Monday, January 26, 2015

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

I spent a fair bit of time over 12 months last year reading this series of 7 books to my eldest two.  At the time they were aged 8 & 10.  We started with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which even though is chronologically the second one, I felt was the one to set the scene and it reveals Aslan in a wonderfully slow and descriptive way.  If that one grabs their attention and they love it – they will be ready to cope with the rest.  If they can’t quite manage it yet, wait before you go on to the rest.  

There are many wonderful things about these books – the beauty and creativity of Lewis’s writing; you can just enjoy the story; or as a Christian you can read them and see all sorts of analogies with Christian teaching and thought, and use that as a springboard to talk about matters of God and faith.

Personally, I loved it – I had not read the final five in the series before myself, so for all three of us it was the first time we were experiencing it.

We would read a book, chapter by chapter at night, then take a break for about a month and then start the next one.  Some were harder going than others.  We felt The Horse and His Boy was slow to get going.  I found The Silver Chair a bit hard going myself.

In the end though, we loved them all.  They were detailed, interesting, good stories with strong characters.  The absolute highlight was the final chapter of the final book, The Last Battle.  For those who have read it, you know what I mean.  For those who have not – it is a fictional picture of arriving in heaven.  We finished reading it and all just looked at each other, in silence and amazement and awe.  All we could say was ‘wow’.

The best moment of all was about 10 minutes later when my son came up to me and said "If that is what heaven is like, it makes you definitely want to make sure you believe in Jesus so you get to go there".

There it is in a nutshell – why I read to my kids and why I teach them the faith. Thank God for these wonderful authors!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Kids Christian Camps

Our two eldest (age 9 & 11) went to their first Christian camp this holidays. It was a big deal – mainly because they were both away for 4 nights and had never been away for that long without a family member. Also, because we have been waiting for these fun times to start for a while now!

It was the perfect choice for them: they could go together, the camp was aimed at 9-13 year-olds and thanks to some planning and a number of dear friends across Adelaide with similar age children, each went with a group of friends who were in their small groups and dorm rooms.

I had some feelings of misgiving when I dropped them off. There was no reason to: the camp was well-organised, the kids were welcomed wonderfully (as was I), and due to Adelaide being a small place we knew a number of the leaders personally. Yet there is always that feeling of anxiety when you leave your children anywhere.

Fast forward five days and I was back to pick them up. The end of the camp was in an auditorium packed with kids, leaders and parents.

I spotted my two surrounded by friends and leaders. They, with all the others, recited from memory the verses they had learnt during the week - Hebrews 12:1-2. The all leapt up to sing and dance unashamedly to Colin Buchanan’s “Super Saviour”. They hugged and thanked their leaders. Then a photo collage came up and showed snapshots of the week.

I found myself a bit misty-eyed as I watched. For what a gift and privilege it is to have people who are willing to teach and lead camps for kids. Who are willing to be Christians and be fun with children. Who are willing to talk about Jesus unashamedly. Who are willing to sleep for a week with a bunch of giggling 9-year old girls or a bunch of noisy smelly older boys. Who are willing to lose sleep, listen to inane conversations, make craft, be silly, yet do it all in the name of Jesus so that these kids have role models who follow Jesus.

I know for certain that we, their parents, are their main teachers. It is our job to teach them of Christ and his marvellous work. But I also know that we do this as part of a team, and we are entering that youth stage where the team is growing. More members need to be enlisted. Young men who will show my son how to stand up and stand strong for Jesus. Young women who will show my girls what it looks like to find your value in Christ alone.

I am so incredibly thankful for all the people who give their time on this camp, it was great for the children and the kids loved it. But, we as parents loved it too and are incredibly thankful.

This camp (and others in time) will now be a regular feature of our January. We will need to re-think the timing of our annual leave to make it work. Our youngest is now counting down the two years until she is allowed to go. I know not everyone lives in places where these options are available, but if they are – it’s worth making it happen. Expand the team of role models for your kids!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton - again.

I have just finished reading the three related farm books by Enid Blyton to our 7 year old daughter - The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, The Children of Willow Farm and More Adventures on Willow Farm.

We loved them. The first book tells the story of a family of four children who go to live on a farm (Cherry Tree Farm) with their aunt and uncle because they have been sick in London and need to recover. So they head off to the healthy countryside and learn how to live in the country rather than the city. They meet Tammylan, the wild man who lives on his own and who teaches them all about the animals of the English countryside. At the same time, they start to learn about farm life.

By the end of the book, the children’s parents are convinced that farm life is for them and so they buy a nearby farm, Willow Farm and the following two books tell the story of the first two years of life on the farm.

I have finally put my finger on why as a family we like these books so much. They are similar in expectations and behaviour to our own family. The children are loved and cared for by their parents and other adults (unlike a Roald Dahl book for example!). The children are generally kind to each other and respect authority. When they don’t, there are obvious consequences (Rory nearly burns down the farm in book 3, because he thinks he is cleverer than he is, yet there is real contrition and an admission of the mistake). There is no praise or tacit acceptance for poor behaviour, rudeness and cheekiness like there is in so many more modern books. Makes me sound like an old-fashioned bore I know, but I have expectations of my children and I like it when characters in books don’t constantly undermine that!

Obviously, these books are getting old now, having been written in the 1940s yet they still have great appeal. We loved the descriptions of farm life, and though obviously the practices described are much out of date, it still gave us all more insight into farm life than we had before.

