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Review: “The…Whangdoodles,” Pt. 3, Miracles and Genetics

Just in time for us all to spend a lot more time indoors, we’ve been analyzing Julie Andrew Edwards’ imaginative The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. “Part three: Conquest” contains two main elements. First, let’s take a look at how the story addresses miracles and genetics. Then, we’ll wrap up this series by returning to how faith plays into The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.

Miracles

Early in part three, the professor and the children discuss the difference in miracles and opportunities. Lindy mentions that their reunion on Halloween night seemed to be a miracle. The professor responds,

“Well, I’d call it more of an opportunity,” said the professor. “Miracles, contrary to popular belief, do not just happen. A miracle is the achievement of the impossible, and it is only when we put aside our greed, anger, pride and prejudice so that our minds are open and ready to accept it, that a miracle can occur.”

*Edwards 166

I love how Edwards defines miracles. As a Christian, I believe that only God can perform miracles. They simply aren’t possible by human constraints. Secondly, I appreciate that she mentions the need to set aside our distracting, selfish concerns for a miracle to occur. Truly, when we focus on ourselves, we don’t recognize miracles when they do occur.

Genetics

As the children meet the Whangdoodle and learn of his loneliness, the issue of genetics and cloning arises. (Again, Edwards really packs a punch with the complex issues she addresses in her book!) Without spoiling the ending, the Whangdoodle tasks the professor with making him a companion Whangdoodle. This challenge reinforces the children’s earlier lesson that the act of creation requires a great deal of ethical thinking because we don’t have the perfect mind that God does. Ben explains this to his father at the end of the book.

“Well, whether we like it or not, I think genetics is here to stay, Dad, and it could be the answer to a lot of things.” He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “We will have a tremendous responsibility on our hands. If we’re going to play God we must try to do it with honor and decency.”

*Edwards 277

Faith

As we finish up this series, I want to return to our discussion of how The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles marries faith, science, and imagination. I think Professor Savant, though human and imperfect, exemplifies the father-ness of God when he reprimands the children. In one instance, Tom and Ben wreaked havoc by getting caught on minibike-like creatures who wouldn’t let them get off. The professor gives the boys a rousing reprimand. Lindy questions the professor as to whether he overreacted. The professor responds,

“Yes, Lindy, I felt exactly that way when I was a boy, and I did many things that were foolish. But occasionally an angry, sensible adult showed me the error of my ways. Tom and Ben were foolish and irresponsible. Their actions put us all in great danger and, as a sensible adult, I think I had a perfect right to get angry and, thereby, teach them an important lesson.”

*Edwards 190-191

The Bible is full of examples of God reprimanding His children to better them. Here, in combining these complex issues of the wrath of God, His wisdom, and the act of creation, Edwards teaches us a great deal about the character of God. She reminds us that He lovingly guides us forward and that He ultimately has power over creation. We may have learned “the secret of life,” but our knowledge and abilities to change it pale in comparison to the giver of life Himself (Edwards 240).

*Edwards, Julie Andrews. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. New York: Harper Trophy, 1974.

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Review: “The…Whangdoodles,” Pt. 2: Calm in the Chaos

Last Friday, we reviewed part 1: “Challenge” of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards. This week, we’re entering Whangdoodleland in part 2: “Capture.” As the children face fantastical dangers, we all learn the importance of staying calm in the chaos.

Beauty and Danger in Whangdoodleland

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles takes full advantage of its fantasy side in part 2, where the children enter Whangdoodleland for the first time. This new fantasy world is magically different than ours. As with part 1, Edwards perfectly describes this new world with rich, sensory words. We smell the flowers, hear the sounds and music, and see the colors painting every inch of the landscape. She rearranges details from reality as we expect it to create a new, immersive, and utterly charming fantasy land.

Of course, as with any good book, danger and conflict taints the beauty of this world. However, Edwards’ “evil” characters really aren’t too evil, at all. They act in threatening and frightening ways, but concern for their friends motivates every challenge they create. Throughout the book, the Prock predominantly drives the “evil” obstacles of the book. In part 2, though, the villain the children and professor face is the High-Behind Splintercat. This fantasy cat maintains most of the eccentricities of normal cats. He loves balls of yarn and fields of catnip. Even though kidnapping would probably terrify anyone, this cat still manages to charm the reader.

Calm in the Chaos

Early in part 2, we learn the driving message of this section, if not of the whole book. The children have faced their first scary obstacle, and the professor comforts them. He says,

“If you remain calm in the midst of great chaos, it is the surest guarantee that it will eventually subside.”

