Here are some book reviews from my free e-mail homeschooling newsletter, Biblical Homeschooling ( firstname.lastname@example.org or http://groups.yahoo.com/group/biblicalhomeschooling ).
(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.)
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath (published in 1841; republished in 1982 by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York City, NY 10036). The "Leatherstocking Tales" series of books by James Fenimore Cooper was recommended in the 3/03 issue of this newsletter. My father recalls having read some of them when he was younger and always said that he really liked them. He now has a one-volume edition of the five books and hopes to read them all. Since our son Mark is studying American literature for his junior year of high school, I purchased all five of the "Leatherstocking Tales" for him. He has now finished them, and I just completed The Deerslayer. Actually, Cooper had first introduced the character Natty Bumppo in the 1823 book The Pioneers, where Bumppo is an older man. The next book, The Last of the Mohicans, pictures Natty in his prime. Three books later, the author went back to chronicle Natty’s earliest exploits when he was known as "The Deerslayer." As the book, set in colonial New York colony of around 1750, opens, Natty, who was raised among the peaceful Delaware Indians after his parents’ deaths, and his friend Henry "Hurry Harry" March, are canoeing to a lake in New York where the widower Thomas Hutter and his two daughters, the beautiful Judith and the slightly feebleminded Hetty, live. March is going to claim the hand of Judith for his bride, but Natty is going to help his Delaware friend Chingachgook who has already gone ahead for the purpose of trying to recover his fiancee Hist who had been captured by the Iroquois and is being taken back to Canada with them. Unfortunately, while the three men are aiding Chingachgook, Hutter and March succumb to the temptation to try for some Iroquois scalps, for which the English governor was paying good money. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Hutter’s death and several other unintended consequences. If you like early American adventure with Indians and soldiers, you should like this book. The action does flag every now and then when Cooper gets a bit descriptive or has Bumppo philosophizing for a while, but there are still a lot of excitement and suspense. With very little bad language (the word "Lord" is used twice as an interjection, and Hurry Harry uses the colloquial curseword "damme" once), there is hardly anything to which one might object. Of course, there is killing (after all, it is about war), but no gratuitously violent descriptions are found. While Natty Bumppo is certainly not presented as a "perfect" character, and many of his ideas about "religion" are somewhat clouded, he is a genuine hero who is characterized by honesty, truthfulness, loyalty, respect for life, and other admirable qualities. There is a strong sense of right and wrong, and Cooper makes copious references, in both dialogue and description, of the influence of God’s hand in the world. In fact, he refers to the Bible "as a work replete with the profoundest philosophy, expressed in the noblest language" and says "that scarce a chapter, unless it be strictly narrative, can be turned to, that does not contain some searching truth that is applicable to the condition of every human heart." It took me a while to finish it, but I enjoyed the book and look forward to the further exploits of Natty Bumppo. Language level: just barely 2. Ages: teenagers and adults. GOOD.
DiTerlizzi, Tony, and Black, Holly. The "Spiderwick Chronicles" series (copyright 2003 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10020). Ads for the recently released movie based on these books intrigued me, so in last month’s issue I carried some information and opinions about the series. I have now read the first two books, The Field Guide, and The Seeing Stone. The three Grace children, Mallory, Jared, and Simon, go with their mother to live in their great-aunt Lucinda’s creepy old Victorian house, and in a secret room they discover a field guide from Lucinda’s father, Arthur Spiderwick, about fairies and other similar creatures, which leads to some unusual experiences, including Simon’s being captured by goblins and Mallory and Jared’s rescuing him with a magical stone which enables them to see things which are normally invisible. These books are well written but in my opinion, unfortunately, not written well. Let me explain. The stories are very interesting and exciting, and from that standpoint would probably be easy reading for reluctant readers. However, the whole basis for the plot is that the children’s father has divorced their mother and left so that the mother and children have to move to Aunt Lucinda’s house. As a result, Jared had begun getting into trouble at school (he gave one boy a black eye). Now that they have moved he "hopes things will get better" (as if this kind of behavior is something that just happens rather than the result of making choices), but they do not and he still gets into trouble. My perennial question is why do nearly all modern writers of children’s fiction seem to think that to be "relevant" they must always portray families as broken and dysfunctional, rather than giving children good role models? The three children seem to do a lot of arguing and fighting with one another, saying "shut up," and calling each other unkind names. On page five of the first book, Mallory refers to the house as "crappier" than she had first imagined. Do we really want to be introducing our children to such language? Aunt Lucinda is in a mental institution (probably because she believed in fairies) which the kids constantly call a "nuthouse." A hobgoblin, who reluctantly helps the children rescue Simon from the regular goblins, calls Jared "candy butt" and is said to have (and this is a quote) "urinated on the fire, making the flames blaze green." Some common euphemisms are also used. And, of course, at the end of the second book, the kids have to lie to their mother to explain where they had been and why. Some may find such things humorous. I do not. I am trying to decide whether we shall encourage Jeremy, age twelve, to read these books or not, but right now I am leaning against it. There is just too much better literature available. There are three more books in the series. Language level: 2. Ages: intended for 6-10; I would not recommend it for anyone under 12. FAIR. [Note: An abridged version of this review appeared in the HomeSchoolBuzz.com e-mail newsletter for 3/22/08; if you are interested in receiving this newsletter, go to http://www.homeschoolbuzz.com .]
