wocket in my pocket

Looking for the unexpected in the mundane.

10 Delightful Books for Girls

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Although this is a story about an entire school, mostly boys, it was Lina who asked the important question, “Why do the storks no longer come to Shora?” It was Lina, too, who had an epiphany while staring into her wooden shoe. I love this delightful story, and so will your children.

Jean Fritz has a genius for writing compelling historical fiction. This is a tale of a girl whose family has moved further west in Pennsylvania’s frontier days. Ann misses her friends, but soon finds life exciting in the wilds.

This is a beautiful true story of faith in a terrible time, with a little girl lost in the woods, and God’s provision for her survival. Your children will never forget Sarah Whitcher’s Story.

Another true tale of a small girl in the wilderness. “Keep up your courage, Sarah Noble,” her mother admonished her when she bade her farewell. Sarah and her father went ahead of the rest of the family to build a home in the wilderness. I almost cannot bear the bravery of this child, but if you are looking for a book that teaches about courage in the face of fear, look no further.

Cynthia Rylant wrote this story about the years that Laura Ingalls Wilder skipped in her book series. Rylant did a lot of research and tried to mesh the book with Laura’s writing style. She produced an excellent book that lovers of the Wilder family will thoroughly enjoy.

I pick up any of Caroline Haywood’s books that I find. They are 50’s books, so there are pretty many out there in the library discard piles, with the charming illustrations of the 50’s. Betsy is just one of her irrepressible characters. Go read the reviews and see for yourself. ūüôā

This is such a fun family story. “All-of-a-kind” refers to a Jewish immigrant family of girls and their escapades in turn-of-the-century New York City. The author based the books on her own childhood, which is probably why it feels so real.

I read this when I was young and only recently saw it again. It is the story of strong family ties in the middle of a very difficult time. Janey Larkin holds on to hope (and her blue willow plate) through it all.

This is another book that I read and reread as a child. I felt so sorry for Elaine, and so grateful for her sake when she buried her misery in the mysterious little garden she found. This is a story of redemption and grace.

This is quite possibly my favorite book about a little girl. Elizabeth Ann is dismayed to find that she has to move to the farm of the country cousins, the Putneys. Her life has been sheltered with a pinched ladylikeness, but the first thing that changes is her name. Betsy discovers that she has a lot of strengths and it is fun to exercise them. The link is for a Kindle edition because apparently the book is out of print.

Enjoy!

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Scribbling in Your Bible?

I am a terribly forgetful sort of person, which is why I put bags of things right beside the front door when I am supposed to take them somewhere, so that I practically have to stumble over them on my way out. I also mark stuff in books and put post-it notes of inspirational sayings beside the kitchen sink. I know a few geniuses who never forget the punchline to jokes and can quote verbatim the sentences that impressed them when they were reading. Not me. Sometimes I can hardly stand not being allowed to underline key passages in library books, because it is so much more clunky to take notes.

The discovery that they print Bibles specifically designed for journaling has changed my devotional life. It’s not really scribbling, but I don’t try to be profound in my notes to myself. The whole idea is kind of like the stones that the people of Israel took out of the middle of the river and piled on the riverbank. Every time they walked past them or stumbled over them, they were supposed to think about where they had been and where they were going and Who was taking them there.

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That is Bible journaling for me. If you have ever considered it, now is a great time to hustle¬†over to Christian Book Distributors¬†and check out their selection. They have a great sale on their Bibles today, with free shipping (use code SHIPBIBLES) on orders over $35. (This is pure sharing of the love. I am not being monetized in any way for this recommendation. ūüôā ) I have this one, because I love the English Standard Version for study.

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Bibles are not supposed to be ornamental. I take mine lots of places besides church. It has wrinkled pages from a leaking water bottle in a back pack, and I fear that coffee slopped on it once when I was rushing out the door in a hurry. A child wrote in it once and my pen developed a leak and spattered a page. Eventually I will get a new one and start fresh with marking the edge columns with the things the Spirit is showing me. I assure you, I would not remember half the things if I did not write them down. Those reminder stone piles  markings give me courage and remind me of Who is in charge of the journey.

When I see my life as a story He is writing, and I parallel it with the stories recorded in the Word, it does wonders for my faith.

