Here are some book reviews taken from the Oct., 2007, issue of my free e-mail homeschooling newsletter, Biblical Homeschooling ( email@example.com or http://groups.yahoo.com/group/biblicalhomeschooling ).
Barth, Jeff. "The Missionary Adventures of Bob & Arty" (published by Parable Publishing House, 339 Parkhill Rd., Middlebury, VT 05753). Several years ago I remember reading an article or news item in some homeschooling publication about whether homeschooled children should read "Frank & Joe" (the Hardy Boys) or "Bob & Arty." I really do not see why they cannot read both! Yes, "Bob & Arty" are more specifically geared toward emphasizing faith in God but "the Hardy Boys" are still good role models who stand up for what is right and even are said to attend church. Recently, I purchased three of the five "Bob & Arty" books–In Search of the Lost Missionary (#1, 1997), Mission Alaska! (#2, 1998), and The Storm! (#3, 1999) and did them as read alouds for Jeremy, age 11. He really enjoyed them. There is much to like about these stories. Set in 1965, the books tell how homeschool graduates Bob, 21, and Arty, 20 (were there actually religious homeschoolers back then–at least, out in the public?) use their DC-3 plane (dubbed Old Gabe), given to them by their father who runs an air freight company, to do "missionary" service work. In their first adventure, they go in search of a lost missionary in the South Sea Islands and end up being captured by pearl smugglers. In the second book, they fly up to Alaska to deliver supplies to a missionary among the Eskimos and help bring to justice a vicious group of dog-sled gamblers. Volume 4 finds the family heading to assist some missionary friends in South America where they are forced by a huge storm to land on a deserted beach and marooned for several weeks before finding a beached boat which they can refurbish to sail to their destination. In every situation, they pray for God’s guidance, trust in His power to help them, and talk about the gospel to everyone who will listen. The books could have used some editing for grammar (the usual trouble with the differences between lie/lay, rise/raise, and such like) but this is a minor complaint. Compared to much of the junk that passes for children’s literature today, these books are exciting stories that have generally wholesome reading. Language level: Nothing objectionable. Ages: suitable for anyone. EXCELLENT.
Castleberry, Stephen and Diane. The History Mystery (published in 2005 by Castleberry Farms Press, P. O. Box 337, Poplar, WI 54864). This is volume 7 of the "Farm Mystery" series featuring thirteen-year-old Jason and eleven-year-old Andy Nelson, who live with their parents, older sister Cathy, two younger brothers Ben and Matthew, and younger sister Leah on a farm in rural Tennessee and have formed "The Great Detective Agency" to investigate mysteries around their home. The Castleberrys say, "Parents can be assured that there are no murders or other objectionable elements in these books. The boys learn lessons in obedience and responsibility, while having lots of fun. There are no worldly situations or language, and no boy-girl relationships." In The History Mystery, the main problem is to find out what their grandfather had seen when fighting the Germans in World War I and written about in letters to his mother, which the boys’ mother (Grandfather’s daughter) was reading out loud after dinner each evening. Other mysteries along the way involve strange tire tracks in their barnyard, how dead animals became impaled on a barb wire fence, and what is the way to tell a raw egg from a hard-boiled one. I really like these books because, first of all, the family’s homeschooling is presented in a positive light, and secondly, this is a family who truly loves one another and thus serves as a good model to children reading about them of what a family ought to be. No, these children in the books are not syrupy sweet little darlings who never make any mistakes, but they have been trained to obey, and when they do something wrong, they learn from it. Even Mom and Dad have to apologize at times. Language level: nothing objectionable. Ages: 9-12 but suitable for anyone. EXCELLENT.
DiCamillo, Kate. Because of Winn-Dixie (published in 2000 by Candlewick Press, 2067 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140). I was not overly thrilled with DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal winner The Tale of Despereaux. However, her Newbery Honor winner Because of Winn-Dixie comes highly recommended. Set in Florida at an indeterminate but evidently fairly modern time, the book tells the story of ten-year-old India Opal Buloni, who just moved to Naomi, FL, where her father was the new preacher at the Open Arms Baptist Church. As a "new kid" in town, she does not have many friends, and she is especially lonely because her mother had left years before when Opal was but a little girl because of an alcohol problem. However, Opal finds a big, ugly dog at the Winn-Dixie supermarket (for those of you who live up in the north, yes, such stores do exist!) and a number of good things begin to happen to her that first summer as a result. Will she make any friends? If so who will they be? And will she ever find her mother? This is indeed a charming story of optimism in the face of adversity. One caveat that I have is that some meanness is shown by the other children towards Opal, but it all does work out in the end. Also the term "O Lord" is used a couple of times as an interjection. There is one occasion where Opal lies to protect a friend. And when one older friend says, "War is hell," another younger friend giggles and says that it is a "bad word," almost as though the author were making fun of people who object to the use of cursing in children’s literature. Aside from these things, I enjoyed reading the book. Language level: a few common euphemisms. Ages: 9-12. GOOD.
