Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Lost Treasure of Persia

In Austrian author Heath Jones’ book The Lost Treasure of Persia: A Skye Belle Adventure, twelve-year old Skye Bell and her younger brother Brandon go on an adventure in Paris that turns into a danger-fraught mystery.

Their mission starts out simple enough: visit the Louvre museum to see some recently uncovered ancient Persian artifacts the kids think might be linked to Queen Esther. They hope that examining these items first-hand will help them discover the secret to the Biblical queen’s courage to come before her husband, the King of Persia. However, on their first meeting with their museum contact, the kids discover the jewelry has been stolen. From there on out, the children try to find clues, capture the thief, and restore the treasure to the museum. As the story unfolds, Skye discovers it’s not just the secret of Queen Esther’s courage she is trying to find; it is her own.

What I Like: The story brings in Christian elements and lessons in a way that feels natural, kids can relate to, and works with the personalities of the characters. Also, in many ways, The Lost Treasure of Persia reminds me of the simplicity of adventure found in the popular Magic Tree House stories, only without the time travel. In both, you have a brother and sister on a mission where they learn history, solve a mystery, and confront danger. In much the same way, the story also moves quickly from plot point to plot point—steady action but without the more complex character development found in books geared toward an older audience. The cover art also appeals to that 1st-2nd grade age group. The main character looks much like Kim in the cartoon Kim Possible. That’s why I believe that if your child likes the Magic Tree House books, he will likely enjoy this series as well.

What I Dislike: Kids might not have an issue with this, but I was bothered by the fact that, all on their own, the young characters simply fly off to Paris, travel around the country, and stay in a hotel. When they need to relocate to another part of Europe, they simply purchase tickets and take off… again, on their own. Nowhere in the story does it indicate the family is wealthy enough to have such a large travel income at their disposal. Neither is it believable kids this age would travel without any adult supervision. A family vacation, a visit to a distant relative, a special international camp, a friend who works at the museum in Paris, rich parents who send kids on a trip with a butler, or even a magic tree house... any of these ideas would solve that issue and make the story feel a little more authentic.

Overall Rating: I debated between excellent and very good, and when that happens, I usually go with the benefit of the doubt. So... EXCELLENT.

Age Appeal: The publisher does not list an age group, but I believe it fits kids in grades 1,2, and 3--- about, as I said, the level of a Magic Tree House adventure.

Publisher Info: Amazon Digital Services, 2014; ISBN: 978-1501061899; kindle or paperback, 116 pgs., $4.99

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Friday, January 9, 2015

On the Scene

On the Scene, written by Robin Caroll, is the second book of the Samantha Sanderson series. Samantha’s (Sam’s) curious nature leads her to search for the truth behind who is bullying her fellow classmate, Nikki. Sam learns from her police officer father that bullying is a serious crime. She suggests writing a series of articles for her middle school newspaper and she gets assigned the job.

Nikki and Sam are not really friends, as Nikki is known as a “mean girl.” But Sam feels bad for Nikki when she finds out Nikki is being bullied. Nikki has a lot on her plate already, as her father has moved out of the house and her parents are threatening to divorce. Sam wouldn’t want her parents to go through a divorce and she doesn’t want to see Nikki’s do that either.

Sam does a lot of digging to get to the bottom of the mystery of who the bully really is. In the process of doing so, she learns a lot about the issue of bullying, discovers the meaning of friendship, and learns how to judge people for herself regardless of popular opinion.

The author has included some discussion questions at the end of the book about events that take place in the text. There is also a blank page for notes for each of the twenty chapters in the book.

What I Like: Bullying is a serious issue. It’s something school administrators no longer take lightly. There is a lot of good information in the story about bullying.

What I Dislike: Nothing.

Overall Rating: Very good.

Age Appeal: Middle school students.

Publisher Info: Zonderkidz, 2014; ISBN: 9780310742470; Paperback, 264 pages, $8.99.

Special Info: This book is part of the publisher’s FaithGirlz series. Read our reviews of other books in the series. Visit the author’s website.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Felix Navidad!

Nope, that's not a typo. Janet Denison's recent Christmas book really is titled !Felix Navidad! not feliz Navidad (Spanish for "Merry Christmas") - because the story revolves around a donkey named Felix.

