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

Stories We Shared

This gorgeous family reading journal from Douglas Kaine McKelvey is landing on doorsteps all over the country this week. Created during the “Wishes of the Fish King” Kickstarter campaign, Doug and illustrator Jamin Still took an idea from our book club and infused it with magic and wisdom. As the “Wishes of the Fish King” rewards land, this journal is sitting in many of those goodie boxes.

A full review of the journal is forthcoming. In the meantime, Doug gave us permission to put pictures from the journal here so that people could get a feel for it. There is a copy for each of my children waiting under the Christmas tree!

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Princess and the Goblin

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories

In The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald treats us to a rich imaginative adventure. Like Bilbo Baggins, however, we must be a bit uncomfortable to get the most out of it. This little tale is incredibly sophisticated, and to understand it best we must become little children again.

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“…a little princess living in a castle in the mountains which is perpetually undermined, so to speak, by subterranean demons who sometimes come up through the cellars.” – GK Chesterton, George MacDonald 1929 (This affiliate link will take you to a collection of essays by Chesterton – the MacDonald essay is included in that publication.)

As adults, we have learned too much to really understand the magic of true fairy tales. When Jesus said to let the little children come to Him, I believe that one of His meanings was that we must shed our worldly prejudices and return to child-like faith and innocence. In Princess, this is especially true, for us and for Princess Irene. In Princess, childish wonder and awe are absolutely requisite for us to really “see” Grandmother. Even if she seems unsafe, remember that Aslan is not a tame lion and that Gandalf afflicted the comfortable hobbits to awaken their desire for what is the true good.

C.S. Lewis said that George MacDonald baptized his imagination. In The Great Divorce, Lewis wrote MacDonald in as the ambassador from heaven. In his own writing and in Lewis’s treatment of him, I think that MacDonald has a gift for drawing back the veil between the spiritual world and the material world. It would be terrifying for us mere mortals to look on real angels and demons, and so, in the world of Faerie, they are disguised as goblins, fairies, elves, dwarfs, princesses and godmothers. This makes them accessible to us in a guise that we can tolerate.

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In the opening lines of Princess, MacDonald tells us that Princess Irene is eight years old but will become “much older.” On a rainy day, Irene sneaks out of her royal rooms and explores her old country castle only to  discover a really old grandmother in a hidden room. Irene immediately loves the old woman and trusts her. Most children share in Irene’s faith. Adult readers, however, are skeptical and uneasy with this mysterious creature. What is magical and fairy-like to children, is dark and witch-like to parents.

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories

Irene tells her nursemaid all about her newly discovered grandmother, only to not be believed. When Grandmother explains to Irene why the nurse cannot come to her room, we understand that it is because the nurse is not capable of belief. She has not been called up to the special hidden room because the old woman only reveals herself to those will see and believe. Further, Grandmother tells Irene that she will be challenged in the days to come and that she will be tempted to think that all of this was just a dream. Grandmother promises that she will do all in her power to help Irene truly believe, but that ultimately the princess must choose of her own free will to persist in her belief. As readers, and readers of Narnia in particular, we hope that she is not like Susan Pevensie, and that she has not grown so old that she cannot grow young again.

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Readers of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien will delight in exploring the archetypes and source material for Narnia and Middle Earth in this robust little story. If we have eyes to see, we will see the parentage of Gandalf and Aslan in Grandmother. We will see that Grandmother is not tame and that she can’t be found when she doesn’t want to be. If we rightly understand the goblins as Curdie does, we will see Gollum in them. We will see those bitter and dark creatures as something that used to resemble humans before they went underground. If we wonder at the thread that Grandmother has spun for Irene and Curdie, we will notice how it resembles the rope of Galadriel and how it gives rescue and a way home to those who are lost and blind. If we listen to Curdie’s rhymes, we will be reminded of Bilbo and Gollum’s game, and we will know that both scenes are borrowed from Beowulf.

