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Review: “Because of Winn-Dixie” by Kate DiCamillo

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of anyone disliking Because of Winn-Dixie. A dog graces the cover, so you know you’re going to cry by the end. So, with your expectations set, you can hop into the town of Naomi and follow Opal on all of her adventures. Even the movie does the book justice, which hardly ever happens! So, as a writer, I thought I would analyze what Kate DiCamillo does so well in Because of Winn-Dixie and how she blends faith into the story.

Kate DiCamillo’s Talent

First and foremost, Because of Winn-Dixie succeeds because of Opal’s strong narrative voice. DiCamillo perfectly captured an imaginative ten year old’s voice. Besides including believable, rhythmic dialect, DiCamillo gave Opal a rather intense back story. Despite the difficulty of Opal’s childhood, she still sounds appropriately like a child. She responds to new information with open curiosity as a growing girl would. She wrestles with learning compassion for those who aren’t the nicest to her. Ultimately, her growth is both profound and simple all at once. Her weighty realizations occur seamlessly between egg-salad sandwiches and toe-tapping tunes.

In addition, DiCamillo surrounds Opal with fascinating, deep, and realistic characters. Each person has their own strength and weakness. They each have a sorrow of something they miss. Each character brings a distinctly unique view of the world. In addition, the adults are kind and acknowledge the children’s growing understanding of the world. Ultimately, the detailed characters drive the plot and make mundane tasks interesting.

Faith in Because of Winn-Dixie

With a preacher for the father in the story, Because of Winn-Dixie addresses faith a bit more overtly than most middle grade books. However, DiCamillo never uses the preacher to really preach. While the preacher’s dinner party prayer does point to Opal’s new compassion for others, the true learning and growth come from relationships. The preacher doesn’t tell Opal to let the loss of her mother go; in fact, the preacher struggles with that himself. Instead, nuggets of wisdom tucked in daily conversation guide Opal to that realization. Truthfully, DiCamillo portrays growth in the most realistic way. We don’t grow by being preached at; we grow by interacting with others and learning better ways of connecting with the world around us.

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Review: “The Lullaby Monsters” by Cynthia Mackey

Upon embarking on my blogging journey, Cynthia Mackey became the first children’s author that I followed. She posted the most cheerful little pieces of encouragement for writers, and I just loved her content. Now, she’s publishing a book! I felt so excited when she reached out to me about The Lullaby Monsters. I couldn’t wait to read the intriguing book that occupied the center of her blog’s homepage.

The Lullaby Monsters

The Lullaby Monsters by Cynthia Mackey

The Lullaby Monsters is not Cynthia Mackey’s first rodeo. She published Katie Schaeffer Pancake Maker back in 2017, and you can sense that second-book-ease in her newest story. Cynthia describes The Lullaby Monsters as “a hybrid between an early chapter book and a picture book,” and that description perfectly sums up the style. While the vocabulary expands a bit for growing readers, Cynthia utilizes simple, easy to understand sentence structures. Plus, she often repeats sentences with the speaker or a word changed. That repetition gives early readers a rapid sense of accomplishment to keep them engaged.

Aside from Cynthia’s well-planned writing style, the interactions between the brother and sister had me smiling through the whole book. I love when kids confidently assert their strengths without any insecurity or arrogance, and Cynthia captures that exchange perfectly. The sentences may be simple, but they just felt true. Cynthia absolutely honored the innocent, simple confidence of children in her book.

In the spirit of honesty, I do want to note I got a teensy bit lost when the monsters actually appeared in the story. I wasn’t quite sure if the monsters were real or imaginary, or where exactly the monsters existed. That said, I think most of that came from Cynthia’s ability to keep the story simple and relatable for children. The darling illustrations certainly helped with understanding, as well. The styles of Cynthia and her illustrator, Paula Nasmith, compliment each other exceptionally well.

A Faithful Reading

While The Lullaby Monsters does not claim any relation to faith, I see plenty of areas where Christian parents could discuss faith based on the book. First and foremost, the main character, Kelsey, exudes genuine care and concern for her brother and the monsters. When Kelsey sees a need, she fills it without complaining. Her generosity of spirit is genuinely uplifting to read. Secondly, Kelsey’s brother, Thomas, excels in compassion. He quickly recognizes and commends Kelsey’s strengths. Even with the monsters, Thomas identifies when their feelings reflect his own, and he acknowledges their needs.

Congratulations, Cynthia!

Ultimately, I want to congratulate Cynthia on completing The Lullaby Monsters and seeing it to publication! The book releases on June 30, 2020. I highly encourage you to check out her blog as she counts down the final days to release! Let’s go show her some love and applause for her hard work on the adorable little book, The Lullaby Monsters!

