We’re back after an 11 day trip to Florida for homecoming activities at Florida College where I graduated in 1974, and then to South Carolina to visit my father. The following book reviews are taken from my free e-mail homeschooling newsletter, Biblical Homeschooling. It is available to anyone who is interested by sending a blank e-mail to email@example.com and following the instructions that will be sent to you, or subscribing from the web at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/biblicalhomeschooling/ . In addition to book reviews, every month there are homeschool related news and notes, articles about homeschooling in the media, and other information that you can use in your homeschooling (history, music, language arts).
(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.)
Alberts, Frances Jacobs. A Gift for Genghis Khan (published in 1961 by Whittlesey House Books for Young People, a division of the McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc., 330 W. 42nd St., New York City, NY 10036). Mrs. Alberts, who lived from 1907 to 1989, was a teacher, a writer of scripts which were enacted over the radio for use in classrooms, and an author of stories published in all the leading children’s magazines of her day–Child Life, Children’s Activities, The Instructor, and Jack and Jill. In this, her first book, she wrote historical fiction set in thirteenth century Mongolia, around 1210, about a Mongol boy, Mujil, who, after his parents had been captured by an enemy tribe, was rescued by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan. The great Emperor gave him a home at the Horse Post House, but when the Khan returned later after a great hunt in the area, Ali the guard, Mingan the rider, and the other men all had gifts for him but poor Mujil had nothing to give but a sick camel that he had rescued. Torn between his devotion to Genghis Khan and his love for the baby camel, what can he do? There is nothing objectionable in this very enjoyable book. Unfortunately, it is out of print, although used copies are available. This is the kind of good historical fiction for youth that was popular when I was a child, books that simply told about great people of other times and places in a readable fictional account suitable for young people. These kinds of books were dumped during the late 1960s and 1970s for children’s literature that had to be "relevant" by imposing modern ideas of political correctness when writing about the past. If you come across a copy of A Gift for Genghis Khan, I recommend you pick it up. I liked it! Used copies are available. Language level: 1. Ages: 7-12. EXCELLENT.
Anderson, Bertha C. Tinker’s Tim and the Witches (published in 1953 by Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, MA; and republished in 1954 by Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club, 400 S. Front St., Columbus, OH). The author, who lived in Piqua, OH, which is just north of Dayton where we lived for fifteen years, had many stories published in Young People, Baptist Leader, Story World, Juniors, and other magazines of the American Baptist Publication Society. This book won the 1954 Ohioana Book Award, which is given by the Ohioana Library Association for fiction, nonfiction, juvenile books, poetry, and books about Ohio or Ohioans, in the Juvenile Literature category, and was also a Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club choice. Set in Salem, MA, in 1692, during the height of the witch hunt frenzy, it tells the fictional story of a young boy, Tim Tetlow, who is the son of the town’s tinker (i. e., jack of all trades repairman). Mr. Tetlow disagrees with the town authorities’ accusations of witchcraft and their punishment of the supposed "witches," so many formerly friendly people turn against them. Then Tim’s own grandmother is accused of being a witch. What will happen? Are there any people to whom they can turn for help? This is a very well written, interesting, and eminently readable book which I enjoyed thoroughly. In the blurb on the inside back cover, Mrs. Anderson wrote, "I have purposely ignored the theological significance of witchcraft, because children would not understand the superstitious beliefs, that prompted the cruel and reasonless persecutions." Yet later on she wrote, "It is my belief that people long under the stern suppression of Puritanism found this an emotional outlet." Surely, the (very short) Salem witch hunt era is a sad blot in American colonial history, but it is basically an aberration or anomaly, and, while I certainly do not agree with all that the Puritans did and said, to overemphasize it detracts from the many benefits that the Puritan ethic brought to our American historical tradition. At the same time, it did happen and does show how even good ideas, when misapplied and carried to an extreme, can be harmful. Even Tim’s father observed that the persecution of witches was in direct contrast to the principles that their ancestors brought to Massachusetts, and Granny Tetlow firmly believes that the good people of Salem will eventually come to their senses. I do like the way the story turned out and the good lessons that Tim learned as the plot moved along. Unfortunately, like many other wonderful historical fiction books for young people from that era, many of which won great acclaim, this book is no longer in print, the genre having been replaced in the late 1960s and 1970s with children’s literature that must be "relevant" to modern readers by imposing today’s politically correct "sensibilities" on the past. (Did I not just say that in a previous review? Well, I guess that it bears repeating.) Used copies are listed on line. Language level: 1. Ages: 7-12. EXCELLENT.
