Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: As You Wish

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden

The Princess Bride is the most important movie from our college lives. Kansas Dad's friends watched it repeatedly, even assigning roles to each person that would be recited in chorus with the movie. (Kansas Dad was the clergyman.)

In this memoir, Cary Elwes (Westley) eloquently and touchingly shares his love of the movie. All along the way, the producer, director, and other actors chime in through interviews with their own memories. A book like this shows how making movies can bring joy and goodness into our culture, both through a movie itself, but also through the relationships of those who create it together.
I also think there is a reason everyone involved with The Princess Bride still enjoys talking about it more than twenty-five years later: it really was that much fun. There's a certain pride in the finished produce, of course, and of being forever associated with such an enduringly popular movie. But it's the process itself that I remember most, and how much fun it was to go to work every day.
Being enamored of The Princess Bride ourselves, I thought perhaps we would have already heard all the stories from behind the scenes, but many of them were new even to Kansas Dad. Our children also love this movie and I'm comfortable sharing this book with them. First Son might like to read it, or perhaps we'll all listen to the audio CD version.

If you haven't seen the movie, go watch it now. In fact, watch it a few times. Then you'll appreciate this book all the more.

Friday, April 17, 2015

March 2015 Book Reports

The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher is a book of essays on NFP that won't tell you anything about how to practice it. Instead, it's a humorous but real look at what life is like for those who try to follow the Catholic church's teachings on contraception but find themselves more frustrated than enlightened. It's so easy to find lots of people spouting the fabulous benefits of NFP on their marriage and relationship with their spouses, but the truth is that NFP can be hard. I appreciated reading Simcha's essays because they revealed the struggles that others have had as well as insight into how the benefits might simply be delayed. (borrowed from a friend, but also purchased for the Kindle)

The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas B. Aldrich is one I pre-read, wondering whether we should listen to it together on LibriVox or if I should put it on a Kindle and let First Son read it. I think he'll enjoy it because he loved Tom Sawyer so much and this book is similar. It does include some tragedy (the death of a friend and the death of the boy's father), but much of it is pure fun. There are a few missing "diagrams" from the text, so now I'm also considering purchasing a copy of it so we can see those. Either way, I think I'll give it to First Son (11) to read rather than listening to it with the girls. On a side note, I never knew what to say when someone asked what I was reading with this book. Given the recent press on an extremely popular movie, I was a little afraid the questioner would get the wrong idea. (purchased for free for the Kindle)

The Best of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle includes The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Silver Blaze, A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Final Problem, and The Adventure of the Empty House. I picked this up at a library sale because the children had listened to Sherlock Holmes for Children by Jim Weiss and wanted more. I wasn't sure about the content of the stories, having never read them myself, so I pre-read the book before sharing it with them. For those that are interested, these stories include a reference to a mistress (though no explanation to what one is), a mention of "drug-created dreams" though no actual drug use, and a number of murders. I intend to put the book out where the children (11 and 8) can read it if they want, but the vocabulary might be a little daunting for them. (purchased used at a library sale)

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson is listed as a possible family read aloud for American History in volume 4 of RC History. It's the supposed autobiographical story written by a mouse named Amos who lived with Benjamin Franklin. Amos, it turns out, was the source of some of Franklin's best ideas. It was a little silly for my taste, but the children loved it (especially the great battle scene). (library copy, read aloud with the kids)

Who Was Daniel Boone? by Sydelle Kramer is an early reader chapter book recommended by RC History for volume 4. I read it this month anticipating giving it to First Daughter (8) to read, but then decided to finish a unit early. It'll be one of the first books she reads next year. I don't know much about Daniel Boone, but it seemed interesting and well-written. (library copy)

I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge is a sweet tale of Christmas. A small girl spends her first Christmas after her parents die with her spinster aunts. There's a friendly but distraught French man, a wandering uncle, and an open window for the angels. Of course, three ships arrive on Christmas morning amidst great rejoicing. I hope to read this to the children in Advent. (inter-library loan)

