Review of The Wall, by Peter Sis

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The Wall

Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Peter Sis

Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, 2007.

2008 Robert F. Sibert Medal winner.

2008 Caldecott Honor Book.

In a picture book for children, Peter Sis here creatively captures what it was like to be an artist growing up in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain.

With his art, he expresses to the reader the feelings of the students who did not want to be repressed.

This book reminded me of Persepolis, another story of a student growing up under oppression, also told with art.  The Wall is simpler, and thus more suitable for children, intelligent children who will think about the images and read the fine print.

Hmm.  It’s also suitable for intelligent adults who will think about the images and read the fine print.

This book is a powerful testimonial against repression.

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Review of Playing It By Heart, by Melody Beattie

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Playing It by Heart

Taking Care of Yourself No Matter What

by Melody Beattie

Hazelden, Center City, Minnesota, 1999.  262 pages.

Starred Review.

http://www.hazelden.org/

Melody Beattie is the author of the wonderful books Codependent No More, Beyond Codependency, and The Language of Letting Go.  In Playing It by Heart, she gets even more personal and tells her life story.

Her story is incredible — especially incredible that she survived it.  She has lived through addiction, time in prison, desperate poverty, hospitalization, failed marriages, the death of a son.  And throughout the telling of her story, she draws beautiful, life-affirming insights.

I especially love the way she sums things up toward the end of the book:

“Now there’s at least two ways I can look at all of this.  I can say look at everything I’ve had to go through.  Or I can stand back and say wow.  Look at everything I got to experience, feel, and see.  And as much as I’ve resisted and struggled each step of the way, maybe that’s why I am here: to go through all of this and see from my point of view exactly how all these things feel.”

After reading this book, I find myself praying blessings upon Melody Beattie — because of how powerfully she has blessed me.  If you want a reminder of how powerfully God can redeem desperate situations, I highly recommend this book.

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Review of Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, by Deborah Hopkinson and John Hendrix

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Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek

A Tall, Thin Tale

(Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)

by Deborah Hopkinson & John Hendrix

Schwarz & Wade Books, New York, 2008.  36 pages.

In honor of Abe Lincoln’s 200th birthday, here’s a children’s picture book telling a story of how Abe Lincoln almost died when he was only seven years old.

Yes, Abe and his friend Austin were crossing a creek.  Abe fell in, and his friend fished him out, saving his life and thus making a difference in the world for generations to come.

Deborah Hopkinson has a delightful, folksy way of telling the story, talking about what we know and what we don’t know.  The pictures of the green Kentucky valley where Abe lived and the mischievous boys add to the fun.

Here’s an endearing tale of friendship, suitable for young readers or listeners who might be tired of more straitlaced and serious stories of Abraham Lincoln.  He did a foolish thing crossing that creek, but his friend saved him.  Even Abraham Lincoln needed a friend.

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Review of All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot

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All Creatures Great and Small

by James Herriot

St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1998.  First published in 1972.  437 pages.

Starred review.

I doubt I need to say much about this classic story of James Herriot’s tales of starting out as a young veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales.  I’m quite sure I first read it sometime when I was in elementary school.  They’re wholesome stories, and I enjoyed them as much then as I did delighting over them as an adult.

I thought I’d reread All Creatures Great and Small to give myself some good laughs in between other books.  Since the book is mostly episodic — with mainly separate, funny stories — it works well to read it in bits and pieces.

There are overarching threads, like the memorable characters of his employer Siegfried and his brother Tristan.  But mainly the book tells delightful, funny, and heartwarming tales of his work with animals and the farmers of the Dales.

This book is definitely the sort worth coming back to every few years to enjoy all over again.

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Review of A River of Words, by Jen Bryant

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A River of Words

The Story of William Carlos Williams

written by Jen Bryant

illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008.  36 pages.

2009 Caldecott Honor Book.

Here’s a simple picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams, but it’s done with excellence.

The collage artwork in this book is noteworthy, recalling the modern art that influenced William Carlos Williams.  The artist used covers from old books, among other things, and created evocative and beautiful illustrations of the poems and of the poet’s life.

