Friday, December 19, 2014

Three Kids Books on War

War is a reality that mankind has experienced since the beginning of time. Sometimes, they are small and involve two warring tribes. Other times they are massive and have a global reach and impact. No matter the size, and whether the war is just or unjust, the truth is that war is ugly. Today, I will be reviewing three children's books on war. A children's book on war is a bold undertaking and seems like a reality you wouldn't want to expose to a child, but with talks of war in the news constantly and an ever present 24 hour news cycle, it's harder to shield kids from this harsh reality. These three books, while somber in tone, help humanize the people involved in war (from both sides). Without further ado, here are my reviews.

Gingerbread for Liberty! tells the story of Christopher Ludwick, a German-born American baker. The story begins by telling of the generosity of Mr. Ludwick, especially as it related to feeding hungry children. The book then quickly shifts to talk of the Revolutionary War. Ludwick is determined to fight in this war, but his wife reminds him that he is too "old and fat" to fight in the war, so he volunteered with the only skill he possessed, baking. He went to George Washington and offered his services. General Washington was so impressed with him that Ludwick became baker for the whole Continental Army. He even used his skills to persuade troops that the British hired to switch sides and fight with the Revolutionaries. The war ends and as a parting gift, Washington orders Ludwick to bake bread for the wounded enemies.

Overall, this was an interesting story, which was outshone by its illustrations. All of the images in the book, appropriately, are in gingerbread format. Other nice touches include a recipe for gingerbread cookies on the inside cover, and an author's note which sheds more details on the man who was Christopher Ludwick. The war was unkind to him, in that he lost his vision and went home poorer, because the British ransacked his home and shop. However, he kept doing what he loved (baking and feeding hungry people), and is said to have quietly paid for the education of at least 50 children. These are great facts that you wish would have been included in the story. Nevertheless, the overall message that anyone, no matter their talents, can make a difference shone through in this story. Four stars.

Shooting at the Stars begins by setting the scenes for World War I; giving facts on who was fighting who; and expectations of young men that it would be a short war. The story itself revolves around a young English soldier writing to his mother. He begins by telling her about the hardships of war, which isn't just the fighting but the conditions, such as rain, three feet of mud, and rats! He then proceeds to tell her about something remarkable, On Christmas Eve, there was snow and he heard Germans singing Christmas carols. The Germans had also put up tiny Christmas trees, which is a bad strategic move as it gives away your position. Then, on Christmas morning, the Germans called out to the English asking them where their Christmas trees were. For one day, Christmas Day, there was a truce. Germans and English shook hands, buried their dead, traded gifts, and played soccer. The major was furious, called them traitors, and ordered them to fire on the Germans. The young protagonist says he thinks for that night, the English aimed high and were shooting at the stars, hence the title of the book.

This was a phenomenal story that honestly caused me to well up while reading it. It showed a side of war that you never think of, and a special day that you wonder/doubt could ever happen again. Enemies were humanized, and you see that they are people just like us who had families and loved Christmas just like we do. The illustrations perfectly matched the book, as they were rich in color, striking in detail, and placed you perfectly in the scene for a full reading experience. There is also a helpful glossary at the end for those tricky terms that kids won't recognize. I highly recommend this book for Christmas or anytime! Five stars.

Once a Shepherd tells the story of Tom Shepherd, a young shepherd without a care in the world. It is a time of peace. He gets married and his wife becomes pregnant. However, his world is quickly turned upside down with the arrival of World War I. He must go off and fight in the war and unfortunately does not come back. In fact, the enemy soldier who kills Tom is so grief-stricken, he feels he must personally go and tell Tom's wife about his death.

My wife warned me not to get this book, and she was right. It is a very sobering tale, which I'm unsure how you read this to a child without depressing them for a week, if not longer. The writing style and illustrations also left a bit to be desired. Every page starts with the words "Once a..." and while I get that repetition is good for children, it grew tedious. The illustrations themselves aren't bad, but are what I would describe as watercolor. The dust jacket/cover of the book has a look of stitching, and if the whole book would have been illustrated this way, I would rate this book higher as that would at least be clever and on theme. Unfortunately. I can only give this book three stars, as the story is depressing and the illustrations weren't what I'd look for in a children's book.

