Monday, July 21, 2014

Bob Hartman's More Bible Tales: The Unauthorized Version

Bob Hartman's More Bible Tales: The Unauthorized Version, written and illustrated by Bob Hartman is the third book in the author’s series of Bible tales. This one is a collection of Bible stories told from unusual perspectives. For instance, the story of Noah’s ark is told from the perspective of Noah’s dog, and the story of Judas is told by his nephew.

The word “unauthorized” in the title refers to the opposite of the word “authorized” or “official”. These are stories that are told from the point of view of someone (or something) that is not mentioned in the Bible.

As can be expected from such a collection of stories, there is humor involved. As the author says in the Introduction to the book, “I tried to tell the stories in a way that would be true to the original, but also in a way that would bring out the humour in them.”

The pencil sketched illustrations are cartoonish in nature, but they are very expressive and work well with the text.

What I Like: I like reading stories like this, being able to hear a well-known story from a different character’s point of view. It provides a whole new perspective to the story

What I Dislike: Having said that, some readers might see these stories as being irreverent. I don’t believe that is the author’s intention, but you might feel otherwise.

I had read one of Hartman’s earlier books in the series, Bob Hartman’s Old Testament Tales, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I liked most of the stories in this edition, too, but not all of them. The one about Noah was told from the point of view of Noah’s dog. That’s not a problem. But, according to the dog, the ark hadn’t even been built yet (the story took place before the building began), but at the end of the story, the dog gets on the boat. How could he do that if the boat hadn’t been built yet? Little inconsistencies like that in a story bother me.

Overall Rating: Very good.

Age Appeal: Ages 8 and up.

Publisher Info: Lion Children’s Books, 2013; ISBN: 9780745964355; Paperback, 95 pages, $8.99.

Special Info: The book was published in England so the text reflects the British way of spelling and speaking. For instance, “humor” is spelled “humour” and “Mom” is known as “Mum.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Brother Hugo and the Bear

"It befell that on the first day of Lent, Brother Hugo could not return his library book."

So opens Brother Hugo and the Bear, by Katy Beebe... the rather humorous tale of a young monk whose borrowed book-- the precious letters of St. Augustine-- were devoured by a bear (who found the words of the saint to be far sweeter than honey).

To rectify the loss, Brother Hugo is charged with the rather overwhelming task of traveling to a neighboring monastery, retrieving another copy of the letters,  and then making a new manuscript. The process of creating a replacement includes stretching and scraping sheepskin for a cover, gathering and preparing parchment, making a quill and ink, and then painstakingly copying the manuscript by hand, line by line, letter by letter! Luckily, Brother Hugo is aided in his endeavor by other friendly monks. Unluckily, while he works, Brother Hugo can hear the bear, who perpetrated the whole thing, snuffling outside the window... hungry for more!

Although some of the telling holds very modern language ("Your library book is due today"), the book is peppered with enough archaic-sounding phrases, such as " return the book thither" and "he sorely sighed and sorrowed in his heart"and "he walked very quickly indeed", to give it a medieval feel. This impression is further supported by the full-page ink and water-color illustrations, beautifully done by S. D. Schindler. These pictures accompany the text perfectly with rich (yet whimsical) detail and soft earthy hues.

At the end of the tale, the illustrator describes his artistic process and the author provides more information, including the fact that the story is loosely based on an actual historical event! In addition there's one page with historical notes that relay a similar bear encounter by Peter the Venerable. It also contains a one page glossary to help the reader better understand words associated with a monastery, like "cloister". These added bonuses are sure to please young readers whose curiosity is pricked by the amusing adventure.

What I Like: I thought the pictures were delightful. That was one of my favorite aspects of the book. I also appreciated the underlying humor in the story, some of which was almost tongue-and-cheek. The book accurately highlighted the painstaking process of creating a manuscript (who knew so much work went into it?), which I found interesting. The information that followed the story seemed especially enlightening, and was a very welcomed addition.