The story is told simply, with a taste of actual poems he wrote (and several are written on the endpapers).  The author tells about how the other activities and interests of his life influenced and shaped his poetry, but how poetry was a constant from childhood on.

An inviting and interesting picture book biography.  Isn’t that what a picture book biography should do?  Introduce an interesting person and provide a look into his life that entices you to want to know more.  (And there is a time line of his life and a list for further reading at the back.)

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Review of Confessions of an Amateur Believer, by Patty Kirk

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Confessions of an Amateur Believer

by Patty Kirk

Nelson Books, 2006.  271 pages.

Starred Review.

http://www.amateurbeliever.com/
http://www.thomasnelson.com/
 
Patty Kirk grew up Catholic but wandered away from God and traveled all over the world.   When she came back to America, she married a Christian farmer, and ended up becoming a Christian herself.  This section from “About the Author” summarizes what the book is all about:

God began infecting every aspect of her daily life, converting every struggle to a miracle and holding her to account for every apparent victory.  She fought hard against these changes, in her marriage and parenting, her work, her mind.  She recorded her battles with God in free-form spiritual writings part praise, part lament, part exegesis, woven together with narratives of her daily life and her sometimes unwilling research into what it means to believe in God.

This book is a collection of those essays on spiritual things.  They are beautifully written and full of insight.  Those who follow my Sonderquotes blog will recognize Patty Kirk’s name, as I read through the book slowly, and so often found highly quotable paragraphs.

These are musings or meditations on life, God, the spiritual journey.  The author is open and honest, and readers will find her a kindred spirit.  She’s not afraid to talk about things a lot of us feel, but don’t necessarily know how to express as well.

This book explores how, having begun to believe as a child and lost sight of God for half a lifetime, I came not only to recognize him again but, by struggling with scripture and my own habits of unbelief, to acknowledge and celebrate his active participation in my life.

I love the picture she presents of God in these pages, a God who loves us, and who is not mean.

A big thank you to John, a Sonderbooks reader who recommended this book to me!

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/amateur_believer.html

Review of Artist to Artist

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Artist to Artist

23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art

Philomel Books, New York, 2007.  105 pages.

Starred Review.

Review written January 30, 2008.

The title of this book explains the content, but doesn’t grasp the beauty.  In Artist to Artist, 23 geniuses of picture book illustration, such as Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Steven Kellogg, Rosemary Wells, Jerry Pinkney, and so many more, speak to aspiring artists about how they became an artist and what inspires them.

Each artist includes a self-portrait, a picture of themselves as a child, examples of early art, published art, and a look at the process of creating art, as well as a picture of their studios.  (I love the mess in Eric Carle’s—If you think about it, you’d realize that someone who deals with cut paper illustrations would have a mess of scraps on the floor.)  My favorite self-portrait is the one created by pop-up artists Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart—an amazingly intricate robot reaches out to embrace the reader, with the two happy artists inside the robot at the controls.  I found myself popping it out again and again.

Beautiful and inspiring, this is wonderful reading for someone like me—an adult with no artistic aspirations.  I can only imagine how much it could be enjoyed by someone in its intended audience—a budding artist ready to strive for greatness.

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Review of Miss Alcott’s E-mail, by Kit Bakke

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Miss Alcott’s E-mail

Yours for Reforms of All Kinds

by Kit Bakke

David R. Godine, 2006.  255 pages.

http://www.godine.com/

Kit Bakke begins, “I was home alone, that rare treat for the working mother, when it occurred to me to write to her.  To Louisa May Alcott.  Why not?” 

She goes on to explain why writing to Louisa resonated with her life.  And apparently she pulled it off!

“I wish I could explain more about the mechanics of our correspondence, but I can’t, because, other than frying six surge protectors, I don’t know how it worked.  I sent my letters and chapter drafts to Louisa by e-mail from my Seattle living room, and she received them as handwritten ink on paper in her roms in Dr. Lawrence’s house in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  She once told me my handwriting was neat and extremely legible, so there was definitely something odd going on.  She wrote to me, using well-worn ink pens and paper, and they showed up in Times New Roman in my Outlook inbox.  I was grateful for the technology transfer, as her own handwriting was also less than copperplate.

