Review: Beyond the White Fence

Beyond the White Fence, Edith M. Humphrey. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021.

Summary: A group of cousins visiting “Gramgon” and a neighbor boy have a series of adventures in which they meet their patron saints, passing through a portal just beyond the garden gate.

It all began with the fawns. Katie, visiting her “Gramgon,” spots them beyond the garden gate at the bottom of the yard. She’s been told not to go into the valley beyond, but is almost irresistibly drawn to them and passes through the gate. There are other animals including turkeys…and a peacock. She follows and discovers she is in a different time and place. She encounters Lady Edith of Wilton, the sister of King Edgar, who has chosen the life of a religious sister. While there, Edith brother is killed, and the neighbor boy, TJ, who had followed narrowly foils an attempt on Edith’s life before the two are led by the peacock to where they can see the garden gate. Katie carries and hides a feather of the peacock.

Subsequent adventures follow as cousins from Pittsburgh join Katie, who is from Kansas. Together or separately, each of the girls sees the fawns and are transported to an encounter with their patron saints — Rachel, Jacob’s betrothed, Ruth and Naomi, Mary Magdalene. Sometimes they simply learn of the faith of these saints, and sometimes there is adventure, for example, rescuing Rachel from kidnappers who would prevent her marriage to Jacob. The end of the visit to Gramgon is coming but Katie has not met her patron saint Katherine yet. Edith is the saint of the author of this work, and presumably Gramgon. One more time they are bidden beyond the garden gate, this time by chimes, only to witness Katherine’s courageous witness before her martyrdom, and glimpse the glory beyond that Katherine would enter.

They carry the peacock feather on each venture, and when the peacock appears, it is time to depart and the way back to their own time is open–and no time has elapsed. The situations they enter are dangerous and the peacock feather and the peacock represent the eyes of the Lord upon them, protecting and guiding.

This Narnia-like story is about the discovery of the saints, our communion with believers who have preceded us, whose lives may instruct us in living the life of faith. I do wonder a bit with Gramgon’s prohibition of these ventures, the whisperings of the children she overhears, and her unconfirmed suspicions. It makes me wonder if Gramgon herself has traveled beyond the gate. Does she realize that the children can only go if bidden? Does she even “cover” for the children when they are weary from ventures?

This is a delightful story, particularly as the cousins become more interested in the backstory of these saints for whom they are named. The climactic adventure, witnessing the martyrdom, is beautifully written, and to be savored.

This story reminded me of a wonderful experience a few years back when I was invited to be present as a friend was baptized and received into the Roman Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Part of the liturgy includes the Litany of the Saints in which we work through a list beginning with the Holy Trinity, Mary, the angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, the disciples, the innocents, martyrs, the holy bishops and confessors, the doctors of the church, and many more, interspersed with a long list of names in each category.

With each group or saint, we bid, “pray for us.” It is prayed slowly and meditatively and takes a long time. After all, this is part of a vigil on the eve of Easter. I sat in wonder as I heard this “great cloud of witnesses” enumerated and the vision of our solidarity as we run the same race, fight the same battles that millennia of believers before us ran and fought, and now pray for us. It seemed a “thin place” where the veil between us was barely there and we were present to one another. I knew the stories of some, and wondered about those of many others.

There is something in this for all of us–children and “Gramgons” alike. Stories like this one invite us into the literature of the saints, the stories of all those who have gone faithfully before us until whatever end God had for them. It explains the attraction of the stories of martyrs. They remind us of our communion with them, the mysterious fellowship we enjoy, and that we may well be prayed for not merely by our living friends but by many in glory who are heard by the Father who watches over our ways.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver

Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, Retold and Illustrated by Ned Bustard. Downers Grove: IVP Kids, 2021.

Summary: A retelling in verse of the story of the life of the real Saint Nicholas and why he is associated with the bearer of gifts that arrive under our trees on Christmas Day.

Now that we are past Thanksgiving, I wanted to tell you about this new gorgeously illustrated children’s book retelling the story of the real Saint Nicholas, in verse reminiscent of Clement Moore’s famous poem. It is one of the first releases in InterVarsity Press’s new IVP Kids line of books, and if this is any indication, this line promises a host of new books for children that are equally a delight for the parents who may read them aloud.

Through the story we are introduced to Nicholas’ birth in Turkey, the early death of his parents and the uncle, an abbot, who raised him in the love of Christ. We learn about a pilgrimage in prayer and solitude to the Holy Land, his imprisonment for his faith under Diocletian, release under Constantine, ministry in Myra, and confrontation with Arius at Nicaea. Finally, we discover the origin of Nicholas’ association with gifts in his loving ministry as bishop and the generous gifts he left three poor sisters on “one very dark night.”

