I do regular book reviews (mostly children’s reading but some other things too) for my free e-mail homeschooling newsletter Biblical Homeschooling (send blank e-mail to email@example.com and follow instructions e-mailed in response or subscribe from the web at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/biblicalhomeschooling ). Here are some from the Jan., 2008, issue.
(Note on language levels: 1. Nothing objectionable; 2. Common euphemisms; 3. Some cursing or profanity; 4. A lot of cursing or profanity; 5. Obscenity or vulgarity.)
Brunstetter, Wanda. The "Daughters of Lancaster County" series—The Storekeeper’s Daughter and The Quilter’s Daughter (published in 2005), and The Bishop’s Daughter (published in 2006, all by Barbour Publishing Inc., P. O. Box 719, Uhrichsville, OH 44683). Mystery and mayhem among the Plain People! My wife Karen likes to read fiction books about the Amish, such as those by Beverly Lewis and Mary C. Borntrager. Last year when she was visiting back in Dayton, OH, she had read all the other books that she took so she purchased one of these books, I think The Bishop’s Daughter, and when she saw that it was part of a set decided after she returned home that she wanted to get the other two. The Storekeeper’s Daughter starts the series with the Fisher family who live near the town of Paradise, PA. Mrs. Fisher is killed when hit by a car. While her oldest daughter Naomi is trying to take her place and care for the family, she leaves her one-year-old brother Zach alone for a few minutes and he is kidnapped. Jim and Linda Scott live in Puyallup, WA, and have come east to finalize an adoption but at the last minute it falls through. While Linda remains at their hotel sick, Jim stops by the Fishers because they are advertising homemade root beer and in a moment of desperation takes Zach to be raised as his "adopted" son "Jimmy." On the way back to Washington, the Scotts stop in Holmes County, OH, which is also an Amish community, to visit Jim’s parents. Naomi’s friend Caleb Hoffmeier just happens to be visiting a relative in Holmes County and sees a couple with a baby who looks like Zach. After he returns home and finds out that Zach was missing, he tells the Fishers and Abraham goes to Holmes County where he meets a quilt maker named Fanny Miller. Naomi, overcome with grief and guilt, runs away with an "English" friend to Oregon, but eventually returns home and marries Caleb. Meanwhile, Fanny has come to Lancaster County to help an ailing cousin and eventually marries Abraham Fisher. In The Quilter’s Daughter, which takes place about five years later, Fanny’s daughter, Abby, comes to Lancaster County to help her mother during Fanny’s pregnancy with twins. While she is away, Abby’s quilt shop back in Ohio burns down and her fiance is killed trying to save the shop. To recover, Abby goes with her cousin to visit a relative in Montana where she picks up an Amish baby quilt to bring back home for her step-sister Naomi’s baby, but it turns out to be the quilt that Zach had when he was stolen. Abby finally agrees to marry Matthew Fisher, Abraham’s oldest son, but in Washington, Jim Scott becomes distant and starts drinking to cope with his guilt, and his wife Linda with their son "Jimmy" start going to church and learning about the Lord. The Bishop’s Daughter skips ahead around fourteen years. Linda Scott has died of cancer and Jimmy finally learns that he was not actually adopted but stolen from an Amish family in Lancaster County, so he returns to Pennsylvania to look for his real family. There he meets Leona Weaver, a young schoolteacher and daughter of Amish bishop Jacob Weaver who happens to be Abraham Fisher’s best friend and is also a painter. Jimmy’s father is a painter back in Washington and Jimmy has worked for him, so he begins working for Jacob to have a job. Jimmy falls in love with Leona, whose fiance had been killed in an accident, but he is "English" and she is Amish, so things could never work out, especially after Jacob is injured in a fall while painting and loses his memory. Or could they? And what about Jimmy’s relationship with his adoptive dad? Will Jim Scott ever be able to find peace? Karen says that she liked these books better than many of the other Amish-related fiction that she has read. I must admit that even though they are called "romance," with the element of mystery they are hard to put down. There is basically nothing objectionable in them. Obviously, not everyone will agree doctrinally with every idea expressed or statement made, but generally these books are wholesome and encourage trust in God through difficult times. I found them very enjoyable and refreshing. Language level: 1. Ages: teens, probably will appeal mostly to girls. GOOD. (Note: A portion of this review appeared in the 12/15 issue of the HomeSchoolBuzz.com e-mail newsletter; for more information, go to http://www.homeschoolbuzz.com ).
