Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Dragon and the Raven, by G. A. Henty

The Dragon and the Raven, by G. A. Henty
(London: Blackie & Son, 1885; reprint, Preston/Speed Publications, 1995)
Hb., 238 pp.

This is the first Henty novel I have read to my boys. If you are not familiar with Mr. Henty and his novels I would recommend you check out these sites for more information (about Henty 1, about Henty 2, reviews of his books). This sort of information is what prompted me about 7 years ago to begin collecting Henty novels for my boys to read one day. Henty’s books have a great reputation for historical accuracy and for upholding the values of courage, nobility, perseverance, and the like.

This specific book is set in the days of King Alfred of England in the late 800’s. In this time England was regularly invaded by Danish hosts. Alfred is the one who finally defeated the Danes and brought peace to England. In this story Henty creates for us a young Earl named Edmund who fights under Alfred and meets many adventures, in the typical Henty fashion. In the story Edmund is the one who introduces to England advances in warfare particularly naval warfare. In a way he seems to be a precursor to the famed British domination of the seas. Edmund fights the Danes, around England, ends up at the siege of Paris helping to defeat the Danes there and eventually finds adventures in the Mediterranean.

Henty’s concern for teaching history is evident in his preface where he writes:

“Living in the present days of peace and tranquility it is difficult to picture the life of our ancestors in the days of King Alfred, when the whole country was for years overrun by hordes of pagan barbarians, who slaughtered, plundered, and destroyed at will. . . From this terrible state of subjection and suffering the Saxons were rescued by the prudence, the patience, the valour and wisdom of King Alfred. In all subsequent ages England has produced no single man who united in himself so many great qualities as did this first of great Englishmen. He was learned, wise, brave, prudent, and pious; devoted to his people, clement to his conquered enemies. He was as great in peace as in war; and yet few English boys know more than a faint outline of the events of Alfred’s reign—events which have exercised an influence upon the whole future of the English people.”

In another regular Henty feature, the faith of Edmund, though not always at the forefront, does play an important part. The difference between the pagan Danes and the Christian Saxons is significant. It is seen even in how and why they fight. In an important scene, Edmund, the main character, answers a question from Freda a Danish maid.
“How is it that you, whose religion is as you say a peaceful one, can yet have performed so many deeds of valour and bloodshed?”
“I am fighting for my home, my country, and my religion,” Edmund said. “Christianity does not forbid men to defend themselves; for did it do so, a band of pagans might ravage all the Christian countries in the world. I fight not because I love it. I hate bloodshed, and would rather die than plunder and slay peaceful and unoffending people. You have been in England and have seen the misery which war has caused there. Such misery assuredly I would inflict on none. I fight only to defend myself and my country men and women. Did your people leave our land I would gladly never draw sword again” (p.116)

This makes this a valuable lesson for young boys in understanding how fighting fits in a Christian worldview.

Overall, this book started very slowly. Eventually it got going with battles and adventures. In the end my boys were enjoying it, but they admitted early on it was less enjoyable. Even as the action increased, I did think it was not as good a story overall as the first Henty novel I read myself, The Reign of Terror. The language from over a hundred years ago is different in various ways so I found myself regularly editing and paraphrasing. With an audience slightly older this would become less important. I would recommend this book, but know that your crowd will need to have mastered the ability to endure with a book for a while- a very useful ability to acquire!

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Favorite Norse Myths

Favorite Norse Myths, retold by Mary Pope Osborne
Illustrated by Troy Howell, pb. 87 pp.

We really enjoyed this book! I read all of it and so far have only read some of it to my boys. It is a good source when studying the Viking era (as we have been). Some Christian parents are uncertain about discussing mythology (Greek, Norse or otherwise) with their children. I have discussed this earlier in a post, but I will say again that I do think it is important to ground your children well in the biblical story before dealing with the myths. It was fun to read the Norse creation story to my boys and hear them critique it! It was really funny in points as well. My boys found it ridiculous to think of things happening so much by chance and to hear of the pettiness of these gods.

I found it intriguing to note a number of similarities to the biblical story. I know some feel challenged by such similarities. However, if we all come from Adam and Eve, and then Noah, it is not surprising at all to find remnants of the truth in the stories of various people.

