Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Black Stallion

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What is it about gorgeous black horses that draw men in, set their imaginations on fire, and steal a bit of their hearts? As a child, I knew that horses were regal creatures. Because they are gorgeous, capable of intelligence, posses affection, and have a certain nobility, I was always smitten with horses. Nearly all horses have something to recommend them, even Seabiscuit with his knobby knees, too-big head, and short legs was a hero. Black Arabians, however, are the stuff that dreams are made of.

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I grew up watching Ben-Hur and thinking that Judah’s white horses were a disappointment. In both the book and the movie, they are described as being near goddesses. And yet, their imperfectly white coats and grey-peach colored noses always seemed a bit unimpressive to me. Instead, I dreamed of gorgeous dark colored Arabians. Tall, strong, fast, and midnight-colored coats seemed, to me, to be God’s perfect expression of the horse. The standard by which all other horses would be judged.

Strangely, my childhood was devoid of horse books. I knew that Black Beauty existed, but I never read it. I think that we had an abridged copy in my family library, but I didn’t know that authors could describe horses well enough to rival the beauty that movies could show. My love of horses came from movies, I think. T.V. series’ and movies like “Ivanhoe,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Irish R.M.,” and “Horse Masters” had me dreaming of falling in love with my own magnificent steed.

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The Black Stallion
by Walter Farley has to be one of the most famous horse books ever written. And yet, this bibliophile, had never read it until a month ago. I can say with all honesty, that I was missing out. I am sad that I did not have this beautiful book in my vernacular and imagination many, many years ago. Thanks to my book club, I am catching up on all of the worthy books I missed out on. We are chasing our own classics education, one book at a time.

The Black Stallion is a triumphant and marvelous story. A young boy, Alec, is on a transatlantic steamer preparing for his return journey from visiting his uncle in India. His parents are waiting for him in New York and he is making this journey alone. As he contemplates the journey, he studies a beautiful pocket knife that his uncle gave to him before he left. Young readers, boys especially, will find it hard not to be intrigued immediately. Well-read readers will quickly guess that that pocket knife will not only prove to be essential but also representative of some central theme.

In case the prospect of following a boy through an independent sea voyage from exotic India isn’t enough to arrest the attention of the reader, Farley invades the scene with a tempestuous and exquisite black stallion who is being put aboard the boat. Fierce and powerful, this force of nature is not coming willingly. His mighty legs kick while his head thrashes and he destroys nearly everything in his path. Clearly this beast was captured from the wild and he has no intention of “settling into” captivity. All on board give the horse wide berth. All, that is, except Alec. Alec is enchanted by The Black. Without much than a hint of success, Alec tries to tempt The Black into friendship with sugar cubes. The horse is not friendly, but he is not too opposed to Alec’s presence near his stall.

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In the first chapter, we have a fairly perfect opening to what promises to become a story about a boy and his horse. All of that is put into question in chapter two, however, when a storm causes the ship to wreck. Lost at sea, Alec feels the whip of a rope and grabs hold of what is, in fact, part of the horse’s bridle. Together, the pair swim all night until the horse scents land and drags Alec onto the shore of a deserted island.

Reminiscent of Kipling’s romantic and alluring style, Farley delights us with several chapters of survivalist and boy-tames-the-wild-beast narrative. The writing is poetic and musical. The details are fascinating and imaginative. A little bit Swiss Family Robinson and a little Ralph Moody, these chapters detail twenty days of creative survival.

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When Alec and The Black are rescued, they make the long sea voyage to New York via Rio de Janeiro. Along the way, we watch the friendship between Alec and this untamed wild horse grow. Despite their growing love for each other, The Black remains terrifyingly wild when interacting with anyone or anything else. Alec must call on all of his own intelligence, courage, and patience to whittle away at The Black’s skittishness and break the horse’s wildness.

When Alec and The Black disembark in New York, we meet Alec’s parents. Farley does a beautiful job sketching these characters. He does not give us much detail about them, but what he does draw feels quite authentic and renders them noble in their own way. They love this son whom they thought that they had lost. They want to support him. They are anxious about the wildness of The Black. They are deeply respectful of the experience their son has survived and they seek to honor his crisis-honed maturity.

Once Alec is resettled into “normal” life and The Black has moved into the stables of a neighbor, the story shifts gears and becomes something akin to Come On, Seabiscuit. I won’t give any details but, suffice to say, Farley built The Black to be a great race horse.

