Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Black Stallion

Black-Stallion-Horse-4K-Wallpaper

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.

03-Chariot-Race-Ben-Hur-1959-Charlton-Heston

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.

black
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.

IMG_6252

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.

IMG_6254

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.

IMG_6253

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. 

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Incredible Journey

disney

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.

6d226bacae80abe378bbcb13416c8875

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.

the-incredible-journey-DI-03

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.

The_Incredible_Journey

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.

Incredible-Journey

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Little Girl Life

For months I have wanted to read and review as many “little girl” books as possible because our book club is always asking for more recommendations in this vein. Being a perfectionist, I wanted to wait to publish something until it was “complete”. I am beginning to fear that that project will never get off of the ground because I will always be waiting for “enough” time to get into it.

As an interim solution, I am going to list my favorite “little girl” series in this post. I am focusing on those stories which are spread out over more than one volume, have traditional values, are either timeless or pre-modern, celebrate the season in life before the “little girl” comes of age, and is written in a particularly charming voice. As I am able to critically read all of the books in each series, I will review them and update this article with links to those reviews.

Please don’t take these age recommendations too seriously. They are just very general guides.

Very Little Girls (4-8)
Fairchild Family Series (4 books)
Betsy Tacy Series (first 4 books)
Grandma’s Attic Series (first 4 books)

Little Girls (6-10)
Caddie Woodlawn and Caddie Woodlawn’s Family
Little House on the Prairie Series
Latsch Valley Farm Series (5 books)

Big Little Girls (8-12)
All of a Kind Family Series (5 books)
Five Little Peppers Series (There are 12 books in the series, I am only familiar with the first 2)
Mitchell Series (3 books)

**Note: most of these are available via Audible.

IMG_3028.jpg

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint

In 1956, Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams published their first young reader science fiction book: Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint. Penned almost fifteen years before Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon, the science in this series is dated but still magical and full of wonder. Nearly seventy-five years after H.G. Wells’ publication of War of the Worlds, this brand of science fiction is about possibility instead of terror. At a time when science fiction was exciting and the thing that many little boys dreamed of, the Danny Dunn books are a snapshot of 1950s American childhood with all of its hope and traditional values.

Typical of boys of that era, Danny is smart, curious, respectful of his mother, and famous for getting in and out of trouble. While Danny’s age is never really mentioned, it can be presumed that he is in the 10-14 age range throughout the series.

Danny’s father died when he was a baby. To provide for her little family, Danny’s mother became the live-in housekeeper for an eccentric but wise physics professor at the local university. Professor Bullfinch serves as a loving, kind, and invested father figure in Danny’s life. The home life in this book is heart warming, traditional, and fun to read. Danny’s mom has a good bit of personality, Professor Bullfinch is reliably strong, and Danny could not love and admire both of them more. Through a combination of natural aptitude and the influence of an excellent mentor, Danny desires to be a scientist when he grows up.

In this first book, Professor Bullfinch discovers a substance which they dub “Anti Gravity Paint.” While the science is really unclear, it doesn’t resort to cheap magical tricks. There is a sincere effort to use scientific reasoning and what little information they knew about space to make this plausible. What we know now probably makes it harder to accept the ideas as credible theories, but it really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story line. Perhaps a little bit like watching old Doctor Who or Star Trek, we just laugh at their misunderstandings of rockets and outer space.

Thanks to an emphasis on STEM and the celebrity status of scientists today, there are a number of science-themed children’s series’ available. Many, however, are not that great. This series was created in a time when traditional values promoted a culture of respect and optimism which is sadly missing in storylines today. Highly creative and moderately old-fashioned, I would say that this series is more wholesome than the Lucy and Steven Hawking, “George and the Secret Key” series or the Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, “Nick and Tesla” series, but less “perfect” than Homer Price. I do recommend this book, but I want to highlight a couple of reservations. 

The first book of the series was published in 1956. Danny’s teacher (and the childhood teachers of the others scientists in the story) are unimaginative, small minded, and rather punitive when feeling challenged. Despite the private agreements between Danny, the professor, and his mother that these teachers lack vision, Danny is respectful and compliant when being corrected by the misguided adults. Refreshingly, Danny’s mother and the professor each support the teachers’ corrections despite disagreeing with them; a wonderful classic example of old fashioned parenting.