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I told you before about the pens I use, but just for love’s sake I will show you again what they look like. Maybe you are more of a colored highlighter sort of person, but these pens are fine point and enable you to write in tiny legible script. They come in different colors, so I had a bright idea and am using a different color each year, just as a sort of reference.

Why not do yourself a February Favor and order a journaling Bible today? (The sale and free shipping end today. Sorry to not give you more notice but I only just saw the promotional email myself.) Challenge yourself to find one thing to comment on each day in your readings, no matter how insignificant. I can assure you that it will invigorate your walk with Jesus, even if you aren’t a writer sort of person.

You are welcome. ūüôā

 

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Top Picture Books My Children Love

***We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.***

That, my friends is the official speak for “if you buy products from these links, I stand to make a bit of money to support my book habit.” Feel very free to do so. ūüėÄ

Occasionally I get emails from people wanting book recommendations. I know I have made these lists before and I have emailed many of them. They change a bit from time to time, but here’s a current one, starting with the little people. I believe staunchly that the best start to education is reading stories to our babies, instilling a love of words by looking at books with¬†illustrations that capture their attention while you read the story.

I have a friend who said one of her children didn’t care if she read him gardening articles; he simply wanted to sit beside her and be read to. I am guessing that¬†kind of child is rare. Ours look for the pictures, and sometimes there is so much crowding, “Move over! I can’t seeee, your hair is in the way,” etc, that I close the book and rearrange the crowd to more manageable positions.

When they are past the stage where they chew all their books, that’s when the fun really starts because the parent can enjoy this too. The best children’s books do not bore the reader any more than the listener. If you are reading Little Golden Books that make you want to pull your hair with their inanity, you should probably look further. Not knocking Little Goldens… I absolutely loved The Saggy Baggy Elephant as a child. And my own children loved Doctor Dan, the Bandage Man. They have their place, but some are distinctly sub-par and you shouldn’t be fooled just because of the gold wrapper on the spine.

What you want to look for in a picture book is content that engages the mind with ideas while the story is being told. Unfortunately, some children’s books simply tell. It’s not complicated. If you enjoy the plot, your children probably will. And then they will pick that book again and again until maybe you don’t enjoy it anymore, but by then they can “read” it to themselves from memory.

Here’s our list of books that I expect our children to collect for their own children some day.

    • One Morning in Maine
    • Make Way for Ducklings
    • Blueberries for Sal

All of those are by Robert McCloskey, and all are worth getting in hardcover, or in multiple paperback copies when they wear out. In fact, I have never met a McCloskey book I didn’t like. The stories are simple, charming, full of¬†nature and caring for others. Most of the illustrations are beautiful pencil or pen sketches. (We used to make copies for the children to color.) All the stories contain clever little twists and masterful word play that I enjoy.

    • Town Mouse, Country Mouse

There are a lot of these books out there, all with variations on a theme of being happy with the life you have. The one we like the best is by Jan Brett. Her paintings can only be described as exquisite. When we go on walks in the woods, we speculate about holes in tree roots and which ones would make good country homes.

    • Abe Lincoln, the boy who loved books

This is a pint-sized biography with lyrical text by Kay Winters and really fun paintings by Nancy Carpenter. The story follows Abe’s love-affair with books throughout his early years and how this love changed our world forever. The concluding page has Lincoln sitting beside the fireplace at the White House, nose deep in a hefty tome, and these words:

“Abraham Lincoln- born in a log cabin,

child of the frontier, head in a book-

elected our sixteenth president!

From the wilderness to the White House.

He learned the power of words

and used them well.”

    • Little Bear
    • No Fighting, No Biting

These are two of Else Holmelund Minarik’s books, with illustrations by the famous Maurice Sendak. They are gentle stories, with bits of humor that tickle children and adults alike. No Fighting, No Biting has the exact scenario describing above, with children jockeying for the best seat at storytime.

    • The Biggest Bear

In my opinion, this is a book every child should have. Recently I discovered it in the attic with some other paperback books that I read hundreds of times to the boys and Addy was just as delighted as they were. There isn’t a lot of text, but it is such fun to read aloud.

    • Floss, Just Like Floss

The reason Kim Lewis can paint such amazing scenes with a sheepdog’s perspective is because she lives on a sheep farm in England. All of her books are works of art.