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All of my children loved this book. My youngest (6) wants to be a cowboy when he grows up and he could not get enough of The Black. My middle child (7) loves good writing and enjoyed the adventure of it all. My oldest (9) is all boy and loved everything about Alec. As a parent, I loved that Alec is worth emulating. He loves and respects his parents. He is resourceful, courageous, and loyal. He is a willing student in the hands of an excellent old mentor. And, Alec is principled.

The copy we have is illustrated by Keith Ward and it is magical. The audible narration is expertly done. The movie… well, let’s not talk about that disaster except to say that it is not The Black Stallion, it is something else with the same name and a few of the same characters.  

This is a book which more than delivers on its reputation. And, delightfully, this is the first book of a series! I haven’t read the others and suspect that they aren’t quite as good, but Farley has earned my respect and I think that any book he wrote probably has some merit. 

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Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Great Brain

We are boy moms. Diane and I have a daughter each and two sons a piece. Diane also has grandchildren, most of whom are boys. We love our daughters and we know that our culture has some special snares and traps for them. But as mamas of boys, we are particularly aware of today’s cultural assault on traditional masculinity. Specifically, we know that today’s boys are growing up in a world that desperately needs godly men and is suffering from a serious shortage of authentic spiritual leadership. In particular, we are troubled by how poorly represented boys are in wholesome modern literature. There is just too much Percy Jackson in our world today and not nearly enough Captains Courageous or Ralph Moody. There are some notable exceptions, Henry and the Chalk Dragon being an excellent one. 100 Cupboards being another.

Since most of our modern boy books leave a lot to be desired, I have enjoyed reading backward through the good boy books of the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s and so on. Along the way, my family has fallen in love with Henry Huggins, Alvin Fernald, Homer Price, Henry Reed, Danny Dunn, the Mad Scientists Club, the Hardy Boys, the Boxcar Children, the Happy Hollisters and others. As I preview or read aloud these boyishly beautiful books, I am finding delicious and wholesome food for my boys’ moral imaginations.

In many of the “boy books” conversations that come up in our Book Club, I see one tile frequently recommended which troubles me. Initially I had not planned on reviewing any of the John D. Fitzgerald books.  I did not like them, I knew that they were very popular in our group, so I thought it best to leave them alone.

Last month at my local charity resale store, however, my son discovered The Great Brain on the shelf and asked me about it. He remembers when we read it a few years ago. He knew that I didn’t like it, he remembered not liking it himself, but he couldn’t remember why. I realized that it was time to write a review.

“Brothers and sisters: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’” Ephesians 5: 8-24 RSV-CE

It is not my intention to offend anyone in writing this. I am merely offering my observations in the hope that it will help other families make the best decision for their homes. Instead of summarizing the story and offering some critique, I thought that I would share some pictures from the story and explain why I found passages like those photographed to be troubling. For me, these passages signify a general attitude which is not that of living as “children of light.” If these passages were resolved with right attitudes, I might feel differently. In most cases, however, these are left unchecked. Overall, the book does resolve well, but not without making some unsettling mistakes without rectifying them.

In the first chapter of The Great Brain, Fitzgerald is building his scene. He wants us to understand that in the Utah community in which his characters live, the vast majority of the population is Mormon, but his title character lives in a non-Mormon family.

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I simply don’t care for this kind of “tolerance.” I am not raising weak children who are afraid of righteous fights, but neither my husband nor I think that a scene like this does much to teach our children how to handle differences of opinion in ways which are good, true, and right. If this were an isolated case, I would have chalked it up to school yard antics. Sadly, this third paragraph of the first chapter is not isolated. It is setting a tone that sounds throughout the rest of the story.

Later in the same chapter, Fitzgerald introduces us to Papa. It is clear here, and in many other places, that the brothers have a low opinion of, and disrespectful attitude towards, their father and other male authority figures in the story. Throughout, the Great Brain is condescending toward adults and encourages his brothers to view the plumber, the Greek immigrant, their father, and other men with callous disrespect.

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The chicken pox and mumps chapter, TD (Tom, aka “The Great Brain”) is packed with nonsense. After everyone has had and recovered from the chickenpox, John sneaks out of the house and sneaks into the house of a sick friend (hiding from their mothers) all so that he can get the mumps and give them to his brothers. This is dumb and dangerous. Lying and sneaking around are just part of the general narrative of the story. After everyone has recovered from a bout of chickenpox and a now a bout of mumps, Tom gets even with John for getting them sick. In the example below, the parents use what I consider a cruel technique for punishment and the boys end up applying it to each other. Angry about having gotten the mumps from John, Tom convinces their brother to give John the silent treatment for a month. The situation is resolved by Tom manipulating a pricey and special belt away from his brother thus ending the silent treatment. This chapter was no fun to read and it will not help my children learn to live at peace with each other.

