole Green Ember series, because they stand on their own, and were a little simpler to follow for my own young listeners (ages 5-9). That's out of order, but all the kids would have to know is that the rabbits are preparing for an enemy, and most rabbits are suspicious of the Longtreader family, because one of them had been a traitor...though the rest never were. With that backstory, kids can start with this smaller, action-packed volume. The other two, The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner, and The Black Star of Kingston, should be read after reading Green Ember. For those of us with voracious readers, it is quite the blessing to find a fantastic and enormous – more than 2,000 pages in all! – series like Green Ember. ...

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 involved, stories that 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 13-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 13 so far and are eagerly anticipating #14! 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....

Animated, Movie Reviews

The Lord of the Rings animated "trilogy"

Peter Jackson wasn't the first to put J.R.R. Tolkien's books on film. Two decades before the first of Jackson's live-action/CGI films hit theaters, three animated versions were crafted in the space of three years, and by two different animators. The first two are well worth checking out. The third is not. THE HOBBIT Animated 77 minutes / 1977 Rating: 7/10 The Hobbit was the first Tolkien book to be filmed, in 1977. Director Authur Rankin chose a particularly cartoonish style of drawing that made it clear from the start that this was intended as a children's film. But his work had some humor to it – just as the source material does – which makes it pleasant enough viewing for adults too. Our hero Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit, creatures that look much like humans, though they are half as tall and have far hairier feet. Normally Hobbits like nothing better than to stay close to home, but when the wizard Gandalf brings 12 treasure-seeking Dwarves to his doorstep Bilbo signs up for the adventure. And with the help of a magic "ring of power" Bilbo finds, he helps his new friends fight Orcs, Elves, and even a dragon. At 77 minutes long, readers of the book may be disappointed as to just how much the film condenses the story. However, as children’s films go it is quite a nice one, and a good introduction to Middle Earth. There are some fairly frightening bits, including attacks from trolls and goblins, and giant spiders and a "Gollum" that want to eat our heroes. But the animators have softened some of the villiany – ex. the spiders have fuzzy bunny ears, and the goblins look vaguely cat-like – to tamp down quite a bit on the scariness. That meant my 8-year-old, not a fan of anything remotely tense, was able to endure these bits of action and really enjoy the overall film. So, while this isn't suitable for the very young, school-age kids will generally be able to handle it (though, as always, parents will want to preview this to see how suitable it is for their children). This is a children's film, which is in keeping with the intended audience of the original book. For them, the elementary school crowd, this might even rate an 8 (one of my girls even gave it a 9) but I've rated it a lower because it doesn't work as simply a children's film. This isn't one you can pop in the DVD drive and get back to the loading the dishwasher - the scary moments mean that mom and dad will have to come along for the ride. And for them, this is only going to be okay. THE LORD OF THE RINGS Animated 133 minutes / 1978 Rating: 7/10 A year after The Hobbit was released, another animator, Ralph Bakshi, decided to try his hand at The Lord of the Rings.  The story begins with an aging Biblo Baggins passing on his magic ring to his nephew Frodo. Shortly after the wizard Gandalf shows up to warn Frodo of the ring's danger. It turns out this ring is so powerful that whoever holds it could use it to rule the world. This is why the evil Sauron wants it, and why the good Gandalf knows that it must be destroyed – this all-encompassing power is too much of a temptation for even the best of men to contend against. It is up to Frodo, who as a little Hobbit is far less tempted by the pull of power, to take the ring deep into the enemy's lands to destroy it in the lava of the mountain where it was first forged. And on the journey he has the company of hobbits, men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard to help him. Animator Ralph Bakshi used a style of animation that involved filming scenes with real actors and then tracing over each frame of film to create a line-drawing picture of it. This "rotoscoping" allowed Bakshi to incorporate the endless possibilities of animation with the realism of live-action. The realism also meant that this is a scarier film than The Hobbit. The lurching Ringwraiths (see the picture) are freaky, and some of the combat scenes, especially at the very end, are quite bloody. Though this is animated, it is not for children. There is one major flaw with the film: it is only half of the story! The director planned it as the first part of a two-film treatment, but the second film was never made, so things wrap up abruptly. While it lacks a proper ending, the story it does tell is intriguing. THE RETURN OF THE KING Animated 97 minutes / 1979 Rating: 4/10 This is sometimes treated as a sequel to Ralph Bakshi's film, but it isn't. Arthur Rankin directed, and he returned to the cartoonish animation style of The Hobbit. And while the events in this story do, loosely, follow after the events of the Bakshi film, Rankin seems to have been envisioning this as a sequel to The Hobbit, so he begins with an overview of everything that took place between it and The Return of the King. Or, in other words, it begins with a quick summary of two 500-page books – as you might expect this overview doesn't do justice to the contents of these enormous tomes, and the continuity of the story is completely lost. If a viewer isn't already familiar with the books he'll have no idea what's going on. Things don't get any better once the overview is complete - there is no flow to the story. Huge plot elements are skipped over, and random snips of scenes are stitched to other scenes with stilted narration and cheesy ballads. In addition, Frodo Baggins twice calls on God to help him. Some might argue this could be an appropriate use of God's name, but in the context of a fantasy world in which God is never otherwise mentioned, this seems a misuse. In short, The Return of the King is a dreadful film that is not worth anyone's time....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

