Easter book review: Petook: The Rooster Who Met Jesus

Somehow I’ve never read Petook: The Rooster Who Met Jesus by Caryll Houselander, illustrated by Tomie DePaola. It was recently republished by Ignatius and Magnificat, and it’s a wonderful book. 

It’s a simple story of a rooster who has a brief encounter with the young Jesus. Jesus only appears in person on a few pages, in an apocryphal scene where he pauses on his way  to Jerusalem. Hearing that “some stranger has been walking through the vineyardm” the new father Petook is alarmed, thinking a careless boy might step on his newly hatched chicks. But the young Jesus is entranced.

“It must be the first time that he has seen a hen gathering her chicks,” Petook realizes. I love this little reminder that Jesus is a real person who encountered beautiful sights for the first time with his human eyes. It’s the memory of this moment that later inspires Jesus to say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you under my wings as a hen gathers her chicks, and you would not.” 

There are little symbols and portents throughout the story, but it’s done subtly and naturally.

It’s never explicitly stated, but we can assume that Petook is also the rooster whose crow made Peter weep.

The book tells the story of the Passion, death, and resurrection without telling it, with the gospel scenes appearing unobtrusively in the background for alert kids to find and identify. 

DePaola, as usual, conveys a lot with color — the bright daylight colors of Petook’s joy as a new father

the lonesome, uneasy tones of night when Petook can’t sleep (and readers can see the disciples sleeping and Jesus praying while the soldiers approach with their lantern)

and listening quiet just before the sun rises and new life emerges on Easter morning.

This isn’t a tearjerker like some of DePaola’s Christian books, but it’s a quiet meditation on how the life of Christ permeates the whole life of the world, even the chickens and the blades of grass and the seeds in the earth. Just lovely. Good for ages three and up. The language may be too sophisticated for youngest readers, but the pictures will be captivating. 

You can order this book direct from the publisher, where it is currently on sale for $12.74. It is a sturdy hardcover with an attractive format, and the colors are excellent. 

What we’re watching, reading, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

I’m giving away FOUR books by Tomie dePaola!

Tomie dePaola is a beloved author and illustrator for good reason, and in addition to his dozens of charming and lovely books about Strega Nona and Big Anthony, he published many Catholic books, including books on the saints, Bible stories, and other religious works. Ignatius Press with Magnificat has recently been reprinting some of these in hardcover. I got to review four of them, and they’ve given me four to give away to you! The titles:

Queen Esther
Brother Francis of Assisi
Noah and the Ark
Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Enter by using the form at the end of the post. 

If you don’t win, or if you just want to order some or all of the books, I also have a 25% off code for these four books.

Use the coupon code STOMIE25 when you order any of these four books from Ignatius and get a 25% discount starting today and ending Saturday, Nov. 21 at midnight. 

And now for the books! 

Queen Esther (first published 1986) A simple and dignified telling of the story of Esther, the Jewish woman who was chosen for her beauty by the Persian king, and who risked her own life to protect her people.

Esther is rendered in blues and grays, very elegant but rather severe and sad, which seems right to me. She didn’t ask to be put in that position, but she did what had to be done once she was there. 

A good true “princess” story about a girl chosen for her beauty, who musters up courage and strength for her people. 

The story is somewhat simplified, good for young kids, and is nicely dramatic

The final page notes that her story is commemorated on the Jewish feast Purim. “On Purim, Jews give gifts to the poor and one another. This spring holiday often falls during Lent, when Catholics recall the courageous faith of Queen Esther.” I didn’t realize this was so, but he’s right! The Mass readings during Lent tell her story, paired with an exhortation to ask God for what we want and trust he will give it to us. 

****

Brother Francis of Assisi (first published 1982) 
I had this one when it was first published, and as a result, I’ve always been a little afraid of St. Francis, as is appropriate. He is most certainly not the fuzzy wuzzy pal to our furry friends that pop culture has turned him into, but was an intense, passionate, singleminded man.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a scary or graphic book, but it doesn’t shy away from how hard Francis was on himself.

I had a hard time getting through the Pope’s dream where Francis holds up the crumbling walls of the Church. Oh boy. Give yourself time to compose yourself if you’re reading this one aloud.