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In this chapter, there is a fair amount of conversation about dogs mating. If you desire to avoid that topic with your little ones, know that it is unavoidable in this chapter, and that it features prominently in a much bigger chapter story arc. After this scene, we find out that two boys and their female dog (who is in heat) have not come home for dinner. The next day a family member comes to speak to the parents. The boys disobey their mother, sneak out, and use a secret method that they have come up with to listen in on the private conversations of their parents. As it turns out, the boys are lost in an unexplored and dangerous mine. For two days the town tries to find the boys without getting lost themselves, to no avail.

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After two days have passed, Tom suggests that the rescue party use his brother’s dog to scent the missing female dog. The idea does work and everyone is found safe and sound. Sadly, however, this is how it is resolved:

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In the second half of the book a number of the stories deal with immigrants trying to integrate into the community. Even if this is how schoolyard kids behave, I have no idea why it needs to be memorialized in this way:

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Later, Tom befriends the new Greek boy. But, as always, makes sure that he profits by it:

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In another chapter, Basil is abused by other boys. They are playing “Indians.” They tie up and sincerely scare the non-English speaking immigrant. Tom and his brother do rush in and save their new friend. It is unselfish and noble. But it doesn’t stay unselfish for long. JD (John) predicts that his brother Tom will find a way to make more profit on this friendship in no time at all.

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Until this point, the story hinges on a lot of bad behavior between boys. I resent how in each chapter impressionable John (the narrator) expresses his good conscience, and his older brother, The Great Brain, Tom, skillfully manipulates him into darkness. I regret that the there is no storyline here except to poke fun at adults and make kids into heroes in rather vile ways.

At this point, however, the story takes a turn. One might argue that it turns for the better. I can see how the ending is much better than the beginning. Sadly, however, the path into this change is pretty gruesome.

Papa is not Mormon and he encourages a friend to open up a goods shop in town. Jewish Abie is skeptical and worried about the prospects of opening a store in a town where all of the Mormons are required by their Bishop to shop at the Mormon store. Abie is a poor man and has very little to gamble with. Papa assures him that little by little the town is diversifying and that non-Mormon business and tradesmen are doing well.

To encourage Abie’s business, Mama would give her shopping list and money to the boys and tell them to patronize Abie’s store. But, John admits that whenever mama has a big order, he decides to disobey her and shop at the Mormon store instead, where he gets free candy. Tragically, the consequences are fatal. Abie’s store is a failure and the devout Jewish man slowly starves to death while no one notices. This theme is way too complicated and too dark for a children’s book of this ilk.

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In Chapter 7, the kids are frustrated with their new teacher. The Great Brain serves as a ringleader in an attempt to get the new teacher fired. He organizes his classmates to steal alcohol from their parents, combine it, and hide it in Mr. Standish’s coat. They then slip a note under the door of the school board president’s house implicating the teacher in scandal.

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In chapter 8, John’s friend Andy wants to commit suicide. Months before this story starts, Andy had stepped on a rusty nail in an old barn and refused to tell his parents for fear of being disciplined. Needless to say, the ensuing infection cost him his leg. Disabled and unable to play with his classmates, Andy doesn’t want to live any more and he recruits John into helping him end his life. Tragically, the boys make multiple attempts through various means. Ultimately, Tom intervenes and gives Andy a reason to hope that his life won’t be “plum useless”. True to form, the way that Tom proves Andy’s usefulness is to help Andy figure out how to do Tom’s chores. Even when Tom is doing something good, he manages to get something out of it.

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“I am the light of the world, says the Lord; whoever follows me will have the light of life.” John 8:12 RSV-CE

I wish that I could understand the appeal of this book, but I can’t. More importantly, there are so many other options which are much more winning and a much better fit for my family.

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar

I have been packing around a paperback copy of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar for almost 50 years now.  The title is from a Disney movie that came out in 1967.  I may have watched the movie on a Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney.”  Perhaps at a drive-in theater!  In 1968, Scholastic Books published a book based on the screenplay.  I loved getting those Scholastic book orders every month or so, and I loved books about animals.  The book is only 78 pages long.  I probably paid a precious quarter for it.