Felix is the beloved pet to twins Natalia and Hector, who live in Puerto Rico. Natalia's just been cast as Mary in the school Christmas play, which will be filmed and aired live by a local news crew. Hector, the more reserved of the two, is disappointed to "only" be cast as a shepherd, but proud that his prized donkey will also be featured in the play. Felix is a miniature Sicilian donkey - the type with a dark cross on his back. Legend has it that this is the type of donkey Jesus rode on Palm Sunday - and when it couldn't bear to see Christ on the cross, it turned away, the shadow of the cross falling across its back, where it remains to this day. Hector grooms Felix carefully, but doesn't neglect his neighbor, Dona Maria, who's baby will be born any day. He helps her bring her groceries home.

On the day of the play, it storms. Hector must walk Felix to the play, and he's disappointed his beautiful donkey becomes wet and muddy in the blustery rain. When they approach the location of the play, Hector hears a woman shouting to him. It's Dona Maria. She's about to have her baby, but the pouring rain has washed out the bridge that would get her to the hospital. Hector helps her onto Felix and he leads the pair to the school where the play will be performed.

Practically the whole town has turned out for the Christmas play - including a doctor. The doctor leads Dona Maria into another room. The film crew says they must start the play - it must go on the air right in a few minutes. And so the children - and a rather bedraggled Felix - get into positions and begin the play.

When the play ends, there is great applause - then silence, as the crowd hears a baby's cry coming from another room. The doctor appears and lets everyone know the baby's name: Jesus Hector Gonzales - named for Christ, and the young man who helped Maria. The cameras turn onto Hector and Felix, and the reporters call them heroes. Then one reporter says they should give the donkey a new name: Felix Navidad. Everyone laughs.

That night, Hector confesses to his mother that he wanted to play Joseph so he might be noticed by the crowd. He feels badly now that he was so selfish. His mother replies, "Today God chose you to play the most important part. He wanted you to be a friend to our neighbor and her new baby." Hector replies, "I am glad I was chosen to be a shepherd. God chose the shepherds to see the Baby Jesus before anyone else and I am happy God chose me to help today."

What I Like: This is a sweet, well written story that reminds us of God's great command to love and help others. My children and I enjoyed learning about the legend of the Sicilian donkey, and throughout, Rachel Everett's illustrations brought to life the vibrant Puerto Rican location. 

What I Dislike: For those of us who didn't take Spanish in high school, it would have been nice to have in-text pronunciation guides for the Spanish words sprinkled here and there. (There is, however, such a guide on the last page of the book.)

Overall Rating: Excellent.

Age Appeal: I'd say about 4 - 10.

Publishing Info: Kings Time Printing Press, 2012; ASIN: B00AMNKGZO; digital, 30 pgs., $2.99

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Mia's Night Adventure

I would call Mia’s Night Adventure: An Animals of the Bible Book, written and illustrated by Marilyn Schuler, is a cross between the story of the Good Shepherd and the Nativity.

Mia is a little lamb that has a tendency to get lost. When she wanders away, the Shepherd always comes and finds her.

One night, when the shepherds are in the field tending their sheep, angels appear to them telling them about a miraculous birth in Bethlehem.

The Shepherd wants to travel to Bethlehem to witness the miracle. Mia is told to stay behind, but she tags along anyway (staying back where she can’t be seen). She gets lost and an angel guides her the rest of the way.

The illustrations done in muted tones with lots of expression, truly enhance the story.

What I Like: Just about everything.

What I Dislike: I don’t really have any complaints, just an observation. The King James version of the story says Jesus was born in a stable, with the animals. However, the author depicts Jesus’ birthplace as a cave. I did a little research and discovered there is some debate on whether the birthplace was a stable or a cave.

Overall Rating: Very good.

Age Appeal: 4-8.

Publisher Info: Tate Publishing, 2014; ISBN: 9781629940694; Paperback, $8.99


Special Info: Read our reviews of other books by Marilyn Schuler. Visit the author’s website.

The Christmas Hippo

Does God care about the little things in our lives? The Christmas Hippo, written by Lisa E. Williams and based upon a true story, attempts to answer to this question.