Fox, Paula. Slave Dancer (published in 1973 by Bradbury Press Inc., New York City, NY; republished in 1975 by Dell Publishing, a divisionof Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York City, NY 10036). Set in 1840, this Newbery Medal winner is about thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier who lived in New Orleans, LA. Because he could play the flute, he was kidnapped and taken aboard a slave ship bound for Africa so that he could play for the slaves to exercise on the way home. While unloading their cargo off Cuba, the slavers were spotted and chased by American patrol boats. The ship was wrecked in a storm off Mississippi, and only Jessie and one slave boy survived. This book deals with a very shameful aspect of American history that deserves to be told. The story is written in a very interesting style and realistically portrays life aboard a slave ship–for both the crew and the slaves. There are references to drinking alcohol, using tobacco, and other activities common to sailors of the time. The terms "Lord" and "God" are occasionally used as interjections, and the "d" word is found several times, including once by Jessie himself, which is a big disappoinment to me. While I do not necessarily suggest that we try to sugarcoat history, some writers tend to go overboard in trying to be "realistic." The ALA Booklist says that "bestial aspects of human nature" are "exposed but never exploited in Fox’s graphic, documentary prose." I guess it depends on one’s definition of "exploited." There are scenes where slaves are killed by callously being thrown overboard or shot. There are also rather explicit references to how people on ship take care of "the needs of nature." If you can stomach all this, you might find the book interesting, but it is not for smaller children. Language level: some cursing and profanity. Ages: intended for 12 and up but I would not recommend it to anyone under 16. FAIR.
Garis, Howard R. Favorite Uncle Wiggily Animal Bedtime Stories (taken from Uncle Wiggily and Sammie and Susie Littletail published in 1910 by A. L. Burt Company, New York City, NY; republished in 1998 by Dover Publications Inc., 31 E. 2nd St., Mineola, NY 11501). When I was in first and second grade, we had an occasional substitute teacher who, whenever she came, brought a story book about the adventures of a rabbit named Uncle Wiggily which she would read to us. I really liked those stories, but through the years had never seen such a book again. Recently, the Homeschool Book Club listed Favorite Uncle Wiggily Animal Bedtime Stories in its newest catalogue because it is used with Heart of Dakota’s "Little Hearts for His Glory" primary curriculum. So I included it (just for my own personal, nostalgic, benefit) when I ordered curriculum this past summer. Unfortunately, when I called in my order, I was told that it was no longer available. Since it was published by Dover, I went to their website and found the same information (although they still listed a similar book Uncle Wiggily Bedtime Stories, accompanied by a cassette tape). Barnes and Noble’s website said the same thing but also carried several other Uncle Wiggily titles (e.g., Uncle Wiggily’s Adventures, Uncle Wiggily’s Travels, Uncle Wiggly’s Storybook, and Uncle Wiggily in the Woods). Garis was a reporter for the Newark, NJ, Evening News who, along with his wife and two children, ghost-wrote books such as the Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins, and Baseball Joe series for Edward Stratemeyer. However, Garis’s publisher at the newspaper knew this and asked Howard to begin writing serialized bedtime stories for children of his own to be carried daily in the newspaper for moms and dads to read their youngsters off to sleep each night. Eventually, these stories were syndicated all over the country and continued for some fifty years. Apparently, some of the stories were published individually, because I have previously reviewed a small booklet Uncle Wiggily and the Sleds (dated 1939) which was given to me. These stories are very enjoyable for youngsters and usually have some kind of good moral or lesson involved. Language level: nothing objectionable. Ages: 5-10. EXCELLENT.