Cleary, Beverly. Ralph S. Mouse (published in 1982 by William Morrow and Company Inc., New York City, NY; and republished in 1983 by Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., 666 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY 10103). Beverly Cleary is a prolific author of children’s literature. In my opinion, her books about Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy are pretty good (see the 10/04 issue of this newsletter); her books about Henry’s friends Ramona and Beezus are just fair (see the 11/04 issue); and her only book to win a Newbery Medal, Dear Mr. Henshaw, was lacking something and seemed rather a downer (see the 1/04 issue). However, I have really liked the two previous installments of the "Ralph Mouse" stories (see the 8/04 issue). In this third volume, Ralph S. Mouse, the mouse living with his family in a country inn, who was given a tiny toy motorcycle in The Mouse and the Motorcycle and who rode it away to camp in Runaway Ralph, is befriended by a new boy at the hotel, Ryan, whose mother has come to be a housekeeper. However, Ralph becomes fed up with his rowdy mouse cousins who always want to ride his motorcycle, so he talks Ryan into taking him to school, where he promptly becomes a "class project" and is responsible for charges that the school is overrun with mice. Worse yet, Ryan and his classmate Brad get into a fight in which Ralph’s motorcycle is broken. Will Ralph ever get back to his family at the inn or will he remain caged as a class pet? And will his motorcycle ever get repaired? There is little to which one might object in this book. Ralph’s attitude is not always the best, but he does learn from his mistakes and try to do better. We do learn that Ryan’s father is "some place" and that Brad’s parents are divorced, probably in an attempt to give the story "relevance" to situations in which today’s children find themselves. However, these are minor complaints and I enjoyed this book too. Language level: 1. Ages: 8-12. GOOD.
Lemmons, Thom. Jabez: A Novel (published in 2001 by Waterbrook Press, 2375 Telstar Dr., Suite #160, Colorado Springs, CO 80920, a division of Random House Inc.). The popularity of the devotional book The Prayer of Jabez a few years ago spawned a whole line of tie-in merchandise. In fact, the product description for this novel, to which reference is made in the 6/05 issue of this newsletter, says, "You’ve read the book and prayed the prayer—now meet the man! Beginning with the nugget of description from 1 Chronicles, Thom Lemmons penetrates the mystery surrounding the life of Jabez in this encouraging novel. Discover who this prayer warrior was, find out what struggles prompted him to pray for blessing, and learn what happened next." Jabez is mentioned in the genealogies of Judah in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. Thom Lemmons, a graduate of Abilene Christian University who is now director of ACU Press takes this otherwise obscure reference and places it in the days of the judges during the time of Ehud (Judges 3:12-30). The author says, "This is a work of historical fiction….The Bible does not give us the complete story of Jabez’s life, nor of the lives of other biblical figures that unfold in these pages. While artistic license has been taken where events, dialogue, and additional characters are concerned, every effort has been made to maintain scriptural and historical accuracy." I like biblical era historical fiction. G. A. Henty’s The Cat of Bubastes is set in Moses’s time, and while it is not about Moses Henty’s boy actually gets to meet Moses. Joanne Williamson’s Hittite Warrior relates to Deborah and Barak, and her God-King occurs in the days of Hezekiah. Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow takes place during the days of Jesus. Florence Kingsley’s Stephen: A Soldier of the Cross is about the "first Christian martyr." And Patricia St. John’s The Runaway (or Twice Freed) is based on the story of Onessimus, the slave of Philemon. While Jabez was very interesting, I do not think it rises to the level of these other books. It is definitely not for children. A detailed account of the birth of a baby might turn some sensitive stomachs. There are references to drinking barley beer and wine, gambling, going to "temple women," and harlots. I suppose that such items were thought necessary to "historical accuracy." Perhaps that is true of some of them, but others could have been omitted without damaging the story. The plot may be presented in a way as to portray the historical times as they might well have been, but there is still a good bit of fiction and "poetic license" here. At the same time, there is really nothing unscriptural or ungodly about the book, and some important Biblical values are stressed in the story. Lemmons’s other novels include the "Daughters of Faith" series–Daughter of Jerusalem, Woman of Means, and Mother of Faith–as well as Daniel: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Jeremiah: He Who Wept, and Once Upon a Cross. I purchased Jabez from Christian Book Distributors (at a very reduced price, which indicates that they were closing it out), and they still list it (at $.49!), but it is listed as out of stock at Barnes and Noble’s website. Language level: 1. Ages: 16 up. GOOD.