Brave Ollie Possum

by Ethan Nicolle 373 pages / 2019 If you were ever a scaredy-cat, or if you might have one in your family, this could be a fun story to read together... though you might have to do so during the daytime, with all the lights on. It's about nine-year-old Ollie Mackerelli, who is so afraid of things that go bump in the night that he's taken up permanent residence in his parents' bed. This is about how he learned to be brave. But his transformation doesn't happen quickly. Things start off with cowardly Ollie running to his parents' bedroom yet again to crawl under the sheets with them. That's a safe place to be, but it does come with a cost: three people in a double bed leave his dad with bags under his eyes and a scowl on his face. He wants to know when Ollie is going to grow up and stop being afraid of imaginary monsters. Then, mysteriously. Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle, a very strange, very large lady shows up at the Mackerellis' door. She offers to take their son to a "special go-away fun place where children like Ollie can be taken and all his fears will be gobbled up." Who is this lady? Her card says she specializes in "professional anti-scary therapy and comfortology." Desperate, the sleep-deprived parents hand off their son to the expert, hoping she'll be able to help. But here's the twist: Mizz Fuzzlebuzzle isn't actually an expert in anti-scary therapy. She's actually an ogre. And all those bumps in the night? It's her pet monster making them. Ollie was right all along! But being right won't get him out of the clutches of this ogre. And to make matters worse, she wants to eat him. It turns out scared children are an ogre delicacy. But despite being scared, Ollie gathers enough courage to spray the ogre with one of her own magic potions. Sadly, ogres aren't susceptible to magic potions. People are, though, so when the ogre spits the potion right back at him, Ollie is transformed into a creature that passes out in the face of danger: Ollie becomes a possum. The rest of this rollicking tale is about Ollie, with the help of some animal friends, learning what true courage is: that it's not about being unafraid, but about facing our fears and going on anyway. The author of Brave Ollie Possum is one of the folks behind the Christian satire site Babylonbee.com so the book is every bit as funny as you might expect. Another highlight is the artwork. This is a full-size novel, but it could almost be called a picture book, with fantastic, fun illustrations every three pages or so. CAUTION The only caution I'll note is that this book about being brave is, at times, scary. I think it might be the book I am most looking forward to reading to my children, but there is no way I could read this as their bed-time story, or even in the middle of the day. I'm going to have to wait a bit, probably until they are all at least nine. CONCLUSION But for kids over ten and over, particularly boys, this will be so much fun. And for certain 9-year-old kids who are scared of what goes bump in the night, this could be a good day-time read with mom and dad to help a little one learn what being brave is all about. ...

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Winter King

by Christine Cohen 351 pages / 2019 15-year-old Cora lives in a time of horses, and swords, and meat pies. It's also a time of poverty, and bitter winters, and threadbare clothing, and not enough food to make it through to Spring. To make things even worse, ever since Cora’s father was killed, the village has treated her and her family as if they are cursed, and as if that curse is contagious. But no matter, Cora is resourceful, and she’ll do just about anything to ensure her family lives through the winter. But how does a young girl stand up, by her lonesome, to the village god, the tyrannical Winter King, who is taking their food? I didn’t know quite what to think of this book in the early stages. While the village other villagers were religious, Cora was not. And she was the hero. So how was this a Christian book, then, if the god in the story seemed to be the bad guy? Well, as one reviewer noted, this is a very Protestant book in that Cora rejects a false religion in favor of the true one. She rejects the false representation of the Winter King that the village’s religious authorities maintain. But then she uncovers a book that tells a very different story about this King, presenting instead, a God who loves. CAUTIONS Cora is bitter and sometimes manipulative, and so driven to keep her family fed that she does stuff that she should not. There's good reason for her desperation – death is reaching for her whole family – but that it is understandable makes it tricky ground for the younger reader to tread. This is not a heroine in a white hat, and for the pre-teen, or even younger teen reader, used to simpler morality tales, they might not have the discernment skills yet to be able to cheer on a hero whose actions are not always praiseworthy. I feel like I'm making Cora sound darker than she is. There is surely darkness in her – but there is also a darkness around her that she is fighting, futilely at first. And then hope comes. CONCLUSION From the cover to even the way the pages are laid out, this is a gorgeous book, with a deep and satisfying story. I'd recommend it for 15 and up, but I know adults will find this has real depth to it that they'll enjoy exploring. ...

Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The City of Ember

12-year-old Doon wants to save his city but he’s got quite the problem because he has no idea how to do it. The even bigger problem? Unbeknownst to him, his city is under a mountain. More than 200 years ago, when humanity was facing some type of impending doom, a decision was made to hide away a remnant deep underground for 200 years in a specially prepared city, the City of Ember. But when 200 years have passed no one alive remembers there is another world out there – the only light that Doon and the other Emberites know is provided by light bulbs powered by their mighty generator. But there’s another problem: that generator is starting to break down. The biggest problem of all? No one will admit what’s happening. To the rescue comes Doon’s friend Lina, who uncovers some long-lost and only partially intact instructions from the city’s original Builders. The two friends need to pierce the instructions back together if they are going to save their families before all of Ember’s lights go dark. Caution The only caution concerns religion. The Builders – those who first created the city – are revered in a vaguely spiritual way by a small number of citizens, but they are only mentioned in passing. More noticeable is how God isn't ever mentioned, even as the Emberites worry about their world coming to an end. Conclusion A post-apocalyptic tale is not your typical pre-teen/teen fare, but this is more an intriguing-mystery than it is a tense-drama. I think anyone over 10 would enjoy it, and that includes their parents. I know I sure enjoyed it! There are two very good sequels (though the original is still the best) called, The People of Sparks, and, The Diamond of Darkhold. There is also a fourth book, a prequel set more than 200 years before Doon and Lina are born, and while I haven't yet read it, from most accounts, it is not very good....

Adult fiction, Book Reviews, Teen fiction

The Seraph’s Path

by Neil Dykstra 2019 / 475 pages Maybe I should have gotten someone else to review this, what with me sharing the same last name as the author. But this is a fantasy title, so I had to take a peek. And once I got started I wasn’t going to hand it off. Besides, the two of us aren’t actually related. I know Neil, but only well enough to recall he is the superior volleyball player, and nowhere near well enough to have had an inkling he could serve up something like this. It’s remarkable! The Seraph’s Path has quite the cast of characters, but it is mostly the story of Dyrk, a young horse trainer who wants to make something of himself, in part, because his parents don’t seem to think about him much at all. Our story begins with Dyrk determined to enter a competition his father won’t even let him watch. Somehow he finagles his way in, and reaches the final round, a free-for-all among 16 mounted soldiers-in-training, with the last man standing guaranteed entry into the King’s own College. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that for every good thing that happens to Dyrk something bad soon follows…and vice versa. The wonder of fantasy fiction is that anything can happen. Young children can open a wardrobe and get transported to a world of talking beasts. Or little fellows with hairy feet can be trusted with a mission that the most powerful could never accomplish. Or a horse trainer can suddenly find himself delivering the mail mounted on a flying tarn. The problem with fantasy fiction is just the same: anything can happen. That means if the author doesn’t have a tight hold on the reins the story can run amuck, and quickly lose all connection with the real world. If you haven’t read much fantasy, you might think a world of dragons, gryphons, and flaming swords couldn’t possibly ring true. But the author has pulled it off. In The Seraph’s Path, Dyrk doesn’t understand the opposite sex, and he’s prone to dig himself deeper via ongoing procrastination, and then he can’t figure out how best to ask for forgiveness. There’s something very real about this made-up world. I was also impressed with how patient the author is and I’ll give one example. In this world, the god Arren is served by seven Seraphs. Dyrk sends his prayers via those angelic servants because he thinks Arren is too holy to approach directly. If that strikes you as Roman Catholic-esque, I’d agree. But isn’t Dyrk our hero? So how can he, via his repeated prayers, be teaching us something so very wrong? Well, a few hundred pages in Dyrk has his first encounter with people who talk to Arren directly. And he doesn’t know what to think about that.  By the end of this book, the issue is still unresolved, but our hero has been given something to think about. Caution I can only think of one caution worth noting. At one point a key character faces sexual temptation, and while the passage is not lurid – there’s nothing here that would make grandma blush – it is sad and realistic enough that pre-teen readers might find it distressing. Conclusion Dykstra has engaged in some downright Tolkien-esque world-building, with not only exotic creatures and nations to discover, but layer upon layer of legend and history shaping the events. If you never made it through The Hobbit, or you haven’t read a fantasy book with a glossary in the back to help you keep track of the characters, then this might be too intense a read for you. But if you want a whole new world to explore, and a story that’ll not only entertain but really get you thinking, you’re going to love The Seraph’s Path. I finished this nearly 500-page tome in 3 days, and the only downside to it was the cliff-hanger ending. So I was very happy to discover that the 700-page sequel, The Seraph’s Calling has just been released. I look forward to finding out what happens next! You can buy both books at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca....