    • Moses the Kitten

Of all the Herriot stories for children, this is my personal favorite. We have the collection, but something about little coal black Moses suckling at the piglets’ milk bar is just wonderful.

    • Five O’Clock Charlie

This is such a compelling story about an old work horse who is still not done with adventure, even though he is put to pasture. Marguerite Henry is a master of horse tales, and as far as I know, this is the only one that is published for a younger audience than her line of chapter books.

    • Charlie, the Ranch Dog

I was delighted to find this book by the Pioneer Woman recently. She writes a rollicking good story and we look forward to more from her.

  • A Tale of Two Beasts

What? You didn’t think I would write a book list without including at least one Uzzie? ūüėÄ Let me explain why we think this is such a great book. The story is told from the perspective of a little girl walking in the woods, when she sees a little beast and rescues it. Eventually it escapes back to its tree home and tells its side of the story, how it was kidnapped and made to endure all this horrid petting, etc. When the children are fighting and have many sides to a story, I ask, “So which beast are you?” No Amazon link for this one, but if you are interested, you can contact me. ūüôā

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As you may have noticed, I am experimenting with links for Amazon’s affiliate program. I have never made anything on my product recommendations before, but if it helps make ends meet, I shall try it. I don’t like a lot of flashy ads, so we shall see. If you hate it, or I hate it, the links will disappear. ¬†ūüôā

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The Smartest Kids in the World

“The sign at the door says the purple tags are 90% off,” I mentioned to the clerk. “Does that include things like these roller blades?” She looked blankly at me for a bit, then said, “Yeah, 90% off all purple tags.”

“That’s great. I will take them,” I replied. It was a good deal. The blades were tagged $24.99 and looked new. I dug in my purse¬†for $2.50. When I looked up, the clerk was gone, threading her way across the store with a calculator in hand, calling for the manager. I heard the instructions, “Just take 24.99 times point 10. That’s your price.”

I didn’t want to show my incredulity, but really??? Every 5th grader in our great nation is supposed to learn percentages and 10% is the easiest one to do in your head when you are 11 years old.

I  just finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World, where the author explores how it is that American school children are scoring so very low by international standards. Why is it that entire countries full of children (Finland, Korea, Poland) tend to score much higher than  our American students in matters that require common sense and thinking through problems?

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I ¬†have always thought that my goal is to teach my children to THINK. Yes, I want them to enjoy learning, but that is my secondary goal. If they cannot apply what they are storing in their heads, it doesn’t do much good.

There is a relatively new test called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) where we U Sers are getting our butts whipped, especially in math. This is the language of logic, of disciplined, organized thinking. There are rules to follow and when you follow them, you get the right answer. I quote Ms Ripley, “Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, detect patterns, make informed guesses.” (pg. 70)

As a nation we do a lot better in reading comprehension, which is good news. This also means that without the background of logic, we are a nation of people who can feel for others, empathize, recognize problems, etc, yet have no foggy idea of any absolutes or certain outcomes that follow certain behaviors. ¬†Add to this the self-esteem movement, where teachers and coaches dole out praise trophies for just showing up, no effort required. There was a huge outcry in some states when it was proposed that high school students cannot just put in the time in class, but must actually pass exams in order to receive a diploma. Again I give you a pithy quote, “Vague, insincere, or excessive praise tends to discourage hard work and attempting new things.”

The poor children raised under the “You are the specialest person in the world and can always have anything you want” quickly find out in the adult world that they are pretty small stuff unless they are actually prepared to work hard and think carefully about their choices.

PISA also has a lengthy section after the academic questions where participating students spend nearly an hour answering a questionnaire on their background, motivation, and family habits.  The interesting thing about this survey is that there are no right answers. The researchers are looking for diligence, to see if there is a link to overall success. Well. Duh. Those kids who had learned to persist, even through seemingly meaningless assignments, tended to score higher overall.

The author calls it rigor. ¬†It is what they have in Finland, where people have been determined survivors of long, sunless winters and the neighboring Big Guys for centuries. They focus on motivation, self-control, persistence. We might call it character. They don’t skip recess either, even in bad weather. Turns out rigor is a bigger deal than interactive white boards in every classroom and multi-million dollar sports programs where the vast majority of the students sit in bleachers and cheer for the favored few.