Marks, Dave. The "Dragonslaying" series—Dragonslaying Is for Dreamers (published in 1989, revised 2004), Axel and the Blue Men (published in 1999), and Axel’s Challenge (published in 2000 all by National Writing Institute, 624 W. University, #248, Denton, TX 76201). The name of the late Dave Marks is well known to many homeschoolers as the creator of what I think is the most user-friendly homeschool writing program, Writing Strands. Also, he wrote articles in several homeschooling magazines. This series of books was apparently intended to be part of his Writing Strands curriculum to help students see how a novel is put together and be able to critique another’s writings. Axel is a 16-year-old boy whose father has just died. His mother is rather bossy and controlling. The father of his girlfriend dislikes him and wants her to marry someone else. With few current prospects in his village, he leaves with the intention of becoming a dragonslayer, thinking that he can achieve fame and fortune that way. After meeting a wizard named Sidney, who teaches him principles that helps him learn how to kill dragons, he actually kills three dragons and is knighted by King Willard. Thus, he is able to return to his hometown and marry Molly. Axel and the Blue Men takes place about six years later when the kingdom is attacked by a hoard of barbarians who paint themselves blue and kill everything in sight. The King sends for his knight Axel to help him meet this challenge, and when Axel figures out a way to do it without breaking his vow never to kill another person, the king adopts him as his heir. In Axel’s Challenge, about a year later the King is dying and to keep his evil brother Roan from taking over the kingdom calls his heir Axel to help the people resist Roan’s attempt to claim the throne. However, before Axel can respond, Roan’s men kidnap his son Sid and warn Axel not to interfere. Axel and Molly do go to help out, but in looking for Sid Molly gets captured too. How can Axel juggle all his important values–serving the King, saving his family, and not killing others? There is little objectionable in these books. Several references to drinking ale appear, and even Axel’s mother tries to drown her sorrow in ale after her husband dies, but Axel himself always prefers milk! The only other questionable item that caught my attention was at the end of the third book where Axel is talking to his son about how to choose values, he says, "It would be a lot easier for people if they were written, wouldn’t it?" I do not know what Dave Marks’s religious beliefs were, but for those of us who accept the Bible, we understand that an absolute basis for choosing values has been written down in God’s word. At the same time, Marks wrote, "My original intent was to create a character who was thoughtful but strong enough to stand by his beliefs while under great pressure to do the bidding of others. Of course, for many of us, the perfect model is Christ." One might not always agree with every single choice that Axel made or even the basis upon which he made that choice, but in general, these books present a good picture of one who makes his choices based upon the values that he holds dear, even when he does not know how things will turn out or has reason to believe that he may suffer in the process. Marks writes with a tongue-in-cheek humor that should appeal to most teens. Language level: 1. Ages: Young adult. GOOD. (Note: A portion of this review appeared in the weekly e-mail newsletter from HomeSchoolBuzz.com for 12/22/07.)
Sidney, Margaret. Five Little Peppers and How they Grew (originally published in 1881, and republished in 1983 by Watermill Press). I have heard of this book nearly all my life. One of my favorite books growing up was Cheaper by the Dozen, by Franker Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, about their parents, Frank B. and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and how they raised their twelve children. One of Mother’s favorite books to read aloud to the Gilbreth children was Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and it is said that she "was particularly partial to a character named Phronsie, or something like that." However, I had never read it myself. In the years since, I have seen it in bookstores but never bought it. However, when I came across it recently at a used curriculum sale for $1.00, I picked it up immediately. The Pepper family lives in the little brown house located in Badgertown (probably in Massachusetts). Mr. Pepper has died and the widowed mother was left to raise the children by herself. In order of age (descending), the children’s names were Ben (Ebenezer), Polly (Mary), Joel, David, and Phronsie (Sophronia). They have no money and little education, but they have lots of love and a good mother to guide them through good times and bad. Mrs. Pepper (Mamsie) works at tailoring things and especially sewing sacks for the local storekeeper. Polly, who is ten years old, helps her sew while making sure the children behave and preparing their dinner. Ben, who is a year older than Polly, works all day at a nearby farm chopping wood. (This was obviously before child labor laws!) They come in contact with Jasper King, a boy a little older than Ben, who is on vacation at nearby Hingham with his rich widowed father. Eventually, the Peppers come to stay with Jasper and his sister and nephews at his big house in the city (probably Boston) where they finally unravel a very interesting mystery. Several sequels were written between 1890 and 1916. In order of publication, the "Five Little Peppers" books are as follows (publication dates follow in parentheses):
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881)
