Family Stories That Bring the Proverbs to Life
Canon Press, 2003 (3rd edition)
Before I jump into today’s book, let me first note that today marks our 20th book review here at Aslan’s Library – and our first review of a chapter book! Sarah and I are delighted to be edging our way into middle grade and young adult books and we hope that we’ll do more reviews for older kids in the months to come. If you have any to recommend, please let us know! And now, without further delay, today’s review…
Fables are a literary form that people seem to either love or hate. I, for one, have harbored a fondness toward Aesop and the like since childhood, but I have several friends (not to name any names, but one of them might be my co-blogger) who could easily do without them. Those who dislike fables likely do so because they feel they’re too, well, obvious: fables are, by definition, short stories that illustrate a moral lesson and end with a succinct nugget of wisdom. Their message is blatantly clear, and some readers would rather a story’s message be a bit more nuanced.
If you find yourself in the camp of the Fable Wary Folks, I’d still encourage you to give Wise Words, by college professor Peter Leithart, a chance. If you do, you’ll find that the cast of characters from Proverbs have come to life! Wisdom, Folly, Wickedness, Loyalty, Envy, and other virtues/vices are typified in short stories about kings and queens, servants and commonfolk, princes and an occasional talking animal.
On the one hand, yes, the tales are very straightforward in their message. But there is a great deal of depth to them as well, because each one borrows from a variety of biblical stories and characters. The result is that the stories not only “bring the Proverbs to life” but also illuminate many of the themes that are found throughout Scripture. They are thought-provoking depictions of how the path of foolishness compares to the path of wisdom (a la Proverbs) but there are also glimpses of Jacob and Esau, David, Adam and Eve, and many others. Hats off to Leithart for pulling this off seamlessly when others would surely butcher a similar attempt.
I should warn you that the stories are not all sunshine and rainbows – or political correctness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you may want to preview the book before sharing it with your children. For starters, some stories contain scenes involving violence or death. And while most of the stories are wonderful and well worth the price of the book, there are perhaps 3 out of the 18 chapters that I do not care for and would probably skip when reading the book to others.
If you’re like me, Proverbs is a difficult book to read. Every verse or two you have to switch gears, and if you’re not in the habit of reading slowly and meditating as you go it’s going to be difficult to fully grasp their message. Wise Words is a great way to introduce children to Proverbs because, as an “imaginative commentary,” it does some of that hard work for you. Try it as a read aloud (each story takes about 15 minutes) or check out the audio version that’s also available because my sense is that this is a book that shines the most when shared with others.
As the, ahem, co-blogger who doesn’t love fables, I have to echo Haley’s review. I confess to raising my eyebrows when Haley brought Wise Words to the lake this summer, until I sat down with the book itself.
One thing I especially appreciated: Leithart really captures the way that the Scriptures echo and interpret themselves. A character in one of the fables may evoke several characters from Scripture, but isn’t that how the Bible works too? Jesus is the second Adam, the new Moses, the faithful Israel, the seed of Abraham and David, and so on. We see Ruth and Rahab reflected in some of the women in the gospels. The disciples look at times woefully like the desert generation of the Exodus. I love how Leithart’s stories capture this theological reality while remaining stories – not theological commentary.
I confess: I am also an Aesop fan! What I like about fables is that they provide a recognizable allusion to illustrations of folly or wisdom. “Don’t be a dog in the manger” or “i dropped a few pebbles in the pitcher” and we know what you mean.
If this book can illustrate the wisdom of Proverbs, and not just an ancient Greek storyteller, I’m on the look out for it already.
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We love this book! Adam and His Kin by Ruth Beechick might be a good chapter book to review. Also Tirzah by Lucille Travis and Twice Freed by Patricia St. John.