Grace, Catherine O’Neill. The White House: An Illustrated History (published in 2003 by the White House Historical Association, Washington, DC; republished in 2004 by Scholastic Inc., 557 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012). This is a very attractive large sized paperback book of Scholastic Nonfiction about an extremely important Washington landmark and symbol of American government. As the author says, "The White House is also a symbol of our democratic elections. It reminds people that after elections our government changes hands peacefully." Chapter 1 details the history of the building and maintaining of the White House. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss activities in the White House, both work and celebrations. Chapter 4 is a tour of the White House room by room. And Chapter 5 talks about living in the White House. The Epilogue contains a listing of the Presidents who have lived there with anecdotes of each one’s relationship to it. Sprinkled throughout the book are special pages of "Faces and Voices" which detail various behind-the-scenes workers in the White House. And there are multitudes of pictures–historic black and whites, and sumptuous modern color photographs, including very endearing ones such as Teddy Roosevelt’s son Quentin on his pony Algonquin, Dwight Eisenhower barbecuing hamburgers on the terrace, and Ronald Reagan helping his grandchildren build a snowman in the Rose Garden (for her photos, Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan could have been a bit more modestly dressed!). This would make a very interesting addition to any study of American history. Language level: nothing objectionable. Ages: suitable for anyone; reading level probably 10-16. EXCELLENT.
Hanes, Mari Dunagan. Pocahontas: True Princess (published in 1995 by Multnomah Books, a part of Questar Publishers Inc., P. O. Box 1720, Sisters, OR 97759). The Library of Congress Cataloguing Data lists this book as "Powhatan women–Biography" and "Powhatan Indians–History," but the author says, "In this fictionalized book I have tried to be true to history; the fictional parts of the story were added to tell true things about how an Algonquin princess might have lived and acted in the early 1600’s." So, it is a fictionalized biography. Many books have been written about Pocahontas, but of the ones that I have read, I like this the best because it tells not only "a young girl’s breathtaking story" but also "her amazing journey to faith in God." Unlike the Disney films, which really fictionalize things, this book attempts to reveal Pocahontas as history truly portrays her, praised as a hero and hailed as a princess. It begins with Pocahontas as a girl trying to stow away on her brothers’ canoe as they go to investigate the arrival of ships in the Chesapeake Bay (she is discovered and taken home), through her contact with John Smith, and ending with her voyage to England as the wife of planter John Rolfe. It glorifies neither the Indians nor the English (both had their bad eggs and their failings) but centers on Pocahontas as one who loved both and tried to maintain peace. The author wrote a sequel, Two Mighty Rivers: The Son of Pocahontas, which follows the life of Thomas Rolfe or Pepsicanough , the son of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, from his youth in Scotland and England through his return to Virginia to his reunion with his Algonquin relatives where he joins forces with a young girl named Jane Poythress to fulfill his mother’s dream of peace between her Algonquin tribe and the people of Jamestown. We were given a copy of Pocahontas. Unfortunately, both books are out of print, but several used copies of each were listed as available from $1.99. Language level: nothing objectionable. Ages: 8-12. EXCELLENT.
National Geographic Society: "Kids Want to Know" books (published by the National Geographic Society, 1145 Seventeenth St. NW, Washington, DC 20036; republished by Scholastic Inc., 555 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012). I do not know how many of these 32-page, full color books by various authors there are in this series, but we borrowed ten from our local homeschool group library for Jeremy to read while he studies animals: How Animals Talk, Saving Our Animal Friends, Animal Families, Our Amazing Animal Friends, Along a Rocky Shore, Helping Our Animal Friends, Animals in Winter, Creatures of the Woods, Animals in Summer, and How Animals Care for Their Babies. The books are easy to read but contain a lot of interesting information along with many eye-catching photographs. In some National Geographic materials, one has to look out for the promotion of evolution, but while I did not read completely through all of these books, glancing at them casually and perusing a couple in more detail, I did not see any glaring instances of evolution mentioned. There is some environmentalism, but my experience with the National Geographic Society is that they are more "environmental friendly" rather than "environmental extreme." Language level: nothing objectionable. Ages: 8-12. GOOD.
Rey, H. A. Find the Constellations (published in 1954, revised edition published in 1977, by Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Ave. South, New York City, NY 10003). For many of us, the first thing that we think about when we hear the name H. A. Rey is Curious George. There are no cute drawings of monkeys here, but the same artistic ability is used to draw stars, constellations, and planets. The focus is on the constellations and stars that can be seen at different times during the year in the northern hemisphere, along with stories from Greek mythology behind a couple of them. There is also a section about the planets of our solar system. This would make a wonderful introduction to astronomy for elementary aged students, or perhaps a supplement to a homeschool science curriculum. Language level: nothing objectionable. Ages: 8-12. EXCELLENT.