Beatty, Patricia. Red Rock Over the River (published in 1973 by William Morrow and Company Inc., 105 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10016). I have read some great, though now practically unknown, historical fiction for young people lately (see Frances J. Alberts’s A Gift for Genghis Khan and Bertha C. Anderson’s Tinker’s Tim and the Witches). However, they were written in the 1950s and early 1960s. Patricia Beatty is a "modern" (i.e., late 1960s on) writer of historical fiction for young people. She said, "I’m told that young readers like to know ‘what really happened.’" Under that guise, many modern writers of children’s books reason that to be "realistic," since people really used bad language, they must use it, and since people really drank too much, they must write about it. It is my firm opinion that one can tell "what really happened" without including vulgarity or other inappropriate material for young people. This book, set in 1881 Ft. Yuma, CA, just across the Colorado River from Yuma City, in what was then the Arizona Territory, is about thirteen year old Dorcas Fox and her ten year old brother Charlie, whose widowed Army Lieutenant father had been transferred there from Virginia. When Lt. Fox is temporarily sent to Ft. Apache in northern Arizona, Hattie Lou Mercer, an exceptionally big fourteen year old half Indian, half white girl, who had come to Ft. Yuma to work as an army laundress becomes the Fox children’s housekeeper. Dorcas and Hattie join several fort and town ladies in doing "good works" by writing letters for the prisoners in the federal prison at Yuma City, where a notorious outlaw, Johnny Short, is being held. I normally do not like to give away the ending of the story, but I must do so here to accomplish my purpose. Unbeknown to anyone, Hattie is Johnny’s half-sister, and when a circus with a hot air balloon comes to town, she manages to break Johnny out of prison and, with Dorcas accidentally along in tow, they escape in the balloon. Whereas older children’s fiction had a strong right versus wrong element, there is a little more moral ambivalence in this book. What Hattie does is plainly wrong, but there is a sense of feeling sorry for her. Even though Johnny, who suffers from tuberculosis, dies in the upper atmosphere during the balloon ride, Hattie finally does escape. There might actually be a good story here, but it is somewhat marred by the use of words such as God, Lord, and even hell as interjections, along with various euphemisms, and copious references to drinking "coffin varnish" (I assume their name for some kind of alcoholic beverage) along with other things (a private was said to drink hair tonic because it was cheaper than liquor, and all the ladies in town liked to sip "Good Samaritan Nervine" medicine, which always made them "feel lots better"). Also, to make the book "relevant," the author had to promote "prison reform" by including "the description of past prison conditions, a problem as difficult then as now," as if people who committed such crimes as killing others should be given better treatment than they gave their victims rather than being in a place where they had to be punished and thus suffer for their deeds. I am still trying to decide whether this one is worth doing as a read aloud. From what I have been able to gather, it is not in print. Language level: 3. Ages: I would say for 15 and up. FAIR.
Dumas, Alexandre. The Three Musketeers (originally published in 1844; English translation by Lowell Blair published as a Bantam Book Classic Edition in 1984 by Bantam Dell, a division of Random House Inc., New York City, NY). Alexandre (Pere) Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is a classic story that likely is at least somewhat familiar to almost everyone through various movie and television adaptations. A couple of years ago, I read a "Junior Illustrated Classics" type version done by Archie Oliver (see the 5/06 edition of my newsletter) and thought that it would be interesting to read the original. Although it does go a bit slow at times early in the story, it is certainly an exciting tale of swashbuckling adventure. The back cover says, "Perhaps the greatest ‘cloak and sword’ story ever written." Unfortunately, there are several objectionable elements to it. First off, there is a lot (I mean A LOT) of references to having mistresses and affairs. The whole basis of the plot is that the Queen of France, while married to the King, is having an affair with the English Duke of Buckingham. The King has his mistresses, his chief aid Cardinal Richlieu (a Catholic clergyman no less) has his mistresses, the musketeers have their mistresses (some of them married women!), and young D’Artagnan, who is just nineteen at the opening, wants a mistress too (this, of course, from an author who fathered two illegitimate children by two different mistresses and then finally married a third mistress). He eventually finds one–but she is Madame Bonacieux, married to his landlord (in the Oliver version, she is Mademoiselle Bonacieux, and the landlord is her uncle). He also seeks out the mysterious Milady as his mistress too. In fact, I almost quit reading when D’Artagnan, who originally came to Milady disguised as her lover Count de Wardes but later revealed himself, spends the night with her. While the description is not necessarily pornographic, it leaves no doubt as to what happened. "He abandoned himself to the sensations of the moment….Two hours went by in this way. Finally the two lovers became calmer….She violently shoved D’Artagnan away from her and leapt out of bed. By now it was nearly broad daylight. He clutched her thin batiste negligee to hold her back….[She] rushed at the half-naked D’Artagnan." However, I decided to go ahead and finish the book. All of this may technically be a "historically accurate" portrayal of the times, but I really question whether it should be the basis of fiction novels that godly people read. Also, there are other references to seduction, numerous instances of drinking and getting drunk, and a fair amount of bad language (the "d" and "h" words appear now and then, and "God" is used frequently as an interjection, although I will admit that I have read worse language in some modern children’s literature). In addition, "the church" comes across in a very bad light. Granted, many leaders in the Roman Catholic Church of that time were corrupt, but overemphasizing this can lead to the wrong conclusion that all deeply religious people were and are nothing but hypocrites and that all religion is generally bad. The book does have one "saving grace." In the end, the evil Milady gets what is coming to her, so there is a sense of justice. In spite of its excitement and adventure, the book is NOT for young children. I would not recommend it for anyone under sixteen. If you want to study a classic of Romantic French literature, read the full version. If you just want to enjoy an exciting, adventurous tale for fun, stick with a "Junior Classics Illustrated" type adaptation. Language level: 3. Ages: 16 and up. FAIR.