What I Dislike: I don't dislike the story, but it's not a story that has a lot of Christian take-away value per se. It's amusing and fun, and, I think, meant to be taken as such and little more. However, if a Christian message is a must on your list, astute readers can pick out some good moral ideas if they are so inclined: Cooperation and helping others (as shown by the monks), accepting responsibility (by Brother Hugo), and honest speaking.

Overall Rating: Excellent

Age Appeal: 5-9

Publisher Info: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014; ISBN: 9780802854070; Hardback, 34 pgs., $17.00

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Friday, July 11, 2014


Their dress makes them noticeable, as does their dedication to faith,  their rejection of modern forms of transportation and comforts, and their close-knit communities. But for some of us, the Amish lifestyle is still an enigma. A book like Ellie, by Mary Christner Borntrager, gives the average reader a more detailed glimpse into Amish life, and helps us understand their customs a little better.

The book follows the life of an Amish girl named Ellie Maust from early school age to adult. Over the course of her life, we see her struggle with temptation, do a multitude of chores, make friends, and face her fears. Rather than follow a "hero's quest" type of plot, the story reads more like a retelling of a series of short events in Ellie's life. The story pacing is slow and leisurely, with some neat details (like the bedding and outhouse) woven into it.

A majority of the chapters are spent on specific moments in Ellie's childhood, whereas the teen and early adult years fly by in a few quick chapters, making the book slightly unbalanced in development. Other than the cover, there are no illustrations. This is the first book in a series. Some other titles are listed below. This book was originally published in 1988, which is the version available on Amazon. The newer 2014 version I read may be listed soon.

What I Like: I appreciated getting a glimpse of the Amish lifestyle. From sunup until sundown, we see how the family works together to care for each other and the household. Chores include milking the cows, canning food, caring for siblings, tending a garden, and making their own straw mattresses. Children are taught responsibility and duty. I had no idea how very little playtime the children get, so that was an eye-opener too.

What I Dislike: Unfortunately, I have many dislikes with this story, but let me pinpoint  two. First, I was bothered by the way those outside the Amish community were portrayed. For example, the public school children tease and shun Ellie, and her teacher isn't very understanding. (Is it so hard to believe there are wonderful Christian students, administrators, and teachers in the public schools who would reach out to a person in a situation like Ellie?) Later in the book, the children of a former classmate visit Ellie. The children are ill-mannered, ungrateful, and whiny, and the mother-- who is herself lazy and self-centered--yells at them (I'm going to kill you!), which makes Ellie oh-so-glad for her Amish upbringing. (Again, is it so hard to believe there are wonderful Christian families with well-mannered, respectful children outside the Amish community?)

Second, I was bothered by how those within the Amish community were portrayed. After pointing out how horrible the general public treated Ellie, I expected to see the beauty of the Amish community highlighted. Instead, when Ellie travels to the comfort of her Amish church... wow, the Amish children tease and shun Ellie, same as the public school kids! Not only that, but Ellie's father comes across as unforgiving, judgmental, and surly. Perhaps worst of all is an Amish girl they hired to help the family, who went out of her way to mistreat Ellie. That character came across as spiteful and vindictive (though the father seemed to applaud her strong Amish sensibility). I was hard pressed to find a likable Amish figure in the story outside of Ellie.

Overall, I had hoped to see the enactment of the powerful Christian faith I always associated with the Amish, but instead I saw a faith based not on grace but on works, rules, forced obedience, and superficial piety. I started the book wanting to like the Amish people, but found myself disappointed by their seeming hypocrisy. Luckily, outside experience has taught me otherwise. I hold a great respect for the Amish people and their way of life.

Overall Rating: Ho-hum for me. However, to be fair, those with a greater interest in Amish communities might rate it higher. I also suspect some of the other books in the series might prove to be stronger.

Age Appeal: 8 and up

Publisher Info: Herald Press, 2014; ISBN: 978-0836134680; Paperback, 193 pgs., $8.99 (Note: This information comes from the advanced review copy I received. The one currently available on Amazon has the same ISBN except the last digit is "1" instead of "0", and it only has 168 pages.)