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When the book came to mind recently, I wondered if I should risk ruining it for myself by reading it again.  My desire to know whether it is good stuff or junk was stronger than my wish to let the book and movie remain pleasant memories.   My conclusion about the book is that it’s sweet and wholesome.  The story is light with plenty of humor.  Animal-loving children can enjoy imagining having a cougar for a pet.  Adults will be aware that that can come to no good, but will fall in love with Charlie anyway.

Jess is a young man who works for a lumber company in the Pacific Northwest.  One day, while out marking trees in the woods, he discovers a tiny cougar kitten that has somehow been abandoned outside the den.  The baby’s eyes aren’t even open yet.  Who could leave the helpless kitty there to starve?

Mark Van Cleefe, the author who converted the screenplay to book form, writes some endearing descriptions of the kitten learning about his world.  Everything is new to Charlie, the cougar.  A blowing leaf crumbles under his paw, a fuzzy dandelion makes him sneeze.   If he hadn’t tumbled down the hill when coming face-to-face with a growling badger, that encounter could have ended badly.  When he starts a game of tag with a squirrel, he gets himself stuck in a tree and Jess has to rescue him.  Van Cleefe also periodically reports on Charlie’s age and growth so we get a picture of how quickly he grows into a huge cat.  At two years old he is 7 feet long and weighs over 160 pounds.  Charlie is no longer a housecat.

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The best parts of the story are when Charlie roams in the wild. Charlie’s interactions with the lumber men have more of a feel of set-ups for short, funny, or heart-racing scenes that build toward the inevitable parting of the man and the wild animal.  When Charlie accidentally wanders off into the wilderness, we see him face the challenge of surviving on his own.  He has to become a wild cougar rather than a pet that takes his daily food for granted.  We see how much of the life of a wild animal is taken up with self-defense and finding food.  For children who may not yet be interested in studying animals, I think his encounters with other creatures could open a door of investigation.  With great interest, Charlie watches as a bear catches fish.  He doesn’t learn how to fish for himself, but he becomes adept at stealing fish from the bear.  Then the bear moves on and Charlie is on his own again.

The lumber company Jess works for floats logs down the river to the mill.  A floating bunkhouse and kitchen raft follow.  Charlie accidentally sets the kitchen raft free of its mooring with Jess asleep inside.  The raft drifts into a log jam where the men have just lit a fuse for the dynamite set to break up the jam.  Charlie rides a log down the river, disembarks onto the log jam, and picks up the dynamite, attracted to it by the long “string” attached.  Will he respond in time to Jess’s hollering for him to drop it?  Of course he will. It’s Disney. Everything is going to be fine.  But chaos and much damage will ensue.

It is the company manager who finally tells Jess that he will have to stop bringing Charlie to work.  So, Jess has to cage his cat.  One night Charlie scents another cat, a female.  He escapes, goes for a romp, can’t find his way home, and spends the winter learning to fend for himself in the wild.  When he finds his way back to the lumber camp the next spring, there is more chaos in the camp and  everyone thinks Charlie has gone bad.  Jess shows up just as the manager is about to shoot the cornered cat.  I remember this scene being very intense when I was a child, but it isn’t drawn out too long, and it is very satisfying when Charlie remembers Jess and lets himself be led out of danger.

The next day, Jess takes Charlie to a wildlife refuge where he sets the cat free to live happily ever after.  Charlie meets up with his girlfriend and they amble off into the sunset.  The scenario will sound familiar to lovers of such stories as Gentle Ben and Rascal.  Though the pet will be missed for a long time, the wild animal really will be happier in the wild.  

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I was concerned that the movie I loved as a child would seem silly now; a string of slapstick situations with a giant cat living out of his natural element.  It was not.  The scenes of confrontation between cat and man’s world might seem a bit contrived to movie-savvy adults, but it turns out that most of the time is spent showing Charlie in the wild.  The thin plot almost seems more of an excuse to follow a cougar around with a camera than a real attempt to show what life would be like with a gigantic housecat.  Animal experts may find plenty of diversions from the realm of possibility, but I find the nature scenes wholesome and lovely.

