Monday, July 29, 2013

Roald Dahl

Today’s author to read aloud is Roald Dahl. Did anyone not love his writing when they were a kid?   He just seems to understand a child’s sense of humour. He gets that they love for kids to win, for the nasty people to lose and for it all to happen in a rather funny way.

We start our kids on Fantastic Mr Fox (~age 6-7). It’s short, easy to follow and fun to read.  Everyone hates the three farmers and wants the foxes to win.

Then we move on to James and the Giant Peach or perhaps Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In time we include The BFG.  My daughter (8) was rather scared of The BFG for a while, until she picked it up on her own recently, got through the first few chapters and was hooked.

What’s good about Roald Dahl books is you can continue to read them into teen years and adulthood. His short stories for older readers are great, with twists and turns that few can predict. I always enjoyed The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar as a teenager, I found it so wonderful I wanted it to be real.

For those who like ‘nice’ stories, Roald Dahl is not for you. But if you are happy with dark humour, horrible adults who get what they deserve and good kids who always win in the end, his books are great fun.  Also, we should not forget the wonderful collaboration he had with Quentin Blake, the illustrator who made the books come alive.

There are also collections of his rhymes and verse, one of the presents I still remember loving as a child was Revolting Rhymes, a nastier version of many fairy tales. Great fun!

What are your favourite Roald Dahl books?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The First Casualty

The First Casualty, Ben Elton

I have read a few Ben Elton books over the years and enjoyed all of them. He has an insight into humanity at its bleakest and yet manages to infuse an idea with reality, honesty and humour.

The First Casualty is set in WWI, where Douglas Kinsey has become a conscientious objector because he thinks the war is idiotic. A public pariah as a result, he is imprisoned for his beliefs.

Over in France a British officer is murdered while convalescing for shell shock. Kinsey is sent to France during the third battle of Ypres to discover what happened. Finding himself face to face with the very war he objected to be a part of, Kinsley is forced to ask himself: what does one life count when thousands die daily? What is murder? Is there a difference between one officer being intentionally killed and the many who continue to be sent into the trenches? What will you do when you come face to face with the enemy?

Elton paints a graphic and tragic picture of war. I was struck by the inanity of fighting for years over one stretch of boggy mud. It is no wonder than men return from such warfare completely changed and unable to speak of what they have seen. His portrayal of such times and the characters who live in them (officers, police, war nurses) ring true.

Elton has written 14 novels over the years, I have read his first, Stark (incredibly bleak yet humorous) and the more recent Blind Faith (a futuristic Britain overrun by social media and compulsory faith). I will look for more, I enjoy his writing and the way it makes you think.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Patricia St John

Today’s author to read aloud is Patricia St John. St John (1919-1993) was a Christian woman who worked much of her life as a missionary nurse in Morocco. Her great gift was telling children about Jesus in a way they understood and was appropriate, yet without dumbing down gospel truths.

Having not grown up with these books, I had no idea they existed until a dear friend told me about them. We have since bought 6 of them and I have read 2 to our older children (Treasures of the Snow and Rainbow Garden).  They have worked our children in age range 7-11.

These books are a delight to read aloud. They are full of rich descriptive imagery, realistic characters, serious situations and the gospel. Children have to make real choices with serious consequences, these are not light situations. In Treasures of the Snow an older boy is responsible for an accident which permanently injures a younger boy, whose sister now hates him with a vengeance. Both must decide when presented with the truths of the gospel how they will respond – will they seek forgiveness? Will they seek restoration of the relationship? Will they try to fix what has gone wrong?

In both books we read, there were some excellent adult role models who were able to explain the gospel clearly to children and in each case, living in faith meant serious changes to the child’s life and attitude. I found myself choked up reading sections of both books, especially when the children accepted Christ as their Saviour.

My friend gave me a hint with these – just start reading them to your kids and wait until they get hooked, it takes a couple of chapters. I think the realism yet difference to their own world draws them in and they realise these are serious issues being presented. My eldest two loved these and I will continue to read St John’s books to them in the future. They are perfect for having conversations about the gospel and how it changes lives so therefore they are definitely books to read to your children, rather than give them to read alone.

Update 2016:

We have now read Star of Light, The Mystery of Pheasant Cottage, Where the River Begins, and I Needed a Neighbour.  All of these have been excellent, although Star of Light has been a clear favourite with all of us.  We have also since discovered two books aimed at a much younger audience (~5-7), Friska my Friend and The Other Kitten - these are simpler stories with animals, still good and address how to think about loving others.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Marta's Legacy

I have dipped my toe into a bit more Francine Rivers - Her Mother's Hope and Her Daughter's Dream.  This two-novel series about four generations of women is loosely based on Rivers’ own history, and that of her mother and grandmother. The grandmother Marta was born in Switzerland in the 1890s. Having grown up under a harsh father and a gentle yet sick mother, she flees to the promise of a better life, first in England, then over to Canada, where she finds love and has a family.