*Edwards 98.

Personally, I love this message. It encourages children to persevere through hard times. The professor’s accompanying speech affirms the value of each individual child and the unique strengths they bring to a challenge. Especially during these COVID-19 times, the concept of staying calm in the midst of chaos seems like a virtue we all can grow.

*Edwards, Julie Andrews. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. New York: Harper Trophy, 1974.

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Review: “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles,” Pt. 1

Just like Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews is “practically perfect in every way.” 10 years after Mary Poppins released, Julie Andrews Edwards published The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. About 35 years after that, an awkward, lanky girl dared to lift her head from the school hallway’s laminate tile for the first time in two years. This book made such a big impact on my perspective that I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks reviewing the “practically perfect” book, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, “Part One: Challenge”

As I reread the first page of the book, I tried to find any detail that didn’t meet the standards I learned in college. I literally could not find a single thing wrong. Every sentence packed so much detail in a simple, concise package. And the trend continued on the following pages! Dame Julie Andrews Edwards maintained extreme attention to detail and built her theme of imagination in such a seamless, natural way. She recorded patterns of human behavior that most people don’t notice. This quote from chapter one changed my entire perspective (quite literally) in seventh grade.

“Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up?” The man’s voice was suddenly irritable. “Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn’t notice.”

*Edwards, 11.

Within ten minutes of reading this book for the first time, I decided to try lifting up my head as I walked. My neck felt strange when it wasn’t craned to the ground. I started to see other students in the hallways and noticed that they avoided confrontation like I did. Their eyes darted to avoid the yellers and the fighters. They tried to move without taking up any space. We all had a lot more in common than I realized when I lived solely inside my brain.

Does the Book Discuss Faith?

Surprisingly, yes! The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles does address faith. What’s more, the book addresses faith’s correlation to science in a really fascinating way.

“It is indeed complicated,” answered the professor. “Actually it’s miraculous. And DNA and RNA are the codes to life itself.”

“I always thought life had to do with G.O.D.,” said Lindy in a clear voice.

“Oh, my dear.” The professor laughed and touched her head gently. “I’m sure it does have a lot to do with G.O.D. Believe me, I think about Him a great deal, too. But, however life began – and some scientists say it was by an incredible accident, and some say it was by God’s design – we do have the unique privilege of being on this earth right now, and that’s something we shouldn’t take lightly.”

*Edwards, 30.

Edwards combines faith and science beautifully. She acknowledges that some of her audience believes in God while others may not. For a book that will later address some pretty complex issues of genetic cloning, Edwards acknowledges with reverence God’s power and authority in the act of creation. I literally can’t think of a better way Edwards could have resolved this tension between faith and science. And she does it within the first four chapters of the book!

What’s to Come

As the book continues, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles addresses imagination, genetic cloning, and the need for relationship. Edwards wrote a fantasy book that feels so real, we all want to go to Whangdoodleland with the children. Next week, we’ll enter the part of the book where fantasy mixes with reality.

*Edwards, Julie Andrews. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles New York: Harper Trophy, 1974.

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Review: The “Biscuit” Books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli

I loved the Biscuit books way back when I was just starting to read. After reading Biscuit Finds a Friend a billion times, I named my golden retriever Happy Meal toy Biscuit. I took a picture of the Biscuit sketch I drew on my Magna Doodle so I would have it forever. Now that I’m nannying toddlers during the week, I’m so pleased to say that the Biscuit books have kept on coming!

The Charm of the Biscuit Books

Take one look at the cover, and you’ll see why small children instantly fall in love with Biscuit. He’s a fluffy, cuddly, smiling puppy who gets into the funniest little messes! (Well, they were hilarious at 5 years old. Now they’re just really cute.) Biscuit’s owner, whose name I can’t recall learning, sweetly leads Biscuit through all their adventures. Then we meet the precious secondary characters like the duckling in Biscuit Finds a Friend or the friends at “read to a pet day” in Biscuit Loves the Library.

How Do the Books Meld with Faith?

Before we jump into the perspective of faith, we’ll want to remember that the Biscuit books appeal to emergent readers. This audience includes toddlers and young elementary schoolers who are getting the hang of connecting sounds with words on a page. The goal of learning to read means that the storyline must be simple if the kiddos are to follow along. Therefore, the books don’t contain a lot of faith-directed meaning. However, I believe the books still hold value for several reasons.