It does include favorite stories, like Francis preaching to the birds, and dealing with the wolf of Gubbio,

and also has some lesser known stories, like Francis allowing himself to indulge in some honey almond cakes made for him by a patroness,

and a story about Francis recreating a manger scene and being visited by a real holy child who smiles at Francis and strokes his beard.

And here — get ready — here is Francis receiving the stigmata

This is one of de Paola’s longer books at 47 pages, and it includes the Canticle of the Sun and a timeline of Francis’ life, including his and Clare’s feast days. Good stories about Clare and her sisters, as well. The illustrations were painstakingly researched on site, and you get a real sense of place, as well as a sense of who Francis really was. Excellent. 

*****

Noah and the Ark (first published 1983) I struggle with children’s books about Noah’s ark! I know it has animals and a rainbow, but it’s not really a children’s story, and it bothers me when it’s portrayed as cutesy or rollicking. DePaola’s version avoids this, and is told very simply and has a sort of mythical air to it, which works well.

God is shown as a powerful, bright hand emerging mystically from the heavens, and the animals are animals, not cartoonish sidekicks

DePaola’s mastery of color is on full display here. There are two pages with no text, just the flood waters:

and then the next page pulls back a bit and shows the ark still being tossed on the waves, but with the threatening clouds receding. 

A solid rendition, bright and dignified. 32 pages, for children ages 5 and up. 

*****

And now for the crown jewel of these new editions!

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (first published 1995) 33 pages, and there is a LOT in here. An astonishing book, luminous, illuminating. If you’re looking for a religious book to give a child for Christmas, this is the one.

It covers the whole life of Mary, from before her conception to her assumption and coronation, and it draws on scripture and also on pious legend, including things like the child Mary climbing the steps to the temple by herself,

and the staff of Joseph miraculously flowering. It also, to my surprise, describes Mary as gently dying and being laid in a tomb, with Thomas meeting an angel who has him roll the stone away and find her winding sheets left behind. My kids were a little dismayed, having been taught (by me!) that Mary didn’t die, but was assumed into heaven body and soul without dying first. It turns out there’s no actual dogma definitively saying whether she died or not. In any case, the illustration of her assumption got me right in the kishkes:

Reading the whole thing from start to finish helped me remember what a straight up good story it is, and how many angels came to this family. 

All the illustrations are striking, and the expressions on the (clearly middle eastern) faces are subtle and thought-provoking.  Here is Mary proud but protective as the wise men appear to visit her little son

Here are the parents angry, dismayed, and confused to find Jesus in the temple:

Here is Mary calmly and knowingly, with a glimmer of a smile, telling the stewards at Cana to do whatever Jesus tells them

and look at this angel, busting through into the room of this young girl with her long braid

Extraordinary. It says ages 7 and up, and honestly I would give this book to an adult convert to introduce him to Mary. It’s so lovely and heartfelt. Each section is introduced with a short excerpt from the liturgy of the hours. So good. 

That’s it! Good luck! You have until Friday the 20th to enter. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you can’t see the Rafflecopter form, click this link and it will take you there. 

***

P.S., Did I ever tell you my Tomie dePaola story? It’s not a very good story, but it’s what I’ve got. In second grade, I won a Young Author’s contest (The Day It Rained Piano Keys, by Simmy Prever. No copies extant) and dePaola presented the awards, and each winner got a kiss on the cheek. I’d been reading his books steadily my whole life, and almost forty years later, I finally got up my nerve to ask him for an interview, because he lived in NH. I wanted to know what his favorite book was, and what his relationship was with the Church, and how hard it was to paint the face of Jesus. And if he knew someone like Bambalona. So I put in my request and I waited with bated breath for his response, and then two weeks later, he died.

That’s my story. I don’t think I actually killed him, but if you want to talk to someone, my advice is to do it now, not later. SIGH. 

The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White

“I’m drankful they didn’t clip Serena’s wing,” said my four-year-old at evening prayers. “Drankful” is her fusion of “grateful” and “thankful,” and Serena is the wife of Louis the Swan in The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which we’ve been reading aloud. And her whole sentiment was my signal that, no, the weirdness in the book hadn’t flown harmlessly over the kids’ heads.