Eager, Edward. Seven-Day Magic (published in 1962 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., Orlando, FL, and republished in 1992 by The Trumpet Club, 666 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY 10103). John and Susan live with their Grannie and enjoy playing with their neighbors, Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka. One day in the local library the children find a book, which unlike most others, is due back in only seven days. It turns out to be a magic book that grants them their wishes, such as Fredericka’s wish to see a dragon (which carries her off and the other children have to go find her), Susan’s wish to go into the future (where they see the girl from another of Eager’s books, Half-Magic), even Grannie’s unintentional wish to go back to the past (where she was a prairie school teacher), and Abbie’s wish to see her father sing in New York (which turns out badly at first but then turns out quite well later). But when John and Barnaby fight over their wish, they accidentally tear the book in half, and Barnaby goes off into his own adventure world of "Barnaby the Wanderer." Can the other children find him and bring him back? Eager’s books are described as being in a "realistic fantasy vein." Eager acknowledged his indebtedness to Edith Nesbit, and this book is somewhat similar to her Five Children and It. As with other books by Eager, those who dislike any mention of "magic" will want to avoid it, but, again, it is not the "magic" of occultism, witches, and wizards, but of "fairy tales." The euphemism "gee" appears once; otherwise there is no objectional language. Also, there is one reference that Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka’s father sang in a beer commercial. I enjoyed this book just about as much as Eager’s Knights’ Castle reviewed in last month’s issue. Language level: I’m going to call it 1. Ages: 10-14. GOOD. (Note: An abridged version of this review appeared in the HomeSchoolBuzz.com weekly e-newsletter for 3/8/08; if you would like to subscribe, go to http://homeschoolbuzz.com ).
Haywood, Carolyn. "B" Is for Betsy (published in 1939 by Harcourt, Brace, and World Inc., and republished in 1967 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York City, NY). Carolyn Haywood (1898-1990) was a native of Philadelphia. One of America’s most popular authors of children’s books, she published her first book, "B" Is for Betsy, in 1939, and wrote more than forty books altogether. Many of her own childhood experiences can be found in her novels. In this book, Betsy has turned six. It chronicles her first year in school and tells how school goes from being a large and frightening place, based on the scary tales of Old Ned, her grandfather’s hired hand, from his childhood school days, to being something exciting and interesting. One might wonder why homeschoolers would want to read about going to school, but this book describes what schools were like before the progressives got hold of them and turned them into a social experimentation and liberal indoctrination centers. In fact, just before Thanksgiving, Betsy’s teacher tells how the Pilgrims gave thanks to God (something that is often considered a no-no in today’s schools). Betsy is not an "ipsy-pipsy perfect" little girl. She is naughty on occasion, but she suffers the consequences of her actions, is sorry, and learns to do better. I had never heard of this book, so I read several reviews on Barnes and Noble’s and Amazon.com’s websites. One said, "This series is a must for all young children, especially little girls who are ready to move onto longer stories." All of the reviews that I read had nothing but positive comments, except one. "Cons: Slightly outdated themes . . . but then the books are 60 years old!" The "outdated themes" include the following: "Due to the age of the books, some stereotypes and prejudices exist, most markedly in gender roles. None of the mothers work outside the home." It is just too bad that doing things God’s way is considered "outdated"! Carolyn Haywood’s stories about her irrepressible character Betsy, originally consisting of twelve books, have never been out of print, and now the first four Betsy books are back for a whole new generation of young readers. The other three are Back to School with Betsy, Betsy and Billy, and Betsy and the Boys. Language level: 1. Ages: 6-10. EXCELLENT. [Note: An abridged version of this review appeared in the 3/29 issue of the HomeSchoolBuzz.com weekly e-newsletter; to subscribe, go to http://www.homeschoolbuzz.com .]
Kaplow, Robert. The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun: A Parody (published in 2003 by New Millennium Press, 301 N. Canon Dr., Suite #214, Beverly Hills, CA 90210). "Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!" (Does that tell you how old I am and what I was watching on television when I was young?). Some of you may be familiar with "The Cat Who…" books by Lilian Jackson Braun. My wife Karen, who likes good mysteries, has read nearly all of them. Even our son Mark, seventeen, who is very picky about what he reads, has said that he has enjoyed them. My father, who, unfortunately, is NOT very picky about what he reads, gave us a copy of this book. Please be advised that it is nothing like the novels by Mrs. Braun. The cover calls this a "bawdy parody," and bawdy is certainly right! Karen read the first chapter, put the book aside, and warned me about it. I just read the first chapter to see for myself, and she was correct. On page 2 the "f" word is used. There are numerous references to Braun’s supposed relationship with a "gay bar" and the "gay male population." And at the close of chapter 1, the hero of the book, James MacIntosh Qafka (the real Mrs. Braun’s hero is named James Quillen), a writer of children’s books (whose earlier "Little Blivet" books were said to have been popular, but his updated and more diverse, books like Little Blivet has Three Daddies were ignored–thankfully!) is specifically said to have gone into his bedroom and "violently m********ed" — the usual term for self stimulation. While I understand that all this is fiction, it is still revolting and disgusting. Publishers Weekly said, "In this wildly funny, biting satire…the zingers come quickly…the copious puns range from the simple to the elaborate…the reading public may read and roar." Obviously, Publishers Weekly has absolutely no sense of common decency whatever. My advice is to stay as far away from this author as possible. Language level: 5. Ages: adults only! NOT RECOMMENDED.