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Special Info: Other titles in the series include: MandyAndyDanielRebeccaRachelReuben, and Sarah

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Gift of Values: A Resource for Family Devotions, Volume Two

The Gift of Values: A Resource for Family Devotions, Volume Two, is as the title suggests, a great resource for family devotions. And, as it suggests, this is the second title in the series. The first one was so popular Author Rosie Boom decided to write another one.

The values addressed in this volume are: generosity, encouragement, self-control, compassion, patience and forgiveness, with one chapter devoted to each value. Each chapter consists of a brief introduction, several stories relating to the topic – some fiction and some nonfiction - and sections called “Boom Clip”, “Something to Do”, “Think About It”, “Words to Live By”, “So Said”, and “Dig Deeper”. Most of those section titles are self-explanatory, but “Boom Clip” refers to a short story about a member of the Boom family and “So Said” is a list of quotes applicable to the topic.

What I Like: Just about everything. The book is packed with good stories that illustrate the chapter’s topic. There are also tons of ideas for things to do and ways to explore the topic further to reinforce it.

What I Dislike: The only thing I saw that I didn’t like were a couple of layout issues. That’s it.

Overall Rating: Excellent.

Age Appeal: For the whole family.

Publisher Info: HSM Publishing, 2008; ISBN: 9781921161162; Hardcover, 197 Pages, $20.00.

Special Info: Read our reviews of other books by Rosie Boom. Read about the author at SmashWords .

Monday, July 7, 2014

Good Grades Educational Workbook- Shapes and Colors

Good Grades Educational Workbook ~ Shapes & Colors (Pre-K) (Monkey Cover; 2012) is a smaller sized workbook designed to teach specifically about shapes and colors. As written on the front cover of this workbook, this workbook is designed to "help prepare children for kindergarten."

The book is put together in two sections- shapes first and then colors. In each section, children are taught to recognize the different shapes and colors, how to write the name of the shape or color, and then given practice in matching using the shapes and colors learned about.

This book is designed for preschoolers. As the mother of a toddler who will begin an at home K3 program in the fall with my son, I think this book is too advanced for him to use at three years old which is the age the workbook makers have suggested as the starting age for using this book. Because 27 pages of the book involve writing out the names of the shapes and colors, children who have not yet learned to write their letters will have a hard time with those pages.

What I Like: I really like how professionally put together this workbook is. The colors are crisp and the pages are clean and simple. I also like the way each "lesson" fits a pattern. The shape or color is introduced, the child is taught how to write the name of the shape or color, there is an activity for the child (finish drawing the shape or circle the items that are "this color"), and then a final activity.

What I Dislike: I find this workbook to be rather expensive. On Amazon it is listed at $2.91, but shipping is $5.61. That is a total of $8.52 for a workbook that is similar to what can be found at the Dollar Store or in the $1 bin at Target.

Overall Rating: Good

Age Appeal: 4-6 years old

Publisher Info: The Clever Factory, Inc., 2012; ISBN: 80600866513 ; paperback, 64 pgs., $2.91

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Friday, July 4, 2014

St. George and the Dragon

"He stood there, waiting, feeling his heart beat. Then a low voice came from the cave. 'Hello, Marcellus,' it said."

This quote gives a faint hint of the unsettling and foul nature of the monster Marcellus must face in the book St. George and the Dragon, by Michael Lotti. As the author notes prior to chapter one, this book is a story of the legendary event, but not the story. Many different versions exist.

The book starts at the point that Marcellus,  a well respected and highly promoted soldier, requests a leave of absence from the army so that he can marry. On his way home to his estate, the author plants seeds of unrest. Various characters whisper rumors about a dragon, along with much speculation about not only its existence but its purpose. Marcellus' curiosity about the dragon deepens when he is attacked by mysterious bandits who apparently worship the dragon.