Having seen a weak and shy sister never leave the nest, she determines not to let the same happen with her daughters and so when her eldest daughter, Hildemara also proves to be sickly and shy, Marta makes it her goal to push her daughter on, to make her strong and independent.

Of course, Hildemara sees this as her mother never loving her and always wanting her gone. She never feels like she lives up to her mother’s hopes for her. Little does she know, Marta loves Hildemara more than any of her other children, yet struggles to show it.

Into this strained relationship, Hildemara gives birth to Carolyn. As the years progress, and similarly strain develops between these two we see how women can distance the ones they love and never communicate through issues properly. Carolyn and her daughter May Flower Dawn bring the story right to the present day.

They are two good books, which explore well the relationships between the female generations of a family over 100 years. I liked them because they are very readable, the characters are believable and because they are written by a Christian woman, they are edifying to read rather than depressing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton, that prodigious children’s writer who many of us are familiar with, is the author for today’s ‘books to read aloud’ series. It is astonishing that one author wrote so many books (~700 estimated) which have spanned three generations so well. Our parents read them, we read them as children and now we find ourselves reading them to our children.

There are a number of factors which make Enid Blyton books so appealing both to read aloud and to read alone:

1. There are so many of them! Children love series and reading more about the same characters. For example The Famous Five series has 21 titles, The Secret Seven and the Five Find Outers both have 15 titles. Once a child is interested there are so many more to move on to. It also means you can get them interested by reading the first one or two aloud, then encourage them to read the rest themselves.

2. There are gentle stories yet realistic. The relationships are real, the friendships are genuine and the descriptions are fun. Children play the key role in all books, adults are present but they sort of fade into the background. The children have real adventures, and boys and girls have equal fun and abilities.

3. The imaginative ones are so much fun – how good would it be to climb a tree, find magic people living in it and then magic lands that always changed at the top of the tree? It was the Magic Faraway Tree series that got my kids hooked on Blyton books at the beginning.

4. I know they are appropriate. I do not have to worry about them reading about inappropriate relationships or teen love and angst; there is no bad language; people who behave badly always get caught and the kids always solve the problems.

5. They present a picture of life in the 1930s-50s in England in great detail. My children have realised how different life was then to the life they know now. It is entirely foreign in their experience for children to be sent off on the train to visit relatives for months so they get better from the pollution of the city (The Children of Cherry Tree Farm). Similarly, for them to read in detail about rural life and an animals throughout the English countryside is very different from any farm stay we could do here!

If there is anything about Blyton books that you might occasionally hesitate about it is that a fair amount of it does need to be ‘translated’ or explained to children today. It is just so far from their own experience. But we have discovered that once you have read a few of them, they get used to the language and the terminology and are fine. My 8 year old daughter is currently reading all The Secret Seven and my son (age 10) still returns regularly to The Famous Five.

We have enjoyed reading The Magic Faraway Tree series aloud, as well as The Children of Cherry Tree Farm and The Children of Willow Farm. Which ones do your family enjoy?

Friday, July 12, 2013

I Came to Say Goodbye

I Came to Say Goodbye, Caroline Overington

A friend gave me this, having read my last Overington review.

I wonder if you read books like my friend does? She hated this one, because when she reads a book about horrible family relationships, she then imagines the same in her own relationships. Do you do that? If you are the same, you might want to steer clear of Overington books too - or you may well end up hating various members of your family also!

Having given clear warning, I really liked the book. Overington has an uncanny way of imagining life for someone from a balanced and honest perspective. She does not reduce people to cliches. She finds a depth and a reality to all her characters.

At the beginning of the book, a woman enters a children’s hospital, walks into the babies ward, picks up a child, takes it outside to her car and drives away. The story does not end there and it begins long before then.

The rest of the novel is written in the format of letters. Two members of a family (a father Med and his daughter Kat) are writing to a Family Court Judge to explain the life and behaviour of their other daughter/sister, Donna-Faye.  It is a sad account of the downward spiral of a woman’s life, affected both by circumstances and bad influences, yet also by poor choices.  It details how a few mistakes can change someone’s life forever and how mental illness can destroy a family.