There is an extended scene near the beginning where Charlie has wandered off to survey his neighborhood.  He encounters a raccoon cub, a fox kit, and a young pine marten.  Then he plays with a bear cub until the sow has to rescue Charlie and her cub from a male bear.  Mama wins the fight with the male when Charlie and the cub break the tree branch from which they’ve been watching the battle and land on the male bear’s head.  It’s a bit silly, but mostly fun, and the scene with Charlie and the cub napping together in a hollow log is darling.

Charlie’s foray into the wild after becoming lost in the wilderness is a large chunk of the movie.  It is more like one of Disney’s nature films than a regular movie.  Charlie and the female cougar romp and slide in the snow.  Charlie roams through some stunning scenery.  As Charlie has never had to hunt for food, he has to learn by watching other animals.  When the female cougar catches a rabbit, he expects her to share.  She does not.  The rabbit killing is done off scene, as is the killing of a deer later, once Charlie becomes an accomplished hunter.

My dad and his dad were loggers in Oregon, so I enjoyed watching the lumber company prepare for the spring log drive down the river.  They are shown breaking up log jams, the narrator explains how the cookhouse raft and bunkhouse raft (wanigans) follow the lumberjacks, and there is a short birling competition which Charlie joins.  When Charlie is chased by a bounty hunter with his dogs, Charlie escapes by doing a log-riding trick from his kittenhood, this time down a flume.

I am quite pleased that I can recommend this book and the movie for children of any age.

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Henry and the Chalk Dragon

“He looked at his armor, then back at the door. This was a morning that needed a knight.”

I love this book. Really, truly, and sincerely love Henry and the Chalk Dragon. In fact, I am practically jumping out of my skin with excitement as I try to gather my thoughts and explain why Jennifer Trafton’s books is one of the absolute best read-aloud stories we have ever read.

Let’s dispense with any illusion that I’m going to be “professional” in this review. I can’t be. Like Henry’s chalk dragon, my passion is taking on a life of its own and wants to be let loose in the world.

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I love this book because it is delightful. It is funny. It is tender. It is oh so wholesome. It is really real.  It is wildly imaginative. It is deeply empowering. It is tragically necessary for our times.

Lest you think that any of those expressions are clichés, let me respond by saying that maybe that is totally appropriate to this book. You see, this book has a very old soul. This story is telling truths that are old and considered cliché by our culture, but those which are still absolutely true. Tragically, these truths are stuffed down deep inside of us and we have been trained to scorn them.

“But it was like squishing the white fluffy explosion of popcorn back into the kernel again. The Art was out, and it would not go back in.”

Henry and his classmates are elementary school students in a modern progressive common core type school. Sadly, they are all being trained to value tests, tests, tests, and more tests. Henry, however, is an artistic soul who struggles to keep his imagination “on a leash.” His best friend Oscar is a brainiac scientist and Henry believes that the “new girl” in their class is either a government spy or an alien. Actually, Jade is “anything (she) wants to be except a cliche.” Their classmates are just like the classmates you had as an elementary school student, each character is unique and full of potential. Their teacher, Miss Pimpernel, is a superhero – she just doesn’t remember it. Their principal is an archvillain, except that he isn’t.  And all of these characters are coming together to celebrate National Vegetable Week with an Art Show. Except that their “Art” is just a bunch of tidy, uniform, government approved, vegetable displays. La Muncha Elementary School is just an ordinary school with ordinary modern problems… that is until the Chalk Dragon gets loose.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” – CS Lewis

This story speaks beautifully to all of us. Adults, children, science geeks, poets, chefs, teachers, and painters alike. Henry’s chalk dragon helps all of the characters in the book, and the readers as well, realize that whatever unique passion and gifting God has given to them, it matters. Every soul has an artistic dimension and, with our cooperation, that art becomes a gift that God gives to the world. If we, through our free will, allow our art to break free and run wild in the world, we too can become knights and heroes. And this is a truth we rarely hear today.

“TELL THE TRUTH. Henry was so tired of those orange words. His chivalry was wearing thin.”

Like knights of old, Henry’s experience beautifully illustrates that our passion can be used for good or for ill. It is up to us to use our gifts for that which is just, right, beautiful, merciful, true, and chivalrous. Henry wears a tinfoil rain coat “suit of armor” to school on the day this story takes place. Inside that raincoat Henry has scrawled every knightly principle he has ever heard or read. And, like Henry, we need to regularly consult the code of chivalry. Like Henry, we must have a clearly defined set of principles. Like Henry, we must put on the armor of God and reflect on that which is true every time we have to make a challenging decision.

