Sunday, November 22, 2009

Classics You Don't Have to Read

Classics you don't have to read?! Is there such a category?! Didn't I just tell you not to skip the real Winnie-the-Pooh for the Disney version?!

Well, yes...but I am also all about efficiency and guilt-free parenting. I do occasionally come across a few books about which I hear people say "you just have to read this," and I politely agree to disagree. (In fact, you are welcome to politely agree to disagree with anything I post! I even encourage debate and dialogue. I like to know people are thinking for themselves.)

If, however, you don't have enough time to think for yourself, please take my opinions as gospel-truth.

I read a couple of classics with my 8 year-old daughter this year that I don't plan to read with my 5 year-old. I find a lot of it depends on personality and my 8 year-old is compliant and patient enough to sit through almost any book. Also, she likes to finish what she starts, like her mom. The 5 year-old has none of these personality flaws.

The first book was Swiss Family Robinson, unabridged. I found this book to be outdated, redundantly lengthy, scientifically preposterous and unrealistic in general. But it also had it's entertaining moments, like the giant snake that threatened to engulf the family. Also, it piqued our imaginations. We enjoyed talking about what we might do to survive such a situation, as well as the pros and cons of the situation. Finally, I did appreciate the religious and moral values of the family. They frequently thank God for his provisions and instate a regular worship and sabbath in their new civilization.

The second book was The Secret Garden. And I confess, I had great expectations for this book. I had heard fantastic endorsements of the book. It had been a huge part of some people's childhoods and is on most "must-read" lists. I tried to love the book. I managed to tolerate it and sometimes even liked it. But it was an extremely slow read. I was amazed my daughter was as charmed with it as she was. I could tell it was a struggle at times. Again, could probably have 5-10 chapters shortened or trimmed. I was disappointed that the spiritual aspect of the book centered around magic and postitive thinking, altho alternatively that "magic" could be God doing his work in the world. The importance of the book centered around spring-time, coming-to-life, friendship and the maturing of spoiled, self-centered children. Those are certainly worthy themes, but if your audience includes a slightly spoiled child (i.e., an American child) I would rather recommend George MacDonald's fairy tale The Wise Woman/The Lost Princess.

One of my soap-box issues is that we all have only so much time to spend with our kids and our hobbies, so we must use that time wisely and discern how to best influence our families. For this reason it can be acceptable to read abridged versions of classics, children's versions, even comic book versions! And I have occasionally (albeit, rarely) found a movie to be a better conduit of story than a lengthy classic. Walt Disney's Swiss Family Robinson is a rousing adventure that will still hold kids' attention with live-action animal and nature sequences. Okay, so they eliminated a brother. The story works as well with 3 sons as with 4. Likewise, the 1993 production of The Secret Garden achieved film success by wisely trimming the detritus of the story while leaving the necessary character development, language and plot intact. In fact, a quality movie enhances a story such as Secret Garden by bringing stunning visual imagery to life.

Sometimes the best way to handle such classics is to pair an abridged version with the movie version. I think it's especially important to offer Secret Garden to our kids because it is frequently performed at school and community theaters-another wonderful way to introduce our families to the arts.

In my next post I'll cover a few classics that my family has found to be "must-reads." I hope to spur some of you on to challenging reads with your kids or perhaps an ongoing debate as to what constitutes "good" literature. Looking forward to some feedback...!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Darkness Is My Only Companion

In addition to raising kids and cats, helping at school, pharmacizing, and turning the lights off around my home, I also volunteer a couple hours a week to organizing and maintaining our church's library. So, when not reviewing good children's books in this space, I will occasionally put in a plug for something I come across while dusting shelves over at the church.

I just finished Darkness Is My Only Companion (subtitled "A Christian Response to Mental Illness") by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. This slim volume takes its title from the final line of Psalm 88. In it, Greene-McCreight shares her personal experience with manic-depressive (bipolar) illness. A theologian, her book is full of quotes from the Psalms, Job, the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer, as well as Spurgeon, Christina Rossetti, John Donne and William Cowper. She importantly reminds us of the contributions made by those with depression and other mental illnesses including Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, John Bunyan, Charles Dickens and Handel.

Given that 1 in 4 of us will experience some level of mental illness at some point in our lives ( it is crucial that the Christian church begins to learn a better response in dealing with these issues. As life becomes more chaotic, difficult and even dysfunctional, depression and anxiety are on the rise. This is to be expected biblically as we exist in a fallen world and our society moves farther from its Creator. (Christianity Today magazine also gives a review of the depression epidemic in their March 2009 issue,

Greene-McCreight also gives wise counsel for those seeking helpful therapy. Having worked with both secular and Christian therapists she suggests a careful interview process to find a professional with a compatible world view. She makes an interesting argument that seeing a quality secular therapist could be the modern equivalent of Moses and his Israelites spoiling the Egyptians of their gold. A sort of "take the good and leave the bad" philosophy, or a twist on Augustine's "all truth is God's truth." Again, she cautions this is only true as long as the counselor respects your religion and world view.

Greene-McCreight's book is helpful for those who want an intimate picture of what mental illness looks and feels like, as well as a scriptural review of the anguish many Bible characters poured out to God. We are still a long way from defining the fine line one must walk in terms of therapy and medication, but this book can help Christians begin to overcome some judgmental attitudes towards the agony many suffer and the therapies they choose.

Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick;
you are my strength when I need help;
you are life itself when I fear death;
you are the way when I long for heaven;
you are light when all is dark;
you are my food when I need nourishment. (Ambrose of Milan, 340-397)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winnie-the-Pooh and Beatrix Potter, too

Let's start our reviews of children's literature with some of the best known British classics: "Winnie-the-Pooh" by A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter's complete animal tales, and "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame.