The poem connects this historic Nicholas (who had a little round belly!) with the gentleman who carries gifts every Christmas eve, complete with sleigh and reindeer and assures us that he will continue to do so until the Gift from above returns. The poem moves us away from the commercialized Santa Claus to the real Saint Nicholas and the real meaning of gift giving.

Ned Bustard talking about Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver

Ned Bustard, an accomplished graphic artist who works as the creative director of Square Halo Books both retells and illustrates this story, with a woodcut illustration that goes with each page of verse. One can read aloud the poem in about ten minutes, but no doubt you will spend more time looking at details in the illustrations like the wee mouse who recurs (you might look together for how many times the mouse appears!), the children baptized in a tub, the confrontation with Arius, and the gifts to the three sisters. As a bonus, there is a link to download free coloring pages taken from illustrations in the book on the publisher’s web page for the book!

This is one to buy or order today to have on hand to read aloud with the children you love in the nights leading up to Christmas. It wouldn’t surprise me if this becomes a family favorite!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Little Golden Books

scuffy-the-tugboatIn a discussion with other readers on the Bob on Books Facebook page, the first book many of us remembered reading was a Little Golden Book. These cardboard cover books with lavish illustrations and the distinctive gold binding have been treasured by generations of children. One of the things children loved was that inside the front cover was a place where a child could write his or her name.

The book I remember as my first read was Scuffy the Tugboat written by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergeley. But I had a whole collection. I remember the Disney movie tie-ins of Dumbo and Bambi, Christmas stories like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Mickey Mouse Goes Shopping, and The Night Before Christmas, and a Marian Potter authored book, The Little Red Caboose.

poky

The series started in 1942 as the vision of Georges Duplaix, and the idea was to publish very inexpensive children’s books with gorgeous illustrations, sold at half of the 50 cent price of most children’s books at the time, and far less than the $2 to $3 price of some. Simon & Schuster first published the books and figured out that if they did print runs of 50,000 books, they could sell them at 25 cents.  They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. In their first fifty years, ending in 1992, they sold 1.5 billion of these books!

Ownership of the Little Golden Books line has changed over the years, with the books currently being published by Random House. The amazing thing is that they are still being published and an edition of The Poky Little Puppy (the all-time bestselling Little Golden Book) being sold new today looks just the same as the one published in 1942. Tootle (another Gertrude Crampton story) that I loved reading our son in the late 1980’s was just the same as the one first published in 1945.

tootle

Little Golden Books featured children’s authors like Margaret Wise Brown, Janette Sebring Lowry (The Poky Little Puppy) and Kathryn Jackson, and illustrators like Richard Scarry and Garth Williams. Over the years the line expanded to include books about children’s concerns, like the first day at school, religious themes such as the Lord’s Prayer and tie-ins with Disney, Nickelodeon, and most recently Star Wars. Audio and video versions in record, tape, CD, and video have been created, and some toy lines. But the books remain the core product with Random House currently listing 590 titles.

Random House celebrated 75 years of Golden Books in 2017, creating a special website for the occasion. We’ve passed down my collection of Little Golden Books to my son. Some were falling apart from use. Whether the books are passed along or new ones purchased, there seems to be something quite wonderful when grandparents can share with grandchildren a book that looks just like the one they had as a child and cherish the bond of commonly remembered story and illustration.

Review: The Sleepy Shepherd

the sleepy shepherdThe Sleepy ShepherdStephen Cottrell, illustrated by Chris Hagan. London, SPCK, 2018.

Summary: The story of a shepherd boy who constantly fell asleep and slept through the angels’ announcement of the birth of the king in Bethlehem.

It is not often that I review children’s stories (and perhaps for my own soul I should do it more) but I just received this eye-catching Christmas story and enjoyed the tale as much as I did the colorful illustrations.

The story in brief is that of Silas the shepherd boy who was constantly falling asleep, throughout his day, at a meal, and while tending sheep–which was not a good thing! It turns out that he was tending sheep on that starry night outside Bethlehem when the angels appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of a king. Silas slept through it all, and later when his friends returned, he refused to believe them, believing they were playing a trick on him. He never went to Bethlehem to see for himself, and missed seeing Jesus, the newborn king.

Years later, he is tending some goats in a garden called Gethsemane. He’s heard about this teacher who is stirring things up in Jerusalem. He’s heard the story he tells of a shepherd with a hundred sheep who leaves them for the one lost. And one night, he hears a commotion in the garden and watches as Jesus leaves his disciples to stand guard while he agonizes in prayer…and they sleep. What will Silas, the sleepy shepherd, do?