I said that this is one of the best read alouds we have ever read. I am not exaggerating.

“The dragon stared back at him – up and down, from his sneakers to his shiny helmet. It did not look afraid of Henry. It spread its wings proudly. It stretched its scaly neck as high as it would go. Its mouth widened slowly into a dragonish grin.

How long had Henry been waiting for this moment? Here he was, in his shiny suit of armor, with a sword in his hand. And here was a real live dragon – a dragon who could knock the house down with a few clicks of its tail, who could eat his mother for breakfast, who could send a ball of fire bouncing down the street. He knew exactly what he needed to do.

He jabbed his sword into the dragon’s scaly stomach. ‘Take that, you beast! I am Sir Henry Penwhistle, and I will slay you!’”

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A favorite from Jennifer Trafton’s Etsy Shop

I follow Jennifer Trafton on Instagram and I have purchased a number of prints from her Etsy shop. She has a very gifted hand, and her art is so vibrant that it fills me hope and joy. But I think that her true genius is in her ability to turn a phrase. Not only does Trafton have beautiful things to say, but she writes them in such a way that they roll off the tongue with maximum impact. A bit like the opera singer who can hit all of the high notes without fail, Trafton’s writing has the listening audience laughing, crying, gasping, and shuddering all in the same chapter. Her stories are meant to be read aloud. They delight and entertain while they teach and nurture the reader.

“Trumpets. Golden trumpets. There they were again, thrilling him to the fingertips. The day was still a story. The knight was still a hero.”

I said that this book has a very old soul. It does. Trafton is unashamed of her love for good and great old books. Her characters are her own, but they are modeled after some of the best characters in some of the best children’s books ever written. And just in case you don’t catch all of the literary references, Trafton has included a page at the back of the book that inventories “Henry’s Book Chest.”

What speaks of her old soul (and that of the book) is that Trafton did not steal these characters from other books and insert them into her story. No. It is obvious that she loved these characters – major and minor ones alike. Literary heroes like Eustace Scrubb, Ralph and his motorcycle, Sir Percy Blakeney, Harold and his purple crayon, and many others must have become part of her own story. And these brilliant characters take on a new and noble life in Henry’s story. What is particularly impressive is how insightful Trafton is about her audience and the characters that she created who would speak to every kind of reader. With seeming effortlessness, even the video game kid is given a literary hero worthy of the story. It would seem that Trafton is capable of seeing the genius in any child, because she has seen it in so many inspired characters throughout literature.

I said that this book is for all of us. It is. I am convinced that every reader will find himself in this story somewhere. And, because of Trafton’s loving touch, none of us will be ashamed to see our literary alter ego grapple with our real insecurities, hopes, and dreams.

“He and the world had a deal: he would keep away from its silly chatter and its honking horns, its math equations and its shopping malls, its confusing rules and its laughing faces. And in return, the world would keep out of his bedroom. For in this room, behind this door, lay a deeper magic and a wilder story than the world had ever seen. Or ever would see – as long as the door stayed shut.”

Henry is an artist. He doesn’t think he has any great gift, but he does. He loves to draw, paint, and color. Henry struggles to keep all of the wildly imaginative shapes inside of him from coming out. We all know that kid. The kid whose math test has few correct answers but margins full of doodles. The kid who thinks that 4 + 2 = orange. That kid is Henry. And Henry is the hero of the story. Well, one of many heroes anyway.

“That’s why Oscar was Henry’s friend. He asked the right questions. Not ‘Are you crazy?’ Not ‘How can a dragon fit in your lunchbox, stupid?’ But ‘How many teeth does it have?’”

Oscar, Henry’s best friend, is a science-loving brainiac with a pet octagon. Oscar’s math tests are always correct. “A pet octagon.” I know, it sounds silly. And it is. But it isn’t. This creative choice is just one of many which speaks to the harmony that must exist between the the Arts, the Sciences, and Language. Even a science kid has to have a wild imagination.

“She was standing on the counter, her hands clenched at her sides. Her face glistened as she sent poetry flying at the dragon. She was fighting the battle with her words.”

Jade is a poet. And a heroine. Her words resound like trumpets in Henry’s soul and push him forward when his courage fails. Her love of story and song give her unique insight into the problems at hand and, ultimately, show Henry the way forward. (Note: Wingfeather Saga fans will appreciate this everyday Leeli.)

