I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three ShipsI Saw Three Ships
Elizabeth Goudge & Margot Tomes
David R. Godine, 1969

I have recently been introduced to the works of Elizabeth Goudge and suffice it to say that I have quickly become a loyal fan. My book group adored The Bird in the Tree this fall and if you have not yet read that masterful book, let me have the privilege of being the first to tell you to run out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can. Much to my delight, I discovered that Goudge wrote for children as well as adults, and when I saw earlier this month that one of them was Christmas themed I bought it on the spot.

I Saw Three Ships is a mere 60 pages long, but oh my, what a perfect tale to share with an older-elementary aged child at this time of year. (Stocking stuffer, perhaps?) In it we meet Polly, a young girl who lives in England with her two spinster aunts and whose spunk and determination keeps them on their toes. We meet the threesome just before Christmas, and in the opening pages Polly is trying to convince her aunts to leave the doors unlocked on Christmas Eve. She has always heard that if you do so, the three wise men might come in and visit. Being an adventuresome lass, she is eager for that to happen. Her aunts protest, saying that leaving the doors unlocked is simply not safe. And besides, that old tradition is just a legend. Here’s a snippet of conversations from page 10:

“The wise men might come,” said Polly. “Why not? Susan at the sweetshop told me that Christ Himself came to the West Country when He was a little boy.”

“That’s only a legend, dear,” said Dorcas.

“What’s a legend, Aunt?” asked Polly.

“A story whose truth cannot be proved,” said Dorcas.

“You can’t prove God,” said Polly.

As I’ve mulled over I Saw Three Ships during the past few days, I think that passage is at the crux of what Goudge is sharing with us through this story. We may not be able to prove God, it is true. But do you know what happens when we open ourselves up to childlike faith? Our eyes are opened. Opened to reality, opened to seeing people for who they really are, opened to joy. I’m not going to tell you much more about the plot because you’ll enjoy discovering it for yourself. This book is full of warmth and charm (and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned quirk) and wonderful for anyone age 8 and up.

Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History

Trial and Triumph Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History
Richard Hannula
Canon Press, 1999

I love church history. As a young adult, learning that this faith I professed in the late 20th century was something received and that had a living past, that we weren’t just making it up, was incredibly helpful as I wrestled into a more grown-up belief. And ever since, reading church history has been like an exercise in genealogy for me: I love getting a better understanding of the family history, including the crazy, woolly, and sometimes downright broken parts. It’s enormously humbling and enormously encouraging at the same time, seeing God’s Spirit and his people work this whole being-the-church thing out through history.

Richard Hannula’s Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History is a wonderful and nuanced introduction to this story for children. Originally conceived as a series of sketches for his own children, to teach them about our Christian forbears:

“The Psalmist calls us to praise the Lord and ‘tell of his works with songs of joy.’ God’s greatest works are not the creation of the mountains and seas but His acts of saving love, which transform sinners into children of God. These stories were not written to exalt great Christian men and women. They were written to exalt the Lord who made them great.”

And that is precisely the function of these stories, ranging from the earliest church fathers to the middle of the 20th century: to show how God has never abandoned his church, but has instead worked in the hearts and lives of redeemed sinners to be his presence in the world. There are martyrs, kings, bishops, popes, abbots, missionaries, men, women, and one (of course) Oxford don. Hannula treats each with honesty, fairness, and genuine historical faithfulness: each subject speaks in his or her own words (no corny made up dialogue!), and complicated figures like Charlemagne and Constantine aren’t whitewashed. But neither are they neglected because they were complicated: both men played pivotal roles in church history, for good and ill, and I appreciated the care with which Hannula presents them.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is in its breadth: how many books for children contain, between their covers, Athanasius and Hudson Taylor, Elizabeth of Hungary and David Brainerd, King Alfred and Francis of Assisi? While Hannula’s theology is decidedly Reformed — Gregory the Great is called out for his teachings on purgatory and the veneration of saints — his biographical accounts are generous and faithful to the history of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

My oldest is seven, and we are going to begin reading through it together this summer; this book would also be a wonderful addition to a Sunday School classroom for read-alouds, or as a gift for a middle-school child who is interested in learning more broadly about the history of her faith. I commend it to you joyfully!

