Book Review: The Very First Easter

Posted on March 2, 2013 | 1 response

Rating: ★★★★★

Paul Maier, a professor of Ancient History, brings his expertise to bear in explaining the significance of the Easter events and subsequent Christian traditions.  As in the companion book The Very First Christmas, a father and mother read the Bible with their son Chris, while he peppers them with questions about the meaning and historicity of the Easter story’s events.  They explain why Jesus rode a donkey into town, how the Jewish Passover became the Christian Lord’s Supper/ Holy Communion, how much Judas’ thirty pieces of silver was worth, why Jesus (as a man) prayed to God (when he was God and man at the same time), why Judas kissed Jesus, and other  details that help an elementary audience engage the Easter story from a historical perspective.

The author does make a couple of interpretations that aren’t universally accepted.  He states that Jesus miraculously appeared in the locked upper room (Luke 24:36 and John 20:19) because after the Resurrection He was able to appear and disappear at will.  The biblical text doesn’t explicitly make this claim, and some scholars believe it’s possible Jesus simply unlocked the door and walked in.  Maier also states that during the Ascension, “Jesus moved into a higher dimension of reality — beyond our human ability to see.”  This might be true, but it would have been simpler to just say the cloud that hid Jesus was a cloud of glory, often associated in Scripture with the presence of God (Exodus 16:10, Exodus 19:16-20, Luke 9:28-36).  Still, most of the content is both factual and enlightening, and children and adults will learn quite a bit from it.

Ordaz’s artwork is impressive, although the Biblical characters look more European than Middle Eastern.  (Someone with a better art-history background than mine might be more appreciative of the artistic conventions.)  Maier is a good writer, but Chris’s conversation with his parents is rather contrived, and the information could have been effectively presented without the question-answer setup.  That said, this is a great resource for helping elementary-aged children transition from simply rehearsing the Easter events to understanding their historical and spiritual significance.

Category: 5 Stars, Age 04-08, Uncategorized
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Book Review: The Donkey Who Carried a King

Posted on March 2, 2013 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

When I picked up this book I expected a straightforward retelling of the Easter events, with some explanation about the significance of the donkey in the Triumphal Entry.  This is instead a moral lesson based on Matthew 20:28 – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In the setup, a young boy comes home distraught at being picked last for a game.  His grandfather sits down with him and tells the story of Davey the donkey, who learns from his old friend Barnabas that although he was chosen to carry a great King, that didn’t mean he was too good for simple roles.  The King Himself humbly chose to become a willing servant, so Christians should recognize that every role is important and not seek only prominent positions.  After making this point, Grandpa explains that Jesus died to save His people from their sins, bearing their punishment and erasing their guilt.  He now reigns forever with His Father, and is worthy of our service.

Although the story hangs on the events of Jesus’ Passion, burial and resurrection, the main part of it is entirely fictional.  We know almost nothing about the real donkey on which the fictional Davey is based, except that he fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.  Davey’s donkey friend Barnabus, who is supposed to have carried Jesus’ mother Mary to Bethlehem, isn’t actually mentioned in the Bible at all.  Although the meaning of Easter is explained on the last page, the Gospel isn’t the main point of the story — rather, you might say the main point depends on an understanding the Gospel.  It’s possible that some children reading this may be confused about the historical events of Easter.  However, even children usually understand the difference between real animals and anthropomorphized ones.

Although I’m usually uncomfortable with embellished Bible stories, if anybody can pull it off without getting into theological trouble it’s R.C. Sproul.  This book is well-written, interesting and engaging, and attractively illustrated.  It has a biblical message, and although its message isn’t central to the Easter observance, it could make a good addition to an Easter reading basket.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Uncategorized
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Book Review: The Easter Story

Posted on March 2, 2013 | No responses

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Easter is such a big cultural event that it can be a challenge for Christian parents to orient their kids to the holiday’s Christian meaning.  This board book presents the events from Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection at a preschooler’s level, showing that Jesus died and rose from the grave to save us and give us life.

A significant omission is any mention of human sinfulness, the reason humanity needs to be saved.  And although the story is presented accurately, it isn’t all that exciting.  Jesus’ death and resurrection to save us from sin is the core of Christianity; it’s the most momentous event in the history of the universe.  You might expect even a preschooler’s book to convey some of the drama, suspense, and surprise the first disciples experienced.  Some parents may prefer to read the same story from a good picture Bible instead.

All that said, however, it does present the Easter story events clearly, and could make a good supplement for hands-on activities such as salt dough Easter tombs or Resurrection Cookies.