“Yet in spite of all those smiles, looking at her often made him sad, and this was the reason: she had once been a superhero, but she had forgotten. Such things do happen. Henry knew there was a superhero hidden under her skin, because sometimes she could see Louie playing a video game behind his notebook without even looking up from her desk, and she could send a stapler rattling so fast across a bulletin board that her fist became a pale pink blur, and she could recite all of the state capitals in alphabetical order and not stumble once over Des Moines. And of course, most importantly, she could change her face into all sorts of new shapes just by putting on her different smiles. What other glorious things must she be capable of? What had happened to make her forget?”

Henry truly loves his teacher and sees in her an adult who is hiding from her passion. From an early age, the world has told her that her art does not have value. But Henry believes in her with a conviction that belongs to the young and pure of heart. I love that Jennifer Trafton is speaking to the adult readers through the character of Miss Pimpernel. How many of us stopped drawing in middle school because we realized that our art was no good? How many of us realized, through our progressive education, that our passion had to be subjugated to the needs of the real world? How many of us, as adults, wish that someone had encouraged our passion when we were children rather than criticizing or squashing it? How many of us spent Thursday nights studying for spelling and math tests on Friday, wondering why we were wasting our time because we knew that we simply weren’t good enough anyway? Many of today’s adults can relate to the adults in this book. But Trafton has a special gift for us. Henry wants us to remember. He wants us to remember that we were once superheroes too and that it is not too late for us.

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I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention the flawless illustration in this enchanting book. Not only is the illustration full of whimsy and child-like imagination, but it very strategically comes *after* the narrative. I love this! I love that we are given the opportunity to imagine the scene before we turn the page and find the delightful art. I also love that the art is begging to be colored in! (Hat Tip: Laure Hittle on Instagram for making that obvious to me.) My children are all getting Henry in their Easter baskets and I know that they will relish the opportunity to customize their books.

“People are like puzzle pieces. Put together, the shapes make a picture. And a friend is one whose shape fits into your shape – fits perfectly because it is different, opposite, like a key in a lock, or a foot in a shoe.”

As I write this, I am listening to Melodies for the Mended Wood (Joel Clarkson’s musical soundtrack for The Green Ember) and The Wishes of the Fish King Musical Score. This beautiful music is helping me to focus on the heroic themes in Henry and the Chalk Dragon and to reflect on the important work that The Rabbit Room is doing. I am a lover of old books and am usually fairly skeptical of new ones. Sometimes, however, new authors with old souls do something really special. They build on the legacy of the truly great children’s authors. They show a respect for the genius that came before them and they add their humble contribution in the hopes that it makes the world a better place.

C.S. Lewis once said that in writing Narnia, he was hoping to write something out of E. Nesbit. I, and many others, would argue that Lewis showed Nesbit, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and his other predecessors great respect in his borrowing of their ideas. Lewis built on their legacy in his own unique way.

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I am convinced that the authors at The Rabbit Room are continuing in Lewis’ and Shakespeare’s tradition. Every book I have read by a Rabbit Room author is covered in the fingerprints of the literary geniuses who defined their genres. But, like Lewis and Shakespeare, they are not mere borrowers. They jolly well pay back. I have yet to read a Rabbit Room book that has not made its genre richer. More Christ centered. More lovely.

Particulars:

This is a chapter book with a target audience of ages 7-11. The book is over 225 pages long.

Curriculum Guide: 

On her website, Jennifer Trafton has shared a free pdf with a robust and exciting curriculum guide. Teachers, librarians, and parents alike will find all kinds of fantastic resources for using this book to draw out the very best in their young readers. Find the free guide here.

Special Note to Parents of Special Needs Children:

When reading Henry, I could not help but wonder if Henry was on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that Henry’s quirky personality is supposed to be diagnosed. But I do think that families like mine will appreciate seeing a heroic character who has some of the social challenges that often indicate spectrum issues.

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Incredible Journey

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Today I am bawling into my laundry. My son read The Incredible Journey by Shelia Bunford a few weeks ago and begged me to read it. As I am writing this, I am ignoring the stack of notes I have from ten other books which I have read and need to review. I was worried about reading another book that I don’t have time to review, but I could not miss the opportunity to read something that my son was excited about. Given the volume of housework I have to get done, I opted for the Megan Follows audiobook from Audible. (Yes, THAT Megan Follows from Anne of Green Gables. She does audiobooks? Who knew?!) As I cleaned out closets in preparation for warmer weather clothing this weekend, I cried over the beauty of this story.