“I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-stories

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that all myths are true but that Christ is the Truth myth. According to Chesterton, we were wired for belief at our creation, so that we would be able to enter into the greatest act of faith: belief in Jesus Christ. As post-moderns, we tend to think of “myth” as being an untrue fairy story. Chesterton argues that old (and new) myths are true in that they point us to the true story of God, His creation, and His redemption of humanity. Our primal love of myth is us trying to remember what God wrote on our hearts before our birth. Myths are the echoes, albeit distorted, of Truth.

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When I read it as a child, I felt that the whole thing was happening inside a real human house, not necessarily unlike the house I was living in, which also had staircases and rooms and cellars.” – GK Chesterton, George MacDonald, 1929

This gorgeous story is ideal for children as young as you can get them. Real fairy tales like this are the best kind of nursery food to feast on. And, if you are lucky, your children will call out, “Again!” and, “Again!” giving them the chance to re-enter the magic many times over. If you can refrain from trying to make the story less scary, Irene may be able to take the children by the hand and lead them through this world that is more substantial than adults want to believe. This adventure will help to shape their moral imaginations and will prepare them to embrace the white magic of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

“…I for one can testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed.” –  GK Chesterton, George MacDonald 1929

As I was writing this, a new episode of Center for Lit’s podcast series, BiblioFiles was posted. In it, the Center for Lit crew talk with Andrew Pudewa about George MacDonald and his heirs and how the genre of fantasy connects us with things that are as old as time. It is an excellent podcast and I highly recommend it.

If you want to learn a little bit more about MacDonald and his stories for adults, check out this Rabbit Room podcast about George MacDonald, also posted recently.

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The version which I photographed for this review is part of the Illustrated Junior Library series. This out of print series is one of my most favorite children’s series as most of the texts are unabridged and accompanied by gorgeous illustration. At the time of writing this, the price is around $30. I purchased my copy for less than $8. If you decide to look for this one, just be patient.

My family and I really enjoyed the unabridged Audible version of this book narrated by Ian Whitcomb. Best of all, if you buy the $.99 kindle version, then the audio is just $2.99.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Ember Falls (The Green Ember Series: Book 2)

“To bear the flame means more than only holding on to the fire kindled in the Green Ember’s rising. It means to bear the fatal flames of the enemy, to bear up under the scorching heat of these hateful days.”

Turn on the news for even just a few seconds and it is hard to deny that we are living in perilous times. Sometimes, especially when I think about my children and the world they are inheriting, I can tend to despair and lose hope. Often, it just feels like too much. When I get lost in those moments of hopelessness and fear, it is usually because I have briefly forgotten an important truth: we are living in the middle of the story. As a Christian, I have a very real faith that all will be restored and set right. I hope in Christ and trust that, because of His life, death, and resurrection, evil will be defeated and true justice and mercy will ultimately prevail. This world, these headlines, this darkness surrounding us—it is not the end. We are in the middle of the story.

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The middle of the story is hard—in real life and in fiction. And that is what I was thinking when I first read Ember Falls, the second book in The Green Ember series by S.D. Smith.  Our hero and heroine, siblings Picket and Heather Longtreader, are in the middle of their story. They have seen many victories, but the ultimate victory—the Mended Wood–still eludes them. War is upon them. They face hardship and wrestle with betrayal. They must decide if they will fight on despite the seeming hopelessness of their situation, or if they will surrender to the enclosing darkness.  It looks, in fact, very much like where we seem to be in our own story, which is why I think that Ember Falls is one of the most important books I have read this year.

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Just like The Green Ember before it, Ember Falls is a story that nourishes the moral imagination and fills the soul with Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The Green Ember has been called “a new story with an old soul,” and this newest installment is that as well. It is timeless, but it is also very much a book for our times.  