The Trumpet of the Swan tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. He can’t communicate, which means he can’t live a full swan’s life. So he goes to school with a boy who befriends him, and, after some initial skepticism from the teacher, he learns to read and write, using a small slate and chalk that hang around his neck. But none of the other swans can read, and he still can’t talk to them; so his father steals a trumpet for him, and he uses it not only to vocalize like a swan, but to play human music. Burdened with the guilt of the theft, Louis leaves home to play music for humans until he earns enough money to pay back the trumpet. The trumpet also allows him to woo Serena, who is also attracted by the slate, a lifesaving medal, and a moneybag that hang around his neck along with the trumpet, setting him apart from other swans.

At one point, Serena is in danger of having her wing clipped to keep her at a zoo; but Louis, who works for the zoo, strikes a bargain: If they let Serena go, the couple will return and donate a cygnet to the zoo from time to time. 

My kids were not okay with that, and neither was I. 

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.

As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.

It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine. 

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?

The same theme is present in The Trumpet of the Swan, although it’s more in the background. The central problem of the story is communication: Louis and his father both feel that Louis cannot be whole unless he can communicate. When the father swan goes literally crashing into the human world, through the plate glass window of the musical instrument store, he brings back something which allows his son not only to converse with other swans, but to enter into the world of humans as an entertainer and a businessman — which, in turn, allows him to pay back his debt, lay down the human burden of the moneybag, and return to the world of swans and live in peace with his family in the wilds of Canada. 

Except that he made that deal that sometimes he gives some children to the zoo. Dammit, E. B. White! There it is again: The reader, and specifically children, are forced to work out some kind of uneasy truce with the contradictory world he builds. We are asked to accept that swans are fully sentient, with ideals and ethics, consciences and desires, and that a wild swan living in a zoo with clipped wings is a kind of servitude so undesirable that my four-year-old recognized it as a dreadful fate. And yet this is the fate Louis proposes for an indeterminate number of his future children, and that’s fine.

White is a good and imaginative story-teller, and he could have come up with some other plot device to extricate Louis and Serena from their dilemma. But he chose to use a trope familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales: child sacrifice. This is in Rapunzel; it’s in Rumpelstiltskin; it’s in Hansel and Gretel. Heck, it’s in Iphegenia and Psyche and Andromeda. Heckity heck, it’s in the Old Testament, when Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt. I have no other choice. Here, take my child.

And it’s never presented as a good or reasonable solution. We may recoil in horror, or we may writhe with pity and sympathy, because we can imagine what it feels like to be in such a tight spot; but it’s unequivocally a wrong choice, or at very least a dreadful one, made with anguish. You’re really, really not supposed to sacrifice your children to save yourself. 

Not so in Trumpet. Louis and Serena, who love and dote on their children, who know them as individuals, who have real relationships with each other and even with their own parents, and who cherish their beautiful and peaceful life in the wild, travel across the country once a year and sometimes drop off one of their babies at the zoo, as per their agreement. And that’s it.

We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.” 

But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them. 

I keep wondering, how much is White aware of the plight he’s creating for his readers? 

Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and helps rescue him from an ignominious life of muteness, has the endearing habit of writing a question in his journal every night, something to mull over and he falls asleep. In the final scene, he come across the word “crepuscular,” describing a rabbit, and he doesn’t know what it means. He falls asleep wondering what it might mean, planning to look it up later. Then the book ends.

After we finished reading, I followed the obvious prompt from the author looked it up. It means animals that are most active during twilight. 

And there it is. E.B. White is a crepuscular writer, who leads us, for reasons of his own, to live in a twilight world, where nothing is clearly one thing or the other, but we’re still expected to live our lives in the half-darkness.

Maybe it’s not nihilism; maybe it’s more like some kind of American zen buddhism. But it’s not especially well-suited for kids, either. Kids can handle the idea of death; but they can’t handle the idea of being content with semi-meaninglessness, and neither can I. 

