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Review: “If I Never Ever Endeavor” by Holly Meade

With my local library restricted to “curbside pick-up” options, I’ve turned to raiding my husband’s book collection. (I’m still a bit wary of the germs accumulating on library books. When I volunteered right before the shutdown, the librarian warned me of the sticky, goopy messes I would find when reshelving books. I’m not sure I want to know what’s been added because of this virus.) So, I found the beautifully-covered book If I Never Ever Endeavor by Holly Meade on our shelves.

“If I Never Ever Endeavor”

First and foremost, Holly Meade‘s illustrations leap off the page. The layered texture shows up so clearly that I kept touching the pages to feel the bird’s wings. Even the watercolor sky added so much depth to the images. In fact, the watercolor swathes often reflected the bird’s feelings and expectations. Truly, Meade excels at art.

That said, the quality of illustration far surpasses the quality of writing. While I love the premise of the book, the language was often so disjointed and the rhythm so inconsistent that I had a hard time following along. Honestly, I felt like I was reading a tongue twister. Several passages sang and flowed with rhyme, but the following passages dropped like a dud. Of course, the challenge of finding multiple rhyming words with a bird theme affected the flow. I think in trying to keep the story original, Meade used a convoluted structure to overcome any repetitive rhymes. It didn’t destroy the story, but it did take away from the book’s readability.

Working Through Fear

What the book lacks in structure, it makes up for in heart. The little bird’s struggle to fly reflects a very human fear of change, failure, and rejection. I love the pages at the climax of the book when the bird decides to try flying. The bird doesn’t instantly swoop into the air like a superhero. Instead, the bird plummets. He struggles at first, but he keeps on flapping. That perseverance ultimately gets the bird flying.

While I might have revised the structure and rhyme scheme of If I Never Ever Endeavor, I see myself reading this book to my future children one day. The book will help me encourage them to try new things. It will give me the opportunity to remind my children that God protects them. God won’t always keep them from failing, but He will support them and lift them back up when they fall.

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Review: “Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark”

I’m not sure whether my fascination with Helen Keller came from reading about her or seeing the museum first. My mother would have to confirm for me. Just knowing that Helen Keller grew up a town over from my parents sparked my interest. I read Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark by Johanna Hurwitz so many times that I practically had it memorized. Almost twenty years later, I want to see how Hurwitz’ book could combine with faith to inspire young readers.

The Helen Keller Museum

I don’t remember how old I was when my grandmother took me to the Helen Keller festival one summer. She drove me to a big, grassy field with a two-story house and side building. We walked through the house with its creaky wood floors. The sinking sun colored the rooms gold. We peered through the windows of the small side building where colorful wooden toys covered the ground. We meandered by the black iron water pump to chairs that faced the back of the main house. We watched a reenactment of Helen Keller’s early life, and I learned how to spell water in sign language.

Seeing Helen Keller’s home in real life inspired me to learn as much as I could about her. I loved reading and reading about all Helen learned and accomplished in her life. I imagine her writing abilities piqued my interest, too, since I always loved telling stories. Even now, reading Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark reminds me of all we can accomplish with hard work. The growth certainly comes with its challenges, but things I believed to be possible at 6 don’t have to be impossible now. The book truly inspires hope, which blends wonderfully with faith.

Faith in “Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark”

Just because early readers use simple language doesn’t mean that the concepts can’t be complex. In Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark, Hurwitz shows young readers the challenges Helen Keller faced as a blind and deaf young woman. Even thought the sentence structure repeats and the language is basic, Hurwitz beautifully chooses details that young readers can relate to. This way, the readers put themselves in Helen Keller’s shoes and learn compassion.

I also love that at the end of chapter 2, Hurwitz adds that Annie Sullivan considered Helen’s quick learning a “miracle.” Considering the time and place, Annie Sullivan’s statement probably was religious. Hurwitz blends it into the story seamlessly by showing how Helen’s behavior changed. Readers understand why Sullivan called it a miracle because they saw for themselves how different Helen’s life became.

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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: “Butterfly Kisses” by Bob and Brooke Carlisle

It’s birthday month for my family. In the span of three weeks, we celebrate four birthdays, one anniversary, any graduations, and whatever else pops up that deserves cake. This week, we start off by celebrating my dad. In honor of his birthday, I wanted to review my dad’s and my special book, Butterfly Kisses by Bob and Brooke Carlisle. So, let’s all pretend we are four again, curl up next to our dads with our favorite blanket, and listen to the story.

Butterfly Kisses

First off, if you were a little girl whose daddy read Butterfly Kisses to you, try reading it as an adult without crying. I dare you. Even if the tears don’t fall, I guarantee you’ll feel a lump in your throat. And honestly, I think that’s the beauty of books like these. The book itself evokes so much love, and the added memory of that time together makes the message even more powerful.

For instance, I always remembered the page where the little girl stands on her Daddy’s toes and twirls around the room like a ballerina. That picture came to my mind first whenever I thought of this book. I remembered that part so well because I loved dancing with my own Daddy. He held my little hands and spun me in circles, and I’d giggle like there was no tomorrow. We created our own memories based on the ones in the book. As I got older, I remember random dance parties with my parents doing jazzy twirls while my brother threw his hands in the air and I did the Peanuts bop. This one page in a “Little Golden Book” now brings with it a slew of happy, laugh-filled memories.