The Value of the Biscuit Books

The Biscuit books ignite children’s imaginations by immersing them in beautiful illustrations and relatable events. Like Biscuit, the young readers themselves are experiencing the library, the farm, and building friendships for the first time. Biscuit’s sweet adventures put children at ease in what could be intimidating new experiences. Further, I love that the books promote a brave and adventurous spirit, cooperation with others, and joy for the little things. In fact, it probably wouldn’t hurt us adults to dust off these qualities from time to time.

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Review: “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner”

It probably comes as no surprise that Winnie-the-Pooh was my favorite as a child. The paraphernalia I’ve retained is not even a quarter of the Winnie-the-Pooh dolls, clothes, and accessories that filled my toddler room. (My mom even stenciled bears holding balloons on my walls. I came by my obsession honestly.) In my first ever trip to the movie theater, my mom and I watched The Tigger Movie. Even now, I’ve saved every Winnie the Pooh movie on Disney Plus so I can watch it on days I feel low. However, my childhood fangirling surrounded the Disney-fied interpretations of A. A. Milne’s classics. So, how do the original Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner stack up in terms of children’s literature?

I First Read Winnie-the-Pooh

While I read all the Disney picture books ever published in the early 2000s as a child, I didn’t obtain a copy of the original A. A. Milne tales until the past year or so. In a panic to avoid the stress of wedding planning and office managing, I grabbed Winnie-the-Pooh and plopped on the couch to read. I proceeded to laugh so hard and so often that my dad had to look up from his solitaire game every few minutes. As much as I love every Disney adaptation of Winnie-the-Pooh (minus that My Friends Tigger and Pooh show… they screwed up that one,) A. A. Milne’s books captivated me just as completely.

The characters in Milne’s books are just so charmingly real, despite being animals. I laugh hysterically at misspelled words and hidden moments of arrogance because I recognize the misunderstandings from my daily life. While the books perfectly capture the imagination of a child, they also reflect our reality as adults. And don’t get me started on the series’ ending! I think The House at Pooh Corner even beats out The Great Gatsby as the best last line of all time!

What About Faith?

Well, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner definitely aren’t expressly Christian. There are no stories paralleling Biblical events. Yet, the books feel pure. Childhood innocence oozes from the pages. The stories teach problem solving, friendship, and how to tell a good story. Yet, I think Milne’s most powerful message is that of compassion. The animals are accepted as they are in childlike love. Even those who frequently carry disdain in their back pocket (ahem… Rabbit) quickly forgive inconveniences and learn to embrace the qualities that make each character unique. Concern for others trumps selfishness every time. The interactions between the characters lead everyone to grow into more caring and generous members of the Hundred Acre Wood.

I believe we all can agree that these behaviors are worth learning and sharing. Jesus certainly exemplifies these traits perfected. So, despite Christopher Robin not waving a magic Bible in the air every time a problem arises, the books reflect Christian concepts. I feel no shame in continuing to claim Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner as a pinnacle of children’s literature.

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Review: Magic Treehouse “Winter of the Ice Wizard”

So many people love the Magic Treehouse books. Alas, I’ve never been one of them. (I’ll go hide from the rotten tomatoes now.) Jack and Annie bored me. I much preferred books with humor like Junie B. Jones, Amelia Bedelia, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Well, now that I’ve decided to try my hand at writing children’s books, I felt I should give the Magic Treehouse another chance. Here’s my review of Winter of the Ice Wizard.

Winter of the Ice Wizard, aka Creepy Pirate Santa

This is semi-tangential, but the illustrated Ice Wizard looks like a creepy pirate Santa to me. He’s got an eye patch, has an expression somewhere between flabbergasted and explosive, and a belt holds his coat fabric in place over that bowl full of jelly. He’s kind of a creepy pirate Santa in the story, too. He trades his eye for wisdom, kidnaps adults, and sends good children on his errands (only with icy threats instead of bribes of presents.)

Moving past creepy pirate Santa, who admittedly was one of the most interesting characters in the book because of his dynamic nature, we come back to Jack and Annie. I admit, my brother is my best friend, and I have a soft spot for Jack and Annie’s close relationship. But past that, they have very little personality (again, I’ll be hiding from the rotten tomatoes.) Based on this book, I gathered that Jack is the cautious nerd and Annie is the brash girl. (And “girl” is the only character type I can think of for Annie!) They keep secrets from their mother. They seem to like cookies. Yup, that’s about all that I came up with.

The Writing Style

Bearing in mind this book is written for children expanding their reading abilities, Mary Pope Osborne excels at immersing children in history and myth. Her descriptions, while basic, did in fact place the reader in the story with Jack and Annie. Plus, the illustrations by Sal Murdocca are phenomenal!

