Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo

louisiana's way home“The day of reckoning has arrived,” said Louisiana Elefante’s granny before she packed her in the car at 3 AM and headed away from their home in Florida. Somewhere near the Georgia state line, Granny started moaning and moved into the back seat, leaving twelve-year-old Louisiana to drive off the interstate and find a dentist in a strange town.

The problems all go back to the curse of sundering that Louisiana’s family has carried ever since her magician great-grandfather sawed her great-grandmother in half on stage and neglected to put her back together. Her trapeze-artist parents, the Flying Elefantes, died long ago in a tragic accident, and she and Granny have only one another to lean on. However, as Granny often tells her, she is wily and resourceful, and besides, she can sing.

Louisiana will need all of her resourcefulness, as well as that of her new friend, Burke Allen— son of Burke Allen, son of Burke Allen—to help her with the unexpected catastrophes that befall her in this delightful and tragic story. Readers may remember Louisiana from DiCamillo’s earlier novel, Raymie Nightingale (reviewed here), in which we learn that she is the winner of the Little Miss Central Florida Tire beauty pageant. Two years later, she is still taking her grandmother’s practical and somewhat devious advice, such as:

“It is best to smile. That is what Granny has told me my whole life. If you have to choose between smiling and not smiling, choose smiling. It fools people for a short time. It gives you an advantage.” (p. 11)

Kate DiCamillo is one of the most consistently excellent children’s authors living today. She turns out book after book for younger and older children, and all are instant classics. Her distinctive characters– from porcine wonders to heroic mice to diminutive beauty queens– are stalwart and brave, even when their circumstances are tragic. The dialogue is precocious, hilarious, and poignant. DiCamillo understands that children are rarely in control of their lives, but that there is enough love in the world to rescue all of us, if we can just find it—or give it.

Although Louisiana is twelve, this is a middle-grade novel, like its companion. It is not necessary to read Raymie Nightingale in order to enjoy Louisiana’s Way Home, but why would you deprive your child of the chance to read two Kate DiCamillo books?

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Child’s Calendar, by John Updike and Trina Schart Hyman

Child's CalendarOur library system runs a report to find titles that are getting low on copies, and we selectors review it to find the gems that need to be re-ordered. Some titles and series are deservedly going out of print, but others are beloved classics that every library should keep forever. I was intrigued to find A Child’s Calendar— which I had never read— on that report, so not only did I order more copies, I also checked out a copy for myself.

I knew John Updike as the celebrated author of adult books like Rabbit, Run or The Witches of Eastwick, and many others, and was unaware that he had written this collection of poems for children. Originally published in 1965, Updike made many changes and reprinted the volume in 1999. There is a poem for each month of the year, sweet and nostalgic, with traditional families and realistic humor. Here is the last stanza of the March poem:

The mud smells happy
On our shoes.
We still wear mittens,
Which we lose.

Child's Calendar interiorPerhaps the best part of this discovery was that Updike chose one of my favorite illustrators for the updated edition. Trina Schart Hyman uses rich colors and black outlines to create busy, charming family scenes. Her diverse children and adults live in mostly rural and small-town settings, displaying both the labor and laughter of everyday life. There is usually at least one hilarious detail in each tableau, and despite the beauty of the illustrations, they are miles away from treacle.

Snow WhiteHyman illustrated more than 150 books in her lifetime, many award winners. She won a Caldecott Medal for her version of Snow White, a more traditional and serious rendition than the Disney story, with heartbreakingly beautiful pictures. A Child’s Calendar won a Caldecott Honor. My first introduction to her work was as a homeschooling mom when we read Margaret Hodges’ St. George and the Dragon, a selection from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, in which England’s patron saint rescues Una, the one true faith, from the evil dragon of heresy. St George and the DragonBut your child doesn’t need to know all that. It’s just a great adventure story, with a handsome knight, a beautiful maiden, and a scary dragon. Besides the full-page paintings, Hyman decorates the text in the fashion of a medieval manuscript. Poring over the details is a delight.