These books were provided to me for free by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Abrams Books, and Candlewick Press respectively. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here, here, and or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Priest, Prophet, King (Word on Fire)

Fr. Barron is a man who needs no introduction. His DVD program Catholicism has been seen by millions and is responsible for introducing and converting people to the Roman Catholic faith. He followed that popular series up with Catholicism: The New Evangelization and will be introducing a third part Catholicism: The Pivotal Players in 2015. I've had mixed feelings regarding his Catholicism series, but I continue to receive and review Fr. Barron's products, because despite his fascination with Thomas Merton, I believe Fr. Barron is doing a great bit of good in the Roman Catholic world. Today, I will be reviewing his latest series called Priest, Prophet, King.

Priest, Prophet, King is a two-disc, six-lesson series which is designed to help you understand Jesus more fully as priest, prophet, and king. Each lesson is approximately 20 minutes long, and the study guide (which is written by Carl Olson) has enough material to facilitate an hour long discussion. If you're in a smaller group, like I am, you might find yourself watching the session two or three times, just to absorb the material. Unlike Fr. Barron's previous work, Catholicism, this sessions are much shorter (which I greatly appreciated), but they seemed to fly by so quickly that you might blink and miss something...hence the re-watching. The lessons are titled as follows:

1. Adoratio: Adam as Priest
2. The High Priest
3. Challenging False Worship: Elijah the Prophet
4. The Word Made Flesh
5. Ordering the Kingdom: King David
6. King of Kings
Bonus: Heroic Priesthood

In this study, Fr. Barron weaves high theology with his accessible teaching style to present Jesus' three-fold mission. One minute he is making Lord of the Rings references explaining symbolism of Frodo as priest, Gandalf as prophet, and Aragorn as King. The next minute he is diving deep into the Scriptures and explaining the significance of a specific Greek word. It was hard to pick a favorite lesson, but if I had to it would be Session Three, and that might just be because I am a big fan of Elijah. In addition to providing an explanation on Elijah vs the priests of Ba'al. He also challenges us to right worship. He then compares Ba'al to modern day idols like power or pleasure, and asks us if we put these idols ahead of God.

This was easily my favorite Fr. Barron study program. Each session was a good length (especially if you are doing this with young kids in the background), and provided you just enough information to get a good discussion going and make you want to dive deeper either solo or in a small group. I highly recommend this for anyone looking to grow not only in your understanding of Jesus, but your love for Him as well.

This program was provided to me for free by Word on Fire in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, click here and hit Yes!

Monday, December 15, 2014

How Far is it to Bethlehem: The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton

If you're an American Catholic, then you are no doubt familiar with the works of G.K. Chesterton. He has written great works like, Orthodoxy and Heretics; the mysteries of Father Brown; and works on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas. What a lot of people don't know is that his wife, Frances, was also a writer herself. Nancy Carpentier Brown compiled a plethora of her writings in the book How Far is it to Bethlehem. Within this book are plays she wrote for Christmas Eve productions which the Chestertons put on each year. They apparently had a stage in their house for home entertainment! She also wrote poems on many subjects, but her Christmas ones appeared often time in Christmas cards.

The book itself contains six plays, with not all of them complete. The first one is about the Children's Crusade, which is said to have taken place in 1212 and is a particularly dark time in history. Several of the other plays are Christmas themed with the names, "The Christmas Gift" and "The Three Kings." The plays seem to be written in a couplet rhyming scheme, i.e., A,A,B,B,C,C, etc. Normally I would construe this as forced rhyming, but as these plays were written for children, I can see the appeal for little ones with rhyming that way. The plays were interesting, but it is a bit like reading Shakespeare in that you would rather see it performed than just read it yourself. It would be wonderful to see some Catholic English or Drama teacher try and do a local production of one of these plays.

The poems take up the remaining half of this book and are divided into assorted poetry and Christmas poems. Like most people's poetry, it was probably private writing that was never meant to be read by anyone, but I am grateful for Nancy for compiling them for us, as we would have never been exposed to her personality and genius otherwise. The Christmas Card poetry was easily my favorite section. In these beautiful poems, we can see France Chesterton's love for Jesus, particularly Christ at His Nativity. Here are a few stanzas from her 1917 Christmas poem for which this book is named:

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by the star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch

May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

I am not a world class poetry expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoyed reading through Mrs. Chesterton's words. Some have a beautiful simplicity, and others blow you away with their depth. Even though her husband, G.K. Chesterton overshadowed his wife (not on purpose), this book shines a light on Frances' brilliance as well and shows how good of a match they were for each other. The old saying, "Behind every great man, there's a great woman" rings true with these two. If G.K. Chesterton is ever canonized, she will definitely be a large reason why. So if you are looking for a unique Christmas gift (or gift for any occasion), for that Chesterton fan in your life, I highly recommend How Far is it to Bethlehem.

This book was provided to me for free by the author in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!