Thursday, June 29, 2006

Another Luther Bio

Luther, The Leader, Virgil Robinson
(Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1963; A. B. Publishing, Inc., 1997), pb., 96 pp.

This is more of a straight forward re-telling of the Luther story than the Louise Vernon reviewed previously. My boys missed the use of a fictional young boy for the telling of the story, but this one was understandable, easy to follow and was faithfully told. The author may follow less reliable traditions at points, though. For example the book tells about Luther writing “Away in a Manger” for his children one Christmas, when as best as I can tell this is based on an uncertain tradition. However, this sort of thing does not really distract from the story.

If you are looking for a straightforward, concise re-telling of Luther’s story this is a good resource. The story could be told in a more exciting manner, but if you have the basic details you can help build the interest yourself.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

C. S. Lewis on Children’s Stories

I have been waiting (impatiently!) to write something from my reading of On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature , by C. S. Lewis. I recommend this book strongly to people in all sorts of arenas of life. For parents who want to read well to their children and want to choose books well, this is a great book. Various topics are taken up but one recurrent theme is a defense of ‘fairy tales’ and ‘fantastic stories’ for both adults and children. Lewis says repeatedly that any story worth reading as a child is worth reading as an adult and conversely any story not worth reading as an adult is not worth reading as a child!

For the moment I will simply take up Lewis’ comments on the criticism that some imaginative stories might scare children. He writes:

“Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu [State Police in the USSR] and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.”
Yea and Amen! This counters well the overly sanitized view of life so often pushed on us. These stories do not encourage improper escapism but by stepping aside from our reality provide us with good categories for responding to the scary side of real life by encouraging nobility, courage, etc. in a compelling way. Of course in our day there are those stories written for children which focus on the morbid and wicked in a way that simply glorifies evil. That is a totally different category. Lewis is campaigning for the traditional fairy tale and the sort of book he wrote in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Lastly, I think Lewis would be bothered with our children’s Bible stories which delete the reference to David cutting off Goliath’s head!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Children’s Bio of Luther

Thunderstorm in Church , Louise A. Vernon
(Herald Press, 1974, 2002), pb., 132 pp.

Here is another biography from Mrs. Vernon. As in the others the story is told from the viewpoint of a child near the key person. This time the child is Luther’s oldest son Hans. The reader learns of Luther’s life as Hans hears the stories from his father and aunt (their nanny) and as Hans overhears discussions of visitors in their home. One does get the feel of how busy the Luther household must have been, challenges of life in that day, and some of Luther’s characteristics.

As in the other Vernon bio’s I was not completely satisfied. First, the move to a child of the featured person is a fine idea here, but I did not care for the overly psychoanalytical approach to this. The key issue in the book is Hans worrying about how he could ever do anything as great as his father. Frustrations with living up to his father and angst about his future work unnecessarily distracts from the story of Luther. Second, while it was obvious that the author was often drawing directly from Luther’s writings, the story moved awkwardly and unclearly. It was clear then that Mrs. Vernon was quite knowledgeable of Luther’s writings and sought to draw directly from them- both commendable aspects. However, these accounts/facts were placed together in an order the purpose of which was unclear. I often found myself at a loss for understanding why the story jumped from one point to another mid-paragraph. Furthermore, one looks in a children’s biography for explanation and clarification. While this book gives facts, these facts are often not clarified but can be misleading or confusing. For example, at one point in describing Melanchthon further, reference is made to his deep love for learning. One might expect any number of examples to be given. However, Mrs. Vernon proceeds to talk about Melanchthon’s interest in astrology and his desire to ‘cast’ Luther’s horoscope! I have no idea about the historicity of this (though it very well may be true), but what is the value of introducing this here in a children’s book? She does have Luther say he is not interested, but there is no real clarity given on this whole realm. This is the worst example, but other similar portions could result in this being a more confusing than helpful read for some.

In summary, this is a decent biography of Luther. I certainly am grateful for anyone who seeks to write a biography of Martin Luther (and other heroes of the faith) for children. One can read this book with profit- provided you are prepared to explain. It is not an easy book to follow though my boys did enjoy it overall. I hope there is a better Luther book for children somewhere.
[NOTE: We are about to begin another Luther book, so soon I hope to give our thoughts on it.]

Friday, June 16, 2006

Children's Biography of Erasmus

The Man Who Laid the Egg. Louise A. Vernon (Herald Press, 1977), pb. 118 pp.

We are currently in a series of Vernon biographies as you can see. In the basics this one delivers as the others. The reader (and listeners!) is introduced to some of the basics in the life and work of Erasmus. As literature one ought not expect too much.

The story is told from the perspective of Gerhard Koestler, a (fictional) young man coming of age in Germany in the early 1500’s. Gerhard, born to a noble family but orphaned, runs away when his uncle decides to force him into a monastery. Gerhard wants to go to the University to learn and especially to learn the sort of things which Erasmus encourages. Eventually he ends up in the household of Erasmus having opportunity to learn from and observe the great man.

This volume, I think, is more disjointed and harder to follow than the others. There is less natural flow and it is more difficult (for me and then more so for my younger listeners) to keep up with the various characters who appear rapidly and often. In some defense, it must be difficult to construct a biography like this with perhaps little information for constructing a narrative while trying to connect with a younger audience.