If ever a story was more aptly named than this one, I am not aware of it. To steal from Bunford, this story was incredible. A number of animal stories have some hefty sadness in them, and I respect why that it is.  This one, however, plays much more in the camps of perseverance, loyalty, healthy fear, and triumph. It is a glorious story of friendship and adventure. Animal lovers and naturalists will find much to love in Burnford’s storytelling.

When my nine-year-old son was reading this book, he would not come up for air. The story was gripping in places, hilarious in other places, and generally very intriguing. At mealtimes he would pepper the family conversation with tidbits he had learned from The Incredible Journey, like why Siamese cats have a crooked tail – so that they could safeguard the rings of Egyptian princesses who were bathing in the Nile river. The story is written in a friendly voice, it tells of an arduous and dangerous adventure, but it is also chock full of the kind of naturalist facts and legends that so often impress little boys.

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When the story opens, Luath (a young labrador retriever), Bodger (an old English bulldog), and Tao (a regal old Siamese cat) think that they have been abandoned by their human companions. Consequently, they embark on a three hundred mile journey across treacherous Northern Ontario in a search for their humans. Their journey is, as the name implies, nothing short of incredible.

During the journey, the pets experience some perilous encounters in which they accumulate scars and suffer life-changing injuries. Throughout, the reader experiences some genuine fear for the safety of the animals. While this may be emotionally difficult for a young reader, Burnford’s writing offers us a good amount of solace and helps us to focus on the triumph rather than the hurt. Each challenge renders the animals stronger, more loyal to each other, and more noble. We learn that as the animals persevere through the obstacles, their friendship with each other becomes more central to their individual identity.

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While the animals make this remarkable trek, they are helped along the way by kindly humans. Burnford builds this natural charity into the story in a way that is utterly real. It does not feel fabricated or forced in the least. The animals were pets, after all. They understand their role in the company of humans and they enjoy the comforts that human companionship provides. When the journey is still new and the domesticated animals haven’t found their primal hunting instincts yet, they enjoy the campfire and dinner scraps of Indians who take their visit as a good omen for the harvest. When the animals are truly down and out, they veer off of their path to stop at a hospitable farmhouse. When Tao is backed into a corner by a lynx, it is a hunter who saves him. When Luath’s jaw is infected and nearly swollen shut from porcupine quills, it is a gentle old farmer who lovingly treats the sick dog.

In this story, Burnford captures the intrinsic beauty of domesticated animals who are capable of living two kinds of lives: the primal and the companionable. She based this fictional story on her own pets, and her experience with their vivid personalities makes these characters perfectly real.

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In 1963, Disney made a marvelous movie out of this book. While the movie producers made minor alterations to the story (presumably to remove some of the animal violence) they captured the spirit of the book. The book and the movie rely on non-verbal interaction between the pets. The use of a narrator gives the story an observer’s perspective. When the animals interact with the humans, we listen in on their dialogue in much the same way that they animals are doing. Watching the movie with my kids, I realized that the book and the movie remind me of the book and the movie versions of How The West Was Won. Perhaps it is a silly comparison, but for me, both had the same general tone – a narrator telling of motivated characters who are embarking on a dangerous westward adventure that would require great fortitude, courage, tenacity, and community building. Also like How The West Was Won, these sweeping North American epics are told by narrators who stand at a distance, and in awe of the central characters.

As I said above, my nine-year-old son read this as part of his daily reading with no preparation. I followed up by reading with my ears via Audible. I decided that the book would be a stretch for my seven year old to read independently and a little too scary for my six-year-old to listen to via audiobook. If I had been reading this one aloud, I think that my littlest guy would have been just fine. Our reading stack is just too tall right now for us to sneak this in. So, instead of waiting to read the book, I decided to show the movie on a sick day. I am really glad I did! The movie producers opted to reduce some of the animal violence and they chose to film the scary parts in bright daylight – making them less scary. The movie producers also did such a lovely job filming the human vignettes, that no viewer was permitted to be in doubt of the ultimate happy resolve of the story. It was as if those human characters were serving as cheerleaders, rooting for the animals and promising us that Burnford wasn’t going to let them come to permanent harm. In this way, I can now give the audiobook to my six and seven-year-olds and know that they will enjoy it without fear. They will still have to grapple with the challenges that the animals undergo, but they will not be in doubt of the outcome. That reassurance will help them to love the story and appreciate the heroic struggle of Luath, Bodger, and Tao.

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