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Review: “Rascal” by Sterling North

My fourth grade teacher gifted our class copies of Rascal for Christmas that year. It took me awhile to get into the story. The story stayed in my brother’s head far longer than it stayed in mine. Fifteen-some-odd years later, I grabbed it from my parents’ shelves and added it to a pile of children’s books to borrow. Looking through the stack, my brother turned and asked me, “Are you just trying to be depressed?” Yet, as a Newberry Honor book in the age range I’m trying to write for, I figured I should reread it. So, let’s see how Rascal by Sterling North appeals to readers almost a century after it occurs.

A Memoir by Sterling North

First and foremost, my Scholastic copy of Rascal did not include the words “memoir” or “nonfiction” anywhere on the cover. In fact, only a note from the author on the copyright page indicates that the events in the book actually happened. I almost wish I had known the story was real when I read it the first time. I would have better understood the meandering plot line and thick descriptions. Or, perhaps I’m reading too much of my college education into my nine-year-old self.

Regardless of the fact I read the book as fiction when I was a child, the hefty vocabulary and proper writing style left me amazed I understood anything that happened in the book back then. As Madeleine L’Engle explains, I must have read around an awful lot that I didn’t get as a kid. In fact, the only reason I saw this book getting published under “children’s literature” instead of the adult-geared “memoir” came from its narrator being only 11 years old. Take out the occasional illustrations, and Rascal could have matched the style of any of the grown-up memoirs on my shelf. I must give the author credit for believing in the imagination and understanding of children.

Faith in Rascal

To predominately follow the growth and and exploits of a pet raccoon, Rascal covers some heavy-hitting subjects. Because the author’s mother died when he was seven, Sterling debates the question of good and evil at an early age. His family’s interest in biology lends them to more progressive views of God creating the Earth. Sterling’s older brother fights in World War I, and the whole town responds to a war-driven economy. Add to that the global Spanish Influenza, and readers see an eerie foreshadowing of this year’s COVID-19. Lastly, the meat and fur industry clash sharply with Sterling’s growing love for his pet raccoon.

Despite heavy subject matter, North gently exposes his readers to the topics. Young Sterling stumbles into these grandiose events between fishing trips and parades, and so do readers. The warmth and freedom of summer softens the fears of war. The generosity of townspeople counters the greed and anger of neighbors. Thanks to his youth, Sterling mostly observes. Those observations gradually build to beliefs and morals as the book continues.

More than the quality of writing, I believe Rascal excels in demonstrating respect for God’s creation. North respects both the complexity of his fellow imperfect humans and the marvelous qualities of animals. While the book’s flow may not be for everyone, I do recommend Rascal as a beautiful testament to the glory of God’s creation.

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Review: “The Twenty-One Balloons”

Well, we’re back to raiding my husband’s book collection. This week, I stumbled upon The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois. Despite the book having won the Newberry medal, I never read it as a child. So, I had to see what was up!

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois

I must admit, without the sweet sentimentality of a childhood memory to connect me to this book, I felt a bit distant from it. I could easily see all the cultural aspects that would make the book potentially unpublishable today. (See: the simplistic representation of the Indian tribe with no name. Although, I do love that the tribe takes one look at the balloon-covered cupola and knows exactly what the white San Fransicans did wrong.) Perhaps my unease came from the driving plot instead of deep characterization. There’s something very endearing about the Professor’s adventurous spirit and the Krakatoans creativity, but I didn’t quite connect to them personally.

I also felt like I was missing a major point while reading the book. I couldn’t quite tell if du Bois was pro or anti capitalism. For instance, the Krakatoans start out greedy and trying to outdo one another for money, but in the end, the money all evens out because of mutual need. So, I suppose du Bois showed an example of capitalism’s best case scenario, at least until the island blew up. Additionally, the professor didn’t really change at all. He had seen more of the world and learned a great deal of scientific inventions, but his character stayed the same. He started a solitary adventurer and ended a solitary adventurer. Without the professor changing, I do not know what du Bois wanted me to learn.

Faith in Utopia

The Twenty-One Balloons is, admittedly, a charming little book. The academic tone and clear descriptions lend an element of humor to the book. I certainly don’t see any harm in anyone reading it. Without deep characterization and a moral, though, I have a harder time finding faith in The Twenty-One Balloons. I suppose the book points out the creativity of man and the beauty of God’s creation. We see how important it is to work together in order to survive as the Krakatoans do. Ultimately, God can be found in The Twenty-One Balloons as He can be found everywhere. We just may have to look a little harder to find it.