***

Some interesting responses to this essay:

from Darwin: In defense of E. B. White’s talking animals
and from Melanie Bettinelli: Children’s books in Parallax

Five Catholic books for littlest kids (and also for their parents)

The books we read as young kids stay with us for a lifetime, so I’m always on the lookout for books that not only have attractive and engaging illustrations, but convey powerful and lasting truths.

I’m especially careful when those books are explicitly about our Faith. Here are a few of my current favorites in that category. They not only tell my kids things I want them to know about God, but I’ve found them moving and engaging myself.

Read my list at The Catholic Weekly

Cave Pictures is an intriguing new comic publisher with plenty on its mind

Like many parents, I have mixed feelings about comics and graphic novels, especially adaptations. I want my kids (and the rest of civilization) to be able to read through a block of text without pictures to help them along; and I want them to read “the real thing,” not a watered-down version of a classic. But more and more, I see that, while many comics are still lurid and vapid, many are not. We’re firmly in an age of comics with something on their mind. They’re not just colorful, easy-to-digest substitutions for books; they’re something different — or at least they can be. Ben Hatke‘s and Mike Mignola’s work spring to mind.

The other week, I stumbled across an ad for a serialized comic adaptation of The Light Princess. Although I adore the original illustrations by Maurice Sendak, I have always wished someone less wordy than George MacDonald had written his wonderful stories, especially for reading out loud. So I dug around to see what else the publisher, Cave Pictures Publishing, is up to.

It turns out they’re new, and The Light Princess is one of five comic titles debuting this year

— and holy cow, it’s a diverse line-up, to say the least. There’s also “Appalachian Apocalypse” by Billy Tucci (Shi), Ethan Nicolle (Axe Cop), and Ben Gilbert:

and “The Blessed Machine,” a dystopian sci fi series by Jesse Hamm (Batman ’66) and Mark Rodgers

Locked in a city deep within the earth, a courageous few struggle to reach the surface, fighting not only against the minds and flesh of men but against their man-made minders.

Other titles:

THE NO ONES by Jim Krueger with art by Well-Bee

A team of superheroes, blinded by their fame and self-promotion, are forced to reckon with their destructive choices when a twist of fate erases them from both history and present memory.

WYLDE by Daniel Bradford

When a mysterious masked lawman partners with a suspicious sheriff to save his frontier town from an invasion of the undead, the sheriff will learn ancient secrets of the lawman’s past and the power of self-sacrifice. In saving his town, he will save himself.

Okay, sure!

Cave Pictures (tagline: “Great comics for the spiritually inclined”) says it intends to deliver more than mindless, two-dimensional entertainment. They’re not religious, but they hope to engage readers who thirst after spiritual meaning.

My take? I’m intrigued. The artwork and storytelling is skillful and lively, and they do seem dedicated to presenting work that’s layered, but driven primarily by story and art, not message.

The first issue of The Light Princess (the only title I previewed) is a little unsettling. For reasons that are not yet clear, they’ve invented some odd backstory for the princess’ parents

but I’m suspending judgment until future issues. The artwork leans fairy-tale-ish, and so far lacks some of the weird, jarring edge inherent in the story; but this may change as the plot progresses (the first issue ends just as the baby first loses her gravity). The overall look is professional and effective, sometimes quite lovely. The lettering occasionally gets overly pictorial and almost too ornate to read in a few places, but not disastrously so;

and the story moves along briskly and keeps the reader’s attention. In short: Not perfect, but intriguing, and definitely a publisher to watch. I’ll be asking my librarian to look into carrying these titles, and I’m more curious now to look into the other stories, which are all original, not adaptations.

Here’s a page from their free comic that frames their mission, retelling Plato’s allegory of the cave:

Earlier this week, I chatted with the president, Mandi Hart, who “manages all the moving parts of Cave.” Hart has a background in filmmaking, but got a law degree to help her manage the legal and logistical aspects of running a creative business. She soon came to realize that investors would be willing to finance a company that published what their children and grandchildren loved, and that meant comics.