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans by Rush Limbaugh was a gift from my parents to the whole family a few years ago. First Son (who was, I think, nine at the time) read through it speedily and loved it. He laughed out loud often and has since read it many times. He asked me often if I would read it and I finally agreed, mainly because it seemed right and proper that he should share his favorite books with me just as I love to share my favorite books with him. I'm sad to say, it's twaddle. It's not particularly well-written and it devotes much space to indoctrinating the reader to the astounding benefits of a free enterprise economic system. I don't necessarily disagree, but it certainly wasn't like he describes in the book. It also irked me a little as he so often proclaimed the righteousness of the Pilgrims who established this country for the freedom of all when the Puritans had no desire at all for freedom for other religious groups (Catholics among them). I don't actually think this book did my children any harm and, because I love my children and they have asked, I will read the other two books. I'm afraid I won't enjoy them very much, though. (received as a gift)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer - my review. (library copy)

The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye is a delightful fairy tale about a princess given a fairy's gift to be ordinary. She steals away from her castle and ends up working in another where she (of course) meets a man of all trades and falls in love. Princess Amy is diligent, joyful, and lovely. This book will be on First Daughter's summer reading list (between second and third grade). (library copy)

The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children by Sofia Cavaletti - my review (purchased copy, I think from the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd)

The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2) by Lemony Snickett, performed by Tim Curry. The children experience more sorrow, but are courageous and loving throughout it all and there are moments of humor along the way. (audio CD from the library)

Books in Progress (and date started)
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These reports are my honest opinions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: The Religious Potential of the Child

The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children by Sofia Cavalletti

I owned this book for two or three years before reading it, and only then because the coordinator of our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program suggested all the catechists read it together as a kind of book club this year. She invited anyone interested from the parish as well, though there ended up being only a few who attended every meeting. I wish I had not waited so long.

In the foreward, Rebekah Rojcewicz writes:
The most important thing that happens in the atrium (or in our lives, for that matter) is that together with the children, we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, the Christ, the Good Shepherd, and in his love for us, and that we grow always more capable of responding to that love. As catechists of the Good Shepherd, we understand that the kind of knowledge Jesus speaks of in John 10:14 is not a limited, academic kind of knowledge but a total kind of knowledge that is rooted in the heart and that encompasses all of our being (including, of course, our heads).
It's good to remind myself of this every time I go into the Atrium with students. My goal is not to teach the children anything. It is to reveal to them anew each week his limitless love for us and to therefore enable them to respond to him. In the process, I should myself experience that love anew each week and endeavor to respond in my own way.

It is difficult sometimes to refrain from seeking the child's response myself. As catechists, we want to see progress. In math or handwriting or reading, progress is usually obvious, something that can be measured over time. In a Catechesis class, however, the development of the relationship between the child and God can be hidden deep within the child's heart. According to Cavalletti, we should not even attempt to delve into that relationship.
The incandescent moment of the meeting with God occurs in secret between the Lord and His creatures, and into this secret the adult may not and should not enter.
As much as we might want to question the child, to determine if he or she has internalized any of the presentations, we must not. Perhaps, we will be gifted with a glimpse of the work of the Spirit.
The catechist who looks for security precludes, we think, the possibility of the greatest joy, the joy of feeling sometimes, in the work that unfolds, the passing of a force we clearly perceive is not our own, an imperceptible breath that lets us know that it is not us but the Spirit who works within hearts.
Despite the statement to let the child and God speak to each other without interference, it was sometimes discouraging to see examples of student work (most of which was for 6-9 year olds, rather than the 3-6 year olds typically found in a Level I class). In the (short) two years I have been teaching Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, there have been only two or three times a child has said something or drawn something that revealed a deep or profound connection to the materials or presentation. Most of the time, I am content merely to be there with them. When I expressed the discouragement while reading the book, Kansas Dad reminded me they had sixty years worth of materials from which to draw for their examples. It's likely not every child responded in easily reportable ways. As catechists, we must be content to be with the children experiencing his love together.