“It’s one of those Internet Effects, I guess.  Or a Heisenberg thing, or Brownian motion gone amok.  I didn’t want to inquire too closely for fear the magic might vanish.”

What follows is a series of essays about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the parallels with Kit Bakke’s life in modern America, framed by letters (no, e-mails) purporting to be from Louisa herself.

I loved the idea of this book, because when I was a girl in 6th or 7th grade, I actually spent quite a bit of time daydreaming about bringing Louisa May Alcott into the present to show her all the advances women have made.  I don’t think any other author ever prompted such a reaction, but I distinctly remember thinking out what I would say to Louisa May Alcott if I could pull this off and meet her.  So imagine my delight, more than thirty years later, to learn that Kit Bakke in some sense managed to do what I daydreamed about as a child.

I think it was Louisa’s zeal for “reforms of all kinds” that prompts this sort of reaction from her readers.  We want her to know about the progress that was made, and about the good that came from her own efforts.  Kit Bakke did some work at reforms of her own in the sixties, so she tied those stories in with her thoughts about Louisa’s life.

This book is a fascinating blend of musings on life in modern America combined with historical information about Louisa May Alcott and her times, as well as the personal touch from imagining Louisa’s reactions.

This book will be most enjoyed by people who have read and loved Louisa May Alcott’s books, but there are millions such people out there.  For myself, I want to find a copy of some of her less-known books for adults mentioned, such as Work.  I will be able to read it with new appreciation into the background and what it meant in Louisa’s life and times.  Reading Miss Alcott’s E-mail reminded me of an author I loved in my childhood, and told me more about her work for adults, which I have yet to discover.

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Review of Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer

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Crazy for God

How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

by Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2007.  417 pages.

Starred review.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri and famous Christian writers.  In college, I read Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, What Is a Family?, The Tapestry, Affliction, and Common Sense Christian Living.  I bought a set of The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, but still haven’t read any of it!

My father was a fan of Francis Schaeffer’s writings, and my mother a huge fan of Edith Schaeffer’s.  After reading Edith’s books, I dreamed of living that sort of life myself — living as a family in Europe, reaching searching souls for God!  It sounded like a dream existence.

Frank Schaeffer (known as Franky then) did come and speak at my college, Biola University, when I was a student.  I think he was promoting A Time for Anger, and he came across as very angry indeed.  I pretty much dismissed what he had to say, and figured he must be a typical rebellious preacher’s kid, though I was still enthralled by his parents’ works.  His mother spoke at a Ladies’ Tea at Biola, promoting her book Common Sense Christian Living, and I was further enraptured.

I should add that I still think of her way of looking at suffering, as presented in Affliction, as a wonderful paradigm for dealing with why God allows suffering.

In Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer outlines his life growing up in Switzerland, his later involvement in the founding of the religious right political movement in America, and his search for some kind of peace.

In a lot of ways, I found his quest mirroring my own.  I too grew up in a rather unusual Christian community — a family of thirteen children.  I too ended up with liberal political views.  Although I still attend an evangelical church, it is a church about community and much less hung up on exact statements of faith.  It sounds very similar in attitude to the Greek Orthodox church where Frank Schaeffer has found a home.  Like him, I find myself thinking of Christianity as a “journey to God, wherein no one is altogether instantly ‘saved’ or ‘lost’ and nothing is completely resolved in this life (and perhaps not in the next).”  My belief that all will be saved eventually puts me at odds with the standard evangelical community he was once so much a part of and that I was once so much a part of.  So I found his journey fascinating.

That perfect family life at L’Abri was not so perfect after all.  Those family reunions that Edith Schaeffer wrote about as so idyllic were filled with angry fighting.  Francis was an abusive husband, and Edith was not a tremendously respectful wife.  Both were rather neglectful parents, sacrificing family life for “the work” and letting their son run wild.  (Not that he didn’t enjoy that!)

He also points out that Francis and Edith were very open and accepting — at least for most of their lives.  But they closed down that openness when they were catering to the American evangelical political movement.  He has some scathing words about many American evangelical leaders, and points out some things about them that were downright strange.