Dangerous Journey


Dangerous JourneyDangerous Journey

arranged by Oliver Hunkin, illus. Alan Parry
Eerdmans, 1985

It’s almost upon us, friends. Advent begins in less than two weeks, and here at Aslan’s Library we’ve been thinking about books and resources your family might want to use during the upcoming season of waiting and preparation. And let’s face it, most of us are thinking about what we might want to present our children with during our Christmas celebrations, too.

For each of those purposes, let me heartily recommend Dangerous Journey, a version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that has been illustrated and abridged for children. Some of you may remember it from your own childhoods: my father-in-law used to read it to my husband and his siblings at bedtime. It has stood the test of time, and is simply wonderful for reading aloud as a family or for older, more advanced readers to explore on their own.

The text itself is Bunyan’s, selected and abridged into short episodes. It retains, then, all of Bunyan’s wit, earnestness, and the careful crafting of phrase that have made the original book such a landmark in English literature. It is the allegory (or “dream,” as Bunyan described it) of the pilgrim Christian and his journey to the Celestial City, and all of the perils that attend him along the way.

For those of you who have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, it is first and foremost an adventure story. Christian’s passage to blessedness leads through the Slough of Despond, the Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, the Palace Beautiful, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is mortal combat, great beasts, unreliable guides, giants, escapes from captivity, unlooked-for friends, and narrow escapes. And my favorite allegorical character ever, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. It’s a wonderful presentation of the Christian life as one of danger, excitement, watchfulness, and providential care. And the scene in which Christian passes through the River of Death – over which there is no bridge – is so immensely moving and theologically rich. This is one book that will bear many re-readings in your family.

The text is accompanied by wonderfully witty illustrations. Bunyan himself was a nonconformist who served in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War; my inner history nerd took great glee in the portrayal of Christian and Hopeful in austere Puritan dress, while the unsavory characters are all corrupt and decaying Cavaliers. In addition the illustrations manage to convey the mood and spirit of each episode: Vanity Fair is bustling and distracting, and the Palace Beautiful exudes peace and repose. The images of the fight with Apollyon and the Valley of the Shadow of Death may be too scary for small or sensitive children.

This is a large-format, sturdy picture book that would make a handsome Advent gift for your family: just as we journey through the darkening days towards the light that dawns at Christmas, we can journey along with Christian towards the Celestial City. Or, if you have an older child, this would make wonderful devotional reading.

Did you read Dangerous Journey as a child? Have you read Pilgrim’s Progress? Any other abridged or illustrated versions that you would recommend?

The Bronze Bow

The Bronze Bow
Elizabeth George Speare
Houghton Mifflin, 1961

I don’t know how I missed The Bronze Bow when I was a young reader. I loved Elizabeth George Speare’s debut novel, Calico Captive and the Newbery-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  But somehow The Bronze Bow (also a Newbery medalist) never made it home from the library. And I’m actually kind of glad, because it was such a joy to discover it this summer!

Set in first-century Galilee, the novel tells the story of Daniel bar Jamin, a young blacksmith who has fled to the hills to join a band of robbers and who has dedicated his life to ousting the Romans from Israel. Sworn to vengeance upon the occupiers who killed his father, Daniel nevertheless befriends Joel bar Hezron, the scholarly son of a famous rabbi, and his beautiful sister, Malthace. Together the three pledge themselves to working for the Victory of God, and take for themselves David’s symbol of the bronze bow – from his famous song of praise for deliverance from Saul:

God is my strong refuge,
and has made my way safe.
He made my feet like hinds’ feet,
and set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
(2 Sam 22:33-35/Psalm 18:33-34)

Yet even as Daniel plans for war and dreams of violent revenge, he and his friends find themselves drawn again and again to hear the teachings of a wandering rabbi in nearby Capernaum. This Jesus of Nazareth draws crowds wherever he goes and seems to possess the power of God – and yet his preaching is so strange! He promises that the Kingdom is at hand, but slips away when the crowds would crown him king; his followers are convinced that he is the one who will deliver Israel, but he refuses to mount armed resistance against the Romans. The novel unfolds as Daniel seeks his revenge while grappling with the challenge Jesus presents.