Sadly, however, Danny has a habit of bending the rules – even when he knows it is wrong. When required to write 500 sentences as a correction from his teacher, Danny accepts the help of a friend after first articulating that it would be wrong to do so. Shortly after that, when Danny has a secret, he tells lies of omission to his mother, whom he otherwise respects and honors. In both cases, Danny rationalizes these decisions and justifies them to himself. I wasn’t impressed with this turn of events.

Because of the lying and cheating, I decided to purchase the two audiobooks, but declined to purchase the spines of any of the fifteen books in the series. My concerns are small ones, but until I have time to preview more of the books, I don’t like the idea of small, poor choices compounding over many books and subtly teaching my son that lying and cheating are an acceptable way to get things done.

 

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

What If: Serious Scientific Answers

A few years ago some friends recommended What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe because I have a very science-minded little boy who loves “what if” type questions. Munroe started his career by building robots for NASA. He is the author of a very popular webcomic and science Q&A blog: “What If.” The concept of the book is that he answers strange and ridiculous questions that have true scientific possibilities. The format is fantastic. Fans of the blog submit wild questions and Munroe answers those questions with stick figure comics, a friendly tone, and serious theoretical science. I loved this book. Until I didn’t. I will probably love this book again down the road.

This review is tricky to write. My desire to talk about this book with parents of young readers comes from the nuances I found in the writing. For mature teens or adult readers who are well grounded in their worldview, I think that my comments are mere quibbles. For young readers, however, I think that caution is necessary.

The book is fantastic, except that, understandably, not all of the scientific answers are entirely wholesome. While this book is a wonderful adventure into theoretical science, it suffers under the sad limitations of secular bias and separation from theological possibilities. Of course, I expected that. I just wish that it weren’t so. I am not arguing with Munroe. I am just stating it for the Christian readers of this blog who want to know how appropriate this book would be for creationists and those who hold biblical values. Much of the science has nothing to do with religious questions, but some does. So, know that.

Really, I am not foolish enough to expect popular modern scientists to be any different than Carl Sagan’s Ellie Arroway. I fully expect rationalists, theoretical scientists in particular, to be staunchly entrenched in the post-Enlightenment camp. I completely disagree with their position, but I do understand and respect it.

What I find maddeningly frustrating about this book is that it is ridiculously attractive to curious science-minded readers, young and old. And, because this book is very attractive to young readers, it is sad that the secular humanistic tendencies of the writing do nothing to protect young readers from topics beyond their level of innocence. While the book is written in such a way that nine-year-olds can grasp much of the explanation, sadly, it covers territory not fit for nine-year-olds. Specifically, what I find a bit dangerous is that many rationalists and secular humanists seek to make questions about sexuality purely rational and simplistic. For many, it is part of an agenda to “properly educate” children in the progressive way and desensitize them to traditional religious understanding on moral teaching. I would not presume to assert that that is what Munroe is attempting to do. Rather that the progressive mindset has conditioned two generations to think this way already, so they see no reason why they should be careful in presenting material in a way that considers the innocence of its readers.

In fairness, there is no indication that this book is designed for nine-year-olds. From what I can tell, Munroe intends this book for more mature audiences. I don’t mean to throw mud on the book, but merely caution parents. This review is asserting praise for the concept generally, and voicing concern for parents of young readers specifically.

The chapter that caused me the most concern is entitled “Self Fertilization.” The question posits whether or not researchers would be able to extract bone marrow stem cells in such a way that a woman could impregnate herself. Munroe responds, “To make a human you need two sets of DNA.” Fair enough. The nine and a half pages that follow explain the science of reproduction, DNA, chromosomes, inbreeding coefficient, etc. Not how I want to talk to my son about reproduction, but good science. The trouble is that, typical of his friendly style, Munroe interjects social commentary into the chapter. “Self-fertilization is a risky strategy, which is why sex is so popular among large and complex organisms. (footnote: Well, one of the reasons.)” Also, “occasionally complex animals that reproduce asexually, but this behavior is relatively rare. It typically appears in environments where it is difficult to reproduce sexually, whether due to resource scarcity, population isolation… or overconfident theme park operators.” Clearly, he has not said anything scandalous here. What he has done, however, is take the miracle of life and essentially put it in a petri dish. As a lover of science, I get it. God’s miracles are not diminished by us understanding how He uses biology to effect His will. But the callous treatment of questions that deserve some wonder and awe makes me sad, and until my son is more mature, this isn’t the way that I want him thinking of these issues.