It's time for the school Christmas party. Two grade school-aged girls ask their moms if they can have a sleep over; since one of the girls, Kay, will soon be moving away, the moms readily agree. The girls play together, and the author ("I") digs up some sheet music so they can go caroling that evening.

In the meantime, a bus driver is ending his day and picking up miscellaneous things left behind in his bus. Among them is a stuffed purple hippo, which he recognizes as belonging to Kay's little sister's. He's concerned, because he'd like to get the toy back to the girl before she moves. But when he drives to Kay's house, it's dark and empty, with a "Sold" sign out front. He calls the school, but everyone is away on Christmas break. So he brings the toy home and tells his wife about it. She suggests they pray, asking God to help them reunite the toy with it's young owner.

Later that evening, the driver is surprised to find Kay on his front porch, caroling.

"He quick grabbed the hippo,
embraced her with love,
wished her a blessed Christmas
and looked up above.

'God you care 'bout our hippos.
My mind cannot conceive
how much more you'll provide
if we'd only believe.'"

What I Like: This is a cute story that reminds children God cares about everything in our lives. We should never worry about praying on "the little things." A great message, told in a way that's very kid-friendly.

What I Dislike: This book was self published with help from Thomas Nelson, a well known Christian publisher. Unfortunately, Thomas Nelson did little to ensure this book didn't suffer from the many plights of self published children's books. One of these is the illustrations by Staci B. Desautels. They are cute and fun, but they don't look professional. There are also some punctuation and grammar errors - although none so egregious that it's difficult to read the story. Finally, the book is written in rhyme - and while the author does a better job at this than most newbies, I believe the story would be much stronger if it didn't rhyme.

However, I think The Christmas Hippo is a worthwhile story, despite its flaws.

Overall Rating: Good.

Age Appeal: I'd say about 4 - 8

Publishing Info: Westbow Press, 2012; ISBN 978-1449724740; paperback, 28 pgs., $16.95

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Legend of Saint Nicholas

The true story of St. Nicholas - a real man who served God well on earth - is a favorite in my home. My children love hearing about "the real Santa Claus" and why he's remembered today. Anselm Grun's The Legend of Saint Nicholas, then, ought to be a welcomed addition to our family bookshelf...

The book recounts the major stories surrounding Nicholas, who lived in the 4th century A.D. It begins with his birth, which the author says happened only after his parents prayed for a child. Nicholas becomes a priest, and his parents die, leaving him quite an inheritance. This Nicholas uses to help the needy.

There is one father in Nicholas' town who is so poor, he considers selling his three daughters in order to help support the rest of his family. Hearing this, Nicholas secretly drops a bags full of money into the man's home. The family rejoices; now the daughter's can marry. (The author neglects to mention that in those days, women needed a dowry of money in order to wed.)

Nicholas becomes bishop, and some time later, some sailors are caught in a terrible storm. They call out for Nicholas, and soon Nicholas appears, walking on water. He helps the sailors get their ship under control, then disappears.

Now there is a famine, and Nicholas prays for the people. God tells Nicholas to go to the harbor the next morning - there is a ship there that will feed everyone. But the captain of the ship is worried; the emperor will punish him if the grain is underweight. Nicholas promises the grain will measure out perfectly, even if he shares the grain with the people. Miraculously, there is enough grain for two whole years - plus the grain the emperor ordered.

Nicholas dies, and a nobleman asks St. Nicholas for help; he wants a son, and promises to make a golden cup for the saint if he gets one. His wife gives birth to a son and the nobleman has a cup made - but it's so beautiful, he decides to keep it for himself. He has another cup made for the saint, and he and his son travel by water to deliver it to the church of St. Nicholas. The son falls into the water and drowns, but the nobleman takes the second cup to the church anyway. He tried to put the second cup on the alter, but it keeps falling off. Then his son, whom he thought was dead, runs in and places the first cup on the alter, saying St. Nicholas saved him from drowning.

Finally, the book mentions Nicholas' kindness to children and St. Nicholas' Eve, where children traditionally leave their shoe by the door with the hope that Nicholas will leave them a gift.

What I Like: The illustrations, by Giuliano Ferri, are rich in color - and while they have a sort of primitive look about them, do a good job of telling the story and showing the emotions of the characters.

What I Dislike: Almost everything.