Admittedly, there are big problems when education is so dead serious that Korean children have been known to become suicidal if they fail a test. Recognizing this, the government actually has task forces assigned¬†to patrol at night to be sure the tutoring schools close before midnight. These children literally go to school all day. They know how to think, but they don’t really have a life.

Then there was Poland, a country that scored discouragingly low in the first PISA test they participated in, in 2000. The next year they introduced some sweeping reforms: dumbed-down textbooks got replaced with rigorous ones, many of their teachers were required to improve their own education, and fundamental goals were set countrywide with accountability in the form of standardized tests. By 2009 Poland outperformed the U.S. despite spending half as much per student. They don’t have the fancy stuff in their classrooms, but they decided to implement the grit that has kept them alive through some of the most horrendous wars in history. They quit expecting failure in school.

What really matters? How can we best help our children learn to think? Toward the end of the book, Amanda Ripley condenses a vast subject into a few fairly simple expressions:

Conscientiousness > smarts

Self-discipline > IQ scores

Rigor > Self-esteem

In my head I knitted all these concepts about educational systems with our cultural bias against sweat and rules and moral absolutes, and it all makes sense. We are in trouble here in America, but we do not need to despair. We can teach our children to think and to work past failure. Someday it will save them.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is concerned about their child’s education. It will¬†put some steel into your spine¬†when your child/student thinks Algebra is dumb and research reports are too much work and nobody should ever have to do speed drills. Too bad, sonny. This is about your survival! This is about how much I love you. (This is so that you can instantly figure 10% at the cash register.)

 

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Why I Love Children’s Literature

We were on the road, running errands. The eldest son broke his glasses. Again. For the third time in a twelve-month.¬†We needed to pick them up, deliver some books ordered at an Usborne party about 45 miles distant, visit the cousins, do a little shopping because the French press¬†had a mishap in the dishwasher this morning, and then at last come home. It was about two hours of driving time on a cold afternoon, sitting bumper to bumper in the vehicle. What could have been really boring flew right by because we did it with Ribsy on audio, cavorting along, getting lost and found repeatedly. I laughed as heartily as the children when Ribsy chased the squirrel that came to school in a show-and-tell box. We all agreed that obviously, this author has a dog. She described¬†in minute detail how dogs beg and grovel gratefully when they get attention. She even narrated¬†what Mother says when Ribsy wants to ride in the new car with the family, “Don’t pay him any attention! Henry, don’t even look at him!” The children giggled gleefully and said, “That sounds like you, Mama!

When we read, my children don’t have any concept of gaining insight into human nature or relationships, but that is what happens in great fiction. I just read a study that indicates that people (including children) who read fiction score significantly higher on the empathetic scale because they are constantly walking in another’s shoes while they are reading. Conversely, children (and adults!) who have unlimited screen time score much lower in simple tests designed to identify¬†another person’s emotions using facial cues. It’s not that they don’t care at all, but they simply haven’t been practicing while staring at a device. (That’s just my little Free Rant Bunny Trail for the day.)

The best children’s books are simple themes, with masterful descriptions that take you right to the scene and leave you breathless to figure out what will come next. There is a trend in modern children’s books that tends to dark and heavy topics. I hate it.¬†Stories for young children should be wholesome, real, not burdening a child with a load they aren’t meant to carry. That will come soon enough.

I can still see Jimmy and the Jam Jars and that incredible mess he made when he was sneaking the fresh jam in the kitchen. I can recall holding my breath as Peter Rabbit ducked into a watering can to hide, of all places! and of course he had to sneeze! I can walk the trail with Little Bear when something went pit-pat, pit-pat behind him on the path. These are the books that are a delight to read aloud. Rarely do I read books to my children that bore me. If the illustrations are beautiful, I can manage it, but otherwise just go get another book, Sweetie.

This week we cracked open some brand new books. I got a set from Usborne titled¬†¬†Anna Hibiscus. Olivia has been spending all her free time in Africa, amazing Africa, with Anna Hibiscus and her extended family that lives in a compound with goats nibbling outside the door and aunties sewing cool dresses and braiding everybody’s hair. The twin brothers, Double and Trouble, are doing what all toddlers do best, getting into constant mischief and Anna is supposed to watch them!¬†These books are genius, and I do not say that lightly. Olivia doesn’t know that she is learning to love a culture that is vastly different from her own, but she knows that a¬†little girl from rural Pennsylvania wants to go to Amazing Africa.