It took me about 4 chapters to get into this book. The first two chapters connected this book to the rest of the Merlin Mission batch and explained the premise for any readers coming to the series out of order like me. However, those two chapters bored me to death! I couldn’t even remember what I’d read when I finished the chapter. The third chapter set up the conflict, so creepy pirate Santa aside, we started moving. It still took until chapter 4 for me to want to keep reading past my one chapter for the day. I saw a lot of the plot coming, although I can’t fault Mrs. Osborne for that; I’m in my twenties reading a book for seven year olds.

So, I concluded that Mrs. Osborne is a very talented writer who knows her strengths and plays to them well. The number of adults who still praise her books attests to that. They just aren’t my style. Give me the emotional five year old who makes up words and mismatches her hair bows! Then I’ll be laughing because I know the character is real.

What about faith?

Ok, we’ve been talking about the Christian faith in children’s literature. I’ve seen Facebook moms passionately defend the purity of the Magic Treehouse. So how does Winter of the Ice Wizard really stack up? Can kids actually learn Biblical values from this book?

It took until chapter nine to appear, but there is a message of redemption in this book. Creepy pirate Santa winds up repenting for his actions, and Merlin and Morgan invite him to visit them in Camelot. It read a little too hunky-dory for me, but it made for a nice ending. And honestly, it’s the basic truth of salvation. We repent for our wrongdoing, and thanks to Jesus, God gives us a whole lot of forgiveness that we don’t deserve.

Are you pro-Magic Treehouse and find Jack or Annie relatable? Let me know in the comments!

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Faith in Children’s Literature: Method 3

Welcome to the third method in our series on faith in children’s literature! We’ve discussed using allegory and including Biblical values as methods for sharing faith. Today, we’re diving into the genre of Christian children’s books.

Method 3: Niche Down to Christian Children’s Books

There are publishers for overtly Christian children’s books. Unfortunately, some school libraries may not be able to carry these books because of their overtly evangelistic message. If you choose this route, know that your book won’t have the same reach as books using the first two methods. Of course, some of my favorite overtly Christian books as a child came from the now-defunct Mission City Press. I loved the Elsie Dinsmore series! It blended historical settings with problems and feelings I related to. However, as an adult, I read a rather harsh review of the series. I suddenly realized that the reviewer made an excellent point.

The problem with the Elsie Dinsmore series stems from the main character created back in 1867 by Martha Finley. While Elsie is sweet and lovable like a little puppy needing protection, her silent “Christian” rebellion allows her to be run over by her domineering family members. Yes, Jesus honors meekness, and Peter recommends a submissive attitude in a wife, but the examples of meek submission in the Bible are not weak. Jesus turns the other cheek, but also flips tables at injustice. Peter gets arrested, but his and John’s singing breaks open the jail. Their meek submission represents controlled strength, not beaten-down surrender.

Therefore, if we decide to niche down to an overtly Christian book for impressionable young readers, let’s be cautious. When we oversimplify issues of faith or create nearly perfect main characters, we set a standard that the child reader aspires to but can never attain in this broken world. I suggest we embrace our imperfections and teach our children that God gives grace when we stumble. We will still feel and hurt when we let God lead our lives, but He also gives us hope and purpose.

Would you rather publish your children’s book with a Christian publisher or a “secular” publisher? Let me know in the comments!

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Faith in Children’s Literature: Method 2

Last Friday, we started talking about faith in children’s literature. We looked at allegory where the plot or characters of the story parallel a story in the Bible. This week, we’re delving into a related-but-different method: writing Biblical values into children’s literature.

Method 2: Biblical Values in Children’s Literature

And no, I’m not talking about the media’s definition of Christian values. True Christian values supersede political affiliations. As such, the Bible teaches us how to relate to each other and the world. We can reflect those concepts in the books we write for children without quoting Scripture to reach a wider audience. For example, we can teach the Good Samaritan’s compassion for his neighbor by telling a story of friendship between two children with very different backgrounds. This spreads God’s love and compassion without causing a fight between religious affiliations. And honestly, I think our world could use a little more compassion and peace.

While including Biblical values in “secular” stories sounds like allegory, there is one key difference. Allegory loosely follows the plot of the original story and parallels the new characters with Bible characters. In contrast, writing stories with Biblical values relates to theme. The characters and plot may be very different from any story in the Bible. However, the lesson the new characters learn can be found in the Bible.

Reading books while looking for the Biblical truth hidden in them is an eye-opening, awesome experience. It does, however, take effort, which means that non-believers won’t instantly convert to Christianity when they read your book. So, be aware you are writing for a different audience than your church’s kids’ ministry. This method is more about planting seeds than outright evangelism.