God Our Father

I imagine all of us realized at some point in our lives that our daddys were not perfect. Maybe they snapped sometimes, maybe they didn’t always understand feelings, maybe they worked a little too hard. Some people may have endured much worse situations with their fathers than that. That’s why I love this book so much. Butterfly Kisses portrays the unconditional love we all long for and need. While the book shows idealized human love, it also reflects the perfection of God’s love for us.

Whether or not you had a relationship with your earthly father like the one portrayed in Butterfly Kisses, we can all experience that depth of love through Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus cared deeply for little children, and the Bible often talks about salvation as adoption into the family of God (Matt. 19:14, Eph. 1:3-8). All in all, I highly recommend reading Butterfly Kisses both to strengthen your own relationships and to remember how purely God loves us.

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Review: “This Book Is Gray” by Lindsay Ward

When This Book Is Gray popped up as an Amazon First Reads option, I had to download it. I learned about the hilarious Crayon books from my brother, and I hoped Lindsay Ward’s book would be just as an entertaining. How does This Book Is Gray stack up in this colorful genre?

The Color Wheel in This Book Is Gray

As a non-artist, the explanations of the different types of colors immediately struck me. I loved that Ward included a “Color Glossary” in the first pages of the book. Even before the title page, Ward showed us the personalities of the characters and introduced the central conflict. And she did all this with only a handful of speech bubbles!

I also loved the layered aspect of the story. Gray wrote a book himself that we saw in the background. Yet, the majority of the action happened in the foreground as all the rainbow and achromatic colors argued. As a writer, I couldn’t help but relate to Gray as he responded to the critiques of his peers. Nobody listened to him and ran off with their own assumptions of the story before he could finish it. Yet, Ward created hilarity in the chaos. Even as the characters resolved their conflict, the humor returned. The background story started yelling at the foreground story for Gray to finish the book. I truly admired Ward’s ability to use a rather complex structure in such a smooth and humorous way.

Can We Find Faith in Colorful Conflict?

First, by basing her book on the color wheel, Ward reminded us of the beautiful world God created. She pulled out the unique qualities of each color. Ward showed how colors work together to create a complete picture. Truly, Ward’s knowledge of the complexity of color reflected on the vast creativity of God.

Second, Ward acknowledged our prejudices by centering her book on the oft-forgotten color gray. By showing how the colors grew in their understanding of Gray, we learned that there is often more to others than we realized. The colors’ learned empathy for Gray showed us that we should embrace the complexity of others. This again acknowledged the beautiful creativity in God’s creation.

Overall, This Book Is Gray reminded readers to notice complexity and beauty in even the mundane, overlooked aspects of life. Even without the hilarious exchanges and comical misunderstandings, I have to recommend the book for its message. All together, it’s a pretty great little package.

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Review: “A Year Down Yonder” by Richard Peck

I can’t tell you how many time my family and I have read this book. Somewhere around second grade, my mom tried to read the book out loud to my brother and me. I say “tried” because we all wound up laughing so hard we couldn’t even make it to the punch line! I laughed just as hard reading the book to myself. Needless to say, in researching middle grade books for writing inspiration, I had to reread A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck.

Humor in Trials

A Year Down Yonder always encouraged me to persevere and find humor in the little things. This week, the book rings especially true. A Year Down Yonder occurs during the Great Depression. Peck addresses the scarcity, creativity, and generosity that came with living in the period. (Grandma’s no slouch at making do with what she has, even if that means taking some produce from a neighbor’s field. Yet, she always uses it to take care of her less fortunate neighbors.) Peck also delves into the aftermath of World War I during the Veteran’s Day chapter. The war may have ended, but Peck shows how the soldiers’ and families’ lives forever changed because of horrific war tactics. Further, while I didn’t understand at seven years old, Peck gracefully addresses teenage pregnancy in the Christmas chapter. As an adult, I realized the difficult choice the young mom had to make for her child. In other chapters of the book, Peck addresses complex family relationships and turns snooty pedigree on its head.

While Grandma’s outrageous tactics made me laugh out loud (I mean, a woman ran through town wearing nothing but a snake…) they all addressed deeper issues. The conflict shows the townspeople’s (and therefore our) common humanity. We learn compassion for those who think or look different from us. Grandma illuminates the hidden struggles everyone faces.

Faith in A Year Down Yonder

Faith isn’t expressly addressed in A Year Down Yonder, but the school does present the manger scene in the local church for Christmas. Peck uses religion to illuminate history rather than to preach at his readership. Consequently, I love how faith and story blend together. In fact, we learn more about Jesus’ generous compassion, active love, and discerning discipline from Grandma than we do from the church. We see Jesus’ teachings put in action by Grandma (albeit imperfectly.) It’s seamless and realistic. I think that’s why we all wind up loving the eccentric Grandma Dowdel so much by the end of the book.

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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.