Another goal in the Catechesis classes is to present the mysteries of God's love to children in such a way that each one feels a desire to learn more. This "wonder" will hopefully kindle a lifetime of seeking God and his kingdom.
The nature of wonder is not a force that pushes us passively from behind; it is situated ahead of us and attracts us with irresistible force towards the object of our astonishment; it makes us advance toward it, filled with enchantment.
This book is a wonderful guide to those of us wishing to point our children to Christ without pushing them or overwhelming them with commandments. The idea is to reveal to them the most wondrous truths of the Good Shepherd and the Kingdom of God and invite them to delve deeper and deeper into His Word and His Love throughout their lives, partly by modeling as a parent or catechist that our search is never complete, our desire for knowledge of God cannot be satisfied until we are in Heaven.

All that being said, there were a few instances where I though Sofia overreached in her arguments. For example, she says:
I believe that an event learned only as a story (or legend) will stay a story even when the child is grown, and it will be extremely difficult to recover its theological content later on.
In context, Sofia is explaining the choice to focus on the infancy narratives of the Gospels rather than  Old Testament stories for meditation. (There are also presentations on the Last Supper, the Passion, and the Resurrection.) I have no desire to alter the presentations at all, but I think it's possible a child who hears the story of David or Goliath, for example, is capable of uncovering a deeper theological content as an older child, teenager, or adult.

One point I found particularly troublesome is in the chapter on signs when Sofia is addressing the parables. In the Level I class, we read quite a few parables with the children, many focused on the Kingdom of God. One of the important points in the training (and in the book) is that the catechist is never to explain the parable. We can ask questions and wonder with the children, but we don't give an answer. I am even careful never to indicate to the children that they have arrived at "the correct answer." The most important reason for this vagueness is to cultivate the idea that we have never reached the center or final answer in a parable. There is always more to contemplate, more to learn and love about God and his world.

So far, so good. Then Sofia writes:
Jeremias has demonstrated that the two Gospel passages explaining the parables (Matthew 13:18-23, 36-42) do not date back to the original stratum of the text and therefore they are not the words of Jesus.
My problem with her assertion is not that the passages were added later (they very well might have been), but the implication that because they were added later, they were not the words of Jesus, that he, in fact, would never have explained a parable because that would have destroyed its value. I believe the presence of these verses indicates that Jesus probably explained at least some of the parables some of the time to his disciples. Furthermore, I think it's problematic to dismiss any part of Scripture, even if it seems to have been added a little later. It's not like it was added a few hundred years ago; those verses were there when the cannon was established. Sofia declares that "to explain the parable would mean killing it, destroying its most profound didactic wisdom." She must therefore dismiss the verses of Scripture in which Jesus appears to be explaining a parable. I think it might have been sufficient to exhort catechists to refrain from explaining parables to children, especially in Level 1, without arguing no one should ever explain any parable ever.

The reference for Jeremias is The Parables of Jesus by J. Jeremias, published in 1962 which I think is Parables of Jesus (2nd Edition). Much of the same material seems to be available in a version without the original Greek, Rediscovering the Parables. I checked a copy of the latter out of the library and skimmed the parts that seemed applicable to these verses. It seems like Jeremias claims these verses were added later, at a time when the early church was facing persecution in order to exhort Christians to stand firm in their faith. Ironically, given Sofia's use of his statement, the entire book is an attempt to explain what the parables would have meant in the historical and cultural context of Israel in Jesus' time.

From what I can tell online, I'm the only one to be uncomfortable with Sofia's statement, so perhaps I'm overreacting.

If you are interested, I can also recommend Way of Holy Joy (perhaps my favorite of Cavalletti's books that I've read so far) and The Good Shepherd and the Child, which has recently been revised and updated.