Edwards, Julie Andrews. Mandy (published in 1971 by Harper and Row Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York City, NY 10022; republished in 1973 by Bantam Books Inc., 666 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY 10019). As Julie Andrews, everyone knows the author as the charming actress of films The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins (as well as of the Broadway stage plays My Fair Lady and Camelot). However, as Julie Edwards, wife of producer Blake Edwards, she is also known as a writer (I guess when one is a singing actress, one needs a "day job" to keep one in the style to which one is accustomed if one’s voice is somehow damaged). Mandy was her first book. It is called "an endearing modern fairy tale." Mandy is an orphan who finds a little vacant cottage in a woods behind the orphanage, cleans it up, plants a garden, and makes it her own secret little hideout. However, because she is gone so much and no one knows where, she is forbidden to leave the orphanage grounds, but when she comes down with a fever she runs away to the cottage where she falls ill with pneumonia, becomes unconscious, and fails to return. Fortunately her best friend Sue, who has been sworn to secrecy, knows where she is. It just so happens that the land on which the cottage sits has been purchased by a nice young couple. Will they find her in time? Will she get well? And will she have to go back to the orphanage? There are many things about this book to like. It is an interesting, if somewhat predictable, story that is well told. Mandy does tell lies about her activities and "borrow" (steal) things for her cottage, but her conscience bothers her about it and she is properly punished, so she learns that there are consequences for such actions. However, there is one point where she is said to have "bravely lied." I do object to so many modern authors leaving the impression with children that there are situations where it is all right to lie if it is needed to be polite or not hurt someone’s feelings. The fact is that just not bluntly blabbing one’s feelings but saying something polite is not necessarily lying. There are lots of euphemisms (gosh, golly, dash it). I do not like them, but I will tolerate them because they usually represent an author’s attempt not to use cursing or profanity. However, at the same time, there are a few occurrences of "By God" or "My God" used as interjections (which is taking the Lord’s name in vain) and one "dammit" (which is outright cursing). I suppose that these are included to make it sound "realistic." However, everyone agrees that children should NOT be taught to talk like that, so for the life of me I cannot figure out why authors of children’s books want to include that kind of language in their works. It just boggles my mind. If it were not for this, I would have given the book an excellent rating. Language level: 3 (barely, but it’s there). Ages: 8-12. GOOD (with some editing).
Fitzgerald, John D. The Great Brain (published in 1967 by Dial Books for Young Readers, New York City, NY; republished in 1988 by Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Dell Doubleday Publishing Group Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York City, NY 10036). This book, based upon the author’s own childhood experiences with a mischievous older brother named Tom and recommended in the 5/07 issue of this newsletter, is set in 1896 Adenville, UT. John D. tells the stories about Tom D. (all three brothers, the first one named Sweyn, have the middle name of Dennis) Fitzgerald, age 10, who has a "great brain" and can figure out solutions to all kinds of problems, including how to make money from giving tours of the family’s new water closet, find some friends who are lost in a cave, help a Greek immigrant boy learn his way around, deal with the mean new teacher named Mr. Standish, and assist his friend Andy who has lost a leg. Tom comes across as a conniving, rationalizing kind of person who takes undue advantage of other people, but he does undergo a reformation in the end. Along the way, he expresses a little lying, disobedience, and defiance (and it is interesting that on one occasion his father says, "I have never laid a hand on you," which may explain some things), but there are consequences that result, and when some of Tom’s schemes backfire he, and his brother, learn some valuable lessons. The language is not bad, although common euphemisms such as gosh, heck, darn, and gee are found. Also be warned that the boy who loses his leg, Andy, at first wants to commit suicide and gets John to help him try several times, although Tom aids Andy in learning to overcome his handicap. In general, this is a quaint, nostalgic look at young people’s life in a previous generation. Understanding that it does not always necessarily present a good role model for children, it is still an enjoyable read, and there are opportunities to point out some important lessons. There are several sequels: More Adventures of the Great Brain, Me and My Little Brain, The Great Brain at the Academy, The Great Brain Reforms, The Return of the Great Brain, The Great Brain Does It Again, and The Great Brain is Back. Language level: 2. Ages: 8-12. GOOD.
George, Jean Craighead. One Day in the Tropical Rain Forest (published in 1990 by Harper Trophy, an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York City, NY 10022; republished in 1998 by Scholastic Inc., 555 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012). In this short book, which takes place in the Tropical Rain Forest of the Macaw of Venezuela (South America) on the banks of the Orinoco River, young Tepui, a slender Indian boy, has one last day to help researcher Dr. Juan Rivero, from the Science Laboratory of the Tropical Rain Forest, to find a butterfly that no one has ever seen in order to stop the destruction of the forest by eleven bulldozers. There is a lot of detailed description of many of the animals and plants in the rain forest. Some might object to this book on the grounds of "environmentalism." My family is not into environmental extremism–kill all the people to save the earth, and I don’t think that Jean Craighead George is either. We understand that God made the earth for mankind to subdue and use, but at the same time we are to be good stewards of what God has put here for us. There needs to be a good balance. A few things to watch out for are her description of life in the jungle as "complex and miraculous," implication of global warming, reference to the tropical rain forests as being "so old they felt tremors when the Sierra Nevada were uplifted," and the statement that "new species are even now evolving." Otherwise, George writes an interesting story that can be useful in helping us to be better stewards. Publishers Weekly said, "Children will come away from this book not only with a satisfying story, but more importantly, with a clear understanding of why these areas are worth preserving." We loved the author’s three "Frightful" books (My Side of the Mountain, On the Far Side of the Mountain, and Frightful’s Mountain; see 1/05, 9/06 issues of my newsletter). However, I did NOT care for her Newbery Medal winning Julie of the Wolves (see 5/05 issue). Also in this series are One Day in the Alpine Tundra, One Day in the Desert, One Day in the Jungle, One Day in the Prairie, and One Day in the Woods. Language level: 1. Ages: 7 to 10. GOOD.