 

Surprisingly, Updike and Hyman were both born in Pennsylvania and later moved to New England. As a result, there is much more snow in their calendar than we will ever see in North Carolina, but our warm children can experience sledding and icicles in these pages. Other scenes of planting, raking leaves, and going to the beach may be more familiar. This is a book to treasure for generations.

A lovely way to feed little souls.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Faithful SpyIn every age, during times of greatest crisis, there are unlikely heroes quietly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such man, a theologian and pastor who died trying to assassinate Hitler before he could slaughter more innocent people.

There are many excellent biographies of Bonhoeffer, and he was a prolific writer himself, but John Hendrix has created an entirely new type of work by producing a graphic novel biography for teens. In just green, red, black, and white, the pages convey danger and tension, with emotive drawings and hand lettering that tell the story of Dietrich’s childhood and young adulthood, his travels to Rome and the United States, and his evolution of thought and faith that brought him to his resolution to join a plot against Der Führer. At the same time, Hendrix spins a brief but enlightening backstory of Germany’s history from World War I to the rise of Hitler: how the German people were demoralized and struggling, and the ease with which a dictator can gain power when the people are looking for a savior.

Hendrix succeeds at my top criterion for Bonhoeffer biographies: he is open and honest about Dietrich’s active participation in a political plot without denying, twisting, or trivializing his faith. There are no easy answers here. Bonhoeffer was a pastor of the underground, “confessing” church, a man whose Christianity was the center of his life, but also a man who was determined to kill another man. How he reconciled those two realities is the subject of endless speculation and rivers of ink, but some writers deal more honestly than others.

My only problem with The Faithful Spy is that the printing is sometimes less clear than it should be. Particularly for some passages of very fine print, the coloring makes it nearly illegible. Perhaps teenagers’ eyes will handle this more easily than mine.

In a time that cries out for heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the best. He was brave, intellectual, kind, willing to learn, and yes, faithful. Teens and adults will also enjoy Eric Metaxas’ more comprehensive biography, reviewed here. As noted, there are many books and collections of writings by Bonhoeffer himself. His most famous is probably The Cost of Discipleship, but for an introduction to his thought, the two slender volumes Life Together and Letters from Prison are quite accessible.

John Hendrix is also the author and illustrator of the dazzling picture book biography, Miracle Man, reviewed here.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Thin Places, by Tracy Balzer

Thin PlacesMany centuries ago, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, and the faith thrived on this isolated green island with little outside influence. As Europe fell to the barbarians and entered the Dark Ages, monks from Celtic lands preserved manuscripts and spread learning back across the continent. How did such a small population have such a great impact on history? What were the spiritual practices they followed that kept the flame of faith alive?

The subtitle of this slender volume is An Evangelical Journey into Celtic Christianity. Ms. Balzer is an evangelical American who researches and teaches at John Brown University about this early age of Christianity in a country just emerging from paganism. Balzer leads groups to the island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery just out of sight of his beloved Ireland so that his heart would not long for returning. Iona is considered a “thin place,” where the veil is thin between the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that is just beyond our vision and perception. Spiritual experiences are more frequent in thin places than in our usual workaday world, and Balzer wanted to find out why. She has made the pilgrimage to Iona and similar Celtic sites many times and has kept a journal of her observations and conclusions.

The book is divided into chapters by the several spiritual practices Balzer considers essential to Celtic spirituality, with appropriate passages from her journal, followed by historical research and ways to fold these practices into our own lives in the twenty-first century. She ends each chapter with a Celtic prayer and questions for reflection. In one chapter, she discusses how Celtic monks had spiritual mentors or anamchara who were transformational in their lives. Balzer describes the way that the monks’ prayers differed from ours and the paramount importance of silence for hearing from God. Celts went on pilgrimages that were not as goal-oriented as those of continental Europeans, and, as we know from their educational institutions all over the world, they were not afraid to love the Lord their God with all of their minds. These are some of the issues she explores winsomely and intimately in these pages.

