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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!

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Review: At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon

I wanted to start this Friday’s review of Christian Fiction with first book in Jan Karon’s Mitford series, At Home in Mitford. The series is one of my favorites, as I mentioned in last week’s blog post. This week, we’re talking about what makes At Home in Mitford great.

The Characters

  • Father Tim: The main character of the Mitford series is Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest with a heart of gold and a stomach for a few too many sweets. He’s well rounded in more ways than one; he has a heart of gold that comes off as gruff under stress, and his affinity for sweets and concern for his parishioners’ feelings often leads him to neglect his own health. He is lovable and flawed. For someone in their sixties, Father Tim has a lot of growing left to do, and that makes for a fascinating book.
  • Cynthia: She draws cats and moles for her children’s books. She forgets to take the pink curlers out of her hair. She sits on the Gospel side of the Episcopalian church. Father Tim’s new neighbor is as interesting as she is a mess. Cynthia provides a lovely catalyst for Father Tim’s character development, but she also works through several deep issues of her own like divorce and barrenness.
  • Dooley: With whom do you foil a highly educated, very reserved, proper priest? You foil him with a red-haired, freckle-faced mountain boy with a penchant for fighting. Dooley is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. He has a deeply broken past for one so young, but he also runs around as an energetic promise of hope for the future. His story is a big part of my interest in adoption. Props to Mrs. Karon for discussing a complex topic in such a loving way.
  • Barnabus: A dog who responds to Scripture… can you get any more unique than that? (Side note: I tried this on my parents’ dog Teddy. I got mixed results. Chalk it up to little dog syndrome?) Any author who can so clearly articulate a dog’s personality should get major quality points, in my opinion.

The Setting

  • Mitford: Mrs. Karon created a town that might as well be a character in and of itself. The shops reflect their owners’ complex personalities with vivid, specific details. Consequently, it looks like a capsule of a perfect town, but its edges teem with the realities of life that often get swept under the rug. Thanks to Father Tim’s relationships with his parishioners, the readers get to see both the perfection and what it hides.

The Style

  • Humor: First, I love the ironic, sarcastic humor around Father Tim. Then, there’s Dooley’s hilarious childhood antics. Barnabus instigates some of the most outlandish predicaments that every dog owner will recognize as possible. All in all, this homey humor appeals to my desire to laugh at the ridiculousness of life and the characters we are all surrounded by.
  • Dialect: Despite hailing from Mississippi, Father Tim speaks with, and thus narrates with, a measured, educated dialect. In contrast, we meet Dooley, whose impoverished mountain relatives exacerbate his youthful grammar mistakes. The town residents’ individual dialects reflect their personal histories, which imparts a ton of information to the reader before the characters expressly discuss their backgrounds. I admire Mrs. Karon’s ability to dissect the tiniest differences in dialect. In addition, the text reads effortlessly.

If you are interested in reading At Home in Mitford, you can find the book for purchase here. I also purchased this audio version by using an Audible credit, and the narration reflected Father Tim’s essence well.

What do you think of these home-style reads? Do you prefer something fast-paced and hard-hitting? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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Are Christian Fiction Books Worth Writing?

It’s a question I thought was obvious in high school. Why, of course I should write Christian Fiction books! The books would let me tell others about Jesus. The stories would provide an escape for those enduring suffering. The content would be appropriate for all ages from middle school girls to aging women. What could be wrong with the stack of pastel books with scrawling fonts that I brought home from the library every summer?

Then I started college. I walked up the steep, creaking floors of the English department and dropped my book bag next to the small metal desk. I took out my notebook, colored pens, and planner. And I overheard the most shocking thing.

The sophomores hated Christian Fiction. They didn’t just mildly dislike certain authors or maintain a respect for the genre but dislike reading it for themselves. They held a passionate distaste for the characters, plots, and writers. My brain was spinning, and I felt like a fool. I believed my life’s work was to write Christian Fiction, and here, at a Christian college, I heard more backlash on the genre than I had heard in my public high school back home.

It took several weeks before I got to reopen a Christian Fiction book and analyze what the other students were talking about. I was shocked to find that they were right. The plot was boring; the characters sniveled; the setting was so nondescript that the book could have taken place anywhere. What had happened to the great books of faith that got me through the hardest times of my life? Now, books where characters grappled with the question of good and evil ended with the character magically getting a dose of faith without an answer. That didn’t help me when I wasn’t sure I believed God’s promises were for me anymore.

I spent the rest of my college career debating if Christian Fiction books are worth writing. Both my capstone and thesis projects centered on the topic. I studied critics’ analyses, the rules of the genre, and commonalities in the stories. The issue of Christian genres became a topic very close to my heart.

In that spirit, I’m going to use my Friday blog posts to do a deep dive on the topic. Next week, we’ll discuss if books of faith must be written under the banner of Christian Fiction. What are your experiences with the Christian Fiction genre? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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Writing for Granna

We spent Thanksgiving lunch at my grandparents’ house for the first time I could remember since I was a child. For whatever reason, the holidays got celebrated in the days before or after the day marked on the calendar, or my grandparents would stop at our house on the way to see other family, or someone had moved or changed schools and it was easier not to leave town. This year, my mom and I really wanted to spend it further south, so we packed up our respective families (minus the cat) and drove two hours to the Quad Cities.