Guterson, David. Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense (published in 1992 by Harvest Books, a division of Harcourt Brace and Co. Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Dr., Orlando, FL 32887). While this book seeks to answer the question of why homeschooling makes sense, it is a work primarily not about homeschooling but about educational reform in general. The author is both a public school teacher and a homeschooling father. He seems to come from a somewhat liberal political perspective, quoting frequently from John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, and from a "progressive homeschooling" (or unschooling) viewpoint, quoting frequently John Holt. While the modern homeschooling movement owes much to the work of John Holt, he held many political and social ideas with which a great deal of homeschoolers, especially religious ones, would strongly disagree. Of course, 1992 was a long while ago in terms of the homeschool movement, but the philosophical arguments that Guterson makes are still valid. Because of the author’s professional background, the book can seem a little academic at times, with numerous references to statistics and studies, but Guterson seeks to ameliorate this by copious use of anecdotal evidence, such as conversations with his friends, incidents with his students, and the example of his own father who is basically opposed to homeschooling but as a practicing lawyer has defended homeschooler’s rights. The book deals well with such questions as, are parents qualified to be teachers, doesn’t homeschooling hide children away from their community, what about socialization, is homeschooling legal, and how much does it cost? There are several good chapters about the history of education, the public school movement, and homeschooling. While seeming to espouse a basically secular attitude toward homeschooling, he does not forget that "Many are compelled to homeschool not from purely educational notions but primarily from religious convictions." Not all of those who homeschool primarily from religious convictions will agree fully with some of his proposals in the chapter "Schools and Families: A Proposal" because he really does not take into account the main reason that most religious homeschoolers have chosen this route, which is the prevalence of humanism and anti-religious bias endemic in the public education system. At the same time, while many of us may prefer to choose independent homeschooling, we might still support politically other forms of hybrid education for those who feel that they cannot homeschool. Still, the author says, "These alternatives should properly include, at one extreme, pure, unadulterated homeschooling of the sort my own family currently practices." That is what my newsletter endorses! To conclude, Guterson makes a good case for the necessity of family involvement in education and cites homeschooling as the best example of filling that need. Unfortunately, the author feels the need to quote some rather vulgar language from one of the conversations with a friend. This book is still in print. Guterson has also published several works of fiction, such as Snow Falling on Cedars (soon to be made into a motion picture from Universal Pictures), East of the Mountains, Our Lady of the Forest, and The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind." Language level: 4. Ages: for adults. GOOD.
Konigsburg, Elaine L. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (published in 1967 by Atheneum Publishers, New York City, NY 10017; republished in 1977 by Dell Publishing Co. Inc., 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, New York City, NY 10017). This Newbery Medal winner tells about how eleven-year-old Claudia Kincade and nine-year-old brother James of Greenwich, CN, run away to New York City to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia’s purpose was to be gone just long enough to teach her parents a lesson in Claudia appreciation. However, after the fun of settling in was over, Claudia still felt the same, but she found a statue attributed to Michelangelo which was so beautiful that she had to find out whether it was really his or not, so she and Jamie try to locate the former owner of the statue, the reclusive Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Will the siblings ever find out who really made the statue, and will they ever be able to go home? This is basically an interesting story that will appeal to children. There are some warnings for parents to know. A few common euphemisms (e.g., gosh and blasted) are used, but otherwise there is no bad language. Claudia does refer to another younger brother as "Kevin brat." Jamie is a "gambler" with his school friends and cheats at cards. When they get to the museum Claudia is afraid that Jamie will be affected by all the "naked ladies" in the museum’s paintings and sculptures. The children do appropriate (i.e., steal) things for their use. And there are discussions both about the dangers of marijuana or dope use and how everyone drinks beer. While this is not a perfect book, Claudia and James do learn some important lessons from their experiences and from their encounter with Mrs. Frankweiler. My basic feeling upon finishing it was positive. Language level: 2. Ages: 8-12. GOOD.
Nesbit, Edith. Five Children and It (published in 1902 by T. Fisher Unwin; republished in 1988 by Apple Paperbacks, a trademark of Scholastic Inc., 730 Broadway, New York City, NY 10003). Nesbit’s most famous book is probably The Railway Children (recommended in the 5/07 issue of my newsletter, and reviewed below). Another of her books, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, was recommended in the 7/07 issue. Recently, we saw a 2004 video dramatization of Five Children and It, which we liked very much. I had forgotten that I had previously found the book at a used curriculum sale and it was in my stack of books to read, so when I came across the book recently I decided to read it immediately. Although many similarities in plot existed, there were several major differences between the video and the book, the first one being the time setting. The book was written in 1902, but the movie was set during World War I! A group of children–five brothers and sisters, named Cyril, known as Squirrel; Anthea, known as Panther; Robert, known as Bobs; Jane, known as Pussy; and the baby Hilary, always known as the Lamb–move from London to the countryside of Kent. Their parents have to go away to take care of a sick relative. While playing in a nearby gravel pit, they uncover a rather ugly and grumpy sand-fairy known as the Psammead (Sammyad) who agrees to grant one wish of theirs per day. The Psammead is described as having “eyes [that] were on long horn like a snail’s eyes, and it could move it in and out like telescopes; it had ears like bat’s ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider’s and covered with thick soft fur; its legs and arms were furry too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey’s” and had whiskers like a rat. The quarry had been buried in the sea thousands of years ago. All the other Psammeads were gone, and theirs is the only one left. If a Psammead gets wet and cold it will die. When the Psammeads were around, they granted any wish but mostly they granted wishes for food for the families. However, the wishes would turn into stone at sunset if they were not used that day. Now, the wishes just disappear at the end of the day. The children make several wishes. First, they wish to be as beautiful as the day, but because of problems that follow that wish, any further wishes are with the provision that the house servants should not be able to perceive the results of the wish. Next, they wish to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, which is refined to having the gravel pit full of gold pieces, but they are an old coinage that is no longer accepted. Then, they wish that everyone would love the Lamb, but this produces the result that various people attempt to kidnap the child. Again, they wish that the four older children would grow wings, and be able to fly, but they stay out too late, lose their wings, and get caught on a church roof. Following this, they wish that their house would become a castle under siege by knights. Also they wish that Robert would be bigger than the baker’s boy, and he becomes about eleven feet tall. Subsequently, they wish that the misbehaving Lamb would "grow up" and He becomes an unpleasant and condescending man. Afterwards, they wish that they would have an encounter with Red Indians, and they almost get scalped. Finally, there is an assortment of simultaneous wishes relating to some stolen jewels, in return for a promise that they would never ask for another wish. This book is a really good lesson in the adage, "Be careful what you wish for–you may get it!" The book was originally intended to leave readers in suspense, because it ends, "They did see it [the Psammead] again, of course, but not in this story. And it was not in a sand-pit either, but in a very, very, very different place. It was in a— But I must say no more." The story was continued in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and then The Story of the Amulet (1906), in both of which the same characters reappeared. Together, these three books are known as the "Psammead Trilogy." When we watched the movie, Jeremy (age 11) kept saying that he had seen something like it before. Research showed that in 1991 the BBC turned the story into a fairly faithful-to-the-book six-part series which in the UK it was released as a movie under the story’s original title but in the USA as The Sand Fairy, which we now assume that Jeremy must have apparently seen while at a babysitter’s house. Wikipedia noted, "The  movie got great reviews, although people who read the book were disappointed because of the huge changes from the book to the movie." There is nothing objectionable in the book, except a little sniping at one another by the children. Nesbit was a socialist, and in fact a founder of the Fabian Society in England, but she could write good children’s stories. Language level: 1. Ages: 8-12. GOOD.
Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children (published in 1906 by The MacMillan Company, New York City, NY, and republished in 2000 by Dover Publications Inc., 31 E. 2nd St., Mineola, NY 11501). Several years ago, I think it was when we still lived in Dayton, OH, we saw a television dramatization of this book, I believe from the BBC on PBS. At that time I was unfamiliar with it and its author. Since then, I have seen many recommendations for this book, including one from Love to Learn that I included in the 5/07 issue of my newsletter, and another from Veritas Press which called Nesbit "C. S. Lewis’s favorite fairly tale author." When their father unexpectedly is taken away, three children, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis, must move with their mother from their nice house in London to a new home in a country cottage which is near a railway line. After many adventures, in which the children avert a horrible train disaster, assist a Russian emigre in finding his family, save a baby from a barge fire, and help nurse an injured runner back to health, as well as making friends with the railway station master, porter, other townspeople, and even a director of the railroad line, all the while still haunted by their father’s disappearance, they finally discover by accident why their father vanished without notice. But will they ever see their father again? These children are not presented as "picture perfect"–they do argue and fight on occasion, but they have been brought up well so that they learn from their mistakes and genuinely want to do right. Their actions illustrate love for family, concern for the less fortunate, and the value of being friendly. There are a couple of euphemisms but otherwise no bad language. There are a few references to things common in English society in 1906 such as smoking tobacco and drinking beer, but these are not emphasized. While church attendance is not mentioned, the children do know to pray, and Mother makes the following comment. "Don’t you think it’s rather nice to think that we’re in a book that God’s writing? If I were writing the book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right–in the way that’s best for us." When Peter asks if she really believes that, she replies, "Yes, I do believe it–almost always–except when I’m so sad that I can’t believe anything. But even when I can’t believe it, I know it’s true–and I try to believe it." I consider this book a lovely story, and I truly enjoyed reading it very much. Language level: I’m going to give it a 1. Ages: 9-12. EXCELLENT.
Norton, Mary. The Borrowers (published in 1953 by Harcourt Children’s Books, a division of Harcourt Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Dr., Orlando, FL 32887). The Littles without tails! We like "The Littles" books by John Peterson, but actually, The Borrowers came first. Last summer while on vacation, I read through all the books that I had taken with me and needed something else to read, so I went to a local bookstore and purchased four books that I have always wanted to read. They were The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl; Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo; and The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The "Borrowers" are a family of little people who live beneath the floor of an old country house and survive by borrowing things from humans. Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter Arrietty have matchboxes for dressers and postage stamps for paintings. However, they are the last of the "Borrowers" left in the house. All the others are gone, some having emigrated and others just disappeared, and Arrietty is board. Only Pod is allowed to venture out to do the borrowing because of the danger, but Arrietty wants to go out too because there is a human boy who has come to stay in the house and she is desperate for a friend. Will they be seen? And if they are, what will happen? There is very little that is objectionable in this fantasy book. The euphemism "drat" is used once. Some references to drinking Madeira (wine) are found. Otherwise, it is an enjoyable story that I highly recommend. The stories about the Borrowers continue in The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft, and The Borrowers Avenged. Language level: I’m going to give it a 1. Ages: 8 to 10. GOOD.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terebithia (published in 1977 by Harper Collins Children’s Books, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10019; republished by Scholastic Inc., 557 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012). This book won the Newbery Award in 1978 and became especially famous earlier this year when a major motion picture was based on it. The 7/05 issue of this newsletter contained a review by Kathy Davis of HomeSchoolBuzz.com which said, "Public school, bullies, boring subjects, desks with scribbles, eating in the cafeteria, peer pressure, smoking in the bathroom, crushes, recess, riding the bus, sibling rivalry, distant parents, unlikely friends, make-believe play, exploring, best friend’s death and grief, is what you’ll find in The Bridge to Terabithia. Though the writing is superb, the book’s a downer. My nephew read it in sixth grade last year (had to) and didn’t like it, He’s a good example of most kids–if they had a choice, they wouldn’t pick this book to read; especially homeschool kids considering a good part of the story is about public school life." Ten-year-old Jesse Aarons is a fifth-grader who wants to be the fastest runner in his class. And he would be too, except the new neighbor girl, Leslie Burke, is faster than all the boys in the class. However, she and Jesse become good friends, even though nearly everyone else in the rural school shuns her, and invent their own secret kingdom of Terabithia. Our son Jeremy, age eleven, heard about the movie and has been reading the Chronicles of Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. When he saw something about the "Terebinthians" in one of them (chapter 3 in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), he wondered if there was a connection. Interestingly enough, when Leslie and Jesse name their kingdom, Leslie says, "It could be a magic country like Narnia," and she even loaned him all her books about Narnia so he would know how things went in a magic kingdom. However, I also came across the following information on a blog about Katherine Paterson, "She mentions at her website that she thought she made up ‘Terabithia’ (the name), but that it was pointed out to her after the book was published that in Narnia is a race of people called the Terabinthians (I haven’t gotten that far in the Chronicles yet, so I can’t confirm), so there’s another Narnian connection for you." As everyone knows, Leslie is killed in an accident and Jesse has