Articles, Book Reviews

After Lewis and Tolkien

A conversation about Christian Fantasy with Bell Mountain author Lee Duigon It’s hard to believe but C.S. Lewis has been gone from this earth long enough for his works to have entered into the public domain – in Canada that happens 50 years after the author’s death. His good friend J.R.R. Tolkien outlived him by a decade, but has been gone now for four. How is it, then, that their fantasy fiction remains as popular as it ever has been? The answer, in part, is because the secular fantasy fiction doesn’t understand the way the world really is. That’s the secret to great fantasy writing – it has to be anchored in reality for it to have an impact. Yes, there can be wizards and elves and all sorts of unreal creatures, but at its core a fantasy novel has to say something truly true. So, while Tolkien was far more subtle than Lewis about the inclusion of his Judeo-Christian worldview, it was this worldview that allowed him to see and share truths about the pull of temptation, the strength of humility, and the nature of love. Lewis’s series is intriguing for children, but it is his Christian understanding of man’s failings and God’s grace that give the books enough depth for adults to read again and again. However, if it was these two men’s Christian worldview that elevated their fiction, then why, in the decades since their deaths, haven’t we seen other Christian writers joining them at the top of the fantasy genre? Why, in fact, is most of the fantasy you’ll find in a Christian bookstore simply dreadful? These are good questions, and Lee Duigon is the right man to ask. He’s not only blogged about how to improve the state of Christian fantasy (see www.LeeDuigon.com), he set out to do something about it himself. Since 2010 he’s published eleven books in his Bell Mountain fantasy series about a boy and a girl and an assassin and a wise clever squirrel-like creature who all set out on a quest. A review will be coming, so it will suffice here to say, these are a better brand of Christian fantasy fiction then we’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Duigon graciously agreed to an interview and what follows is an edited version. Magic, wizards, elves, and dragons are core elements of most fantasy. But your Bell Mountain series doesn’t have any of them. Why not? For one thing, wizards, elves, and dragons have all become clichés. Fantasy is supposed to ignite your imagination, but clichés have the opposite effect. Wizards, elves, and dragons have been so overdone it’s like, “Oh, well, ho-hum, there’s some elves.” They’re so common in the literature, they might as well be checkout clerks at your local supermarket. In my books I have replaced these with figures which I hope readers will find refreshingly unusual. Instead of elves, I have little, hairy, manlike creatures – like Wytt – who fulfill the literary function of being “other than human,” but are intelligent and able to interact with humans. Instead of dragons, I have creatures patterned after little-known prehistoric animals. And instead of wizards, I offer some dangerous and nasty human beings who play at being wizards and create the illusion of having magical powers. As for magic, well, the reason I don’t use it is because it seems a lazy writing device. Things in a story that get done by “magic” might also be accomplished by hard work, ingenuity, faith, hope, or love, and wouldn’t that be far more interesting? We are God’s creation, living in the world He created and subject to His laws of nature, whether we like it or not. Genuine “magic” – as opposed to technology or trickery that only looks like magic – would circumvent or overturn those laws, thus making the magician himself a kind of god. So on the one hand, the writer who resorts to magic is lazy, using it as a shortcut to getting things done. On the other, he is imagining something which is not allowed. God has not permitted us to do real magic. It would disorder His Creation – and surely we already make enough mischief without any magic whatsoever. So would you still classify your books as fantasy, and if so, how would you define fantasy as a genre? I say my stories are fantasy because they describe an imaginary world, different from ours but still subject to God’s laws. The whole point of fantasy is to fire up the reader’s imagination: to gain access to regions of the heart and mind not easily reached by other kinds of fiction. An excellent example of this is the classic fantasy movie, The Princess Bride. There’s nothing in that story that violates God’s laws of nature. But it’s certainly full of unusual people, places, and things. To that formula I have added the presupposition that God reigns in my imaginary world just as He reigns in our own. And following the trail blazed by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, I have the characters in my fantasy world interacting with God’s will and coming to know Him better – although their interaction with God is more like it is in our own world than in Narnia. God speaks to them through scripture, prophecy, and promptings of the spirit – with the occasional use of a spiritual messenger. For this my inspiration and model is not fiction, but the Bible. Why do so many readers crave fantasy? For the same reason we crave science fiction, romance, westerns or what have you. For escape, of course. Now the whole idea of escape is to go to a better place, from a worse. People don’t tunnel into prison camps. So the fantasy reader has always the desire to seek a better world, an imaginary world, and escape into it, if only for as long as it takes to read the book. How are we able to imagine a world that seems better to us than the one we live in? If you imagine yourself in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance, you have monsters and dragons to deal with, not to mention a terrible Dark Lord. But you don’t have politicians’ lies to listen to, enormous taxes sucked out of your paycheck, race hustlers, militant sodomy, squawking idiot liberal churchmen, or natural beauty spots torn down to make way for “smart growth.” You don’t have any of that. So you escape to Middle-Earth for a few hours and are all the better for it. How is it, asks Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis‘ The Silver Chair, that a