It is clear from Overington’s writing and her years in journalism that she has a real heart for those for whom life is not easy.  She has a lot to say about government child protective services and their systems.  She has an insight into the lives of refugees.  She cares about families and children. All of her writing reads very naturally to Australians, particularly those from NSW. I knew all of the places she wrote about, which gave the book even more credence. While she stresses that her books are entirely fiction, there is a startling reality to them all. You finish a book and keep thinking about it, knowing that the circumstances described could happen, and in some cases do happen.

Just like Ghost Child, this is a book that will stay with you long after you have finished reading it.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Wonder, R. J. Palacio

This is a brilliant book. I cannot recommend this one highly enough for parents to read with their children, especially those around age 10. August Pullman is a 10 year old boy about to start Year 5, he loves his parents, his dog and Star Wars. He has good friends and a loving sister. Yet starting school presents a challenge – up till now August has been home-schooled and so has never attended a regular school. Why? He has no learning difficulties – he is very smart; he has no disability or special needs that prevent him, but he does have a severe facial disfigurement so that he looks really different.
I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an xBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go ... My name is August by the way. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse. (p3)
This book is in 8 sections, all told from different people’s perspectives, including August, his sister Via and his new friends Jack & Summer. The chapters within the sections are really short – only 1-3 pages, so it’s very easy to read either small snippets or large amounts, and very easy to have your child read some sections to you as well.

I was incredibly impressed with the way Palacio has written this book, I think she has accurately presented how life is for people with physical disfigurement – how people stare, how children (& adults) can be cruel and insensitive, and yet how it doesn’t matter how you look to close friends and family. She has wonderful portrayals of cruel kids, loving parents, excellent supportive teachers, and protective siblings and friends.

It gave my son and I lots of things to talk about and I am very glad we read it together and digested it slowly over a lot of nights and had a chance to talk about the issues raised in it. Age 10 is probably the minimum age for this one, but it is appropriate for quite a few years older than that. For those who are also familiar with Star Wars, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and some other attractions of this age group, they will appreciate the references to them within.

I warn you though, if you read this one aloud to your children, chances are you will end up in tears yourself at points. At a number of points, I got so choked up I either had to hand it to my son to finish the section or he got to see me really affected by the story (which is not a bad thing, by the way!).  I should emphasize, it's not all serious and emotional!  It is also laugh-out-loud funny and very clever.

I am sure this book will end up on set reading lists for upper primary and lower high school students. After reading this one from the library, I have ordered a copy – I know my son will read this again and again and I will want to read it to both the girls when they are older.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Books to read aloud

On Mondays for the next few months, I will be reviewing a selection of good books to read aloud to your kids. Aimed mainly at the 7-12 age range, I will be reviewing novels rather than picture books. There are so many good books available; sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

Also, just because a book is a good read, does not mean it is always great to read aloud. Sometimes long explanations can make it hard, following complicated details of maps or directions, or even complicated character names make it hard to follow along while listening. Other books seem to have been designed to read aloud – they are easy to pronounce and add voice variation (for the one reading aloud) and easy to follow and appreciate (for the one listening).

I read aloud to our kids most nights – usually individually, but sometimes with two or all three. For a while I didn’t – the older two had learned to read and love reading, so were just as happy curled up in bed on their own reading. But as I have started to read to them and continued to make it a priority – I have come to realise the great benefits of reading aloud to older children:

1. You can enjoy a story together. If neither of you have read the book before, you both are excited about finding out about what happens. When my son and I read the Deltora Quest series 1 (9 books) together – we both loved discovering what happened at the end, it was really exciting for both of us. When you have read it previously, you enjoy seeing how they respond. When my son and I first read Charlotte’s Web, he was stunned to realise Charlotte died, and I remembered my own reaction to the same thing as a child.

2. You can talk about it together. Any book will raise things to talk about – whether it is the characters and how they act, the world events the book is set in, how you would feel in the same situation, etc. As Christians, we can also then talk about how God thinks about such things and how we as Christians might react in the same circumstances.

3. You understand how your kids think and what appeals to them. If they love the book you are reading, you can ask why. If they don’t like it, again you can talk about why. You learn what they find funny and what they don’t understand.

4. You can pick up gaps in their own reading and vocabulary. Most nights I try to hand one of my kids the book we are reading and they read aloud a few pages. It gives them reading aloud practice, and helps me see how their decoding, comprehension and expression skills are coming along.