We are also shown the general dislike of Christians by community leaders, as well as Marcellus' inner conflicting thoughts about the religion. He recognizes Christians' strong work attitude, and is amazed at the love and kindness they show, so he has a tendency to appreciate and support them, despite his lack of faith and the nay-saying of his leaders.

As the story progresses, the rift continues to grow. Marcellus' fiance is devoted to the dragon, and very insistent that he meet it. She makes it clear that if he does not submit to the dragon, the marriage is off. Meanwhile, Marcellus is greatly disturbed by how harshly his fiance's father beats his slaves, especially the Christian ones, which stands in sharp contrast to how his own father accepts Christian workers and treats them well. Yet, even though his has some misgivings, Marcellus ignores his inner warning signs and does as his fiance wishes: he visits the dragon. Though initially repelled by the dragon, after having a conversation with it, he finds a strange compelling draw to the beast and agrees to bring it a sacrifice.

The remainder of the story demonstrates the simple power of faith and good verses evil as Marcellus' Christian slaves slowly win over his heart... not by preaching, but by their faithful actions and attitudes.  Eventually, Marcellus becomes a believer, is baptized, and renamed George.  However, though he tries to ignore the dragon, the dragon will not ignore him. Instead, the dragon lashes out, wreaking destruction on George's life. It's then that George recognizes that just rejecting the dragon isn't enough. He must slay it.

Several simple black and white drawings accompany the story, created by artist Jennifer Soriano.

What I Like: In general, the book has strong writing and moves at a fairly fast pace. It's not preachy, but its message of faith is clear. There is an undertone of allegory to the wily aspect of the dragon, which makes it seem a bit more sinister. Overall, it's a nice blending of faith and fantasy. I also appreciated the one page epilogue, which quickly relayed the fate of the brave men who defeated the dragon.

What I Dislike: When it came to revealing character traits, I would have appreciated it if the author would have done a bit more showing instead of telling.

Overall Rating: Very Good (with a nod toward Excellent)

Age Appeal: None listed, but I suggest ages 8-12. However, children both younger and older than that age group who have a deep interest in dragons would enjoy it.

Publisher Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014; ISBN: 978-1496153548 ; Both Paperback and electronic books available, 162 pgs., $ 9.95 (PB) or $4.95 (Kindle)

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Little Engine that Could Not

I admit I was a little skeptical when I picked up The Little Engine That Could Not by Kevin D. Kirkland. "Hmmm...strange title," I thought. But then I read the book to my two children. Now I think this is one little book every parent should read - again and again - to his or her kids.

The premise of the book is both simple and deep: The "little engine" in the book, Peter, can't get to the wonderful City of Promise on his own - even though he tries pulling iron to make himself stronger, even though he gets a shiny new coat of paint to fix up his exterior, even though he tries to do good deeds so he'll be worthy. Nope. Peter has to learn to accept the offers of Joshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus, we learn in the notes at the back of the book) to be "his conductor." Then, he can cross over the Bridge of Grace and someday live with the Creator forever in the City Perfect.

What I Like: The Little Engine That Could Not is the most ambitious picture book I've ever seen. The author does an exceptional job keeping the story understandable, yet full of deeper meaning. I love that he includes notes in the back of the book. I read them directly to my kids, although they seem to be geared for adults. The notes help explain the spiritual meaning of the story and give us great little tid-bits about the Bible stories that are woven into it. I know of no other picture book that attempts to distill the vital facts of salvation in such a real and meaningful way. Both my children (5 and 8) love this book and beg for me to read it over and over.

The illustrations by Lisa Workman are also worth mentioning. Although there is a higher-than-average number of words per page, even my 5 year old didn't mind this - I think at least in part to Workman's beautiful illustrations.

What I Dislike: Nothing.

Overall Rating: Excellent.

Age Appeal: I'd say 5 -12.

Publishing Info: Frog Street Press, 2014; ISBN:  978-1601289216; oversized hardback, 32 pgs., $19.99

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