Book Review: Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears

Posted on December 10, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

If sly hilarity and perfectly-paced comedic gags are your thing, you’ll love this series.  In the introductory volume, the polar bears Irving and Muktuk appear in the Canadian town of Yellowtooth, at the annual muffin festival. Officer Bunny — the highly competent law enforcement officer is a bunny dressed as a Canadian Mounty — foils their attempt to break into the muffin warehouse by loading fresh muffins in his police car and luring them into it, and a helicopter soon carries them north of the Arctic circle.  Not to be deterred, the bears reappear at successive festivals in more and more ludicrous costumes, only to be caught and carted away.  Finally Officer Bunny sells them to a New Jersey zoo… but only after ascertaining that the town has plenty of muffins.

Not everyone will love a children’s series dedicated to the criminal exploits of two polar bears driven by an insatiable desire for muffins. Some parents might feel the author treats stealing too lightly. But it’s clearly a fantasy, and the bears’ bumbling attempts never lead them into violence.  For a perceptive readership, parents might even have a discussion about how when you lack self-control, you make foolish decisions that get you into trouble. This isn’t a moral story, but it happens in a moral world, where the bears’ outlandish behavior leads to consequences. It’s best for an elementary audience.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Sleds on Boston Common

Posted on December 9, 2014 | 3 responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

It’s refreshing to find a piece of historical fiction placed squarely in the middle of important historical events, yet focused on children’s natural interests. It’s even better when the story events are loosely based on local folklore.  This is the story of a group of children who ask the British general to stop his soldiers from destroying their sled runs. Although tensions are rising between the British and the American colonies, soon to erupt into the Revolutionary War, General Gage responds to the children’s request by ordering his soldiers to clear their sled runs and leave a pond unbroken for skating.

This small kindness shown by a general on the edge of war, taking the time to listen to children who want to play, will help young readers understand that although war provides opportunity for the most terrible of evils, individuals involved in war are complex people, each motivated by his own human interests.

This is best suited for elementary ages, and because of its historical setting it’s especially good for those who have the chance to visit.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Christmas Wombat

Posted on December 3, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

This time our imperterbably stubborn wombat takes a flight of fancy — on the back of Santa’s sleigh, where she settles in to nap after shoving the reindeer aside to get their carrots.  She follows Santa down another chimney (“A wombat hole?”) and after visiting several homes decides the “strange creatures” pulling the sleigh are useful for finding carrots.

The gently ironic humor of the original books is continued here, and several jokes are repeated, enhancing the comic effect. French’s text is again very spare, and the story is beautifully paced, with a satisfying conclusion.  Since several jokes depend on their repetition from previous books, it’ll be best appreciated by kids who have experienced the original Diary of a Wombat. And it’s so clearly make-believe that it shouldn’t matter whether the audience believes in Santa.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Easy Readers
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Book Review: Diary of a Baby Wombat

Posted on December 2, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Jackie French’s wombat is back, this time with a baby who tells her own story through “diary” entries complemented by visual scenes. These humorously highlight the difference between the baby’s perspective and that of her mother. In the course of a week the young wombat befriends a human child, helps her mother look for a new hole, and eventually finds her way inside the human house.

While it would be impossible to equal the brilliance of the original Diary of a Wombat, this is a pretty good follow-up. Kids who loved the original will enjoy this one almost as much. Like the original, this one is good for reading aloud and for early reading practice.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Easy Readers
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Book Review: Diary of a Wombat

Posted on December 1, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★★

It’s not easy to write a page-turner showing an animal’s ordinary life, in such a way that it conveys a real sense of the animal’s basic characteristics without overly anthropomorphizing it.  Even when it’s done accurately, books about real animals often lack the kind of story quality that makes a child want to read them again.  Jackie French has done it for the wombat, though.  In this story, a young wombat discovers new “neighbors” grilling right next to her new dust bath. The neighbors provide much in the way of amusement for her: soft dirt for digging (their flower garden), scratching posts (their outdoor furniture) and a limitless supply of carrots and oats. At the end of the week the wombat decides that “humans are easily trained and make quite good pets,” so she digs a hole under the corner of their house to be near them.

Each event is delivered from the wombat’s perspective: hence, we see the word “welcome” on a new mat, while she describes a “flat, hairy creature invading my territory” which she destroys, concluding happily, “Neighbors should be pleased.”  Children will easily recognize this flat, hairy object, and they’ll savor the irony that the wombat has actually annoyed her humans, even as she demands a reward.

An introduction to an animal we won’t see in the wild outside of Australia, a satisfying story suffused with ironic humor, and an endearing, likable character which retains its animal qualities, all combine for a read-aloud with very wide appeal. I highly recommend it.

It’s suitable for elementary ages, and is written in simple enough language that early readers can probably handle it.

Category: 5 Stars, Age 04-08, Easy Readers
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Book Review: Advent: Remembering How Jesus Came And Will Come Again

Posted on November 30, 2014 | No responses

Advent Remembering How Jesus Came And Will Come Again by 25 Daily Readings for Families to Share at Christmas Time | Make Your Own Book

Rating: ★★★★☆

Emily Campbell, a pastor’s wife at Sovereign Grace Church in Spotsylvania, VA, has put together a lovely Advent reader.  It can be used on its own, but it’s designed to be used alongside an Advent calendar holding small tokens behind the doors to use for object lessons. If you don’t have the creativity to come up with tokens, there is a page of stickers included to put on the the back of your doors, and there would be room for treats in the compartments.