What do you think of basing books on Biblical values instead of addressing faith outright? Let me know in the comments! Stayed tuned next week as we wrap up this series with our last method!

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Faith in Children’s Literature: Method 1

Adult literature has its own subgenre for faith based works, but what about children’s literature? With such a diverse range of beliefs among students, controversy over religion culminates in the public school system. How can we write faith back into kids’ books and our schools? Thankfully, the classics give us three methods for melding faith into kid lit. Today, we’re delving into the world of allegory.

Method 1: Allegory in Children’s Literature

Of all three methods of writing children’s literature, we can recognize faith most easily in the allegorical style. C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe still fascinates school children despite its original release date of 1950. On its face, the story engages readers well in a fantasy plot delving into sibling relationships and self-discovery. Beneath the surface, Lewis reflects the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection with the killing and return of Aslan, the lion. Lewis continues writing Bible stories into the rest of the Narnia series, especially the creation story in The Magician’s Nephew and Revelation in The Last Battle. For a deeper look at how Lewis reflects the Bible allegorically into his books, read this article from HarperCollins.

The power of allegory comes from its ability to reach readers from a variety of backgrounds. Readers who hold negative views of Christianity may soften to the whimsical stories. These stories reach far beyond their original Christian audience and enter the larger realm of children’s literature. Thus, schools can carry the books in the library and teachers can promote the books in class. These books can plant seeds of faith in a wide audience.

One caution before we run off and rewrite the whole Bible in kids’ books: the power of allegorical books can also be its weakness. For example, while Lewis focused on glorifying God through the writing and publishing process, his books teach and entertain readers who may not agree with the Christian religion. Therefore, the religious references cannot overpower the quality storytelling if he wants to keep his readers engaged. If we want to impact readers like Lewis does, we must strive to write quality stories that children relate to and enjoy.

What do you think of the allegorical model? Let me know in the comments! Stayed tuned next week for method #2!
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Review: The New England Romance Collection

I hate to say it, but this collection of Christian Fiction romance stories was the straw that broke the camel’s back. (Although, I should really credit one of the Amish romance novelists with weighing down the camel in the first place.) I avoided sunburn and heatstroke by curling up indoors with The New England Romance Collection on my summer break. Let’s dive in to what I found.

What Worked

  • First and foremost, these five ladies wrote novellas, found agents, and published their manuscripts. Kudos to Susan Page Davis, Darlene Franklin, Pamela Griffin, Lisa Harris, and Lynette Sowell for that! It takes a lot of hard work, focus, and dedication to complete a work of this length.
  • The purpose of encouraging other Christian women in their faith clearly drove these five authors in their writing. Regardless of the execution, I believe these women wrote with pure hearts and an admirable goal.

What Could Improve

  • Unclear Settings: The book’s back cover provides the most clarity for the time and place where each story occurs. The stories themselves do not contain enough unique descriptions to differentiate this book from the thousands of others on the shelves. In addition, the descriptions in these books rely heavily on the visual sense. Unfortunately, the simple visuals actually prevent the reader from getting drawn into the story.
  • You Told Me Too Much: What is the first rule of writing? Show, don’t tell. Now, I find it easier to say that rule than to accomplish it, but that rule separates diaries from prestigious magazines. Unfortunately, The New England Romance Collection tells the reader setting, emotion, and character development far more often than it shows the reader. By telling instead of showing, the authors actually prevent readers from putting on the characters’ shoes and walking around.

Why Does Walking Around in the Character’s Shoes Matter?

When readers can’t immerse themselves in the story, they can’t learn the lessons the characters learn, either. Bringing readers along on a character’s emotional journey allows readers to learn the lessons for themselves. Don’t we usually learn better from experience than from rules and advice? If it’s true for a parent trying to keep their child from touching a hot stove, it’s true for the author trying to lead people in a deeper relationship with God.

Hope Exists for Romance

If Christian Fiction Romance authors focus on vivid sensory details, we can vastly improve the genre. (Of course, editors and publishers have a hand in promoting immersive books, and that’s a different issue.) I believe improving the quality of the writing would start bringing a wider audience into the genre. That wider audience means more people who can be shown Christ. A win-win!

If you are looking for a romance book that handles sensory details well, check out Jan Karon’s Mitford series. For a different take on The New England Romance Collection, the Goodreads reviewers note what they valued and liked in the book. How do you feel about immersive sensory details in books? Let me know in the comments!