Category: 3 Stars, Age 00-04
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Book Review: How to Be a Baby… by Me the Big Sister

Posted on February 9, 2013 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Books on welcoming a new sibling abound, many heartwarming, many boring, most dealing with sibling rivalry — and only a few of them are truly funny.  In this engaging volume, a newly-promoted big sister speaks to her new brother, outlining rather sympathetically what it’s like to be him.  There are fewer opportunities: “When you’re a baby, people eat your ice cream for you, because ice cream isn’t appropriate for babies.”  There are restrictions: “You don’t sit on a chair.  You are tied to it.  Or you fall off and bang your head and scream and have to go to bed.”  She contrasts  his limitations with her own abilities, looking forward to the time when he will be old enough to copy everything she does.  The speaker’s self-satisfied superiority is conveyed with humor, but the speaker seriously acknowledges her brother’s dependence on others, and she responds to his vulnerability with a protective tenderness.

Lloyd-Jones does a masterful job capturing a child’s voice and perspective, and Heap’s whimsical artwork perfectly complements the lighthearted mood of the text.  This is a wonderful portrayal of a positive sibling relationship, providing an example for older siblings to emulate without being at all moralistic. It’s appropriate for preschoolers and an elementary audience, and adults will enjoy it too.


Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: A Mother for Choco

Posted on February 4, 2013 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Twenty years after P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother?, Keiko Kasza presents a heartwarming story of another lonely bird who sets off to find his mother — but is disappointed after interviewing a giraffe, penguin, and walrus, to find that no mother shares his wings, his yellow color, his round cheeks, or his striped feet.  When he spies Mrs. Bear he knows she isn’t his mother, but when he begins to cry she immediately comforts him, just as he imagines his mother would do.  When she suggests that she could be his mother, he objects that she doesn’t have his wings, yellow color, round cheeks, or striped feet.  She laughs, “That would make me look very funny!” and invites him home to meet her other children, none of which are bears.  The story ends with the same resounding comfort as Eastman’s classic, as four children snuggle with Mrs. Bear, secure in her love even though she looks nothing like them.

The straightforward plot communicates a profound principle that families need not be defined by biological similarity.  This point lends itself to heavy-handedness, but it comes across here with simple good humor as Choco experiences a mother’s love through his encounter with Mrs. Bear.  This story may be especially appealing to children whose families have been formed through adoption, but other children will benefit from it as well.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 00-04
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Book Review: Are You My Mother?

Posted on February 4, 2013 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Are You My Mother, a simple, well-loved classic, opens with a mother bird sitting on her egg.  When the egg begins to move, she leaves to find some food for her anticipated baby.  In her absence, the egg hatches, and the hatchling sets out in search of his mother.  He asks a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow if they are his mother, and each says “no.”  He sees a car, a boat, and an airplane, is disappointed that none of them are his mother either.  Finally, he finds a construction digger, which he calls a Snort.  The digger lifts him high in the air, frightening him terribly, then drops him back into his nest where he meets his mother returning home.

This is a great read-aloud for preschoolers, who will identify with the baby bird’s fear at being separated from his parents.  Its pacing is wonderfully predictable, with not-very-scary tension building to an exciting climax with the “Snort,” and transitioning quickly to a deeply reassuring ending as the baby bird snuggles into the nest with his mother.  It’s also a good easy reader, although a student who has had the book read aloud in preschool may view it as babyish.  I recommend the full paperback or hardback version rather than the abridged board book, which loses much in the abridging.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 00-04,, Easy Readers, Honey For a Child's Heart, Read-Aloud Handbook, World Books That Show, World Nifty 50
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Book Review: Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Knight

Posted on September 24, 2012 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

This sequel to The Tale of Custard the Dragon charms the reader with more of Nash’s matchless rhyme.  This is another tale of genuine courage expressed in a time of need by a habitually mild, timid “little pet dragon.” In this story, Belinda is kidnapped by an evil knight, and it is up to Custard to rescue her from his evil lair.

As in the first book, Nash’s ironic, tongue-in-cheek hilarity is complemented by Munsinger’s whimsical artwork.  If told with a serious way, the story might be frightening to sensitive children, but the peppy, poetic rhythm and lighthearted images do much to lighten the potentially sinister mood.  If your kids liked the original, this is sure to be a hit.

This book is unfortunately out of print, but is widely available on the used book market.  There is also another edition illustrated by Linell Nash Smith, but it appears to be an expensive collector’s item.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Book Review: The Tale of Custard the Dragon

Posted on September 17, 2012 | No responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Tale of Custard the Dragon is a whimsical fantasy in verse about Belinda, who lives alone in her house with four pets, a dog, a cat, a mouse, and… yes, a dragon named Custard.  All the other denizens of the house pride themselves on their fearlessness at make-believe games, and they deride poor Custard for his timidity.  However, when a real danger arrives in the form of a burglarizing pirate bent on mayhem, only Custard is ready with a suitably ferocious response.  After the danger is past, everyone begins to boast again about their courage, and Custard agrees that everyone else is braver than he is.