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Here is another favorite from an author that delights without fail: Mr. Putter and Tabby, by Cynthia Rylant.

Mr. Putter has always wanted to write a book. He wakes up to the perfect book writing day, sits in his comfortable chair with his companionable cat and thinks of a title that fits his plot. It is strenuous going and he needs a snack to sustain him. The snack takes a few hours of time, after which he needs a nap. This goes on for days until he decides to just write a list instead of a book. I, a 38 year old woman, love this children’s story.¬†¬†Wonder why?

That’s the thing: children’s literature is about life and all of us. It may be told from the vantage point of the beloved family dog or a tiny tugboat in an impossibly crowded harbor, but it is easy enough for anyone to understand and say, “Yes, that’s how it really is!”

Tomorrow I will tell you a little more about how my parents raised us to be readers.

 

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Creative Counterpart, Book Recommendation

If you women would like to read a good book with practical ideas and advice for becoming a wife who stands behind her husband and enjoys the tremendous benefits of fulfilling her mission next to him (sub-mission, get it?), I have a book I think you will enjoy.

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Creative Counterpart¬†was first published in 1977 in that era where so much about women’s traditional roles had become suspect and were tossed out. Linda Dillow has a kind, no-nonsense writing style that is firmly grounded in the Scriptures. She is a voice encouraging woman to think about the consequences of their attitudes and choices, both for their marriages and for their children’s futures. I appreciate¬†her emphasis on developing the gifts God gives each individual. Women who say, “I am just a housewife,” or “I don’t have a job. I am just a stay-at-home-mom,” infer that they feel this is an unavoidable but somewhat inferior position to hold. Mrs. Dillow makes it clear that creativity, learning to excel in one area at a time, making things lovely, unleashes an excitement about growing and living well with your husband, in your home. There is no “just” in the job description.

I had never heard of this book until I stumbled onto my copy at a book sale for just a few dollars. Creative Counterpart¬† was an enlightening guide for me, an older woman teaching the younger in the years when Gabe was going back to school and I wanted to support him wholeheartedly, “but what about me?” In fact, I found Addy’s ultrasound pictures tucked into it when I pulled it off the shelf to do this review. The book was republished in 2003 with a study guide included. I think you will enjoy it. ūüôā

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Odd Stuff and Owning Your Life

There are a number of quirky things in my life right now. I sort of like anomalies. They keep things interesting. And weird. Of all the things I wrote in my head in the weeks, the two I actually typed to post disappeared in unexplained computer glitches. Isn’t that hilarious?

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One of the library books we checked out in February was missing. We renewed it repeatedly and scoured this house, even going so far as deep cleaning the boys’ room. Finally today I called the library and told them we give up. I will pay for the book, but could they just check their shelves to be sure it wasn’t there. It was. They had missed it when they scanned the returned books. I did all that cleaning and digging and offering of reward money for a book that wasn’t even in the house.

We planted rye in our garden last fall to enrich the soil this spring. It felt so good to till that green manure under this spring and plant our peas nice and early. Until Gabe’s dad, the greenest thumb we know, told us that you have to wait a while to plant after you till the rye under, because it messes with the germination of seeds. I kept hoping he was wrong, but those peas did not come up and he was right. Two weeks later we replanted without that smug glow of earliness. At least it is supposed to be a cool, wet June, so the peas should still feel happy.

Then there was the wonderful feeling that the month of May was deliciously empty of assignments, yet I somehow managed to drag out portfolio finishing and homeschool evaluations until the last week of the month. I did it just because I had the luxury of time, but then it hung over my head the whole time. Silly me.

I am also interested in the fact that we made it through the entire winter, all seven of us, with only one episode of puking, and that with my husband working daily with sick people in the ER. And yet. Here we are, on the 10th day of a vicious stomach bug that is working its way through our family one person at a time. Yesterday I thought we were finally home free until¬†I heard the familiar, “My belly hurts,” in my deepest sleep early this morning. Do you know how fast a mother can spring out of bed with fight or flight coursing through her veins as she grabs a bucket to shove under her child’s nose? It is very speedy indeed.