few children playing a game can imagine a play-world that licks the supposed “real” world hollow? Because the God who made us built into us an unfailing desire for something better. Our worldly leaders promise us a better world, but can’t deliver. Our Science with one hand gives us air conditioning and YouTube, but with the other gives us nerve gas and Darwinism. Our worldly philosophers give us what can only be described as dreck. God gives us salvation and a promise to regenerate His whole creation, but many of us don’t seem very interested in that. Tolkien said that Christianity is the one myth that is true. We should be hearing that from our theologians and our pastors, but in all too many cases, we don’t. Never mind. We’ve got the Bible, and it tells us the truth. That’s where the thirsting fantasy writer found the water of life – because that’s where it is. What reasons are there for Christians, and particularly parents, to be wary of secular fiction? What are its most common faults? Its biggest fault is that most of it seems to be written with the presupposition that there is no God. It also omits any mention of description of the religious dimension of human life. If a space alien were to try to learn about life on earth by sampling our fiction, he’d never know there was any such thing as a religious impulse. And that’s not a realistic description of human life, unless you want to count what goes on in faculty lounges. On your blog (LeeDuigon.com) you point to C.S. Lewis as an example of Christian fantasy done right. What does he get right? In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis makes it clear that the source and creation of all life is Jesus Christ, symbolized by the Great Lion, Aslan. And Aslan tells the children who come into Narnia from our world that they were there because He has called them; and that they will know Him in their own world, too – only “by another name.” It takes a very dense reader not to know that this other name is Jesus. This is what Lewis gets right. In all seven Narnia books, the theme is getting to know Christ. For the most part, this is accomplished through obedience and love. This is a very big thing to get right. Though you praise Lewis, you’ve also written that you respect parents who have a problem with the way Lewis uses magic in some sections of his books. Could you explain? As a former atheist groping his way to a better knowledge of Christ, Lewis did makes some mistakes along the way. I cringe when one of his characters says, “It’s all in Plato.” Anyone who comes to Christ through Plato has performed a very neat trick. The real magic in Narnia, the “Deep Magic,” belongs to Aslan/Jesus. In that sense it isn’t magic at all, but rather the underlying law of all reality. But then there’s the White Witch, whose magic imposes winter on all Narnia for many decades. She is not human, and her “magic” can do nothing but destroy. She cannot create. There’s also “minor magic” done by some of the characters in Narnia, and magic attempted by lawless human beings like Uncle Andrew – “magic” that never turns out as desired. I can’t say why Lewis allowed this. His friend, Tolkien, warned him not to. Tolkien saw it as a flaw, and I agree. The only Biblical basis for it is Pharaoh’s magicians’ ability to imitate the first few miracles that God performed against Egypt through Moses and Aaron. The witch of Endor did succeed in raising the ghost of Samuel, but I always feel she was surprised it actually worked. But all the rest of the “magic” in the Bible is revealed as fraud; and that’s how I handle it in my own books. By allowing a certain amount of magic in Narnia, Lewis deviated from the Biblical model. In deference to his evident love and reverence for Christ, I overlook it as a human failing. But those readers who are uneasy with it – and I’ve heard from quite a few of them – have nothing to apologize for. I wanted to ask you about the role of magic in Christian and secular fantasy. I’ve just been reading a series by Christian author Andrew Peterson, his Wingfeather Saga, and he uses a conversation between mother and son to lay out his own thoughts on magic. After the son has a vision, his mother tells him: If you asked a kitten, "how does a bumblebee fly?" the answer would probably be "Magic!"  is full of wonders and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker - it isn't something that Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn't seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. What do you think of Peterson’s take on magic here? And what principles do you think Christian authors should follow in using magic? I like what Peterson writes here. It’s an elegant way of saying that just because we perceive a thing as “magical” doesn’t mean it really is. We are a long way from understanding everything about how God’s creation works. The kitten sees the bumblebee’s flight as “magic.” And if you brought a flashlight into the world of King Arthur, his people would think it was a magical item. In my books I don’t use magic at all. My fantasy world contains a few pieces of technology left over from an ancient period of history. Readers will understand that these are not magical items, but the characters in the stories won’t. The few individuals who get a chance to use these items think they’re making magic. If a Christian writer simply must use “magic,” he would do well to remember that all power comes from God. It would be a challenge to square that with a story in which a teenage girl uses a magic spell to lasso her dreamboy (ugh – there’s so much of that in YA fiction). As a matter of realism, I would always allow the appearance, or the illusion, of magic. We still have plenty of that in our own world today. I would allow fantastic creatures, as long as they don’t violate the laws of nature – as would, for example, a flying hippopotamus. But to a person living in another world – a world, say, where unicorns exist – a kangaroo or a chameleon or an octopus might seem an utterly fantastic creature which he might refuse to believe in. If a fantasy can’t stir up a sense of wonder, it isn’t much of a fantasy. As Ray Harryhausen used to say, no one goes to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes. But “magic” has been so overused in fantasy, it’s really more of a