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Review: “Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” by Betty MacDonald

My husband’s book collection gets a break this week as we review one of my family’s favorites. I remember walking into my old elementary school when I was 11 years old and watching my mom read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books to the classroom she subbed. The second-graders came from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, and every single student listened silently. We all loved the magic of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and her cures, even sixty years after the books were written. Today we’re focusing on perhaps my favorite book of the series, Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald.

Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald

Though many reviewers on Goodreads fault Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for relying on magic instead of advice for raising children, I preferred this book for the magic. Truthfully, even though the cure may be a magic pill or powder, they often point to a more realistic cure for the deeper issue. I can’t say this is always the case (although I do wish I could get ahold of Harbin Quadrangle’s slowpoke spray… I could get a lot more done with a dose of that in my shoes,) the show-off and whisperer cures point to real-life advice. Ultimately, Philip Carmody stops showing off because he no longer receives attention for his antics. For the little girls who can’t stop whispering, the candy-stick cure might have been quite magical, but learning to appreciate those who are different from us certainly isn’t. Plus, the moms in the whispering chapter truly show concern for raising their daughters to be empathetic. They discipline their daughters before they ever call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

While modern readers take offense to the labels used in the book, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle truly views each child as full of potential. In the chapter with the town bully, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle tells the relieved mother that of course her son treats the younger children with respect after taking leadership pills. She says, “Down inside he probably always was [patient and kind]. It is just that sometimes with children, especially boys, their bodies grow faster than their patience and kindness,” (pg 69). The label, while name-calling, relates to a specific behavior. Once the behavior rights itself, the child shows him or herself to mature into a more fulfilled person.

Faith in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Though MacDonald wrote the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in the 50s, they don’t mention church or praying. Honestly, it just wouldn’t flow with the story. Yet, Hello Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle teaches compassion and empathy for others. Each child is full of potential. They just need a little help to get past their current struggle or bump in the road. Especially in the story of the whispering girls, readers learn generosity. Mrs. Crackle treats the economically poor Cornelia with respect and as an equal. She teaches Cornelia gardening, which the girl wanted to but could not learn at her home, in exchange for a party dress. Rather than condescending to or degrading Cornelia for her lower social status, Mrs. Crackle pays Cornelia for her hard work.

In each of the stories in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, the children are empowered to lead and view the strengths in others. To me, this recognizes the image of God reflected in each human. Everyone is capable of great things if we each choose to treat others with respect.

Betty MacDonald and Hilary Knight, Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (New York: Harper Trophy, 1985).

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Review: “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders remains one of the most popular books for young adults despite being written in the mid-1960s. I recall my 8th grade study hall talking loudly about the book before we settled into our homework. Even my husband kept his copy of the book with Sharpie arrows on every few pages. Bearing in mind the harsh reality S.E. Hinton describes, I had to reread The Outsiders and see how the values jive with faith.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

One of The Outsiders strongest qualities is its unflinching depiction of reality. I cried for the last 80 pages of the 180 page book because I felt completely immersed in Ponyboy’s world. Because we walk in Ponyboy’s shoes as we read, we see the beauty and strength hidden in gangs and switchblades. This group of young men with various rough backgrounds came together as a family. Their main concern was protecting and providing for the other members of their gang.

We also learn of our common humanity along with Ponyboy. In a conversation with the Soc Cherry, Ponyboy says, “‘That’s why we’re separated,’ I said. ‘It’s not money, it’s feeling – you don’t feel anything and we feel too violently,'” (p 38). We see the good and the bad of both sides. As Ponyboy explains towards the end, it came down to the person. Boys from the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks saved people, and boys from the ‘good’ side of the tracks jumped innocent passerby. The mature understanding of humanity Ponyboy gains ultimately fulfills Johnny’s advice to “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” (p 148).

Hiding in Church

Ponyboy tells us that he and Johnny used to go to church consistently. That stopped when they brought other Greasers with them who couldn’t sit still and caused a scene. Yet, in their time of trouble, Ponyboy and Johnny wind up back in a church.

Hinton doesn’t expressly bring faith into the story. Nobody runs around quoting scripture. A preacher doesn’t convert all the gangs into perfect, law-abiding citizens who never fight. And honestly, the book is better for it. The book would feel deceptive if these tough, complex characters suddenly turned into religious robots. Instead, the Greasers and the Socs grow in empathy and understanding. We see the personal aspect of faith reflected in how each person responds to death. God lovingly created each human being with their own strengths, weaknesses, trials, and temptations. Hinton does an excellent job recording it.

Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York: Penguin Books, 1967.

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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!