This book is historically inaccurate, which is a real shame. For example, Nicholas' parents died when he was still a boy. He was raised by his uncle and certainly wasn't a priest at the time. Grun's writing is also really dry, making what could be a interesting story ho-hum. The legends the author includes offer some details I've never heard before; for example, I'd never heard that Nicholas supposedly walked on water or that the father was considering selling his daughters as slaves. I don't know whether this is because the legends in this book are inaccurate or if these are just aspects of the legends that aren't commonly told.

Protestants will probably be uncomfortable with the last legend in the book, where the nobleman seems to pray to St. Nicholas. And the ending seems really tacked on - telling us about the less familiar St. Nicholas' Eve, but not about Nicholas' connection to Christmas.

And since this book is written in such a straight-forward manner, with no hesitation to talk about some of the more difficult legends surrounding St. Nicholas, I'm surprised it doesn't even mention that he was persecuted because of his faith.

For those looking for a better, more kid-friendly picture book about St. Nicholas, I recommend The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Dandi Daley Mackall or Saint Nicholas by Julie Stiegemeyer.

Overall Rating: Ho-hum.

Age Appeal: I'd say about 6 - 12.

Publishing Info: Eerdmans, 2014; ISBN 978-0802854346; hardback, 26 pgs., $16.00

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Littlest Christmas Kitten

Over the years, there have been many children's picture books that try to tell the story of Christmas by focusing on the animals in the barn where Jesus was born. The Littlest Christmas Kitten by Leona Novy Jackson is one of the more recent examples.

The story begins by showing a mother cat looking for her littlest kitten. Then suddenly a waft of cold air enters the stable and a man and woman enter. The mother cat is startled and leaps into a manger - where she discovers her missing kitten. She grabs the kitten and scurries out of the manger as the people draw closer.

Before the night ends, a baby is crying and the mother places the child in the manger - the same one where the littlest kitten had slept. Angels sing "holy, holy, holy," and the animals "bow down before the child. They knew in their hearts this was a very special baby."

The book ends: "Now, down through the history of cat kingdom, Mother and Father cats tell this story to their kittens...So, whenever you hear a kitten purring on Christmas Eve, you know it is remembering that Holy Night, long long ago."

At the back of the book, there is a list of Christmas symbols - including "Christmas Cats." Here, the author suggests cats have long been associated with Christmas.

What I Like: Kelly Dupre's illustrations remind me of old woodcuts; they aren't colorful, but they are interesting and fun. I also appreciate the desire to draw children into the story through the use of animals. Indeed, if you have a child who is disinterested in most Christmas books because they are "boring," this book may be a good way to introduce your child to the Christmas story.

What I Dislike: I feel this book focuses too much on the cats, and not enough on Jesus. The first five pages of text are all about the mother cat and her kittens, and the ending, about cats telling each other the Christmas story and about kittens purring, emphasizes a totally false story. On the other hand, we never learn who Jesus is or why his birth is so important. The Christmas symbols at the end of the book seem tacked on, and the author never explains why cats are associated with Christmas - an idea that was totally new to me.

Overall Rating: Good.

Age Appeal: about toddler - kindergarten

Publishing Info: Snaptail Press, 2005; ISBN 978-0930643188; hardback, 32 pgs., $16.00

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Yuletide Ice Cube Fair

Sometimes books featuring famous characters can be a bit...well, thin in substance. But Yuletide Ice Cube Fair, featuring the VeggieTales characters, is really worth sharing with a child.

Author Karen Poth sets the tale in rhyme, telling us about an annual Yuletide Ice Cube Fair where kids eat snow cones and skate in root beer flavored ice rinks, where an Ice Cube Queen is chosen, and the most anticipated event of the year - the ice cube carving contest - is held.

Mayor Bob tells the participants they should "sculpt in seven hours or less/what Christmas means to you." Jerry decides to create Santa and his reindeer,  Mr. Lunt, a Christmas tree. Jimmy sculpts a Christmas feast; Laurie, a shopping mall; and Larry creates a huge carving of trumpeting angels. But it's Junior's sculpture that really catches the judges' eyes:

"Now, Junior's word was tiny.
They had to quint to see.
He'd carved a little stable
and a shepherd on one knee.

'This,' declared the judges,
'is the one that wins the prize!
It really shows what Christmas means,
despite the tiny size.'