to learn how to deal with his grief. There is actually a good story somewhere here, although I am somewhat perturbed at the number of children’s authors who feel that they have to deal rather graphically with death, but it is marred by several objections. The first is the language. There are a lot, and I mean A LOT, of euphemisms, but even worse, the "d" word is used several times, the "h" word is found a couple of times, and "Lord" constantly appears as an exclamation. Mrs. Paterson is the daughter and wife of ministers, but she surely does have a penchant for including bad language in her books! A friend of ours once asked her why she thought it necessary to include bad language,and she said she "had to be true to her characters." The fact is that it is possible to do this without bad language, especially in books for children, but in any event, I would think that it is more important to be true to God than to characters. The second objection is Mrs. Paterson’s apparent antipathy to "traditional, conservative" religion. Gladys Hunt in Honey for a Child’s Heart said, "Paterson brings a Christian vision to bear on her fiction." However, her "Christian vision" is evidently much different from mine because in this book, Jesse’s "Christian" parents (his mother got mad at the preacher, so now they go to church only on Easter) are portrayed in a rather bad light, whereas Leslie’s parents (who are called "hippies" by the townsfolks and are much more "New Age" types) are portrayed in a fairly good light. Although Leslie goes to Easter services with the Aaronses, she expresses some doubts about God and Jesse’s younger sister calls out, "God will **** you; you’ll go to hell." Granted, that was not a tactful way of approaching the subject, but it almost seems as if Mrs. Paterson were making fun of people who do sincerely believe what the Bible says, that those who reject God will be lost. And when in Terabithia Jesse started to pray to God, but Leslie prayed to "the Spirits of the Grove" because she was more at home with magic than religion (this "New Age" feel may have been played up more in the movie than it was in the book, but it is in the book too). A third objection is that Mrs. Paterson, like a lot of other modern authors, apparently feels that to be "relevant" she must portray families as dysfunctional with cold parents, arguing siblings, and a generally depressing home atmosphere. Why can we not have some children’s books where parents and children love one another, get along with each other, and provide some good role models for us? On top of that, it is said that Jesse stole some crayons and paper at school and that he lied to the bus driver to get off before his stop. Also, Jesse’s older sister buys a see-through blouse and a younger sister yells at him for staring at her in her underwear–is this really appropriate for a CHILDREN’S book? I actually liked the ending, but what one has to wade through to get to it just is not worth it. We shall NOT be doing this as a read aloud simply because of the pervasiveness of using the word "Lord" in vain and the other bad language, along with the other objections. It is recommended for grades 6-8 or ages 9-12, but I would recommend it only for older teenagers because of the language and thematic elements. Give me The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew any day! Language level: 3. Ages: Intended for 9-12 but I put it at 15-18. POOR.
Paulsen, Gary. Hatchet (published in 1987 by Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Book USA Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York City, NY 10014; republished in 1999 by Scholastic Inc., 555 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012). The only other book by Paulsen that I have read is Dogsong (as reviewed in the 11/02 issue ofmy newsletter). I found it so revolting and disgusting that I gave it a NOT RECOMMENDED rating and resolved never to read any other books by this author. However, Hatchet, which like Dogsong was a Newbery Honor Book, has been recommended by several others (as reported in the 7/04 and 9/07 issues), so when I saw it recently at a used curriculum sale, I picked it up. Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson’s parents have been divorced fairly recently, and after living the past year with his mother, he is to fly with some equipment to visit with his father who works with the oil industry in northern Canada. However, the pilot of the small plane has a heart attack and dies, and the plane crashes in the wilderness. Left only with the clothes on his back and a hatchet which his mother gave him as a parting gift, how will Brian survive? And will he ever be rescued? Actually, this is a pretty good story (MUCH better than Dogsong), but there are a few warnings to consider. First, there is a lot of emphasis on the fact that Brian’s parents are divorced, although the divorce is presented as a very painful experience for Brian. However, once more I have to ask, why do modern authors of children’s literature always seem to feel that to be "relevant" they must write about dysfunctional families and broken homes? Are there no popular books for young people today which portray families as loving, kind, and, well, just normal, as good role models? Second, the language is much better than I expected, but Brian does use the word "God" rather often as an interjection, and the "d" word is used once at the very end. Again, I have to ask, are there any contemporary children’s writers who respect the name of the Lord and will not use it as just a word to express anger or disgust? If everyone agrees that we do not want young people using bad language, why cannot we have reading material for them that does not use bad language? There is one reference that man has had fire for millions of years. While the book had fewer objections than I imagined, it is really not appropriate for small children. The scenes where the pilot dies of a heart attack and where Brian later tries to commit suicide by cutting himself with the hatchet are somewhat graphic, and a lot of emphasis is placed on "the Secret" which Brian had seen that had led to his parents’ divorce, very clearly indicating Brian’s knowledge that his mother was having an extra-marital affair. In the end, Brian decided not to tell his father "the Secret," which to me implies that the author thought that it was not really that important after all. That would certainly be an issue that needs to be discussed with older teens who read the book. The "Brian’s Saga" series continues in The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return, and Brian’s Hunt. There is even a book Guts: The True Stories behind Hatchet and the Brian Books, in which Paulsen explains why he wrote them. Language level: 3 (unfortunately and unnecessarily so). Ages: for 12 and up but I would put it at 15-18. FAIR.