The links to Amazon above are affiliate links. If you click on them, add something to your cart, then make a purchase, I receive a small commission. I believe my copy was purchased directly from the national Catechesis of the Good Shepherd organization. (not an affiliate link)

Monday, April 13, 2015

First Daughter's Narration of Theseus Versus the Bad Guys

Overall, it was not a banner day here on the Range. The low point was an accident which involved a girl sitting down with roller skates that then flew up into the air and smacked Second Son in the face, right on the lip line. Due to a combination of factors, we couldn't get him from one parent to the other and to the doctor, so my generous mother-in-law met me to pick him up and drive him to Kansas Dad who took him in for his single stitch. Yay - first stitches in the family! (First Daughter had her head stapled, but no stitches.) Sigh. I suppose it was bound to happen sometime.

There were other less-low points, but there was one highlight: First Daughter gave a heartening narration of The Story of Theseus, part one (from Classic Myths to Read Aloud).
There was a guy who was a king and he was very young so he found more fun in going around his country than ruling it. Then he met a beautiful lady who he married. He left their tiny son one day to go back to his own kingdom but before he did that he left his golden sandals and sword under a boulder and he said to his wife that when his son was strong enough to lift the boulder he would take the sword and the sandals to his father in his castle. He grew up very strong, the boy, and one day he did lift the boulder. Then he left his mother. He decided to go the long dangerous way to Athens where his father ruled. He met one robber who liked to kill people by throwing them down a cliff where a giant tortoise would eat them. He took the robber and threw him down the pit so that he would die just as many others had as a tortoise’s meal. There was this other robber he met who liked to torture people by putting them in one spot, taking two giant tree branches from either side, tying them to the person, and then letting the branches go so they would be torn apart. When Theseus found out about this, he took the bad guy and he tied the two tree branches to him so he was torn apart. Nobody else would get torn apart in that place, Theseus felt sure of it. He went on his way for a little while. Then he met a man who was trying to collect some firewood. Nobody else would help him, but when he saw him, he helped carry his load. When he had helped him, the old man asked where he was headed. He told him he was headed toward his father’s palace. The old man begged him not to go because there was a bad guy who liked to claim that he had a bed that would fit all sizes and he would rest people there for the night. It would fit all sizes because when you laid down on it, if you were too tall he would cut off your feet but if you were too short he would stretch you. So if you went into his house, you would die. If you were just the right size, he would kill you anyway. He met this bad guy on the road and he invited him to come to his house. Then Theseus said “And do you happen to have a special bed that would fit me?” The bad guy looked worried because he could not catch Theseus on surprise. Then he drew his sword but Theseus used his strong arms (did I mention he was very strong?) to squeeze the life out of that guy. Then he went into his home and found great treasures stolen from the people. Then he called all the people from the country around and divided the treasure between them. The people were delighted because it’s not every day a stranger gives you treasure. Then he went on his way. When he finally came to the palace, he saw a bunch of boys feasting, weird people. He figured out that they were the king’s nephews and that when he died one of them would succeed to the throne because the king had no sons (which by the way is not true). He jumped up onto the table and said, “I am Theseus and I demand an audience with the king.” Because he had killed so many robbers that everyone knew him. His fame had gotten to the castle in much shorter time than he had. The king did not know him until he knelt before the king and handed out the king’s golden sandals and the sword and said "You left me these under a boulder long ago.” The king cried because he realized it was his son and the prince cried (now finally I can call him prince, not Theseus). He met his father and they lived happily for now.
She wanted to say they lived happily ever after, but then remembered there is a part two, so she decided to leave the ending less final.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Review: The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature

Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature by Mitchell Kalpakgian

I saw this book at Amongst Lovely Things and knew I had to read it. Along with Tending the Heart of Virtue, this book provides evidence for the importance of sharing a particular kind of children's literature with children. The author, Mitchell Kalpakgian, draws examples from a small number of books (twelve, including Andersen's fairy tales, Burnett's The Secret Garden, Hawthorne's A Wonder Book, and MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind) to show how the deepest truths of human life can be found in and nourished by children's stories.