Here’s our conversation:
.
You quote David Foster Wallace saying “Everybody worships. The only chance we get is what to worship. ” What do you think people worship? 
.
It could be any number of things. In our culture today, there’s a lot of self-worship, influenced by entertainment media and also by advertising. It can be very toxic to make yourself the center of the universe. Across all of our titles, we’re trying to incorporate themes like: Is there more to life than yourself, than the material world?
.
.
The key theme in the The Blessed Machine is about whether there is more to the world than the characters inhabit, than what they can see — and more than what the machines they depend on for life are telling them exist.
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Is it possible to live without faith in anything? We all have to exercise faith in something. It’s a question of where: Where are we going to invest that faith?
.
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The Light Princess
is actually a little more overtly Christian than the even book itself is. Is there some particular faith background from which you’re approaching these titles?
.
Across all our titles, we’re not coming from any particular faith background. We like to think of our titles as “faith-acceptable” or “faith-aligned,” not promoting any particular perspective. We’re raising universal questions about meaning and moral responsibility.
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As a Catholic, I often come across creative people of faith who say they want to do just that, but they end up producing preachy, heavy-handed stuff. Does that worry you?
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We definitely try to avoid using the art form a tool. We are really going for stories that have a lot of layers of meaning. One of the primary gatekeepers is the artists we work with. They all have extensive experience and a great reputation; they’ve won awards, and they have developed their own creative content. So that, for us, has been one of the primary mechanisms to use: That we’re hiring writers and illustrators who do really solid work and have been recognized in the industry.
.
For The Light Princess, it being an adaptation, George MacDonald already imbued it with so many layers of meaning, so that helped us avoid the least common denominator. For the other stories, on the whole, it’s wholly original content. The creators that came up with those titles originated the ideas, and came at their stories as storytellers, not with a message or an agenda.
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One of our illustrators was talking about his universal approach to his own art. He said it’s much more about raising questions than about providing answers. That’s emblematic of the work we do. We want to start conversations, not feed anyone a particular message.
.
The Light Princess is an adaptation, but the rest of the first round of titles are all original stories. Will you do other adaptations of books in the future?
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I can’t disclose which one yet, but we will be doing another George MacDonald adaptation. George MacDonald is in the public domain, but we are open to exploring doing other copyrighted work.
.
Of all the titles coming out, which is your personal favorite? 
.
They’re all so different. I have a favorite aspect of each of the different titles. In our sci fi title, The Blessed Machine, it’s about a dystopian future, but it’s also a lot of fun. In Appalachian Apocalypse, certain moments in the dialogue and artwork are such a great laugh release, but at the same time, there’s a serious subject matter to be tackled. What are the implications of an army of undead attacking us? In The Light Princess, one of my favorite things is that the artwork is just stunning. It’s been such a pleasure to see how they’ve rendered this story. The use of color, light, and texture has been really beautiful. In the superhero series, what I love most is the setup. Without giving too much away, the six superheroes have been part of a team, but there’s a twist of fate, and they become pitted against each other. They all face a very stark moral choice, kind of a fork in the road, and half go one way, and half go the other. I love the way the author, Jim Krueger, has developed the story and characters for the quandary they find themselves in.
***
Each series is on a monthly release. The first issues of Appalachian Apocalypse will be out in late January, The Light Princess in February, and The Blessed Machine in March.

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Summer book swap redux!

Last year, I had a pretty good idea that we followed through on in an okayish manner. The idea was to swap book recommendations with my kids over the summer: I’d give them a good book I think they’d enjoy, and they give me a book they like and that they think I’d enjoy. I said:

I like this approach for several reasons. They will read at least some good books, of course; but also, I’ll know more about what captivates them, and we’ll have more to talk about together. They’ll know I care about what interests them. And we’ll be doing something as part of a relationship, rather than just because I’m in power and I can make them do what I want.