This story ties the birth and passion of Jesus together. Through the fictional character of Silas, we understand the mission of Jesus more deeply–whether as an adult or a school age child.

Sleepy shepherd (2)

One of Chris Hagen’s illustrations from the book. Silas “counts sheep” at night.

The illustrations grew on me. The human figures look the way I would have drawn them as a school age child. The colors are vibrant, ideal for reading with a child on one’s lap, delighting in the illustrations which tell the stories as well as the words.

You might still be able to get this before Christmas, but even if it comes during the twelve days of Christmas, I think it will quickly become a family favorite that you will pull out at Christmastime during the coming years!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

What I’d Place in a Little Free Library

Little Free LibraryI posted yesterday about Little Free Libraries, the free lending library you can “Steward” in your front yard. At the end of the post, I asked what books you’d put in a Little Free Library if you had one. So, it is only fair that I give a list of a few of the ones I’d put in there.

This is an interesting exercise, because at least some of the books I read wouldn’t be ones my neighbors would be keen about. So, here’s the compromise between things I feel good about and that I think others might like. Tell me what you think:

First of all, some children’s books:

  • Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen. We always loved reading this aloud to our son.
  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak. Great pictures and story to address children’s fears.
  • Good Night Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. We loved saying good night to the moon and everything else!
  • The Cat in The Hat, Dr. Suess–either this or one of the others. We always loved Yertle the Turtle.
  • I Am A Bunny, Ole Risom with illustrations by Richard Scarry. Our favorite board book and frequent baby gift. The illustrations are amazing.

Then some books for older children and young adults:

  • Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White. I first heard this story in 5th grade and we read it aloud as a family.
  • Carry on Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham. Tells the story of a young sailor who becomes a renowned mathematician.
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. A sci-fi book with strong character values.
  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. Evokes a mix of summer vacation memories and fantastic elements.
  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis. I feel like this book is the Wardrobe to the whole series of Chronicles of Narnia.

Adults: Fiction

  • Bel Canto, Ann Patchett. Just read it, her best in my opinion, and something I think both men and women could like.
  • Surreality, Ben Trube. Have to get my son’s in here. Besides, I really think if you like techno-thrillers, you’ll find it as good read. Kept me up at night!
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie. Her most famous, and introduces you to one of her most famous characters.
  • The Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters. The first of her Amelia Peabody stories. We have loved following Amelia Peabody from one hair-raising adventure to another.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. I think this is one of the best science fiction books, an early post-apocalyptic book envisioning a post-nuclear world.
  • Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy. I thought some of his early stuff was best.
  • Shoeless Joe, W. P. Kinsella. The book that served as the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. A wonderful tale for anyone who loves baseball.

Non-fiction:

  • The Wright Brothers, David McCullough. Ohio boys who were the first to figure out powered flight. Well-told by this master historian and biographer.
  • Great by Choice, Jim Collins. One of the best business books I’ve read.
  • Genome, Matt Ridley. Fascinating science writing on the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make us who we are.
  • Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard. The fascinating tale of the short presidency of James Garfield, another Ohioan, and the crazed assassin and incompetent doctor who contributed to his untimely death.
  • Unbroken,Laura Hillenbrand. Tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic-level runner and POW.
  • Shiloh, Shelby Foote. His account of the battle of Shiloh and a great introduction to this great Civil War historian.
  • Both-And, Rich Nathan. This is a book written by a pastor in my home town that talks about how the church can overcome the polarities that are tearing apart American society. He articulates a picture of what many of us long for church to be.
  • Prodigal God, Timothy Keller. He takes the parable of the prodigal and turns it on its head, showing that the real prodigal is the father, who represents God, prodigal in his love for both is profligate and self-righteous sons.

Of course, there is probably not a single person who would agree with this list. And that’s the great thing about Little Free Libraries. You can add your favorites to someone else’s while discovering something new for yourself.

By the way, for right now, probably the way I will support Little Free Libraries in my area is to visit that box a few blocks away, and add a few of these books, and see what they have that I might like.

So, if you were to take one from and leave one with my hypothetical Little Free Library, what would you take, and what would you leave?

 

 

Review: The Princess and Curdie

The Princess and Curdie
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It all begins when Curdie, on his walk home from another day at the mines, kills a pigeon. He then realizes that pigeons were associated with the mysterious and wonderful great-great grandmother of Princess Irene. So he takes the dying bird to her, but what is restored is not merely the dying bird but the dying spark in Curdie’s life, that is being slowly quenched by coarseness and beastliness. He is bid to thrust his hands into a fire of rose petals through which the beastliness is cleansed and he is given a special capacity to discern those growing in their humanity from those descending into beastliness as he grasps their hands.