So, lots of good books are coming up. As usual, I would love your ideas too – there is no way we have read all the good books to read aloud out there – so let me know you favourites too!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Keep the Faith

Keep the Faith, Martin Ayers

What do you do when as a Christian you have doubts about your faith? Do you hide them away, hoping no-one will notice? Do you long to ask for wise advice, but are unsure where to turn and who to trust? Do you decide to investigate what non-Christians think, to see if that makes more sense?

The first step is realising that many Christians have doubts. I would suspect that all of us at some time or another have asked:
  • Is this really true?
  • Can I believe the bible?
  • Do I really believe that Jesus is the son of God and the saviour of the world?
  • Do I really need a saviour anyway?
  • Why do so many nice, intelligent people think Christianity is a crutch and am a fool for being a Christian?
As Ayers says:
An atmosphere of unbelief surrounds us, in which declaring you are a Christian seems equivalent to admitting you’ve decided that thinking is inconvenient and you’d like to get by in life from now on without using your brain. In this environment do you ever ask yourself, “What if I really have gone mad?” (p14)
This little book will help you to think logically through doubt. It will help you to see what the alternatives on offer really are and whether that is where you want to go. It will not deal with specific doubts per se, but it will equip you with a way forward when dealing with doubts when they arise.

Ayers points our two major problems with doubt – it erodes our thinking which then affects our actions. So, he wants to arm the believer first with right thinking and then with helpful actions.

In addressing our thinking about doubt, we need to acknowledge that no-one sees anything from an unbiased point of view – the atheist, the Christian, no-one. Many atheists will acknowledge that they do not believe in God, because they do not want there to be a god. Unbelief is a matter of faith as much as belief is. If you want there to be no God, you will structure your argument around that. If you want there to be a God, you will organise your thoughts around that.
There is no neutral ground. What you believe or don’t believe has such a profound effect on your life that it’s impossible for anybody to be objective. A Christian is naturally going to be more sympathetic to arguments in favour of Christianity than somebody who hates the God of the Bible (p64)
I found this reminder that none of us are bias-free helpful, as well as the reality that we all follow a world view with a potential agenda. Along the way he points out some of the problems of choosing not to believe in God or Christianity, one of which is that we end up with a very bleak view of humanity, for there is no reason to attach any value at all to human life.

The second part moves on to our actions in the face of doubt. Ayers want us to do three things when facing doubt: remember the Fall, remember your Redeemer and remember the stakes.

Remembering the Fall means understanding how the Fall has skewed all our thinking, people do try to suppress the truth. When we have doubts, we should see what we think the alternative is and compare it just as critically. We should beware of getting caught up in small details of doubt and letting them become larger than they need to be. We should go back to the basics and remind ourselves of the fundamentals of the faith, one way he recommends we can do this is to teach children the faith. Also, we can ask for help from others and stay involved ourselves,
the further you move away from Jesus Christ and his body on earth, the church, the more your doubts will grow. You will enter a vicious circle until, if you’re not extremely careful, you’ll drift away altogether. (p90)
One of my great sadnesses over the years is seeing people do this. Starting with some doubts, they move away from God, his word and his church to try figure things out for themselves. Sadly, more often than not, they never return:
there’s no neutral territory you can slip into for a while to give you a chance to make up your mind. If you drift from the light, you drift into the darkness (p91)
He also calls us to remember our Redeemer. Check if there are idols in your life pulling you away from Jesus and helping fuel your doubts:
If you are struggling with doubt, and you are considering giving up on being a Christian, you would only give it up to live for something else. Whatever that is, whatever you choose to live for instead, death would be the end of it. Nothing else has an answer to death. (p113)
Finally Ayers encourages us to remember the stakes:
This is vitally important. The stakes are life or death. There is a kind of drifting from which there may be no way back. The clear challenge of the Bible is to keep the faith. In an environment of unbelief, it can be difficult to keep going. But keep going we must. (p137)
There are a couple of limitations of this book, mostly I agree with what Dave pointed out in his macarisms review.  I’ll let you read that, rather than rehash the same things.

All in all though a very good, short book addressing doubt for Christians. If you find yourself in that category, I hope you find it helpful. I did.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some posts to look at

There have been a couple of good posts & articles related to various aspects of parenting I have seen lately, you might like to have a look:

When your mother says she's fat: a heart wrenching letter from one daughter to her mother.

The lost years of girlhood by Steve Biddulph: the importance of being around as parents for our 10-14 year old daughters.

7 things you don't know about a special needs parent by Maria Lin: a great article voicing the reality for special needs parents and then explaining it to those who aren't.

A letter to patients with chronic disease - from a doctor's point of view.  Actually this one is for any one with chronic disease but I found out about it from a parent of a child with special needs.