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In spite of the fact that the main characters are rabbits, Ember Falls is truly a story about what it means to be human. Their struggles, their fears, their hopes, their loves—they all echo the cries of our own hearts in these darkening times. They have the same kinds of choices to make as we have. Some choose sacrifice, loyalty, and courage. Others choose selfishness, betrayal, and alliance with the darkness ravaging the land. The consequences of those choices are very real and very hard. Some wrestle with remorse, or with forgiveness. Their victories–and their pains–resonate with us and are stored up in the deepest parts of our souls.

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Our children need this book.  It is not just a good book. Although, it is a very good book. Smith’s writing is beautiful and succinct. Like its predecessor, it is full of adventure and action. (There are still lots of rabbits with swords!) It is also shocking and includes some exciting surprises and plot twists. It is even deeper and more complex than The Green Ember and, as the characters mature, the story does too.  But our children need this book because it points them to Truth. It echoes the moment of the story that they are currently living, the one being written by the Great Storyteller. This is just the middle of the story.  And as Heather and Picket and the other characters in Ember Falls live out the middle of their story, they give us and our children courage to take heart too, knowing with full confidence that “it will not be so in the Mended Wood,” and that they, too, can

“Bear the Flame.”

(Ember Falls will officially be released on September 13, but is available for preorder on Amazon NOW!)

I also highly recommend the rest of The Green Ember series and associated books by S.D. Smith: The Green Ember and The Black Star of Kingston.  Smith is the founder of  Storywarren.com, a beautiful website that exists to serve parents as they foster holy imagination in their children.  Check it out!

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Terrible Speed of Mercy

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Just over a year ago my Facebook book club decided that we wanted to harness some of the fun we saw in books like 84 Charing Cross Road and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. We developed a pen pal group and started exchanging letters with book friends all over the world. As things progressed and letters got fatter, the need for nonstandard postage grew. As fate would have it, this was the same time that the Flannery O’Connor stamp was being sold by the U.S. Postal Service. I bought the beautiful stamps even though every time I looked at them, I knew that I was a coward and a fraud.

I was terrified of reading Flannery O’Connor.

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Everything that I had heard about Miss O’Connor was that she was Southern Gothic and that she wrote horror stories. I can’t do horror stories.  I always presumed her work to be macabre and something unholy. As a Catholic and lover of classics I always puzzled over her name being connected with great modern Catholic writers, but was too cowardly to meet her on her own terms.

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Last winter I started binge-listening to CiRCE Institute podcasts. I was new to CiRCE and I was drinking deeply from their fountain of goodness. I became particularly intrigued by Dr. Brian Phillips’ podcast “The Commons.” I made sure to listen to his interview with Jonathan Rogers on Flannery O’Connor. I was intrigued, encouraged, and, unbelievably, excited.

At the same time my friend Heidi Scovel of Mt. Hope Chronicles was reading Flannery O’Connor with her in-real-life book club, so we started talking about all things O’Connor in our online book club. Heidi had just read Rogers’ biography of O’Connor, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, and she was able to share enough quotes with me to allay my fears and excite my interest. I bought the little book and tucked it into my suitcase for reading on a long distance trip.

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It was so good and so useful that I immediately purchased his biography on St. Patrick. I was just completely convinced of Rogers’ genius and enamored with his style.

This is a beautifully crafted book. It was the most perfect orientation to the heart and mind of Flannery O’Connor and it gave me the confidence to meet her writing with the right openness of mind. I credit Mr. Rogers with helping me to fall in love with this remarkable author and her important fiction.

“And more than ever now it seems that the kingdom of heaven has to be taken by violence or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that pushes you.” The Habit of Being, 229.

This beautiful biography has some spoilers in it for the new O’Connor reader – but I confess – those spoilers were a mercy to me. Knowing the fate of the grandmother in one particularly dark story prepared me and helped me to read the story with the right focus.

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I think that Mr. Rogers must really love Flannery O’Connor. He works very hard to let her tell her own self-story by citing countless letters and essays. While he gives us the outline, he fills it in with her own words and ideas and does it in a way that feels relaxed, friendly, and intelligent – like his subject herself. He shows profound respect for her theology and faith and works hard to help the reader understand how those beliefs influenced O’Connor’s attitudes and writing.