He grew up in Europe, and when he got involved in American politics, he didn’t even really know America.  His parents enjoyed European culture, and thought themselves a bit above your run-of-the-mill Americans.  Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Shall We Then Live? was based on his wide knowledge of Western art and history.  Having lived for ten years in Europe myself, I have some sneaking sympathies with him on these points. 

I’m sure many hero-worshipers will be bitterly angry that Frank Schaeffer would say anything negative about his parents.  He also says many positive things, but is trying to write about his own strange childhood.  He makes the point that we are all human, that the perfect “common sense Christian living” may have its own flaws, under the surface, if you look more closely. 

This book was fascinating and eye-opening.  I appreciate the look at someone else’s thoughts about what it really means to live for God, and making sense of his own life’s path and life’s work.  In many ways, with the collapse of my marriage, I am looking at some of the same issues.  So I appreciated this chance to get someone else’s perspective, as well as to learn that what I thought of as idealistic perfection in my youth didn’t actually match that in reality.

I’m coming to think that a lot of what God wants from us is to live life as the person he made us to be:  Enjoying his blessings and doing the work He made us best suited for, whether it has anything to do with “leading others to Christ” or not.  I doubt that Frank Schaeffer would word it exactly that way, but I felt that much of his spiritual journeying mirrors my own, and I appreciate the insights from a fellow traveler.

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Review of Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka

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Knucklehead

Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

Viking, 2008.  106 pages.

Starred Review

www.penguin.com/youngreaders

Now we know how Jon Scieszka got so funny!  He grew up with five brothers.

I got to hear the author read from this book at the National Book Festival in September, so I knew I simply had to read the book myself.  It turned out that the parts he read were by no means the only hilarious parts.

The cover is like a comic book.  The chapters are short.  And funny.  The whole thing is beautifully designed to draw kids in and not let them go.

Now, I have seven brothers myself (but six sisters — which makes a big difference!), so he couldn’t really surprise me with his stories.  His take on the mayhem and the bright ideas six boys can come up with are invariably hilarious.  Several chapters end with a “Knucklehead Warning:  Do not try this at home . . . or anywhere else.”  (But he makes them sound so much fun!)

I love the babysitting chapter.  Why didn’t we think of this?

“We didn’t get paid for babysitting.  Until one day Jim and I figured out a great way to make a little money on the job.

“We were watching Jeff.  He had rolled under a chair and got stuck.  We dragged him out and stood him up holding on to the coffee table.  And that’s when Jeff spotted the ashtray.

“We watched Jeff grab a cigarette butt.

“We watched Jeff put it in his mouth.

“We watched Jeff chew the butt, make a crazy face, then spit it out.

“Jim and I cracked up laughing.

“Then we gave Jeff another butt and watched him do it all over again.

“It was such a great trick that we charged all of our friends ten cents to watch.”

I also love his chapter about learning to read.  He talks about the very strange family he read about in school.

“The alien kids were named Dick and Jane.  Strangest kids I ever heard of. . . .

“When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names.  Because they always said each other’s names.  A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane.  Look.  There is the dog next to Sally, Jane.  The dog is also next to Mother, Jane.  The dog is next to Father, Jane.  Ha, ha, ha.  That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?

“At home my mom read me real stories.  These were stories that sounded like my life.  These were stories that made sense.  She read me a story about a guy named Sam.  Sam-I-am.  He was a fan of green eggs and ham.

“And then there was the story about the dogs.  Blue dogs.  Yellow dogs.  Dogs that were up.  Dogs that were down.  Dogs that drove around in cars and met each other at the end of the book for a giant party in a tree.  I cheered them on.  Go, dogs.  Go!  I read about them all by myself because I wanted to.  Go, dogs.  Go!

“So I guess I didn’t really learn to read by reading about those weirdos Dick and Jane.  I learned to read because I wanted to find out more about real things like dogs in cars and cats in hats.”

This book is tremendous fun.  Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, with a special mission to Reach the Reluctant Reader.  This book will do that beautifully.  What kid (or adult) could resist?

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