Richter, Conrad. A Country of Strangers (published in 1966 by Barzoi Books, a division of Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, NY). Although Richter won a Pulitzer Prize for the third of his "Awakening Land" trilogy The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which trace the transformation of rural life in Ohio from wilderness to farmland to the site of modern industrial civilization, all in the lifetime of one character, perhaps his best known book is his 1953 The Light in the Forest, about a young English boy in colonial America who was captured and raised by the Indians as "True Son," later returned to his original family, but finally went back to the Indians. This was made into a film by Walt Disney starring James MacArthur as "True Son." In this lesser known, and perhaps one of his last, books (he died in 1968), Richter refers in the foreword to "its earlier companion novel, The Light in the Forest." This book is similarly about a young English girl in colonial America who was captured and raised by the Indians as "Stone Girl," marries and has a son "Otter Boy," but after being hidden by her Indian husband, who is later killed in battle, to avoid being found by the English, is eventually returned to her original father, Col. Peter Stanton, based upon her memories and what another older white captive among the Indians had told her. The twist is that another girl had been returned to Col. Stanton as his lost daughter, "Mary Stanton." Stone Girl is put to work at Stanton’s inn, but is not trusted. The day after Col. Stanton leaves with "Mary" and her new husband following their wedding, the Indians go on a rampage, killing everyone they can, including Stanton’s mother, who had befriended Stone Girl and seemed to believe Stone Girl’s story, and capturing Stanton’s younger daughter Nan. Stone Girl, who lives in the stable, is unnoticed. After the rampage, she finds the scalped body of old Mrs. Stanton but not Nan, so she knows that Nan has been captured as she had been years ago, but she also knows that Nan either will never survive or will need help, so she starts out after the war party. On the way, she meets a young Indian brave, who himself had been a white captive of the Indians and agrees to help her. After finding the war party, she offers to let herself be taken in return for Nan’s release, but the head Indian refuses. She then goes along with the war party in an attempt to help Nan acclimate to her new life. But when one of the Indians who had been wounded in a raid and was left to guard the girls starts beating on Nan, Stone Girl tries to stop him. When he starts beating on Stone Girl, little Otter Boy tries to stop him. The Indian takes the small boy and bashes him into a tree, killing him instantly. In rage, Stone Girl picks up an ax and before the Indian can react she kills him. Then, knowing that they would both be killed for the Indian’s death, she takes Nan back to Col. Stanton and then sneaks away to go with the young Indian brave back to her own village. For those who have read the "earlier companion novel," there is an interesting "tie-in" to The Light in the Forest at the end. While this book was not written primarily for young people, there is really nothing objectionable in it, except that I would not recommend it for small or sensitive children. The descriptions of the finding of Mrs. Stanton’s scalped body, the killing of Otter Boy, and then Stone Girl’s killing of the Indian are blunt, although not gratuitously so. With several references to the "bad white men" and the "evil things they had done," it may be that Richter was a little bit more sympathetic to the Indians than, say, James Fenimore Cooper who was more balanced in showing that there could be bad on both sides. However, Richter still does not hesitate to show how savage the Indians could be. There is no bad language in the book, but apparently it is currently out of print. Language level: 1. Ages: 15-18. GOOD.
Turner, Ann Warren. Grasshopper Summer (published in 1989 by Macmillan Publishing Company Inc., 866 Third St., New York City, NY 10022; republished in 1991 by Troll Associates, Mahwah, NJ 07430). Set in 1874, this book tells how eleven-year-old Sam and his ten-year-old brother Billy move with their father and mother from Kentucky, where their grandfather’s farm had been ravaged during the Civil War, to the southern Dakota Territory, where they experience a plague of hungry grasshoppers. Will they return home or stay? It is a very interesting story about pioneer life in the 1870s, told in an easy-to-read manner that can be very helpful in enabling children to understand the hardship of the western settlers. The language is not too bad–there are some euphemisms (dratted, gosh, darn) and the term "God" is used occasionally as an interjection (also Billy says that it was hot as "Hades" but his mother reproved him for it), but I really do not think that books for young people need to be talking about children getting into Pa’s corn liquor and Pa letting his two young sons take a puff on his "cheroot" (cigar). There are occasional references to religion and going to church, but there was also a lot of superstition (rubbing a rabbit’s foot). Otherwise, I think it gives a good look at the trials and triumphs of our nation’s pioneers, but when we read it aloud there will be some editing. Ann Turner is also the author of other stories about early American life such as Dakota Dugout, Nettie’s Trip South, Third Girl from the Left, Tickle a Pickle, and Time of the Bison. Language level: 3 (barely). Ages: 8 to 12. GOOD.
Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (originally published in 1889 by the American Publishing Company, Hartford, CT; republished in 1963 and 2004 by Signet Classics, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group USA Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York City, NY 10014). Mark Twain was a good writer. We enjoyed his Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both written with children in mind, and especially his The Prince and the Pauper which is historical fiction. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has been the basis for several films, some of them quite good, but it is neither written with children in mind nor primarily historical, and we did not care for it as much. It is the story of Hank Morgan, a late nineteenth century New Englander who ends up going back to sixth century England during the time of Arthur after being cracked over the head by a crowbar in a fight. While in Camelot, he uses his knowledge of the future to bring early medieval Britain up to the standards of his day, with trains, telephones, and other "modern" conveniences, only to lose it all to the antipathy of the nobility and clergy before somehow being mysteriously transported back to 1800s America where he is pictured as giving the manuscript of his journal to Mark Twain. The story moves a little slowly at times and is occasionally hard to follow. There are references to heavy drinking, gambling, tobacco use, and evolution, and some bad language is found, but not very much (the "d" and "h" words appear a few times, along with the word "Lord" used as an interjection occasionally). Also, mention is made of Queen Guenevere’s illicit romance with Sir Launcelot. The book is heavily anti-clerical, especially anti-Catholic. As I have said before, it is true that the medieval Roman Catholic Church had many instances of corruption, but to overemphasize this tends to leave the impression that all religious people were and are nothing but hypocrites and gives fodder for the claims of atheists against "Christianity." Though the book was originally intended to present a contrast between Arthurian life and the modern world, it was not designed as a satire. Twain planned to "leave unsmirched and unbelittled the great and beautiful characters drawn by the master hand of old Malory," the author of Le Morte d’Arthur. However, after English critic Matthew Arnold ridiculed American life as vulgar in reviewing Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs, Twain turned the book into an attack on British civilization and institutions as not founded on equality, liberty, and humility. The author of the 1963 "Afterword" admitted, "There is no denying that the novel is filled with awkwardness, absurdities, and structural weakness." Something might be learned from the book about life in early medieval times, as well as the need for freedom of thought and the failure of "science" to bring salvation, but it is probably not a book for small children. For youngsters, I would suggest a "Junior Illustrated Classics" type of version. Language level: 3. Ages: 16 and up. FAIR.
Wallace, Bill. Coyote Autumn (published in 2000 by Holiday House, 425 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10017; republished in 2002 by Aladdin Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10020). In the 2007 issue of this newsletter, I reported that I saw this book at a homeschool support group leaders’ meeting in the possession of a youngster who seemed very interested in it, so I looked it up and thought it sounded good. Recently I picked it up at a used curriculum sale. Brad McBride, age thirteen, has moved with his parents, who are schoolteachers, older sister, and baby brother from an apartment in Chicago, IL, to a farm in Oklahoma. He has always wanted a dog and saves an orphaned coyote pup, which he names Scooter, after its parents and siblings have been killed by coyote hunters. Even though he is able to tame the pup, problems arise. What will happen when his parents find out? Will he be able to keep it or not? There are not too many items which are objectionable in this book. Concerning language, a few euphemisms appear and once the word "Lord" is used as an interjection. Also, the word "butt" is used for the rear end (some people do not mind this, but we prefer not to use the term in our home), and dog manure is referred to as "p–p" (another term that we refuse to use in our home). On one occasion, Brad’s dad is said to be "yelling bad words," although the words themselves are not printed. There is some usual modern-day "grossness," probably to appeal to today’s young readers, in that Brad’s best friend and neighbor, Nolan Bigbee, is learning how to do the "farmer’s blow" (blowing one’s nose with one’s fingers without using a handkerchief). Brad does sneak around while he is trying to hide the coyote and does not always exactly tell the truth. Some talk about boy-girl relationships and "crushes" occurs. My biggest objection is that, most likely to seem "realistic" and "relevant," the author does portray a fair amount of bickering and arguing in the family relationship. Brad’s sister Adelee, says several times that she wants to "slap the snot" out of him, but it is usually presented as kidding. However, it is specifically stated that the McBrides go to church services on Sunday. All in all, even with all the objectionable items that I mentioned, which are relatively minor, it is not a bad book and does tell a heartwarming story. Wallace has written other animal books, such Red Dog, A Dog Called Kitty (which I recently saw on the shelf in a bookstore), and Beauty, and adventure novels such as Trapped in Death Cave, Journey into Terror, and Eye of the Great Bear. Language level: 2. Ages: 8-12. GOOD.
Wellman, Sam. Corrie ten Boom: Heroine of Haarlem (published in 1997 by Barbour and Company Publisher, P. O. Box 719, Uhrichsville, OH 44683). Corrie ten Boom was one of the great heroines of World War II, at least to Bible believers. Her book, The Hiding Place, has been read by millions, and a film version was made. She was the daughter of a Dutch watchmaker, and because of the ten Booms’ hiding of Jews in their house after the Germans took over the Netherlands, the whole family was sent to Nazi prison camps where both Corrie’s father and her beloved sister Betsie died. However, Corrie survived and after the war began spreading a message of forgiveness and hope to all war victims. The emphasis in this book is on the circumstances that led up to her arrest and on her time in prison. Through the years, Barbour Books has published a wonderful set of biographies called "Heroes of the Faith." We have several of them which we purchased from Christian Book Distributors. My copy of this book is not part of that set but one of their "Value Books" that I picked up at a used curriculum sale. However, their website shows a biography of Corrie ten Boom by Sam Wellman as part of the series. Unfortunately, according to the Barbour website it appears as if the series, or at least Wellman’s biography, is not currently in available; yet CBD has it in stock (but all the Barbour biographies are on sale indicating that perhaps they are clearance items). Barbour biographies tend to be a little bit "rawer" than either the Men and Women of Faith series from Bethany or the Christian Heroes Then and Now series from YWAM. The word "hell" is used frequently in this book, not as an interjection but in a way that I would prefer not to use it. However, the Barbour books are still good reading. Language level: 1. Ages: 12-16. GOOD.