As you will see, it was a less-than-howling success; but some of the kids still want to do it this summer, so I’m assembling a list. Here’s what I have so far, starting with the oldest kids:

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye
The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

How did it go last summer? Here’s what I optimistically called the “first” summer book swap list:

I was supposed to read:

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

And my kids were supposed to read:

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
The Space Merchants by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Arthur M. Miller
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Here are my thoughts on the books I was supposed to read:

 The Wee Free Men: I either read part of it and then lost it, or else read it all and forgot most of it. I do love Terry Pratchett, but vastly prefer the Discworld books. He’s a great writer for people who love alternate universes which are disturbingly like our own; bizarre, strangely compelling characters; and very witty, sardonic turns of phrase, but who have started to notice the Douglas Adams’ world is awfully dreary after a while. I wrote a bit about Pratchett here.

The Joy Luck Club I did a quick review of this book and the next one here:

Here’s a book I avoided my whole life, because something something Oprah something, bestseller ptui ptui. You know: Lit major reasons. Well, my older girls assigned it to me, and it’s great. It’s great! It’s miraculously light on agenda and heavy on well-conceived characters, searingly memorable scenes, and a beautiful melancholy that stays with you (because you needed that). Each chapter could stand alone as a well-crafted short story. It’s not Dostoevsky, but it’s worth your time.

I recently re-read this, and it was as good as I remembered.

The House of the Scorpion 
It’s a dystopian YA novel (I know. WHERE DID I EVER FIND SUCH A THING?). The author’s vocabulary has an oddly stunted, juvenile quality to it, but the way the story unfolds is pretty skillful, and the plot is a pretty good adventure. The action takes place in Opium, a country that runs between the US and the former Mexico, where super-wealthy drug lords control the lives of everyone else, even putting brain implants on some, to make them pliant, witless slaves, and making clones of themselves to use as ever-ready organ donors. But . . . dun dun dun . . . one clone is different. Not bad at all, and unexpectedly Catholic in its ideas and also explicitly in the plot, in places.

The scene in the whale graveyard is pretty pretty good. 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I . . . never even checked this one out of the library. Sorry, Elijah.

The Luck Uglies: 
It’s written by someone who enjoys reading quirky, fascinating, fantastical story about scrappy kids solving mysteries and not even realizing that you can have anachronisms, but you have to earn them. There were pieces of good stories and good characters in there, like bits of good salami in a mushy, underseasoned pasta salad to which someone has added, for some reason, marshmallows. Still, the salami was there.

The Unwanteds: Also never got around to reading it. Sorry, Sophia.

The One and Only Ivan: It was okay. It’s a first person narrative by a captive gorilla in a very crummy zoo. It’s done skillfully, and I don’t have any actual problems with it, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. You wants a sad animal story, you reads Charlotte’s Web. The characters had enough depth to save it from being truly emotionally manipulative, but it sure waltzed right up close to that line.

Here’s the scoop on the books I gave to the kids to read last year. The number is the age of the kid when he or she read the book.

The Loved One. She (19) said it was “pretty good, kinda grim.” Can’t argue with that. Hoping she will read more Waugh.

The Space Merchants. She (18) claims I never told her to read it, and anyway, I made her read it several years ago when it was above her reading level, and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like the chicken. So there you are.

The Great Divorce. She (17) liked it! She said it was weird. She didn’t quite finish it, since we didn’t order it until near the end of summer, but she would like to get back to it. This is an accessible and entertaining but Very Important Book, and I’d really like all the kids to have it in their imaginations.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (15). He read the first part but got bogged down in the second part, which is definitely the boggiest part. I encouraged him to try again, because the third part will knock his socks off; and he says he will.

Tom Sawyer (13). He got up to the part where he got the other kid to paint the fence for him, and then he got bored and dropped it. Bum.

The Great Gilly Hopkins (11). She says she couldn’t find it. Another kid said, “I know where there’s a copy!” and the first kid said “Shut up.”

The Princess and Curdie (9). She says I actually told her to read Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aikin, instead, but she didn’t actually read that, either.

The Trumpet of the Swan (8). She didn’t like it. It wasn’t exciting enough. Humph! I thought it was a very exciting book, what with all the flying around, but I guess it missed the mark. At least she read it.

So it looks like either I did a better job of choosing suitable books for the older kids, or else the older kids are just better people, and the younger ones are jerks. You have to admit, I did a fantastic job of finding an image to illustrate this post, though.

Happy summer! And wish me luck as the kids assemble their list.