Most amusing of all is my perusal of  Own Your Life, by Sally Clarkson, in just about the most disorganized weeks ever. I did really enjoy the book. Here is why.

I like organization. I like the idea of having order and purpose to life. I like to have a clear vision of my role and a plan to fulfill it. However¬†the reality is that I am a “fly by the seat of your pants” person deep inside. With discipline issues. :/ ¬†Recently I had an aha moment when I thought of what would happen to the wife of a nurse with weird working hours if she was incapable of dealing with irregularity, and I embraced my spontaneity a little more. Yet I liked Sally Clarkson’s book with it’s emphasis on calm and sanity.

In chapter one she talks about basic training in our lives: the soul stretching, mind numbing, mundane sameness of faithfulness. In our youthful dreams we don’t think about sagging curtains or ugly carpet or fighting children. We don’t assume that there will be illness or peevishness or cabbage worms. Our dreams are noble, full of greatness, which goes to show that we are meant to rise above the grittiness in life and flourish. Sally is an older woman now, recounting a moment when she realized that she had unhappily succumbed to a life of monotonous drudgery. This became her prayer, (page 9)

“No matter what happens…

 I will be as obedient as I can to

bring joy into this place,

create beauty in this wilderness,

exercise generous love,

persevere with patience.

I will choose to believe that wherever You are my faithful Companion

is the place where Your blessing will be upon me.”

I relate wholeheartedly¬†with that prayer, with embracing the seasons of life, with deciding to like God’s will for me. Anybody out there with me?

I was challenged to identify the things that drain me, sources of life-noise and chaos that produce “sawdust souls”, as Sally describes it.

Chapter seven is titled “Allowing God’s Spirit to Breathe in You”. This, really, is where it’s at if I want abundant life instead of living constricted by human inabilities. When I keep tryst with the Lover of my Soul, I flourish; when I live in my own strength, I become impoverished nigh to death. This is a simple fact. I know what happens with constant activity, becoming preoccupied with all that needs to be done, where pressures cause harsh reactions to the people I love, all for lack of refueling my exhausted soul.

I think that the defining statement of the book is this: “Home is the stage where the play of your life is delivered. As you clarify your vision, accept your limitations, and cultivate grace, you are laying the foundations that will build influence and legacy… Own your home life, right where you are.” (page 201)

So that’s where I am right now, hugging life with all it’s rare oddness and boring sameness combined.

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Island of the World

Last year I saw this book recommendation on Tis a Gift to Receive. I checked all the local libraries, but none seem to have heard of Michael O’Brien, so… I bought Island of the World¬†for a Christmas present for myself. ūüôā

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I told you I have a book review that is the polar opposite of The Hunger Games, but I will also quickly tell you that this is not light reading or suitable for early teens. In fact, it is probably the heaviest book I have read in a long time, quite¬†literally, since it has over 800 pages, but it is also heavy emotionally. I couldn’t shake the story, although I could only bear to¬†read a few pages some days. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I will only give a brief sketch of ¬†the events in the story that is actually set over the course of a lifetime.

The book is set in the Balkans with the main character¬†being a¬†boy, Josip Lasta, who is the son of a school teacher in a remote mountain village. The family, as well as the entire village, is rich in simple faith. Josip survives the horrifying purge of his village, stumbling in a grief-stricken daze to war-torn Sarajevo¬†where his aunt lives. As he grows older, he¬†is haunted by the cruelty and bloodshed all around him as the communists take over the country. Eventually there is the promise of a career as a mathematics professor, even though he has never joined the party. There is the love of a beautiful girl, a happy marriage, a child on the way, and then there is the awful concentration camp after he is reported¬†to be a counter revolutionary. There is so much hatred, betrayal, and senseless destruction in Josip’s world.

As I read, my western sensibilities of fairness kept insisting that surely soon everything would get better and be happy. Surely Josip cannot live under these crushing evils. Doesn’t he deserve to be happy? As the book continues to track his lifelong journey of forgiveness and his relentless faith that “God always has the final word”, I became smaller and smaller in my own human reasoning. I marveled at the redemption that seeped out of the brokenness of his life in nearly¬†forty years as a humble janitor, a displaced person, a refugee in the foreign land of America.