This is a key theme that runs through the book, that people are on one of two roads, growing more fully human or descending to the level of beasts. Yet even for the latter there is a hint of hope as some of the beasts we encounter in this story seem to be former humans on a journey of redemption–which strikes me as an odd note, a form of reincarnationalism, or a second chance for the condemned from a Christian author. Yet this is fantasy, and the note here perhaps is one that the power of redemption is greater than that of beastly evil.

Curdie is sent by the great-great grandmother to the king’s city of Gwyntystorm along with Lina, a fierce, ugly, dog-like creature who is intensely loyal to him. He is not told his mission but that it will become apparent as he obeys and properly uses his gift. It is apparent from the moment of their arrival that all is not right in the town as they are rudely treated, then imprisoned.

They make their escape and find their way into the king’s castle, and quickly learn that all is not right at the heart of the kingdom. The castle is in disrepair, the servants are rude, lazy and corrupt. Worse yet, the king’s councilors are conspiring and the king’s doctor is slowly poisoning him as he lies ill in tormented delirium. Princess Irene is at his side, using all her powers to comfort him, while not fully grasping the evil plots surrounding her and the king.

The remainder of the story unfolds how Curdie and Lina accompanied by a host of beasts and a few who remain faithful to the king attempt to save king, princess, and kingdom from the corruption that has crept into the heart of Gwyntystorm.

The image of Curdie as one sent on a mission the nature and end of which is not disclosed rings true for any who have taken up the life of discipleship. We do not always know into what the faithful use of gifts will lead us. Similarly, success is not a matter of compromise with evil or having the assurance that all will turn out well but the faithful pursuit of the right, leaving the results and consequences in the hands of Another.

Once again, one sees why these stories have had such an abiding place in the hearts of both children and adults and how fantasy may sometimes speak more truly of reality than the most “realistic” stories.

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Review: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the book that G. K. Chesterton said “made a difference to my whole existence.” I am not sure that I can say the same but I did find myself impressed once again with George MacDonald’s writing and asking why I hadn’t read this sooner.

Princess Irene lives on the side of a beautiful mountain that harbors a dark secret in terms of a goblin kingdom, whose rulers are pursuing a nefarious purpose–nothing less than kidnapping the princess. She and her nurse are rescued from one nearly tragic venture into the wilds at night by the son of a miner, Curdie by name, who sings the goblins away with his verse and leads them to the castle.

Though chastised, the princess acquires a mysterious friend, a wise great grandmother, ageless it seems. Not all believe she exists or can see her, but Princess Irene can. Later, a strong silver thread that the grandmother has given her leads her to return the favor and rescue Curdie, when he falls captive to the goblins after repeated attempts to discover their nefarious purposes in digging under the mountain. Irene takes him to see the great grandmother, but he can see neither the thread nor the grandmother and leaves pettishly, despite his rescue.

From here events lead rapidly to the climax of a goblin invasion to seize Princess Irene. I will leave you discover what happens, particularly to the awful goblin queen with stone shoes to cover her six toed feet!

Like a good fairy tale or fantasy, the story works on multiple levels. We have the fear of things that go bump in the night and acts of courage and heroism and the thin line between these and foolhardiness. There is the question of what is belief–is it the delusion of believing something that doesn’t exist or the belief in something marvelous and yet the “substance of things not seen.” Both the Princess and Curdie are faced with this choice. Is there really a grandmother? Can I trust where the thread will lead me or that it is even there? How will I act when others don’t believe me? And there is the question of how one will conduct oneself in the absence of the king-papa as one awaits his return. How watchful will we be? Will Irene become who she is as the Princess and not simply a protected child?

This book came as a pleasant diversion from “weightier” books and yet not from “weightier” themes. And perhaps that is the value for adults of reading a story supposedly for “children”.

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On “Children’s” Books

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t said much about children’s books in this blog nor reviewed any children’s books. A search of my posts came up with one post where I used the phrase, “children’s books”, a post on C. S. Lewis from last fall. In my post September 2014: The Month in Reviews, I even noticed the serious tone in the books I’ve been reading of late.

At one time, this would have been a very different story! One of my treasured collection of memories are all the “read aloud” times when our son was growing up. We read lots of “children’s” stories together and found that the ones that were the most special were the ones we both liked best. We learned early on that good children’s literature is simply literature that is both age appropriate to the child and engaging for “children of all ages.”