The book reads like a series of essays rather than a coherent whole. In fact, you could easily read one or a few of the chapters individually without confusion. Kalpakgian explores the mysteries of life, wishes, luck, goodness, truth, beauty, children, play, friendship, home, nature, divine providence, and stories. The chapter on nature seemed the least coherent to me, though perhaps I just didn't have enough time to spend on it. I enjoyed the chapters on wishes and luck the most. Before reading them, I had not thought much about how the depictions of wishes and luck in fairy tales might reflect reality.
True wishes are unwavering and constant; they do not disappear. True wishes are answered as a result of good deeds. Their realization often comes as a consequence of effort, suffering, and sacrifice...Genuine desires seek happiness only in moral ways and do not seek satisfaction through devious, dishonest methods.
The final chapter, "The Loss of Mystery and the Loss of Childhood," is completely different from the others. In it, the author argues that our modern society devalues everything he has unearthed from children's literature in the previous chapters, all inevitably stemming from our failure to protect life in the womb. I would not say I disagree with the author's assertions in this chapter, but it all seemed a little overwrought to me.
In short, children's classics are pro-life, pro-family, and pro-God. All of life is sacred, magical, and mysterious, and every aspect of the world is full of poetry, adventure, and romance. Goodness, truth, and beauty abound in infinite supply.
My main problem with the last chapter is that someone who was merely interested in the concept of children's literature as a source of the greatest mysteries of life might just dismiss the whole book after reading the last chapter, even if the previous ones were intriguing. A belief in a Christian God is an important part of every chapter, though, so perhaps I am mistaken and no one like that would ever get so far in the book.

Overall, this book is a good resource for those who are interested in sharing truth, beauty, and goodness with children through literature. The author gives clear examples of how specific stories and books reveal aspects of reality in ways children can contemplate without oversimplification. He also shows how they can lay a foundation of respect for families, home-life, and children. Though only twelve books are used as examples, it is possible to extrapolate the patterns to discern similar themes in other books and stories.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Reader's Edition)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Anna Hymas

I still haven't read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, but I saw this in the library catalog when I was searching for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Picture Book Edition. Because First Son is still reading about Africa, I decided to read it quickly to see if it would be appropriate for him.

This book tells the remarkable story of a young boy of Malawi, William Kamkwamba, forced by poverty and famine to leave school. He teaches himself physics and electrical engineering from an old book so he can build a windmill and provide his family with electricity. He continues to learn, improving his windmill (and making a few mistakes, too), until he draws the attention of some influential people in Malawi and other countries in Africa. They set in motion a series of events that enable William to go back to school and eventually graduate from a college in the United States. He immediately began giving back to his local community and his country in ways just as inspiring as his quest for an education.

There are so many reasons floating around in my head to give this book to a young reader, I almost can't organize them enough to share them.

William's grades are so low early in the book despite his earnest studying, he does not qualify for the better funded magnet school. It's clear he was intelligent, but for some reason the tests didn't reveal his potential. Later, when he returns to school as an older student, he candidly shares his struggles to catch up with his peers. What a wonderful example for a young student who struggles to perform academically!

One of the professors who first visits William speaks eloquently of his disappointment at how William's situation is not unusual in Malawi. Many talented and curious students are forced to leave school due to poverty. The book reveals this truth naturally and may therefore prompt a more heartfelt response in a reader.

William's friends are instrumental in completing the windmill. Many others reach out to help him in the years that follow. His story reminds us that we should do what we can (building a windmill, in William's case), but that it is right that we should accept the generous and appropriate help of others. In the same way, we should be seeking opportunities to help others as well.

The detailed information on physics and electricity would make this a wonderful supplement to a science study. It may even work as a read-aloud, if there are not too many sensitive children. (There are honest depictions of Malawi's people suffering in drought and famine that some young children may find disturbing.)

We're at the end of our school year now, hoping to finish everything in the next few weeks. I think I'll put this book in the summer reading pile for First Son. In future years, I would be tempted to replace our third African book (A Gift from Childhood) with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.