“Seldom have I encountered the few who are awake, who cast their gaze to the real foundations, which, as human beings should know, are above.” -Josip Lasta, as he approaches the end of his life.

This is not typical historical fiction. There is a thread of purity  woven throughout the very human struggles of a man living through the awfullest of times. I have wanted to write this review for a long time, but found myself floundering for words. When I was reading Hunger Games, I kept thinking of this book, another tale of revolution, war, heartbreak. The contrast between a soul impoverished with vindictiveness and a soul flourishing through forgiveness was so startling that I will never forget it.

You will not regret buying this one!

 

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No Winners Allowed

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy, that pop fiction series that is being aggressively marketed to young adults, made into movies, spawning fan clubs and Facebook sites. Before I critique any further, I will say that Suzanne Collins can write. Her style is engaging and fast paced, just what is required to sell books to the young.

The story is set in some post-apocolyptic time¬†where North America has imploded, devastated by a civil war against its Capitol. It is now comprised of 12 outlying districts and the Capitol, which is the seat of power. To discourage any further uprising, the Capitol keeps the districts in poverty and isolation with fences around each one. Every year the districts are required to have a reaping, where one boy and girl are picked to participate in the Hunger Games in an arena set up by the Capitol. There can only be one victor, therefore all participants in the games need to learn to survive by killing ruthlessly. The games are televised to all districts, with the most likely survivor being the one who can get people to like him, thus receiving gifts in the arena. The author does a masterful job of making one like the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her sister’s place at the reaping. She starts out nobly in the games, protecting the weaker children, forming alliances with kindly intent.

You want her to live, but you start to realize that all the other kids will have to die for that to happen. It is, quite literally, kill or be killed. She pretends to fall in love with the boy from her district as a strategic measure to arouse sympathy from viewers of the games, thus receiving pricey donations in the arena that make the difference between life and death. She does manage to survive and insists on saving the boy from her district, strong-arming the designers of the games with the threat of suicide if they do not allow him to live.

This event catapults one into the second book of the series where Katniss is touring the district as the much-pampered winner, along with her “boyfriend”. They keep meeting the families of the other slain children, some of whom Katniss herself eliminated. Guilt and confusion set in. Maybe survival of the fittest wasn’t the right way to go. Someone is responsible for these actions. There has to be someone to hate, someone higher up who needs to be eliminated. Katniss herself is blacklisted by the Capitol because of her act of defiance ¬†at the end of the games. The Capitol fears her ability to incite revolution, and decides to use only former victors of the games for the reaping of the next games. Of course, this takes her back into the arena with people she has come to know and care about. Once more she is required to kill or be killed. They all hate the Capitol, the president, the game makers. Katniss¬†hates herself and this no-win situation. There is no way out. She has decided to try to save Peeta, the boy she pretended to love in the first games, as an act of atonement for using him. Just as she thinks she has figured out a way to do this, there is a tremendous disruption in the arena and she is airlifted by hovercraft to a district that she didn’t know existed.

Book 3 is her experiences in District 13, the underground district with nuclear weapons. It describes her coercion into being the face that inspires a raging revolution, her decision to kill the president and end this madness. She is just a shell of a person, consumed by hatred, propelled by one desire to get revenge. She sacrifices everything for this goal, with an ever growing wake of destruction behind her as her friends die defending her and her enemies fall in front of her. She emerges, victorious, alive!  The Capitol is overthrown. The last scene in the book is of her children, dancing happily on the meadow that has grown over the mass graves of the victims of war.

I know my take on the books is quite different from the reviews that call them “phenomenal” or “brilliant” or “compelling”. I think the primary adjective should be “disturbing”. This is our foremost, best-selling literature for young people, this mess of absolutely no way out. ¬† It is hopeless. No matter how much the characters wish there were a way to live without killing, they feel that there is no choice. In fact, it is all for the greater good, this awful morass of death and destruction.

What would have happened if the mentors would have instructed the kids in the games to refuse to kill, to band together as brothers, to love instead of hate? What if the Capitol would have been disarmed by a people who refused to rise to the bait? What if returning evil for evil is not the best way to bring change in a society?