 

THE KING OF THE SHATTERED GLASS is a great exploration of confession for kids

Like a dummy, I misplaced our copy of The King of the Shattered Glass (Marian Press, 2017; affiliate link), but I want to tell you about it now anyway. It would be a great book to read during Lent, and would make a nice Easter present, too.

It’s a picture book appropriate for ages six and up, written by Susan Joy Bellavance and illustrated by Sarah Tang. Basic story: An orphan girl named Marguerite works in the scullery of a medieval king’s castle, when glass is an astonishing novelty. It’s so valuable that the king insists that anyone who breaks his glass must gather up the pieces and bring them to him personally.

Marguerite, an orphan, is a pretty good kid, but on three occasions, she breaks the precious glass — as the blurb says, “through temper, the pride of a dare, and selfishness.” Each time, she has to gather her courage and own up to what she did. It’s not easy, because she’s ashamed, and because she’s afraid of punishment; and eventually, once she comes to actually know the king, and just feels bad that she broke his stuff.

Catholics, you can see where this is headed! The book is a thoughtful allegory for confession; but it works well as a satisfying little story, too.

Marguerite has some penance and growth to do, and eventually the king reveals that he is using all the glass she has shattered to make a gorgeous stained glass window showing himself putting a crown on Marguerite’s head. He then adopts her as his own daughter, and there is rejoicing.

The king, to my great relief, is truly appealing, gentle but strong, and the illustrations successfully suggest divinity (especially Christ as the source of Divine Mercy) without being too heavy-handed. Some of the pictures are more skillful than others, but all are lively and bright, some in black and white, some with deep, saturated colors.

You can download a free pdf of a teacher’s guide, which takes you through the book’s themes:

1. Relationship with God as Father, King and Friend
2. Conscience, a gift to be developed
3. Penance, which brings healing to ourselves and others
4. Jesus, who carries our burdens
5. Adoption and family life; Baptism and Reconciliation.

The King of the Shattered Glass is not the most polished book you will ever encounter in your life, but it works very well, and it’s full of heart and theologically tight as a drum.  Kids will find it memorable and appealing. Recommended!

Bellavance and Tang are collaborating on a second book, to be titled Will You Come to Mass?

 

Summer Book Swap: The First List!

Last week, I wrote about my idea to get everyone reading more and better books by doing a reading swap with my kids. It’s a simple plan: They read a book I think they’ll like, and I’ll read a book they think I’ll like.

Here’s what we have so far. (Note: All links are Amazon Associate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of every sale. If you click through and end up buying something else, I still earn! Thank you!)

My 19-year-old daughter has me reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett,

and I gave her The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.

My 18-year-old daughter is still mulling over my assignment, but I’m probably giving her The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth.

My 16-year-old daughter got me started on The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,

and I’m giving her The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.

My 15-year-old son gave me The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

and I’m giving him A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

My 13-year-old son assigned me Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

and I’m giving him Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

(if you order this book, beware of abridged editions!).

My 11-year-old daughter got me started on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham,

and I gave her The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (terrible, off-putting cover):

My 10-year-old daughter gave me The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (here’s hoping the cover is misleading)

and I’m giving her The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald (the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin.)

My 8-year-old daughter gave me The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

and I’m giving her The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.

My five-year-old is just learning how to read, so she’s not playing, but I did order a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne for us to read together.

If your family is only familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, do yourself a tremendous favor and get ahold of the original. The stories are so weird and hilarious, highly entertaining for parents without being condescending for kids.

And we’re off! I’ll probably follow up with a bunch of quick reviews by me and the kids, and then we’ll get a second list going. So far, so good.

Are you interested in doing a book swap with your kids this summer? What books will you give them, and which books are they giving you? Please include their ages and maybe a little bit about why the books are on the list.

Getting kids to read more and better books

I really hate the mantra that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading. Of course it matters. I know we can do better than that, and I know how important it is to lay a deep, strong foundation of good ideas, powerful words and images, and memorable scenes and characters. Unfortunately, most of the books that are popular in my kids’ social circles don’t have any of these things.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Boy and Book via PublicDomainPictures.net