Christmas isn't all about the big, the bright, the new.
Christmas time means Jesus - and the love he brought for you."

The book ends by quoting Luke 2:10-12.

What I Like: This is a very simple story, but it's message is clear (without being obnoxious): Christmas is about Jesus. Pure and simple. It's a perfect, inexpensive addition to a young child's library.

What I Dislike: Nothing.

Overall Rating: Excellent.

Age Appeal: about 3 - 7

Publishing Info: Zonderkidz, 2014; ISBN 978-0310746232; paperback, 23 pgs., $3.99

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If He Had Not Come

A young boy named Bobby goes to bed on Christmas Eve thinking about the Bible passage (John 15) his father just read to him. Five words, spoken by Jesus, stick in the boy's mind: "If I had not come..." The boy drifts off to sleep, excited for Christmas morning. But when he wakes up, he's in a world where Jesus never came to earth. This is the premise for If He Had Not Come, originally written by Nan F. Weeks in the 1930s and updated by David Nicholson for this new book.

When Bobby hears his father call him in the morning, he dresses eagerly, expecting an exciting morning of opening Christmas gifts. But when he gets downstairs, there is no Christmas tree. There are no gifts. In fact, there's nothing at all that looks like Christmas. Shocked, Bobby runs outside and to the nearest business - a factory. Bobby asks a man he sees there why they are working on Christmas. The man gruffly says he doesn't know what the boy is talking about. As Bobby hurries about town, he sees all the other businesses are open, too. No one knows what Christmas is, even when Bobby explains it's a celebration of Jesus birth.

Confused, Bobby decides to go to church...but when he gets to his church's location, there's nothing but an empty lot - and a sign reading "If I had not come." Bobby wants to celebrate Christmas, even if no one else is going to, so he decides to head for the Children's Home. His class has gathered gifts for the children there; he will go watch them open their presents. But when he arrives at the location, there is nothing there but a gate with the words "If I had no come" on it.

Bobby now sees an elderly man who is clearly ill. Bobby takes his hand and tries to lead him to the hospital. But where the hospital should be, there is nothing but a busy intersection with a sign that reads "If I had not come." So Bobby runs to the homeless shelter, sure the people there can help the elderly man. But instead of the shelter, he finds a sign that reads "If I had not come," along with several gruff men gambling, with no interest in helping the elderly or sick. "I'll run home! Dad and Mother will know what to do for my sick friend!" Bobby says.

When he runs into his house, Bobby sees the Bible his Dad read from the night before. He picks it up, but once he gets past the Old Testament, the remaining pages of the Bible are blank, save for the words "If I had not come."

Bobby sits down, "stunned at the thought of a world without Jesus. 'No Christmas, no places to help people who are sick, homeless, or in need...'"

He suddenly hears the sound of bells - and Bobby jumps up out of bed. He's been dreaming! Or was it more than just a dream? he wonders. He kneels beside his bed and prays: "Lord Jesus, I'm so glad You did come. You are the very best Christmas present anyone can have. I'll show you my thanks by doing everything I can to please You today and every day. Help me to be the kind of boy You want me to be."

The book ends with lots of questions and ideas to explore the premise behind the book in Sunday school classes or at home.

What I Like: Just about everything! This book is an excellent way to explore the importance of Jesus' time on earth, and is sure to lead to many important discussions with your children. Nicholson's writing is clear and kid-friendly, and Charles Jaskiewicz' illustrations are brilliant; when Bobby is awake, the illustrations are full of rich color and light, but when Bobby dreams about a world without Jesus' birth, the illustrations are dim and gray.

What I Dislike: My only criticism of the book is really more a criticism of the Church. When this story was originally written in the 1930s, it made more sense. Hospitals were mostly run by religious organizations. Orphanages, too. But today, most hospitals are secular and for profit and organizations for orphaned children are run by the state, not Christians. Nonetheless, this fact can lead to a little research about how these important organizations were once run by Christians and why they no longer are - and may lead to thought, prayer, and action that compels your family to be more active in helping the needy.

Overall Rating: Excellent.

Age Appeal: I'd say about 4 - 12.

Publishing Info: Westbow Press, 2014; ISBN B00JJOKDPU; hardback, 36 pgs., $18.95

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