I genuinely feel like I have met and chatted with this remarkable soul, thanks to Mr. Rogers. I sobbed at her death and appreciated his beautiful treatment of it.

“It is remarkable to think about this woman – who had made a name for herself with stories of earthly terror and grotesquerie – meditating every day on the province of joy, lest she be ignorant of the concerns of her true country. All that darkness was in the service of eternal brightness. All that violence was in the service of peace and serenity.” (p 162)

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Black Star of Kingston

I have often stated that when I first read The Green Ember by S. D. Smith last year, I was enchanted, delighted, and completely riveted. As a frequent reader of educational philosophy and dusty tomes of classic literature, I could not imagine how it was possible for me to be so emotionally attached to rabbits, let alone rabbits with swords. But I was. I was totally and completely captivated by the world and the characters that Smith had created in The Green Ember, and I longed for more of the story. As I said in my review last month, The Green Ember absolutely begged for a sequel, but as I read the bits of backstory that Smith wove into that beautiful tale, I realized that it also demanded a history.

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Happily, Smith did not disappoint and he released a prequel, The Black Star of Kingston, last summer. The Black Star of Kingston is the first in an expected series of books called “The Tales of Old Natalia.” More novella than novel, it is shorter than The Green Ember, but it is not any less enticing. It takes place a century before the characters in The Green Ember come onto the scene, and you learn essential information about who they are, where they come from, and what they are fighting for. The main character is an ordinary rabbit with no particular recommendation on his character or ability, yet he is called on to try and save king and country in order to preserve a heritage, protect a legacy, and help to create a stability that can last for generations.  Like The Green Ember, The Black Star of Kingston is filled with memorable, courageous, and sometimes frightening characters. It is full of all of the elements you would expect in a “new story with an old soul,” such as courage, honor, friendship, loyalty, and of course, truth, goodness, and beauty. It is a hero tale, where the stakes are high and victories are not without losses. And it is a rollicking good adventure story that keeps the reader on the edge of the seat.

 

Friends, this is a book for our times.

 

As I have said before, I believe that stories form us. When we read stories, we scatter seeds in the ground of our souls. Those characters, those virtues, those adventures take root and grow into our hearts in ways that can profoundly change us. When we read of Fleck Blackstar’s loyalty and courage, something of that sense of duty and bravery is deposited into our souls and minds as well.  Smith’s writing speaks into the hearts of those of us who are watching the world darken around us and are clamoring to find the light again. This book is a candle in the darkness. The Blackstar of Kingston is a story that nourishes the souls of our children, depositing seeds that one day will grow into virtue when it is most desperately needed in our culture. We need to fill our hearts, minds, and souls with stories like these. It is my deepest conviction, today more than ever, that stories like these are a full-out assault on the darkness that is closing in on all sides.

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Thankfully, Smith is providing us with more ammunition. In addition to The Green Ember and The Black Star of Kingston, he is currently near the end of a Kickstarter campaign to publish the next book in The Green Ember series, Ember Falls. By supporting this project, you are taking your place in the ranks, helping more of these beautiful stories find their way into the hands of more families, sowing more seeds. The Kickstarter ends in just three days.  Won’t you join the cause? We need more candles, friends. Let’s light up the darkness.

 

“He had always been wise enough to see and bold enough to act. Now he was becoming brave enough to hope.”

 

 

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***A note about reading order. It is our recommendation that the books be read in publication order. Read The Green Ember first. Then follow it with the history of Natalia by reading The Black Star of Kingston. Both books stand solidly on their own and can absolutely be read alone or in the opposite order. But just as the Old Testament can only be rightly understood in light of the New Testament, The Black Star of Kingston is much more rich when you are able to read the future into the past. And, by all means, you absolutely must read both before Ember Falls is officially published this fall. If you haven’t read The Black Star of Kingston, we have AMAZING news: it is FREE on Kindle at the time of publication.

 

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