Nash’s hilarious wordcraft and sly humor will amuse children and adults alike, and Lynn Munsinger’s whimsical illustrations merrily evoke the mood of the poem, while bringing the rather complex vocabulary into reach for kids.  Younger listeners may not immediately grasp the central irony, and a brief explanation may be necessary for them to appreciate the joke.  This book is probably best introduced as a read-aloud, although confident readers will also be able to enjoy it.

Purists may also want to check out the earlier version illustrated by Linell Nash Smith, Ogden Nash’s daughter, although it’s out of print and hard to find.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Book Tree, World Nifty 50
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Book Review: Tails

Posted on September 16, 2012 | 1 response

Rating: ★★★★☆

Tactile books, with their touchable pictoral inserts, movable pull-tabs, and trite verbiage, are invariably intriguing to the preschool set and wearying to parents.  This one is a nice change.  It features a collection of appealing baby animals — not just the usual pigs, racoons, beavers and tigers, but also pandas, weasels, tamarins, and alligators.  Each page features a toddler-friendly lift-the-flap, pull-tab, and/or touchable insert, and each scene is introduced with well-paced, punchy rhyming text describing the different tails’ attributes.  The vocabulary is more varied than the standard board book fare, and many parents will be able to survive several dozen readings without feeling the urge to hide the book on a high shelf.

Tails is better constructed than most books of this genre, with sturdy pull-tabs and heavy pages, and it might even survive more than one child’s loving attention.  There’s a counting and eye-spy activity included at the very end, and each animal is helpfully labeled in the final page.  This is a great addition to a preschooler’s library.


Category: 4 Stars, Age 00-04, World Books That Show
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Book Review: The Adventures of Pinocchio

Posted on May 13, 2012 | 2 responses

Rating: ★★★★☆

Pinocchio is a classic story, and a very different one than the saccharine Disney version most Americans are familiar with.  Carlo Collodi’s 1882 book lays out the story of a wooden puppet come to awkward life, who proceeds to act out on every selfish, crude and obnoxious impulse ever known to childhood.  Each bad decision brings sorrow to his “father” Gepetto and his “mother” the Blue Fairy, and brings a terrifying consequence to the puppet — in the course of the book his feet are burned off, he nearly starves, he is attacked by robbers, he is sent to prison, he’s nearly fried as a fish, and he’s transformed into a donkey to be sold for money.

With each consequence, his penitence for foolish behavior is more real.  At the beginning of the book he’s the kind of child who sells his schoolbook, purchased by his father’s sacrifice of his winter coat, to go to a marionette show.  By the end of the story, Pinocchio is the kind of boy who leaps into the sea, risking his life to save his father from a monstrous fish.  This gradual transformation culminates in Pinocchio dreaming one night that the Blue Fairy comes to him saying,

In return for your good heart, I forgive you all your past misdeeds.  Children who love their parents, and help them when they are sick and poor, are worthy of praise and love, even if they are not models of obedience and good behavior.  Be good in future, and you will be happy.

He wakes in the morning to find that he has become a real boy, with the old wooden puppet limp in the corner.

This wasn’t originally a children’s story, but it is a story about childhood and the taming of childish, reckless impulses.  It’s a deeply moral tale, often reiterating the importance of working hard, being responsible, and telling the truth.  It may open up a discussion about what it means to be a slave to sinful impulses (Romans 6:16-18; Romans 7:21-24), and it confirms the Biblical teaching that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15).

It isn’t, however, a Christian story, and it lacks the Christian quality of grace which transforms undeserving sinners.  The moralism is sometimes quite heavy-handed, and penalties for disobedience are often gruesome.  Pinocchio’s redemption ultimately comes, not from a power outside himself, but from his own resolve to change when he sees the consequences of his behavior for himself and others.  Because of this moral self-reliance, this story may not be a good match for children who are prone to self-righteousness.

If you do decide to go with Pinocchio, please avoid the many uninteresting illustrated versions available, and check out Roberto Innocenti’s rendition.  His surreal, dramatic, and often funny pictures perfectly complement Collodi’s vivid style.

You may also be interested in a recent interview at Redeemed Reader with Italian novelist Simonetta Carr, in which she discusses Pinocchio’s cultural significance and moral themes.  In addition, a few years back Frederica Mathewes-Greene wrote an essay about Italian actor Roberto Benigni’s film interpretation and why American critics couldn’t understand it.  In this essay she also explores how Collodi’s view of childhood contrasts with a modern American view.

Category: 4 Stars, Age 04-08, Amblesideonline, Book Tree, Books That Build Character,, Honey For a Child's Heart, NEH Summertime Favorites, Read-Aloud Handbook, World Books That Show
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