Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Brian Jacques on heroes and villains

My boys and I really enjoy the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. We have just read two books in the series as a fun aside from our history readings. There are things I would change in the books, but overall they are very good.

A couple of years ago we found a little book titled Redwall Friend & Foe which gives a brief intro to key characters in the series as well as a poster of the heroes. The booklet opens with a brief piece by Jacques in which he describes his approach to heroes and villains. I have included a lengthy quote which I think highlights two key strengths of the series.

“I like my baddies to be totally wicked and my goodies to be heroically on the side of right! From the very first villain, Cluny the Scourge, I have imbued my wicked baddies with certain characteristics. … An arch villain always lusts after power, wants to conquer everything and rule all. He, or she, has no sympathy for any living creature that stands in the way of their malicious ambitions.”

He goes on to note that his typical bad guys are “repellent, ugly and usually insane.” However, he has deviated from this pattern a few times with sly, handsome villains “to illustrate to my young readers that somebody bad is not necessarily an ugly … person; evil has some very personable faces.”

“Martin the Warrior is the role model for all my Redwall Abbey goodies- he is the ultimate hero. … Like Martin, my heroes and heroines are all young creatures, the same as the young people who read my books. The lesson is this: you must learn to be a warrior. This does not mean being a martial arts expert or a Hollywood movie star. The warrior is someone whom others look to. One who tells the truth, defends
the weak and is trustworthy and courageous. In short someone who is true to his or her friends and family.”

He says later that his warriors do not gain that status “through any magic tricks. No, my warriors gain heroic stature by their own determination”

“There is no such thing as wickedness or evil in a hero. Goodies are GOOD!”

Books written from this view will almost certainly be good! Jacques writes in a clear moral universe where the heroes are intended to be pictures of virtue and villains are clearly bad. Sadly such an approach is becoming less and less common in general. Clarity between good and evil is a central piece in moral formation. And, Jacques is clearly aware that his stories are instructing his young readers, as he shows in these quotes. I want an author who knows that his stories will instruct (because they will whether you realize it or not) and then seeks to take that responsibility seriously.

So, “Go Redwaaaalll!”

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Monday, May 19, 2008

The Duke's Daughter

The Duke’s Daughter: A Story of Faith and Love,
By Lachlan Mackenzie
Illustrated by Jeff Anderson
(Christian Focus, 2008), hb., 24 pp.
Ages 3-6

This is another book in the same volume as Spurgeon’s Queen Victoria’s Request. Mackenzie was a colorful Scottish preacher in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, this book is not up to the same standard as the Spurgeon one.

In this story a duke has a beautiful daughter, and he expects many men to indicate interest in marrying her at an upcoming celebration. However, before any of the young men arrive a beggar pushes himself forward and asks for her hand in marriage. To the amazement of all she accepts and is to be married the following year on the same day. Many, including her father try to get her to change her mind, not understanding what she saw in this beggar. On the appointed day a handsome prince arrives to marry her and everyone realizes- what the young woman had discerned- that the beggar was the prince in disguise.

The gospel point is not real apparent. I assume we are supposed to see that people will not understand what we see in Jesus. However, this sounds too much like what I call the “poor Jesus” approach to evangelism- “Why won’t you just give him a chance?”

I would recommend you purchase the Spurgeon story and skip this one.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Queen Victoria's Request

Queen Victoria’s Request: A Story of Grace and Mercy,
By Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Illustrated by Jeff Anderson
(Christian Focus, 2008), hb., 24 pp.
Ages 3-6

This is a nicely illustrated, engaging story that illustrates the gospel well. Spurgeon in his characteristic way tells a down to earth story of an “old ragged, dirty beggar” who receives a summons from Queen Victoria to come to her palace right away just as he is. He is told that he will stay away at his own peril. People scoff at such an idea and the beggar struggles with thinking that he is not really desired to come or that he should clean himself up first. In the end he trusts the message to mean exactly what it says and he acts on its command. To the amazement of others he is accepted by the Queen and made one of the princes of the court.

The point is clear- the call of the gospel is beyond belief but we must simply take God at His word and act on his call. Furthermore the gospel is not just an invitation. It is a summons, a command. It is not just an offer. God has commanded that we come to Christ and any who refuse to so at their own peril.

This is a good parable for all, and accessible to children. My eight year old read it to my six year old today.

It would have nice to have some sort of preface providing some information about how this story originally came into being. This is a nice book, though, and useful for helping children understand the gospel.

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Barnabas and Jonathan

I have commented previously on my family’s appreciation of the Bible Wise series of Bible stories from Christian Focus. They have recently published two more books in this series, Barnabas: The Encourager and Jonathan: The Faithful Friend, both by Carine Mackenzie. As in all the series, the illustrations are done by Fred Apps, probably our favorite illustrator of Bible books.

Both of these books maintain the high level of biblical fidelity which have marked the series and which makes them the best such series around. These volumes, like some previous ones, also deal with characters who often do not get such specific treatment. So, having a specific book on these two characters is itself a real benefit. Some books in the series make very good biblical theological applications from Old Testament to New Testament, but these focus more on highlighting good qualities of the main character. This is understandable given the characters in view.

I should note one slight hesitation. One picture in the Jonathan book is more graphic than what I have typically seen in this series. The decpiction of Jonathan's death has not simply blood on his chest but also straming out of his mouth. Now, I have argued elsewhere that we ought not water down biblical stories. But, even my boys were a bit taken back by this picture. Parents should simply be aware of this and make decisions accordingly.

In summary, these are good additions to a wonderful series, and we would warmly recommend them.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Jack’s Ward, Horatio Alger

Jack’s Ward, by Horatio Alger
(New York Book Company, 1909)
Hb., 164 pp
Ages 7+

I am behind in commenting on books we have read- we’re still reading but I have been short on time to write about them.

I purchased this book a few years ago when I found it for a cheap price (though it is falling apart!) because I had heard much about Alger’s novels about boys, adventure and pluck. It was, overall, disappointing, however.

The story does feature a hard-working boy (Jack), who protects his adopted sister. The values of frugality, honesty and diligence are affirmed. However, there were several weaknesses.
First, the story was fine but not all that compelling. It lacked the verve and adventure of other books we have read. We may be spoiled by C. S. Lewis, Allen French and Douglas Bond! Secondly, the language was poor. I understand books written in vernacular, but the slang used here did not add to the story but really detracted from it. Lastly, I was amazed and disappointed by the disrespect shown by Jack to his aunt in particular. Again, I am aware of good boys’ books which represent the main character doing various mischievous things, but the good books eventually make it clear that such things are not right. This story seems to condone a high level of disrespect and even cold heartedness from Jack to his aunt. The aunt is intended to be an unlikeable character which would lead the reader to affirm Jack’s disrespect; but, respect is due to elders whether or not it is deserved.

This is the only Alger book I have read so I cannot comment on them all. This one, however, could be skipped. There is some value in it, but there are plenty other good books to read.