Lastly, the illustrations are really well done. There are reproductions of Viking art illustrating the stories, and there full and double page paintings. Both are really nice.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

This is No Fairy Tale

This is No Fairy Tale, by Dale Tolmasoff
(Crossway Books, 2005), hb. 32 pp.

This book seeks to explain to children the story of Jesus by contrasting it with the typical elements of fairy tales. This works well especially for families (like ours) which talk about fairy tales and adventure stories. This can be very useful since we do want to be clear with our children about the difference between made up stories and true ones- like the gospel. My kids have had no problem differentiating these, but that is at least partly because we have had numerous conversations about the difference. This little book can be one more tool in that sort of conversation.

As the book explains the life and work of Jesus it also makes good points which illuminate how we are to follow Jesus’ example. This can open up some good conversations on Christian living. I would think that this book would also make a good gift for a family who is open to Bible stories but who has not come to faith. The basic presentation can be useful not only to the children but also for the parents reading it.

Lastly, this book is very nicely illustrated making it quite attractive for children. The age range stated on the book jacket is 4 to 8 years old. I think it will more likely appeal primarily to children more in the range of 2 to 5 years old. For such children this book will provide a visually attractive meaningful discussion of the life of Christ.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Pieter Bruegel, 16th Century Flemish artist

The Fantastic Journey of Pieter Bruegel, by Anders C. Shafer
(Dutton Children’s Books, NY: 2002), 40pp.

I stumbled across this book one evening in a bookstore and was really interested in the story of this painter. I did not previously know about Pieter Bruegel, but searching through some sources I discovered that he is generally considered the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century (one web source can be seen here).

This book tells the story of Bruegel’s two year journey from Antwerp (his home) to Rome and back again. This trip, apparently, had a profound impact on him and prepared the way for him to be considered a master. Shafer has pieced together about the journey from letters and other sources and provides along the way an introduction to key themes in the artist’s work. The story is told in a way that will be engaging for children and it is nicely illustrated. The end of the book contains small copies of some of Bruegel’s well known pieces with a paragraph explaining each painting.

This book is a good bit different from other books I have mentioned here but we enjoyed it and found it a good way to discuss an important person in the world of art. With his setting, his story is also significantly linked to the Reformation.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

I Love My Bible

I Love My Bible!, written and illustrated by Debby Anderson
(Crossway, 2005), hardback, 32 pp.

This is a new book for us and just this week I read it to my three year old (Benjamin) with my other boys (9, 8 and 6 years old) listening in. Benjamin usually gets to listen in as I read things more geared to the older ones so this was a welcome change of pace for him. The older boys enjoyed listening in and commenting, and Benjamin thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The title adequately summarizes the content of the book. In a very kid-friendly manner, each page mentions a reason for loving the bible and includes an appropriate Scripture reference. The book highlights that the Bible gives us strength, is true, tells us about Jesus and God’s love, and will not fade away. It touches on how God used different people to write the Bible while also ensuring that what was written was exactly what He intended. Scripture memory is encouraged with pictures of sample homemade memory cards. It also mentions how people in some areas do not have access to the Bible or have to obtain the Bible secretly. Having spoken to the value of the Bible and how some do not have it, the author in a very appropriate way encourages the children to do what they can to learn the Bible and also to help others get to know the Scriptures.

Listing all this content might obscure the fact that all of this is accomplished in a very succinct easy to follow manner- usually a sentence or two per page. This is a very child-friendly book. In fact, my three year old has enjoyed it so much that he has slept with it and taken it with him everywhere wanting to tell people about his “Bible book.”

A note should also be made on the illustrations. They are nicely done in a fairly typical children’s book style. They nicely further the discussion by giving specific examples of what is said briefly in words. It is also nice to see that the children in the pictures come from a variety of races. Lastly the picture of Jesus is well done. He is probably more fair skinned than he should be, but he looks like a strong king. I would not have guessed that it was a picture of Jesus if not for the words on the page. In fact my boys at first assumed that it was King David (what I was thinking as well). This not only nicely captured the reality of the incarnation but also led to my oldest saying, “Well, David is supposed to point us to Jesus.” Yes! He has been learning from the sermon series on 1-2 Samuel!