It disturbs me that this mindless do-whatever-it-takes to survive is being touted to our children as the only way to live. There is a constant dilemma of what is absolute (you shouldn’t kill) versus what makes sense (you should stay alive) and in nearly every case what makes sense hurts other people. Right does not seem to be relevant.¬†The books are a sad overview of a society with a sagging framework of morality. There are no absolutes; it is each person looking out for his own interests in the end, with only a few fringe characters who care about other people. It is chaos.

The author is at least honest enough to describe the desolation in the soul of a person who steps on top of others to stay alive. She does not have any solutions to the problem of a shattered spirit and divided soul except the passing of time. Katniss and Peeta simply have to live with their gnawing regrets. There is no redemption other than having children who don’t have to face the same impossible odds. In fact, they are not really winners at all. I am terribly saddened when I reflect that this is, indeed, the way many post-modern people view life.

I am one of those annoying fundamentalists that believes what Jesus taught is to be taken literally. I know that I live it imperfectly, but I am willing to stake my life on it that His is the better way: the way of suffering love, the path of forgiveness, the eternal perspective of winning by losing. I don’t want to live my life on the premise that there is no higher way than to live for myself, that the only way to save¬†my life is to keep it! I am not buying that load of empty nonsense and I am certainly not going to feed it to my 7th grader.

Another day I will do a review on a book that is the polar opposite of this one. ūüôā

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Empty Bowls, a Book List, and a Lot of Links

This winter I tried to find different ways to make my children aware of the hungry, homeless, less fortunate, even beggars. Sometimes it is hard to know how much information about the sadness and brokenness of the world I should share with my little guys. Yet I believe that they need to learn compassion and thankfulness, and one of the best way to learn this is to help them see how hard life is for many others.

We read A Single Shard, the story of a homeless orphan in 12th century Korea. The main character spends his days scrounging for scraps of food and longingly watching the master potters in the village. Eventually he persuades one of them to take him on as an apprentice, receiving for his wages a bowl of food every day.

The Family Under the Bridge is another book I highly recommend for children. It is the story of a crusty old hobo who has his own favorite spot to live under the bridge. He has chosen his lifestyle because he likes it, but one day a desperate mother with her little children invades his space. Slowly he starts to thaw and become more kindly to the people around him. Almost against his will, he learns to care about them and does his best to help the mother keep her little family intact. It is a book with humor and grace mixed into the sad bits.

Another book we really like is Star of Light, a story of little beggars shamefully misused by their stepfather. It is a beautiful tale of how they find the love of a Heavenly Father.

I also have a photojournalist’s collection of portraits of titled¬†Precious in His Sight. It is a powerful visual aid… What if I were the little girl selling bananas in the middle of that crush of cars at the intersection? Suppose I was the little farmer boy in Malawi who spends days and days alone, herding the family’s cows so they don’t wander off or get stolen.

ImageA percentage of  the sale of this book goes to Compassion.

And there is yet one more photo journey that I suggest for little children. It is titled Where Children Sleep. It is an expensive book, but I am glad I bought it. We have discussed why it is that some of the poorest little children with only one little car to play with and a bed of filthy blankets on the floor look just as happy in their photos as the children with everything their hearts desire. You can find a lot of the images from the book here.

So, how did this post turn into a book list? I suppose it may be because they are my main tools for instructing my children. ūüôā But aside from books, how do we do something that makes a difference? That is the real question. The boys helped me cut patches out of fabric scraps and sew them into comfort tops for the ladies at church to turn into warm blankets for somebody cold.

I hoped to find a soup kitchen that needs volunteers, but the only local thing I could come up with was a fund raiser called Empty Bowls. This is a grassroots movement to help feed the hungry. Local potters hold workshops where volunteers get to make soup bowls to sell at the supper they host. That immediately caught my attention because of my pottery making dreams. We made pinch pots, starting with a ball of clay that became the base of our soup bowl, then adding coils of clay and smoothing them out to form the sides and rim. It was a lot of fun. We decided we wanted our own bowls back, so we went to the supper and claimed them.

All the food was donated by local restaurants and businesses, the proceeds benefitting our local food pantry. It was a lot of fun, an event I hope to make an annual thing for us. Here are the girls with our bowls.

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So far I don’t feel like I have accomplished much except helping my crew to notice inequity and to want to help. I need more practical ideas. ūüôā

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