challenge to the writer’s imagination to get things done without magic. Why is so much Christian fantasy fiction so bad? It seems to be a rule of the market that when demand for a certain kind of story is high, but the supply is low, publishers fill the gap by publishing bad books. Fantasy, especially among young readers, is very popular. And there’s a demand for stories that don’t insult the Christian reader’s sensibilities. Simply, there isn’t enough high-quality fantasy being written to meet the demand. That’s because it isn’t so easy to write as a lot of people think it is. Some Christian writers seem to think that the rules of literature shouldn’t apply to them because they’re writing about the Kingdom of God. So they feel perfectly free to traffic in corny dialogue, one-dimensional characters, ridiculous coincidences, and clumsy language. But all you wind up with, that way, is a bad book. But while a lot of Christian fantasy is bad, a lot of secular fantasy is bad, too. I’ve read fantasies so awful, they could dry up ponds. I’ve read Christian fantasies in which the writer excelled at handling his theme, only to have his book go belly-up because he can’t write dialogue. Few authors have a gift for fantasy, but that doesn’t stop everyone and his brother from thinking they can write it. What are some of the most common mistakes made in Christian fantasy writing? Here’s a couple: 1) Write it as if it were a perfectly ordinary fantasy story, like everybody else’s, only plug in a few scenes of characters praying or going to church. Like Christian rap and Christian rock and Christians vs. Zombies video games, Christian fantasy is too often a not-very-good imitation of a secular pop culture product with some outward trappings added. I read a “Christian thriller” recently in which the good guys, every now and then, as if it had just popped into their heads for a moment, would pray or casually make some trifling Bible reference like, “Yeah, we gotta hang tough, like David.” Period. My rule of thumb is, if the story can get on without the “religion” you’ve put in it, then that’s not a critical element and you haven’t written a Christian fantasy. And that’s usually because the writer has mistaken the outward appearance of Christianity for the real thing. It’s easy to throw in a few sentences that show your characters praying or going to church. The mistake in “Christian fiction” is to settle for that. 2) Have God give the good guys better magic than the bad guys have. Remember what happened to Moses when he snapped at the children of Israel, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” God did all the miracles, but here was Moses taking credit for one of them. I just read a book featuring a great big magical duel, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. “May the mightiest magician win!” is hardly a sentiment found anywhere in the Bible. What we do find in the Bible is God using weak and inconsequential things to confound the great and powerful. So Balaam is rebuked by his donkey, David slays Goliath, and the whole world is conquered not by armies, but by a baby in a manger. Any attempt to write Christian fantasy must be anchored in the truths of the Bible, be they applied to this world or to an imaginary world, and must focus on the spirit of Christianity rather than any outward show of it – unless, of course, you’re writing about the vanity of outward show. In a Christian fantasy, the story must grow out of the writer’s quest to know God better and to share Him with the readers – and all without being heavy-handed, obvious, or preachy. Over that last several years there has been a dystopian trend in the Young Adult bestsellers with books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner. Many of these same books have teens killing teens. Why are Young Adult books so grim these days? YA books are dark and unwholesome because they’re written by adults with troubled souls and a superficial understanding of life. Maze Runner, for instance, is idle, pointless cruelty, obviously not written by a teenager. It’s a common fallacy among the pseudo-intelligent that whatever is ugly, painful, destructive or mean must be “realistic.” On the other hand, Divergent is written by a professing Christian who seems to be warning us not to let our world deteriorate into the grim and nasty world of her stories. Every day, we’re all bombarded by bad news, always stuff we can’t do anything about. Enough of this will make anybody downhearted – which is just another good reason for writers and readers alike to steep themselves in the Bible. Why should Christians read fantasy…and write it? How can fantasy be “truer” than some other genres of fiction? Fantasy is like poetry. A good fantasy gets under your skin. It says more than it appears to say. If you’re writing Christian fantasy, what you’re doing is going into the parable business. You’re writing extended parables. And although Christ’s short parables were fiction, He used them to tell truths. This is what our long parables should do. Christians should write fantasy because there’s such a high demand for it, especially among the younger readers. If Christians don’t write it, non-Christians and anti-Christians will. Do we really want to concede such a big chunk of our popular culture to the godless? Christians should remember how energetically, a few years ago, the ungodly pushed – to teens and pre-teens – Philip Pullman’s aggressive atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. We ought to be competing with junk like that and trying to crowd it off the shelves. I won’t say Christians “should” read fantasy. It’s a matter of personal taste. But if the fantasy writer’s art is up to the challenge, and the reader is open to it, a visit to an imaginary world can sometimes shock the reader out of his habit of taking reality for granted: and by showing him strange new things, we may move him to see the old familiar things from a new perspective. In my books I force my characters to live in contact with God and His will. He’s shaking their world, and won’t allow them to take Him for granted anymore. Let the reader wonder, “Wow! What must that be like?” If I’ve gotten the reader to think along such lines, I think I’ve done a good job. This article was first published online on May 4, 2017....