In closing, I think it is apparent that we have liked this book. It is a really good one for the little ones. The back cover says it is for ages 4-7. My six year old would not consider it a book for him though he enjoyed it. It was more like a book for my three year old. I would think of the target age range as 2-4, with others being able to enjoy alongside.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Within the Palace Gates

Within the Palace Gates, by Anna Siviter

This book is a retelling of the story of Nehemiah, and is a good example of historical, biblical fiction. The story is well done with much attention to detail, culture, religion etc. and plenty of action. The story begins with Nehe (Nehemiah) enjoying his position in Persia. The account of Nehemiah's brother coming with news of Jerusalem is really well done- the human touch, the reasonable filling in of details, the attention to historical setting- all is well done. The author never explained why Nehemiah went by Nehe in Persia in her account, but it is certainly reasonable that the portion which referred to Yahweh ('iah') would be dropped by the Persian court. This would be similar to the changing of the names of Daniel and his three friends.

We read this book a year ago, and I just recently did a study of Nehemiah. It was interesting to note how careful and faithful the author was in various points of this book. The story intentionally holds up obedience and reverence to God. It was a fun way to learn more about the Nehemiah story and to be edified. My 6 & 8 year old boys loved it.

It appears that Amazon is limited in its stock on thisbook. You can find it however at Veritas Press.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Red Keep

The Red Keep: A Story of Burgundy in 1165,
by Allen French (1939; reprint, Bethlehem Books, 1997), 370 pp.

My boys (ages 9, 8 and 6) and I came to this book with much anticipation having greatly enjoyed French’s Rolf and the Viking Bow (see previous post; my 3 year old wasn’t much interested!). This book though is a bit longer than Rolf, and it did start a bit slowly. It was good to see that they had learned the discipline of persevering with a book long enough to allow it to come into full bloom. The reputation of the previous book helped.

Once we got a few chapters in, however, we were all rapt in attention- reading much further into the night than I intended at times! The story takes place, as the subtitle states in 12th century France. Thus, a good sense of basic medieval life is given (French and his wife apparently spent six weeks in this area in preparation for writing).The place of nobles, the role of holding a castle and governing a fief, the journey of a young man from page to squire to knight and various other aspects of life in that time are well portrayed- and a glossary is included to explain unfamiliar words. The story concerns a young man, Conan, as he matures into knighthood, a young heiress to a fief and castle, Anne, who has been displaced by the evil plotting of two castle-holding brothers, the Sauval, and the clash between good and evil which ensues. The story, rich in adventure and intrigue is told with relish. My boys were captured by the battles, the secret passage way and the struggle to see truth prevail.

Along the way medieval spirituality is evident. There is no modern effort to ignore or suppress the religious element. This comes especially into view in the closing chapters and opened discussion for us of the reality of the gospel and the need for salvation. Of course it is cast in the light of Medieval Catholicism verging on mysticism at points. I edited some things and paused to explain others. I took the opportunity to explain that people at this time (and some today) thought they were to pray to Mary, etc. In this latter section one of the main bad guys says in his thoughts “damn them” (p. 359). It is said in the context of death and hell so I do not think it is meant to be profane. Rather the character is, I think, in actuality hoping for the condemnation of the others. Still, I chose to edit this part, and it is likely something other parents will want to be aware of.

Lastly, this book is more graphic in the description of the violence than was Rolf. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but something one might want to bear in mind in light of the audience. Though we have read many accounts of battles, I did edit portions.

We found this book to be a fun read, one we eagerly looked forward to each day and a good way to learn about the era. I hope you may enjoy it as we did.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Gabriel’s Magic Ornament

Gabriel's Magic Ornament , by Randall Bush
(Pristine Publishers, 2002), 110 pages; $11.95

This magical little book, written by my colleague Dr. Randall Bush, has become a Christmas favorite in my family. Dr. Bush has crafted a tale reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in which the fantasy land is itself the Christmas tree and the characters are the ornaments, all steeped in biblical imagery. Along the way the message of salvation (the true meaning of Christmas) is exposed with a very striking image of human captivity to sin (laboring in the cane fields), the holiness of God (‘He is good and kind … You must take him seriously, though, for he is not to be trifled with.”), and a beautiful description of heaven. Bush makes a clever use of names and symbols and includes a glossary in the back in case you miss the historical and biblical allusions.

The book is also available on CD. We have read the book and listened to it on CD, and my boys regularly ask to hear it again. I think my youngest was four years old when we first read it and he seemed to understand well and enjoy. I warmly commend it to all.