Each of the 25 readings consists of a short scripture, a brief discussion, and sometimes a suggested song (lyrics and historical notes about each song in the appendix). Some studies discuss traditional symbols such as candy canes, poinsettias, and Christmas trees, but as you would expect from a Sovereign Grace author, the readings are closely focused on the person and work of Jesus. You begin the season by learning about his importance, then move to Israel’s anticipation of the Messiah, then the story of his birth, a discussion of his character, his death, and his promised return.

Each 5-minute reading is illustrated with a hand-drawn picture which is reproduced in the stickers. It’s written in a voice that middle schoolers won’t think is babyish, but it’s easily understandable for an elementary audience.  If you don’t use the suggested tokens, the readings might lack the kind of engagement younger children need, but they are brief enough that nobody will have time to get bored. I especially appreciate Mrs. Campbell’s restrained writing style: she conveys her message in simple language, and doesn’t feel the need to go on and on. Yet in her few words she manages to convey a deep understanding of the biblical Advent story as well as a good deal of historical information.

It’s available on blurb.com, with discounts for bulk orders.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Christ in Christmas: A Family Advent Celebration

Posted on November 29, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

In this collection of Advent devotionals, four prominent Christian leaders each contribute a devotional to use for the four Sundays of Advent. On the other days you simply read a well-chosen scripture selection taken from the King James Version and the New International Version of 1973. Each verse builds on the last, beginning with prophesies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, proceeding through the Gospel accounts of Jesus and one description of him in Colossians, and finishing with his promised triumph in Revelation.

The Sunday devotionals consist of a scripture passage, a familiar song to sing together, a two- or three-page essay, a family activity, and a closing prayer. The essays, especially the first two, seem geared more toward adults and teens than children, and the activities are rather time-consuming, so it may be better to just read the essay ahead of time to shape your own discussion.

If you like the versions of the Bible used, on most days this book provides a low-effort, off-the-shelf reading to focus your attention on Christ. The Sunday devotionals require some preparation and thought, especially if you want to contextualize the essays so your particular age group can understand them. If you have a mix of teens and younger children, this book could make a nice bridge, providing mature discussion for those who are old enough for it, and a hands-on activity to engage the younger kids.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 08-12
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Book Review: The Nativity

Posted on November 28, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

How do you engage preschoolers in an Advent ceremony? One way is to get this beautiful pop-up book, illustrated in Renaissance style, that tells the story of Jesus’ birth in simple prose. The illustrations are quite pretty, and the pop-up pages are well designed. Many of them have pieces that move when tabs are pulled.

If biblical accuracy is important to you, you will want to know that the story has details that are different from what is written in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-20.  It shows Mary riding a donkey, where the Bible doesn’t mention one; it has the angels singing when they announce Christ’s birth to the shepherds, where the Scripture just describes them praising God; and it has the ox and ass breathing on baby Jesus to keep him warm. If this bothers you, you could just skip those parts or read the original scripture passages instead.

This book is best used with adult participation, since preschoolers will quickly destroy the fragile cutout pieces if left alone with it. It’s surprisingly expensive on Amazon, but you can find it used at bookfinder.com.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 00-04
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Book Review: A Family Advent

Posted on November 28, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Christian tradition of Advent — anticipating the coming of Christmas with a month of reflection — has been observed for centuries.  The use of the advent wreath probably began with Martin Luther in the late 1400′s, and in the rush of modernity, many Protestants have fallen out of the habit of observing the ceremony. This book is intended to help Christians re-institute the tradition in their homes.

There are four weeks of 5-10 minute daily devotions consisting of a brief scripture passage and 2-3 paragraphs to be read aloud, followed by a brief prayer. It appears to be written by a collaborative team, since there’s no author cited, and its visual presentation is quite beautiful.  Each week has a page with interesting historical facts about Christmas, and an activity to try out with your children.  It’s designed to appeal to a broad variety of Christians, and for that reason it lacks some theological specificity: The meditation on John 3:16 on p. 60, for example, says that Jesus died to provide a way for us to reach the Father, but it doesn’t mention our sin which required His death. But you don’t find the kind of doctrinal specificity I might prefer, you probably also won’t find much to offend.

This is an easy-to-use resource for parents who want a zero-prep, brief devotional for a busy holiday season. It’s easy to read, reasonably engaging, and everyone will learn something. The suggested activities are well-chosen, except perhaps for stargazing in December (brr).  It’s best suited to an upper-elementary audience, but readings are brief enough that smaller kids will probably sit through it.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: Tattered Sails

Posted on November 27, 2014 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

There aren’t a huge number of Thanksgiving books truly accessible to a preschool and early elementary audience. This one doesn’t specifically mention Thanksgiving, but it can do the job.  It follows the story of three children who leave England to make a new life with their parents in Massachusetts.  It ends with the family kneeling to pray next to a harvest meal.

The story line is minimal — a few choice details on every page — delivered in rhythmic, rhyming verse, with very nice illustrations.  If the verse isn’t of the highest poetic quality, its rhythm is pleasant and it gets the story across. This is a good addition to the Thanksgiving reading list, especially if you have younger listeners.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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