I own both the hardback book and the audiobook from Audible. My husband and I have discerned that this book is generally pretty good for our son. Instead of taking the book away, I did something I almost never do; I cut the chapter out. Until Christians write books like this (who knows, maybe my son will someday), we are going to have to deal with some of this. That said, we simply don’t need that chapter. At this time, I still don’t know what to do about the Audible recording. I cannot delete a chapter, that I am aware of.

As my son exits early childhood and moves into the transition years, we are going to have more and more challenges like this. The tension between living in, but not of the world is always present. It is my hope that we can find a balance without compromising our values. Because we are enchanted with science, I think we are going to be working through many books like this on a case-by-case basis. As we do, I hope to continue to review them here for parents in a similar predicament.

“Physics does not change the nature of the world it studies, and no science of behavior can change the essential nature of man, even though both sciences yield technologies with a vast power to manipulate the subject matters.” (Pope Paul VI)

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

No talent is wholly wasted unless its owner chooses to hide it in a napkin.

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published her most famous novel, Little Women, featuring four sisters and their varied experiences of growing into womanhood. The next year she published another beautiful story of the same ilk. An Old Fashioned Girl seemed to me to be one of the first great American coming-of-age stories for wholesome girls. Very different from Little Women, it was, in my opinion, almost more interesting.

rsf-chap5
In 1903, Kate Douglas Wiggin published a story that would build on that kind of old-fashioned girl power and contribute to a great standard for stories of its kind. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a lively, moral, creative, and enchanting story about a little girl whose irrepressible good nature gets her into scrapes that are both funny and relatable. Rebecca Rowena Randall is larger than life and absolutely darling.

At this moment the thought gradually permeated Mr. Jeremiah Cobb’s slow-moving mind that the bird perched by his side was a bird of very different feather from those to which he was accustomed in his daily drives.

While reading Rebecca for the first time last year I was struck by how much Wiggin’s style reminded me of Alcott, but her characters reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s. Rebecca opens with a journey that features a tenderhearted but practically mute old soul and a gregarious little lady who speaks in dreams and poetry. Sound familiar? It was not the first time that I was instantly reminded of the Anne of Green Gables.

rebecca-carriage

Throughout this story, I had to remind myself that this was set in the American Northeast and not on Prince Edward Island. I also had to convince myself that precocious and cheerful Rebecca was not Anne Shirley (1908), Jerusha (Judy) Abbot (1912), nor Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913). Rebecca predates them all and I cannot escape the suspicion that she may have had a hand in inspiring those other iconic young heroines.

If you happen to be feeling that your faults are too numerous to overcome, rejoice that you have a few warm little faults and be glad you aren’t burdened with an over abundance of chilly virtues.

Like those other worthy stories for girls (and their brothers), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not only a joy to read, but is also filled with nourishing goodness for readers young and old. Like any great heroine, Rebecca has the right kind of heart but makes a lot of mistakes in learning to use it properly. Like Anne Shirley and Judy Abbot, Rebecca is an aspiring writer who is dependent on the sponsorship of outside benefactors. Like Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm tackles Victorian ideas about the role of children in society, and their ability to bring meaningful, positive change into the lives of their neighbors.

The brimming glass that overflows its own rim moistens the earth about it.

I would recommend Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to older elementary school-aged listeners and late middle school independent readers. It is utterly wholesome, but probably won’t be terribly interesting to the youngest listeners. The audiobook with Barbara Caruso is wonderful to listen to. Sadly, the Shirley Temple movie is radically different and really ought not to bear the same name.

I would consider this book a “must have” for any good family library. It can be shelved right between Alcott and Montgomery. Because the story covers several years worth of Rebecca’s life, it really is a coming-of-age story. As Rebecca matures, the situations around her also mature. As in Little Women and the early Anne books, readers will walk with Rebecca through loss, some small suffering, and some challenging decisions. As in Pollyanna, Rebecca’s resilient optimism is central to her winning the respect of those who need her love just as much as she needs theirs. Similarly to Daddy Long Legs, Rebecca’s path is made easier because of a mysterious benefactor who ultimately becomes more than just a donor.

12187842_10153264785026375_2599293397282052764_n

Fancy the job of finding a real mind; of dropping seed in a soil so warm, so fertile, that one knows there are sure to be foliage, blossoms, and fruit all in good time.

This is my favorite copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – it is out of print but the color plates make it worth the effort to find. This is my daughter’s favorite copy of Rebecca.

12105944_10153264784791375_4257265286392555476_n