When I walked in my grandparents’ house, I didn’t remember the narrow galley kitchen being blue. I recognized the blue living room and den, but my mind expected the darker colors from twenty years ago. Both my mom and grandfather tilted their heads when I asked how long the kitchen had been blue. “It was all painted at the same time,” they said. “Granna turned on a light under the cabinet to make it brighter.”

I washed my hands in the kitchen sink and tilted my head to look through the window into the added-on sunroom. I remembered sitting on the couch with my brother and grandfather playing Spyro or Ratchet & Clank on the Playstation. Granna would be fixing sandwiches in the kitchen, or washing dishes, or frying chicken for our picnic supper, and she would lean through the window to tell us we were doing a great job or that food was ready. We would lean forward and wave, and sometimes I ran to the sink to imagine what the window looked like from Granna’s view.

Despite feeling like I was straddled two decades in a single moment, my brother and I laughed at the ceiling fan chain hitting us in our foreheads. We had been so proud to grow tall enough to reach it with the tops of our heads, and now we had to pay serious attention not to whack it when we walked through the middle of the room.

We finally all settled in front of the tv to drift off in a turkey-induced dream or zone out to the random and somewhat confusing movie on the screen. Granna sat at the dining room table and asked me across the room how my writing was going. I told her about my blog and how I was working on my book.

Granna smiled and nodded. “There’s a woman at church who writes books,” she said. I told her I remembered hearing about the author. “What I like about her books is the same thing I like about your writing. Your books aren’t over complicated or deep; I can relax when I read them. I can’t keep up with all those multiple storylines like I used to. I just want books I can relax to.”

Granna then told me the story of her struggles to learn to read in 1st grade and her transformation to a teacher when reading clicked. I nodded; I had heard the story before. More than this story, her earlier comment was circling in my head. I just want to read to relax. I had spent so many hours in college studying literature and feeling sheepish for writing simply that I never realized the reason I wrote that way in the first place. I wrote because I wanted to help people relax, to give them an escape where they could process emotions through catharsis and feel a little more hopeful when they finished.

Before we left, my grandfather ran to a shoe box and pulled out a handmade star ornament. “I want you to have this, an ornament for your first Christmas tree.” I held the slim piece of glass in my hands and felt my heart swell. I knew my grandfather had spent a lot of time choosing the best pieces of glasses and soldering the pieces together. I also knew I would be putting it at the top of my tree when I decorated the day after Thanksgiving.

As I held the ornament in my hands on the drive home, I decided I would no longer feel guilty for not writing complicated literature. I would write well, yes, and use all I knew to make the words true and round and engaging. But my Granna needed stories she could relax to, and so did someone else’s Granna or Meemaw or Grandma. I couldn’t fail these ladies who poured their hearts into teaching children to love reading, who still devoured books to cope, who read to keep their minds sharp. I love them too much not to write for them.

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Why I Write

It was our third science teacher of the year. We sat in the corner room with the door-size window that let in what hint of light a Tennessee-gray sky provided in March.

This teacher had grouped our desks into five sections around the room, as opposed to the rows our last teacher had instituted. She then passed out little quiz packets, but this time, the questions weren’t about the phases of the moon (praise God… we learned that chapter 3 times that year.) This quiz was a personality quiz, and we tallied up our answers on the last page to discover what type of “animal” we were.

“How many of you are lions?” the five-foot-tall teacher with spiky hair asked. Of the 30 kids in the class, 28 kids raised their hands.

I glanced a couple of chairs over to the only other kid in the class not raising his hand. He had skipped a grade to join our class of 6th graders, and his voice was so quiet when he told me about quantum mechanics that I could hardly hear him yell about the idiots believing something about atoms that went over my head.

“How many of you are otters?” the teacher asked. The quantum mechanics kid raised his hand.

“And how many of you are golden retrievers?” I raised my hand just next to my ear. I was the only one left, after all. I didn’t want the extra attention of my arm reaching closer to the ceiling than everybody else’s because of my extra height. I scrunched lower in my chair and wished I were reading the historical fiction novel in my backpack instead. The Redcoats in 1775 Boston had nothing on these middle schoolers.

I learned later that day that golden retriever was the most common personality type. “Yeah,” my lion-friend said, “you’re the most normal person in the class!” My other lion-friend nodded in agreement, but I had to admit, that emptiness in my chest sure didn’t make me feel like I was the normal one. As soon as I got home, I burrowed into the couch and dove into the Revolutionary War and a love story of two spies racing horses in the night to tell colonial militia about the British Army’s next move.

Books became my escape. My mom tried to pre-read all the grown-up novels I was reading in an attempt to challenge my vocabulary and comprehension, but she ran out of time between the dishes and driving us to baseball practices and drama rehearsals. So, I focused exclusively on the Christian Fiction genre, and even then, some of the books had scenes edging on topics too strong for my 12-year-old brain to handle. The school principal kept telling us on the morning announcements, “Be the best you can be. The choice [*pause for effect*] is yours,” and I suppose that daily brainwashing had an impact. I decided that I, with my pencil and dragonfly journal in hand, would write books to give girls hope that God had a plan and would use all things for good.

No question – I’m a dog person at heart.