Five Little Peppers Midway (1890)
Five Little Peppers Grown Up (1892)
Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper (1897)
Five Little Peppers: The Stories Polly Pepper Told (1899)
Five Little Peppers: The Adventures of Joel Pepper (1900)
Five Little Peppers Abroad (1902)
Five Little Peppers At School (1903)
Five Little Peppers and Their Friends (1904)
Five Little Peppers: Ben Pepper (1905)
Five Little Peppers in the Brown House (1907)
Five Little Peppers: Our Davie Pepper (1916)
The author felt that she had completed the books with the publication of the fourth book, Phronsie Pepper, and stated as much in her introduction to that book. However, letters from readers all over the world prompted her to continue writing about the Peppers, which she did for another nineteen years. All of the later books take place much before the third book in the original series. To read the six key books in chronological order, rather than by publication date, they would be read approximately in this sequence:
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew
Five Little Peppers and Their Friends
Five Little Peppers Midway
Five Little Peppers Abroad
Five Little Peppers Grown Up
Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper
The other six books are "background" and are set about the time of the first three books listed above chronologically. Since they were written many years later, some situations in them are at variance with those same situations as described in the earlier written books. All together, the books cover approximately 16 years in the lives of the Peppers, as Phronsie is four years old at the opening of the first book, and 20 years old, in love, and eventually married at the close of Phronsie Pepper, which is chronologically the final book in the series (Our Davie Pepper, set several years earlier, is the last book in order of publication). The most popular of all of the above books was the first, being republished over the years. Other editions currently available from Barnes and Noble include one from Kessinger Publishing in 2004, and another from Aladdin Paperbacks in 2006 The Pepper books were also the inspiration for movies. The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew was released in 1939. The original movie had more of an "Our Gang" comedy approach and was not an exact reflection of the book. Another movie, called The Five Little Peppers in Trouble was released in 1940. The later films resembled the books only in character names, and their scripts were not based on the books. Some people today might consider Five Little Peppers and How They Grew hopelessly out of date and completely irrelevant to the "real world" of modern society. So what? It undoubtedly represents the "real world" that many people faced back in the late 1800s. And I believe it represents what the "real world" should be in a family when there is genuine love. The Pepper children are not "ipsy-pipsy perfect." They do complain about their hard lot from time to time and occasionally get into some mischief. However, they are being taught by their mother how to face their trials and problems with a thankful heart and a cheerful attitude, concepts that very little modern children’s literature portrays. Belief in God is mentioned, and the local minister and his family are very helpful. The language is a little old-fashioned and was probably intended to imitate the idiom of relatively uneducated people of the day, but it can easily be understood. I liked this book and think that it is an interesting snapshot of what times were like in the 1880s. Language level: 1. Ages: intended for 9-12 but I would even recommend it for teenagers, especially spoiled ones, to help them see how difficult children’s lives have been in the past and how much better a positive attitude can make one’s situation. EXCELLENT.
Wilson, Todd. Help! I’m Married to a Homeschooling Mom: Showing Dads How to Meet the Needs of Their Homeschooling Wives (published in 2004 by Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL). Michael Farris’s book The Homeschooling Father, which I highly recommend, basically discusses a homeschooling father’s relationship with his children. Todd Wilson’s book primarily discusses a homeschooling father’s relationship with his wife. Since in the majority of families most of the homeschooling is done by the wife and mother, Todd explains not only how dads can be supportive of their wives but also why they should be. Writing from a unique, humorous perspective, he tells dads that a homeschooling wife needs her husband’s help, encouragement, leadership, listening ear, muscle, money, time, understanding, approval, prayers, and sacrifice. The chapter on "Leadership" alone is worth the price of the book and gives as succinct yet compelling an argument for the reasons to homeschool as you can find anywhere. Todd has a message for homeschooling dads: "If you really believe in homeschooling, then you must be willing to make some sacrifices. Your wife does every day." Some might think that the "funny bit" is a little overdone, but that will depend on one’s sense of humor. Overall, this is a very positive and helpful book for husbands of homeschooling wives. A conference speaker, founder of Familyman Ministries, and former minister, Todd is married to Debbie, has six children, and is also the author of The Official Book of Homeschooling Cartoons. Language level: 1. Ages: for fathers (but moms may want to read it first, underline much of it in red, and then give it to their husbands). EXCELLENT. (Note: This review appeared in the weekly HomeSchoolBuzz.com e-mail newsletter for Nov. 30, 2007; for more information, go to http://www.homeschoolbuzz.com .)