The picture of Erasmus which emerges is interesting. In general it is the picture given by J. I. Packer and others- a brilliant man who did much good but in the end was hampered by a certain constitutional weakness and timidity. The author seems to desire to provide a basically positive picture while also dealing with Erasmus’ evasiveness. We are currently reading Mrs. Vernon’s bio of Luther and it is my hunch that her sympathies (like mine) lie more with Luther than Erasmus. It was a bit confusing to my boys at times to figure out whether Erasmus was good or bad. Of course this arises from having only two clearly defined categories- a good starting point, which then has to be developed to handle the nuances of real life. In the end I think they were able to see the parts of Erasmus that we would admire and the parts that we would not. It is important for a parent to know, though, that this sort of clarification and evaluation is not given in the book. So you will need to be prepared to do this yourself.

Lastly, as I mentioned before it would be nice to have a brief note on who is historical and who is not. I was not sure if the printer, Froben, was historical or not though he was mentioned enough that I thought he probably was. Then one night during the time we were reading this book I found on ebay a 16th century copy of a book by Erasmus which stated that it was printed by Froben! That was a fun discovery.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Lamplighter Catalog

I first saw Lamplighter books in a Vision Forum catalog a few years ago, and they really caught my attention. I have been pleased to locate Lamplighter’s complete catalog. They republish some books which I found in old copies in bookshops in Scotland but had not yet been able to find reprinted. Their motto alone was enough to catch me: “Building character … One Story at a Time.” EXACTLY! That is what I am attempting and I think that reading good stories is an excellent way of building character.

Their books are not cheap, but they are all nicely bound and printed, maintaining a classic look of age. I have not yet read one of their reprints (I have one in the queue!), but they do have a reprint of The Gold Thread which is one of our all time favorites (read my earlier post on this book here).

The catalog itself is nicely organized with listings by age and gender as well as other topics (rare collector’s series, etc.). If you are looking for books for your children this is certainly one catalog to have ready.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Posting Interruptions

Blogger has been having all sorts of problems the last few days which is causing numerous problems for me in posting. Hopefully I will be able to access them consistently soon! When I catch Blogger working I will get things up but it looks to be difficult the next few days.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Prayer for Children, William Cowper

The following poem was written by William Cowper and published in the Olney Hymns. It captures well the desire fo parents and the church.

XXII. Prayer for Children (66-67)

Bestow, dear Lord, upon our youth,
The gift of saving grace;
And let the seed of sacred truth
Fall in a fruitful place.

Grace is a plant, where’er it grows,
Of pure and heavenly root;
But fairest in the youngest shows,
And yields the sweetest fruit.

Ye careless ones, O hear betimes
The voice of sovereign love!
Your youth is stain’d with many crimes,
But mercy reigns above.

True, you are young, but there’s a stone
Within the youngest breast;
Or half the crimes which you have done
Would rob you of your rest.

For you the public prayer is made;
Oh! join the public prayer!
For you the secret tear is shed:
Oh shed yourselves a tear!

We pray that you may early prove
The Spirit’s power to teach;
You cannot be too young to love
That Jesus whom we preach.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Children’s Bio of Gutenberg

Ink on His Fingers , Louise A. Vernon
(Herald Press, 1972, 2004), pb., 127 pp.

This biography of Johann Gutenberg is written similarly to Mrs. Vernon’s biography of Wycliffe reviewed previously. A young boy, Hans Dunne, is pursuing his desire to make copies of the Bible. He thinks of making handwritten copies, but stumbles upon the efforts of various people to make copies with movable type. Eventually he ends up working as an apprentice for Johann Gutenberg.

The story itself works well. There is an air of mystery as well as a strong sense of working against opposition. These aspects made it a compelling read for my boys. Mrs. Vernon highlights the fact that other people were working on movable type and the opposition Gutenberg faces. In fact it seemed to me that one point of the book was to highlight Gutenberg’s perseverance and the fact that those who seek to serve God do encounter difficulty. Thus, the book gives the reader a good sense of the hard work it took to produce movable type (for the production of Bibles) and encourages perseverance.

I have two main criticisms or requests. First (and the least of the two), a small glossary would be very helpful. A number of books we have read in historical fiction have provided a glossary for words from the era and this has been helpful. A glossary would add to this book as well. The more authentic the book seeks to be the more helpful a glossary is. Secondly, I really appreciate a note from the author describing at least briefly what he/she has created for the story and what is based on fact. This is very helpful since the distinction is not obvious. I have no problem with the fiction aspect of the book, but children often want to know what part is historical. In this book it seemed especially hard to distinguish. Fair enough, we do not have many details about Gutenberg’s life. However, I at first assumed the key ‘bad guy’ in the book Herr (Mr.) Fust was a fictional creation. After some searching of my own, though, I discovered that Fust was a historical person who did the basic things described in the book. Knowing this really added to the reading.

In summary, we enjoyed this book and would recommend it to others. It succeeds well in the basic goal of introducing children (and parents!) to Gutenberg and the labor to make printing a regular part of life.