As American evangelicals, we sometimes feel the accretion of centuries of manmade traditions and practices weighing down our understanding of transcendent reality, and we look for ways to scrape off the layers and find the living faith again. The New Testament tells us of the very first churches planted by the apostles, but I wanted to see how a group of gentiles, freshly introduced to the gospel, carried on the faith before Rome took hold of them firmly. The ancient Celts were much more aware of God’s omnipresence and his activity in every moment of life. I was surprised by the monks’ emphasis on the Trinity, and their prayers are poetic praises to the Three in One. And, as always, I was reminded of the importance of intentional silence in our noisy lives.

Readers who wish to step outside of time for a while will find some wisdom here. Balzer’s layout is organized and clear, and her discussions are a good introduction to Celtic thought, particularly for non-Catholic Christians. Her notes and bibliography are rich with material for further exploration.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I own of copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Book of BoyBoy is out climbing an apple tree, talking with the goats, when the pilgrim buys him from his master and takes him on a voyage to Rome. Along the way, they need to “rescue” seven relics in various cities. Boy is forced to wear the pack of stolen goods because they burn the pilgrim’s hands, but he doesn’t mind, since it hides the hump on his back. He is not happy about stealing, but the pilgrim always seems to have an alternate explanation that soothes Boy’s conscience. He suspects that the pilgrim is not who he appears to be, but then, neither is Boy.

This fascinating and mysterious trek through the landscape and religion of the Middle Ages unlocks pieces of a puzzle while wrestling with questions of appearance and reality. Villages are dirty and devastated by plague, but there are still poor people willing to share their last meals. The institutional church could be riddled with vice and deceit, but there are still believing priests who are kind and loving. The grasping and powerful may confuse and abuse Boy, but he manages to maintain his innocent goodness.

Who doesn’t love an adventurous road trip? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories. There is usually a main character and a sidekick, but in this case, the main character is the sidekick. A quest, a series of interesting settings and characters, dangers, mishaps and rescues, and all the while the interior journey as our hero learns along the way. Boy is a joyful and glorious creation.

Very highly recommended for upper elementary through middle school, The Book of Boy would also make an exciting family read-aloud. Some historical and theological explanations may be necessary for younger children.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe kingdoms of the elves and the goblins are ostensibly working to maintain a fragile peace by catapulting the elfin scholar, Brangwain Spurge, into the goblin kingdom in order to bring the goblin king a gift. Little does he know that the beautiful gem that he carries is actually a powerful bomb. His host, the goblin archivist Werfel, is also unaware of the danger as he proudly escorts Brangwain around his home and city for a few days before his meeting with the king.

Brangwain is thoroughly disgusted with goblin culture, with its inedible food and their custom of keeping as mementos the skins that they shed every few years. The archivist, for his part, is less than impressed with the elfin scholar, who rudely rebuffs all of his obsequious attempts to share the most refined aspects of goblin life. Furthermore, Werfel has discovered that his guest goes into a trance in his room each evening, and he suspects that he is somehow transmitting information back to the elf government.

This wildly original story is told in both text and illustration, in much the same manner as Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. Anderson has written the prose chapters, and the story is deepened and continued in Yelchin’s black and white drawings across a succession of two-page spreads. The illustrations carry the key to the changing thoughts and attitudes of the two main characters as they begin to understand that reality may not be what they had been taught, and that good and evil exist in both of their kingdoms and in many of the people whom they thought they knew. But will they figure all of this out before disaster strikes?

What appears to be an almost comic fairy story holds deep relevance to our own lives as we seek to respect other cultures, but those who trust in governments may be disturbed. Reluctant readers will enjoy the fast pace and abundant illustrations. Despite being over 500 pages, it is a relatively quick read. Parents and teachers will find endless timely discussion points here. Brangwain is on everybody’s “Best of 2018” list, and you won’t read anything else remotely like it.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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