Enid Blyton books certainly still live on with great popularity in our home!

* We have the old versions, but I recently saw they have been republished into one volume containing all 3 books.

Monday, January 12, 2015


Parvana, Deborah Ellis

This series of 4 books by Deborah Ellis are for the 9-13 year old age group, yet deal with a reality of life for women and girls in Afghanistan that is quite confronting.

My son’s teacher (Year 6) read it aloud to their class, which was good (that’s how I found out about them, he got the rest at the library and told me to read them). Yet there was no discussion at all about the issues raised in the classroom, which I think was a real shame and a little irresponsible.

A quick précis of each book for you:

Parvana – Parvana is 11, and she and her family have been mostly confined indoors since the Taliban took over Kabul. After her father is dragged off to prison for being educated, Parvana dresses as a boy to get small jobs in the market to care for her family. Her mother and elder sister leave to arrange a marriage for her sister, and at the end when the father is released from prison we find out the mother and sister’s destination has also been taken by the Taliban, so they plan to go and find them.

Parvana’s Journey opens with Parvana burying her father during their travel. She continues on alone, finding 3 other children and babies along the way who have also been orphaned in the ongoing war.

In Parvana’s Promise, her mother has now established a school for girls yet faces considerable opposition from locals. In the end of the book, we find out the mother was tortured and murdered. The chilling part of this book is that it is told during the parallel account of her imprisonment by US troops while on suspected terrorism charges.

In Shauzia (which would be better to read 3rd not 4th), we read about Parvana’s friend from book 1 and her attempts to leave Afghanistan and then Pakistan, always dreaming of escaping to France and it’s lavender fields.

This could be disturbing reading for children. I found them quite confronting myself. It was odd to read something so powerful, yet with a level of vocabulary that my 9 year old could have handled (not that I would let her read them yet).

Having said that, I still recommend them. When children around the world really live like this, it is eye-opening for my very protected children to have a glimpse of it.

However be careful letting children who are very sensitive read them. And if your children do read them, please make sure you talk about it with them.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

This is a beautiful book.  First published in 1927, it is the story of the first Catholic Bishop of New Mexico, Jean Marie Latour and his faithful friend Father Joseph Vaillant and their 40 years of service to God in the new world.

Set between 1851-1889, these two gentle, gracious and godly men from France choose to serve God and his people in the new world; before railroads and before roads when the new diocese Latour was given was unknown, mostly unchartered and sparely populated by Mexicans and native Indians. It seems based on fact also, although written as fiction.

It has a very similar feel to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, with a gentle relentlessness. It is a series of stories that link together to tell the story of a life of service, there is no one climax or plot overall, just the ebbs and flows of lives lived for God.

If you read it, I suggest you do what I did and keep some paper nearby to track characters and details; it makes it much easier to follow when the characters reappear at a later time. (This something I should definitely have done more accurately while attempting Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment recently – very hard to follow those Russian names!)

Obviously the theology in this book is Catholic and so there are elements which do not sit comfortably with me. However, her writing and descriptions of these men and their lives is so beautiful you are encouraged just in the reading of it.

Some highlights:
“He said his prayers before he rolled out of his blankets, remembering Father Vaillant’s maxim that if you said your prayers first, you would find plenty of time for other things afterward” (p99)
“The Faith, in that wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul’s salvation. A word, a prayer, a service, is all that is needed to free those souls in bondage. I confess I am covetous of that mission, I desire to be the man who restores these lost children to God. It will be the greatest happiness of my life.” (p165) 
“The Vicar was one of the most truly spiritual men he had ever known, though he was so passionately attached to many of the things of this world. Fond as he was of good eating and drinking, he not only rigidly observed all the fasts of the Church, but he never complained about the hardness and scantiness of the fare on his long missionary journeys.” (p180) 
“You have been a great harvester of souls, without pride and without shame… If hereafter we have stars in our crowns, yours will be a constellation” (p208)

After enjoying this one so much, I then turned to another Willa Cather novel, My Antonia.  While interesting as a story of early rural life on the prairie, I didn't enjoy it as much.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Counting by 7s

Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan

This is the third book my son and I have read in the last eighteen months which focuses on kids that are bit different. The others were Wonder and Out of my mind.

This is the story of Willow, a 12 year old genius who is obsessed with the details of medical conditions and the growth of plants, and who reverts to counting by 7s to cope with stressful situations. She was adopted as a baby by loving parents but in the opening scenes, her parents are both killed in a car accident. For Willow, whose life is centred around them devoid of any friends or family, her world falls apart.

She is taken on reluctantly by a school counsellor and more so, by a new found friend, a Vietnamese girl along with her mum & brother. Willow starts to see that life just might go on. When they all go to extraordinary lengths to care for her, she finds herself able to adapt and change in ways previously unknown.

I read it in one sitting (2-3 hours) and while still think that Wonder and Out of my mind were better and covered situations with more depth and insight; this is still an excellent book for young readers. My son (11) really enjoyed it and kept telling me to read it, and I’m glad I did. He preferred it to Out of my mind, finding it funnier and also liked the way that it had people helping one another who weren’t family.

The books my son now reads cover some very mature topics and I enjoy reading them alongside him and being able to talk about them. I am actually enjoying youth fiction more than adult fiction these days. More kids book review coming in following weeks...