Articles, Teen fiction

5 fun preteen/teen fiction titles

Today's library is very different from the one we all grew up with, and nowhere is that difference more noticeable than in the teen section. Even in my small, 99 percent Christian, town the teen section is filled with books that would have made my grandma blush - fiction and non-fiction in which teen sex, homosexuality, transgenderism, or atheism play a prominent part. And I've lost count of all the novels featuring vampires, werewolves and witches. Some of this is dangerous, and some of it just dumb. But in either case, there are better novels out there. Here are five suggestions that are not just safe, but super – these are really good reads! The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson 2013 / 304 pages This is Cinderella reimagined, with all the famous bits altered but included: it has the carriage (but it was never a pumpkin), the slipper (but not made of glass), the ball, (but now it's more of a jousting tournament), and the fairy godmother role (though she not a fairy or a godmother). Author Melanie Dickerson gives new life to the story by taking the magic out of it, bringing in an additional villain, and making the key characters sincere Christians. My only reservation would be one I have for all romance literature: they celebrate just the one stage of love – the beginning – to the exclusion of all that comes afterwards. But “afterwards” is very important, so if a teen girl ingests too many books about ball-attending, sword-fighting, head-turning Prince Charmings, they may well overlook that fellow right in front of them – the Bible-believing, hardworking, diaper-changing ordinary Joe. So while the occasional romance novel isn't a problem, these aren’t the sort of books that should be ingested one after another. Dickerson does a good job of keeping us wondering what new twists and turns she is going to add to this familiar tale. It is definitely aimed at teen girls with a little too much angst for anyone over 18. But adults could enjoy this as a nice light read too. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton 340 pages / 2011 Mount Majestic is a fun romp, with all sorts of inventive ingredients: • Piles of poison-tongued jumping turtles • A castle built on top of a mountain that rises and falls once each day. • A tyrant twelve-year-old pepper-hoarding king • A terrible, life-changing, island-threatening 1,000 year old secret Books with good girl heroes are hard to find. Most often the heroine is decidedly boyish (or at the very least tomboy-ish): armor-wearing, sword-swinging, that sort of thing. But Persimmony Smudge is a different sort. She dreams of battles, yes, but when it comes down to it, it’s her brain and her bravery, and not her battle skills, that save the day. While I suspect the author is Christian there is no mention made of God. The only “supernatural” elements are a prophetic Lyre-That-Never-Lies, and clay pots that give the recipient what they need (and not what they might want). When the question is asked about who it is that puts the gifts in the pots, and puts “words of truth into the strings of a Lyre” the only answer we get is, “I have no idea.” So Mount Majestic is simply a fun read, without any spiritual depth – that dimension is left unexplored. Highly recommended, for girls in Grade 3 through early teens. When Lighting Struck! The Story of Martin Luther by Danika Cooley 231 pages / 2015 This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg and I can't think of a more enjoyable way to learn about the man than grabbing a copy of When Lighting Struck! The target audience is teens, but like any fantastic book, adults are sure to enjoy it too. This is fiction which means means parts of this are made up, including lots of the day-to-day dialogue, but the key events are all true. It didn't take much to make Luther's life exciting: as doubt-filled as he was early on, the Reformer was even more bombastic after he understood that