Norton, Mary. Bedknob and Broomstick: A Combined Edition of The Magic Bed-Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks (published in 1957 by Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., New York City, NY). Before Mary Norton published her series "The Borrowers," she had written a book entitled The Magic Bed-Knob in 1943. She followed this up with a sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks in 1957. These two books were then combined into one volume entitled Bedknob and Broomstick, which became the basis for a Walt Disney film starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson entitled Bedknobs and Broomsticks (sometimes the book was sold under this title too). It tells the exploits of the three Wilson children; Miss Price, the apprentice witch; and a flying bed. When Carey, Charles, and Paul Wilson, who are spending the summer with their Aunt Beatrice in the country, discover that Aunt Beatrice’s neighbor Miss Price, a prim and rather unusual spinster, has been riding a broomstick, they decide that she must be a witch. With a gift that the children acquire from Miss Price, who has been studying witchcraft, they have a series of exciting and perilous adventures traveling on a flying bed that takes them to a London police station, a tropical island, and back in time to the seventeenth century. The "magic" in this book is not "fairy tale magic" as in Edward Eager’s books, but "witchcraft magic." While admitting that I am somewhat troubled by the witchcraft element, I basically enjoyed the book. The question is, why would I enjoy this book but not Harry Potter, since both deal with "witchcraft"? The plot of Bedknob and Broomstick is more of a light-hearted romp that definitely has a fantasy feel to it, whereas Harry Potter is much darker and more serious about its witchcraft. As a result, I believe that Harry Potter actually tends to promote an interest in witchcraft, while I do not think that Bedknob and Broomstick does. In fact, Miss Price decided to regard "witchcraft not as a hobby but as a weakness." Also, Emelius Jones, the seventeenth-century "necromancer" whom they save from being burned at the stake, said that his mentor, under whom he had studied, told him before he died concerning "magic" that "there isn’t such a thing." Let me hasten to add that while I do not recommend Harry Potter, I cannot and will not say that anyone who decides to read it is "evil." It is a choice that each family must make. We chose not to read it for the reasons that I mentioned. In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the euphemism "gosh" is used several times, the phrase "hell to leather" is found once, and there is a reference to drinking beer. I would not recommend the book for young children as the scene where Jones is about to be burned at the stake is a little intense. Otherwise, I found nothing that I would consider objectionable. The book was reissued, but apparently, at the present time, neither the individual novels nor the combined edition is in print. Oh, buy the way, one reviewer noted, "Did you see the movie BedKnobs and Broomsticks? If you have, this book…is very different from the movie." Language level: 2. Ages: for 9-11 but I would recommend for 11-14. GOOD.
Rogers, Dale Evans. Angel Unaware: A Touching Story of Love and Loss (published in 1953 by Fleming H. Revell Company, Westwood, NJ; republished in 1963 by Pyramid Books Publications Inc.). I grew up watching the movies and television shows of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans–back in the days when most, or at least many, celebrities understood that they were role models for children and tried to live the part. Oh well, "Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this" (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Anyway, in 1950, after having had four "normal, healthy" children, Dale Evans, wife of Roy Rogers, gave birth to a girl, Robin, who was eventually diagnosed with Down Syndrome (then known as "Mongoloidism") and died at the age of two. The Rogerses were advised by all their doctors except one to put the child in an institution, but they refused to do so and kept her home with them. Mrs. Rogers tells the story of this little child’s life and how it touched theirs as if narrated by Robin to God after her death. The book is truly a tear-jerker but is a great insight into the deepest thoughts of someone who loved a disabled child. Even those of us who have never had to deal with such a situation can appreciate the pathos invested in Dale Evans Rogers’s words. The original edition went through 27 printings and sold more than 700,000 copies. It is still available today in a fiftieth anniversary edition put out by Baker Publishing Group. One recent reviewer wrote, "I read this book in one sitting. I highly recommend this book to anyone that has a child with a disabilty. The book is written through the eyes of their little girl. You just have to read it to feel the wonderful feeling it leaves behind. It’s the most amazing thing I have ever experienced." One might not necessarily agree with all the theological implications inherent in the telling of the story (the Rogerses were Baptists, but allowed an Episcopalian minister to "baptize" Robin), but it is still a heartwarming story. Language level: 1. Ages: for adults, but older children and teenagers could profit from reading it. EXCELLENT.