There may be two groups of readers out there in my blogosphere. Those who say "we know they're classics; we've already heard about them." Secondly, those who say "we know they're classics; our kids prefer the Disney version." I'll try to take an approach that interests both audiences.

We all know reading is fundamental, and in fact, makes you smarter in nearly every other academic area. But we don't read because we want smart kids. Or, at least solely for that reason! We read because we want them to have a love of language; a broad-based foundation for understanding their world; warm memories of family times together; quiet, focused activity; creativity and imagination; even a step-up in learning a variety of communication skills.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

New York State of Mind

My general goal with this "blog" (I hate that word almost as much as the word "disconnect"--William Safire told me to never noun a verb) is to help parents discern quality reading material for their kids. I know this has been done before, and I'm sure it's been done better. Nevertheless, this is the mission I've accepted.

So, for that reason, my next entry will be entitled "Why We Need Winnie-the-Pooh."

In the meantime, another literary crisis has crossed my nightstand and I want help others navigate these stormy waters.

I like to read for information and I like to read for entertainment. but I tend to read everything a bit late. So if you're the cutting edge, New York Best Sellers, pre-order the next Janet Evanovich-type, my blog won't be of much use to you. However, if you have a couple kids, run a household, work occasionally, finish your kids' science projects for them and clean up cat vomit at 11:30 at night, I may be able to simplify some of your reading decisions.

I found a fun little book to suit both my drive for information and humor titled The Know-It-All:  One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs. This is copyrighted 2004.  I saw it on vacation in 2008 and finally bought it a month ago with my birthday money. (Because I'm frugal and rarely spend money on new books I could check out at the library.) A.J.'s project is to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from a to z. This he attempts because since college he feels he's gradually lost more and more intelligence. This can happen when one lives in New York and works for Entertainment Tonight. Or, if you have spent any time changing diapers, watching Sesame Street, or playing Uno without Skip, Reverse, Draw 2 or Wild Draw 4 cards. Somehow I felt I could relate to A.J.

I really quite enjoyed the book because A.J. is clearly bright yet self-deprecating, never makes his audience feel dumb. This is a lesson for most of us that should not be wasted. Particularly, his intellectual skirmishes with his genius brother-in-law end with lol results. And he peppers his journey with relational stories from his East Coast family. A.J. is vulnerable enough to share his insecurities with his readers and we all feel more comfortable because of it. See, I even call him A.J. instead of "Jacobs."

This book is a good read for someone who wants to pick up some trivia and laugh a bit on the way to bed. My only caveat is that about 1/4 of the way through, almost as some after-thought to appeal to an edgier generation, A.J. begins to occasionally drop an "f" bomb, or allude to some illegal collegiate drug use. As usual, these tactics do nothing to further the story, enhance humor or engender warm fuzzy feelings on the part of the reader. I'm always baffled when the intelligent and even the pseudo-intellectuals among us stoop to this sort of low-brow dialect. Yes, i'm old-fashioned, but words mean something and the words we choose to use tell the world something about us as people. At least, that is what I tell my children.

Now, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Because then, on a whim, I decided to pick up Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. My sister and my mom really loved the movie. And since I always read the book before I see the movie (yes, 2 years late, on dvd) I grabbed it off the 14-day loan table from the library.  The nice coincidence was, I thought it could help me with this blog idea. "Wow, some people get rich doing this!"

We all know by now Powell decides to cook through all of Julia Child's recipes in a year and write about it. Well, about 5 pages in Powell begins to drop the "f" bomb with increasing regularity. Then there's the drinking, the hangovers, the 11 year-old reading her parents Joy of Sex, the conversations with friends about serial partners and explosive sex. (Okay, that just sounds dangerous.)

I'm aware I'm sounding more Puritanical by the minute. So let me clarify: I do have experience with some of those experiences. But that book was already at the house where i was babysitting-not at my parents' home! Also, i occasionally say "dammit" for dramatic effect.

Powell is a good writer. She's humorous; she's descriptive; she's clever. One of the endorsing reviews came from a favorite of mine, Lauren Winner (reformedJjewish bad girl turned Christian writer/purity crusader). My point is, if you have all that talent, why bother with the R-rated material? She even warns us about her sailor's mouth. Hey, admitting is the first of 12 steps, Julie!

I appreciate her monogomy with her husband. (So does she, she makes clear.) I appreciate her love for cats. I appreciate her juxtaposition between the real world (her hometown Austin, Texas) and New York City. I just want to warn my friends and family: you may not appreciate this book if the movie was PG-13 and the book is R. Very R. Not just a little R.

Our American culture is very nearly dominated by two crushing, converging forces:  one from New York and one from Los Angeles! What to do?! Read, watch, and blog with discerment.

"Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don't be deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, more thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the Kingdom of God. And such were some of you. but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God." I Cor. 6:9-11.

What are we to do? We can't pretend to be perfect. We understand God views all sin as equally depraved. Can we not watch a current movie or read a current book? Paul continues to provide us an answer:

"All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." I Cor. 6:12 (read to verse 20!)

I have some friends who can read these books (The Know-It-All, Julie and Julia) for entertainment, for insight into life in the "real" world, for conversation starters with coworkers. I have other friends who will be glad for the forewarning. each of us has only so much time and we need to prioritize our commitments. If you can read this blog and glean some insight and some foresight, my time will be well-spent.

For those of you who would like an alternative to Julie and Julia, please consider lauren winner's memoir Girl meets God, as well as it's sequel (something or other about coffee and Tuesday mornings?  Mudhouse Sabbath?), and her book on chastity: Real Sex. she's witty, intelligent, transparent, Jewish and also lived in New York.

Hope to see you here next week for possibly a lighter topic: "Winnie-the-Pooh, and Beatrix Potter, too."