forgiveness is a gift given, not earned. This is a man who: • was condemned by the pope as a heretic • had 200 knights pledge to protect him • didn't want to marry lest he quickly leave his wife a widow • was kidnapped • masqueraded as a knight • helped formulate the German language • cared for Plague victims • ended up marrying a nun And it would be easy to go on and on. Put the story of such a man into the hands of a talented writer and what you're left with is a book anyone will just tear through. War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond 273 pages / 2016 "Second Lieutenant C.S. Lewis in the trenches of WWI" – if that doesn't grab you, I don't know what will. War in the Wasteland is a novel about teenage Lewis's time on the front lines of the First World War. At this point in his life, at just 19, Lewis is an atheist, and his hellish surroundings seem to confirm for him that there is no God. When men are hunkered down in their trenches waiting through another enemy artillery barrage, there is a motivation to talk about life's most important matters. Lewis’s fellow junior officer is a good debater, and won't let Lewis's atheistic thinking go unchallenged. Their dialogue is imagined – this is a fictionalized account – but the author pulls the points and counterpoints of their back and forth argument straight out of the books Lewis wrote after he turned from atheism and became one of the best known Christian apologists on the planet. War in the Wasteland comes to a solid and satisfying conclusion, which is a neat trick, consider that Lewis's story of conversion is, at this point, very much incomplete. This would be great for older teens and adults who have an interest in history, World War I, apologetics, or C.S. Lewis. Bond has crafted something remarkable here. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith 365 pages / 2015 “Rabbits with swords” – it’s an irresistible combination, and all I had to say to get my two oldest daughters to beg me to start reading. As you might expect of a sword epic, this has a feudal feel, with rabbit lords and ladies, and noble rabbit knights and, of course, villainous wolves. This is children’s fiction, intended for preteens and early teens, so naturally the heroes are children too. The story begins with siblings Pickett and Heather being torn from the only home they’ve known, pursued by wolves, and separated from their parents and baby brother. It’s this last detail that might warrant some caution as to how appropriate this would be for the very young. It isn’t clear if mom, dad and baby Jack are dead…but it seems like that might well be, and that could be a bit much for the very young (I’m planning on skipping over that bit when I get to it with my preschool daughters). They escape to a community that is hidden away from the ravaging wolves, and made up of exiled rabbits that once lived in the Great Wood. Their former and peaceful realm fell to the wolves after it was betrayed from within, so now these rabbits in exile look forward to a time when the Great Wood will be restored. Or as one of the wisest of these rabbits puts it, …we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed…. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. Though God is never mentioned, and the rabbits have no religious observance of any kind, author S.D. Smith’s Christian worldview comes through in passages like this, that parallel the way we can recall a perfect past, and look forward to a perfected future. It’s this depth that makes this more than just a rollicking tale of rabbits in peril. There are three full-size sequels – Ember Falls, Ember Rising, and Ember’s End – as well as five small books that occur in the same rabbit world, but follow different characters. For those of us with voracious readers, it is quite the blessing to find a fantastic and enormous – more than 2,000 pages in all! – series like Green Ember. So, my overall take is two very enthusiastic thumbs up for anyone ten and up....