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Review: “The Gospel According to Larry”

Well, the local library remains closed, so today we’re raiding my husband’s books again! This time, we’re analyzing a Young Adult Fiction book he had to read in high school. I stumbled across the curiously titled The Gospel According to Larry and had to figure out why a private Christian school would assign this book. Let’s look at faith and philosophy in The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian.

“The Gospel According to Larry” by Janet Tashjian

First and foremost, I really liked Tashjian’s structure for the book. She wrote it as if the main character, Josh, had authored the book, and she merely published it. As part of Josh’s highly intellectual character, the book follows Chicago style formatting with footnotes and designated “parts” rather than numbered chapters. Honestly, the footnotes create some of the funniest moments in this book. (The Princess Bride uses this same author/note structure for humor, and it’s one of my favorites.) Because Josh excels in academics, the first person perspective still reflects Tashjian’s knowledge of writing craft. Every detail matters, words aren’t wasted, and tension ratchets higher than I ever expected.

Unfortunately, that’s about where my love of The Gospel According to Larry ends. I’ll be honest, this book reminded me why I don’t like the Young Adult genre. (Must all YA books reference sex every couple of chapters?) However, I’ll chalk that up to hormones and not fault Tashjian for including the subject that occupies the minds of many high schoolers. (Note: many, not all.) I had several friends in high school who, if they didn’t entirely match Josh’s description, definitely leaned that direction. So, Tashjian very accurately reflected how many students with high IQs responded to high school society.

Faith and Philosophy

Perhaps philosophy influenced why I felt so many mixed emotions reading The Gospel According to Larry. I just don’t hold as strictly anti-consumerist views as Josh perpetuated. Admittedly, Tashjian shows Josh learn how fighting against advertising destroyed the livelihoods of hard-working people, including his step-father. While I liked the lesson Josh ultimately learns, I really struggled reading through his blazing “sermons” on consumerism and celebrity worship. (Especially when they were passive-aggressive jabs at his best friend.)

Faith in The Gospel According to Larry conflicted me even more. Each part of the book begins with a verse from one of the Gospels referencing Jesus as Messiah or His teachings. However, Josh really leans towards Hindu or Native American religions if he embraces religion at all. He prays to his dead mother and seeks signs from her. He reads Thoreau as if it were his holy book. On the one hand, I admired how Tashjian pulled the best teachings from multiple genres to create a compassionate philosophy. However, linking Josh to the terms “Messiah” and “Gospel” really bothered me. It felt like it diminished my Christian beliefs while promoting faithless philosophy.

Since I threw my husband’s education under the bus at the beginning of the post, I have to add that I admire his school for assigning The Gospel According to Larry. As a Christian, this book challenges me to think through my beliefs and how they relate to the real world. Providing a space to critically analyze their beliefs at an early age prepares students for when they face antagonistic philosophies later in life. All of that said, I would recommend students read this book if they have a wise mentor to help them process their thoughts and feelings. Without someone to discuss the book with, I fear the struggle and confusion the book could cause some students.

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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 Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In honor of my brother’s birthday, we’re taking a brief break from children’s literature. (I mainly made this decision because I thought I owned The Lightning Thief and I don’t… Whoops!) So instead of looking at the books my brother and I read together as kids, we’re discussing my brother’s favorite grown-up book. How does faith mesh with the American Dream? Time to talk about glamour, green lights, and The Great Gatsby!

Glamour and Green Lights

To be honest, I’ve written so many literary analyses of The Great Gatsby in my life that I could bang my head against the wall. I think that’s why I enjoy bantering with my brother about “old sport” and “boats against the current” so much. After all, the book’s final line is one of the top two Greatest Last Lines of All Time. (I mean, Winnie the Pooh poses tough competition.) As an English major, I love having a book to discuss with my non-reading brother. (When my brother was seven, he told my mom that he didn’t need to know how to read. He was going to be a major league baseball catcher, and he knew enough to read road signs. My mom brilliantly told him that he had to learn to read his baseball contracts. My quick-witted brother didn’t really have any comebacks after that.)

As an aspiring entrepreneur, my brother finds the book’s discussion of the American Dream very interesting. (Of course, he wants to do everything the legal way. None of us want him to wind up dead in a swimming pool.) While the glitz of the rich holds universal appeal, the pitfalls the book portrays help us analyze making money ethically.

Faith in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I can’t say that F. Scott Fitzgerald put any faith-based values in The Great Gatsby. Truthfully, every character behaves corruptly regardless of their social status. Nick holds the most morals of the entire book, and he ultimately flees back to the boring mid-west where he grew up. However, the blatant corruption doesn’t mean the book holds no value to Christians.

While we may not want to emulate the characters in The Great Gatsby, we can certainly learn from their mistakes. Rather than amassing wealth for meaningless grandeur, we can use the fruits of our hard work to help others in need. Instead of seeking extra-marital relationships, we can encourage our family and friends to grow in God’s love. Unlike the cold pomposity of East Egg, we can care about the struggles and joys of our fellow humans because God made them. Truly, Fitzgerald so eloquently portrays corruption that it is easy to learn what not to do.

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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.

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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.