I still remember our shared delight as we read I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom with exquisite artwork by Richard Scarry. It’s the board book we buy whenever we learn of friends who have recently had a baby. Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon was a favorite later on with its evocative story of a young boy and his dad walking in the woods on a snowy, moonlit night to go “owling”. We read all the “Little House” books (which I had never before read) and the Narnia Chronicles (which I first discovered as a college student).  We read several of Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction/fantasy books, which probably helped awaken my son’s love of science fiction. One summer, when my son was laid up with a broken leg, we read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud as a family (probably my third or fourth time through these books). A special find was Jean Lee Latham’s Carry on, Mr Bowditch which tells the story of a young boy, Nathaniel Bowditch, who is taken on as a ship’s boy and begins to study navigation, which stimulates a love of mathematics and results in him later writing one of the foremost books on navigation of his day.

Goblin

Of course, our son went on to high school, college and now marriage and with that, our “read aloud” times have gone by the wayside. And one of the losses I’ve recently noticed as well, is the loss of reading those books that are good for children of all ages. And so as I was looking for my next book to read, I picked up George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, one of those children’s fantasies probably suitable for children grades 3 to 6 or so, that I had never read.

I’m about midway through so I don’t know (nor want to know) how it ends. But one thing I’ve noticed is that while this is a much easier book to read than some of the “dense” works I’ve reviewed recently, that doesn’t mean it is by any means “light”. Already, the book has explored the line between courage and foolhardiness, the fears of the night that don’t go away with adulthood (are there goblins or other dangerous things out there?), the power of light to dispel evil, our conceptions of age (with the great-great grandmother), and the question of warranted belief. How does Princess Irene know that there actually is a great-great grandmother?

I think one of the things that makes this and other good children’s books great is that they are like life. I think there are “layers” of understanding in even the most every day events. Both children and adults fear “goblins” but the ones we fear may be different. A children and a grandparent can read the same story and the child identifies with the princess, and the grandparent with the great-great grandmother. Both children and adults wrestle between believing the trustworthy promises and listening to the voices of cynicism. As adults, however, we may be the one’s who have learned that cynicism, which is questioned in the “children’s” story. Will we be so guarded against deception that we miss out on wonder?

Perhaps it is time to revisit some of those stories I’ve loved and to discover new ones.

What are the children’s stories that have continued to speak to you into adulthood–the one’s that are good for “children of all ages?”

 

 

Summer Reads

The summer vacation season is finally here, and with it trips to the beach, the mountains, a cabin, or just to a shady spot on your deck or in your yard with a cool drink and, if you are a reader like me, a good book. summer reads

For many people “summer reads” and “beach reads” are synonymous. Usually this is light reading–a page turner that holds your attention, or even if you doze off, memorable enough to pick up where you left off. It could be a romance (not my thing) or an action thriller or spy novel or mystery or maybe some Young Adult fiction. Some people would call this “mind candy” and look down on it. I would suggest that while you don’t want to live on candy, sometimes candy is just the right thing!

I have a few other thoughts, not so much about particular books as about types of books you might consider for summer reads. All you need to do is Google “summer reads” to find several lists of suggestions.

1. If you will be “stay-cationing” this summer, you might consider reading a travel book or other history of another country. Learning about a part of the world you can’t visit may not be as fun as going there, but sometimes the trips we take in our minds can be pretty good.

2. If you have children, check with your librarian about some age-appropriate read aloud books you can take on trips or have around for rainy days. If your family never read aloud, this might be the time to start and make some good memories around good books.

3. Pick a book in the category of “I’ve always wondered about…” This could be a book on anything from particle physics to the paintings of Van Gogh.

4. Along this same vein, you might think of reading a book in the category of “I’ve always wanted to learn how to…”

5. The last category I would suggest might be a book or two that you will read slowly because it is a great work of beauty or thought to be savored. Perhaps this is the summer to pull that impressive copy of War and Peace off the shelves and actually read Tolstoy’s masterpiece (hint: figure out a way to keep track of the names). Perhaps it might be a work of great spiritual depth like Augustine’s Confessions or Abraham Heschel’s work on the prophets.

Look for a post soon of some of the books I hope to read this summer.

Your local library probably has a summer reading program and can offer great recommendations in all these categories. As a kid, I used to come home with stacks of library books to read on our shady front porch when I wasn’t at the pool.

We often think of summer as a time of physical refreshment. A few good books can make it mentally refreshing as well. So here’s to a cool breeze, a shady spot, a comfortable chair, and a great book that is even better than it looked when you picked it up!