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. 

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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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.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Landmark Books on Audio

Like many living books homeschoolers, I am falling in love with Landmark books. While we have some other articles coming on this subject, we did discover something sort of special that was worth sharing right away. Some Landmark books are available via Audible! Sterling Point Books is small press dedicated to offering books for boys 10-15 years old specifically in the narrative history and biography genres. Part of what they have done is bring great old books back into print. Some of the titles in their catalog are Landmark books. (Be careful, however, not all are Landmark. Frankly, the catalog is uneven. I was really disappointed in a few of the books.)

If you are not an Audible member and have been curious about the costs and tricks of having a membership, check out our article here.

Here is a list of the handful of Landmark Books which have been reprinted by Sterling Point and made into audiobooks:

Alexander the Great by John Gunter
The Barbary Pirates by C.S. Forester
Daniel Boone by John Mason Brown
George Washington: Frontier Colonel by Sterling North*
Geronimo – Wolf of the Warpath by Ralph Moody
John Paul Jones – The Pirate Patriot by Armstrong Sperry
Lawrence of Arabia by Alistair MacLean
The Sinking of the Bismarck by William L. Shirer

 

*Be careful! There are 2 Sterling Point George Washington biographies. Be sure to get the Sterling North version. That is the Landmark book.

Landmark books which are not at Audible but are reprinted by Sterling Point Books:

Lee and Grant At Appomattox by MacKinlay Kantor
Swamp Fox of the Revolution by Stewart H. Holbrook

Landmark books which ARE at Audible but not printed by Sterling Point Books:

The Witchcraft of Salem Villages by Shirley Jackson

 

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

Roverandom

In 1925, four-year-old Michael Tolkien lost his beloved toy dog on the beach. To console him, his father, J.R.R. Tolkien, improvised a story about Rover, a real dog who is magically transformed into a toy and is forced to seek out the wizard who wronged him in order to be returned to normal. This charming tale, peopled by a sand-sorcerer and a terrible dragon, by the king of the sea and the Man-in-the-Moon, endured several drafts over the years. Now, more than seventy years later, the adventures of Rover are published for the first time.” – Roverandom 1999 Jacket Description

Reading this again last month, I was struck with envy and awe: the Tolkien children had JRR Tolkien as their dad! This phenomenal subcreator of Middle Earth blessed readers everywhere with his wildly imaginative stories, but while he lectured at Oxford, drank with CS Lewis, and published stories about a world that seems real to so many of us, he came home at night and lavished his love on Michael, Priscilla, Christopher and John Tolkien. I cannot help but feel some envy for the souls who got to call him Daddy and get lost in his storytelling on a regular basis.

Christopher Tolkien, the youngest of Tolkien’s sons, was always interested in his father’s writing. Like his dad, he became a professor of English Language at Oxford and is the literary executor of his father’s literary estate. Christopher has made a life’s work out of going through his deceased father’s papers, journals, partially written stories, and letters.

Originally submitted for publication after the success of The Hobbit, Roverandom was rejected by publishers. Christopher brought it forward again in 1998 in a collection of Tolkien short stories called Tales of the Perilous Realm. I own the Alan Lee illustrated version of this collection. Roverandom is the first book in that collection and it sets just the right tone for this canon of unrelated stories. Roverandom was also published as a separate spine complete with illustration from Tolkien

While listening to the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi, I just kept thinking about how much it feels like I am listening to a hobbit or old wizard retell a lost fairy tale from George MacDonald. It reminds me of The Princess and the Goblin but it is much funnier and more full of creative adventure. Brimming over with mythology and fantasy, it is also quite innocent. Nothing like The Hobbit, it was written as a story from a father to his son. As such, it is a beautiful way to introduce children to Tolkien. My youngest has loved the story since he was four.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Letters From Father Christmas

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Several years ago I discovered this beautiful book. Published posthumously by Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien never really meant these for public consumption. Written annually to his children in the guise of Father Christmas or Polar Bear, Tolkien regaled his children with tales from the North Pole and the challenges that old Father Christmas had in keeping his not so helpful polar bear in line. This book is absolutely enchanting and the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi is a real treat!

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Quintessential Tolkien, these letters are a mixture of Norse mythology, Christian legend, Catholic belief, and fatherly love. They delight us because they strike a chord within us about the true magic of a pure Christmas spirit. And, they are utterly personal. The warmth and teasing clearly communicate Tolkien’s paternal gratification in entertaining his children. The sophisticated language and mythological references seek to nurture the wild imaginations of his clan while also marrying the myths to the transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

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One tiny word of caution: because these letters chronicle many years of Tolkien family Christmases, we see how the various children outgrow their belief in Santa Claus. There are small references throughout to the younger children about how the older children are no longer hanging out the stockings. If you practice the Santa myth in your home, and you have a child on the edge of disbelief, this may raise questions for them. If you do this as a family read aloud, those references can very easily be skipped over. If you do this as an audiobook, that is going to be unavoidable. That said, Tolkien is quite careful because, of course, he is still writing to Priscilla and Christopher who do still believe.

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I have the 2004 Harper Collins hardcover red edition from the Tolkien estate. I chose this printing because it matches my Alan Lee illustrated Hobbit and my Lord of the Rings volumes from the Tolkien estate. Letters From Father Christmas is exactly the same size as my Alan Lee Hobbit: approximately  9 7/8″ tall by 7 3/4″ wide. It is the same height as the Lord of the Rings, but about 3/4″ wider. The full color illustration is extravagantly poured onto almost every page. At time of publication, this edition is expensive on Amazon. I purchased mine used and it shipped from the UK.

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It is my understanding that the beautiful version I have does not contain all of the letters. If you are a purist and want all of the letters, you may want to consider this version which is 50 pages longer than my edition.

For several years I have stalked Amazon and Audible looking for a digital copy of the Derek Jacobi audiobook to purchase. While Audible UK had it for sale, it was not available for sale in the US. I even opened an Audible UK account to try to purchase this audiobook (and other Tolkien books like Roverandom, Mr. Bliss, Leaf By Niggle, etc.) but was unable to check out because I had a US mailing address. I was tickled pink yesterday when I saw them appear in Audible US for sale!

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