I had trouble putting this book down: it has adventure, drama, gripping emotional tension, true friendship, and true love. Plus it has Jesus!

Jesus hovers like a shadow at the edges of the story for the first half of the book; as he looms larger and larger in Daniel’s consciousness, he comes more clearly into focus in the narrative. All of the characters are thoroughly, convincingly realized, and Jesus is no exception – which must be tricky for a novelist. I mean, the guy is God and man; the logos of creation, the second Adam, and a tired, humble carpenter. Most creative writing teachers would advise against this combination of traits.

But I loved this portrayal of Jesus. Daniel finds him frustrating, difficult to comprehend, yet utterly compelling. He can’t explain his attraction to this carpenter; he openly rejects him at one point; but he can’t get him out of his head. Much of the book is concerned with the search for a leader who will deliver Israel – what will this leader look like? How will he be recognized? When will he reveal himself? Jesus’ stubborn refusal to be the leader either the Zealots or the Pharisees demand, paired with his insistent call to “follow me” is something every major character in this novel must grapple with.

Daniel’s own struggle with Jesus’ call leads to a rich, satisfying conclusion – I wished I was reading it alongside some friends, because I wanted to dig into the final pages with someone else. But I’ll spare you the spoiler. Trust me – you want to find out on your own. Instead, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the whole book: a conversation between Daniel and his good friend, Simon the Zealot:

Daniel could not leave his friend without some answer. “Are you staying with Jesus, Simon?”
“If he will have me.”
“Is–is he one of us?”
Simon smiled. “A Zealot, you mean?”
“Isn’t that why you came? Have you asked him to join us?
“I had some such idea when I came,” Simon admitted. “But it has not worked out as I expected. No, I have not asked Jesus to join us. All I hope and long for now is that he will ask me to join him.”

Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church

Peril and Peace:Chronicles of the Ancient Church
History Lives, Volume 1

Mindy & Brandon Withrow
Christian Focus Publications, 2005

More than once, Haley and I have had the same experience. We see a book, we love the idea, and we think to ourselves somewhat fearfully, “I really hope this works.” Strangely enough, my own excitement about a book’s potential can actually keep me from reading it – because what if the author just didn’t pull it off? Better not to risk the disappointment.

That skittishness actually kept me from finishing this week’s book, Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church for over a year. Haley gave it to me last May right after my son was born, and it seemed like such a brilliant and necessary piece of theological kidlit – with so much potential to go terribly, horribly wrong. But at long last, I’m happy to report that this is a book well worth reading with middle-grade and early teenage readers. I wish something like this had been around when I was in middle school.

Briefly, this is the first book in Mindy and Brandon Withrow’s History Lives series. There are five volumes total, chronicling church history through the lives of major figures. In addition to the biographical chapters that tell the stories of the church Fathers, volume 1 includes short explanatory essays on the worship of the ancient church, the creeds, and the compilation of the biblical canon. The whole thing is written in breezy, action-packed prose – intended, I suppose, to make the ancient church figures more approachable.

I have to admit, I didn’t love that aspect of the book. While I admire the Withrows’ intention to show 21st-century readers their essential connectedness to the early church (which many of us tragically ignore), I highly doubt that Gregory of Nyssa ever described a Roman imperial prefect urging him to Arianism as a “bully!”

In fact, the church Fathers would likely have a hard time recognizing much of evangelical Christianity today – and as we encounter them, it’s worth preserving a sense of the distance between us. I think it’s valuable to keep in view both legitimate theological differences as well as (sadly) the theological shallowness foreign to the Fathers but so endemic to us. (Honestly: there were city-wide riots in Alexandria over the Arian controversy. When theological controversy erupts now, we just tweet at each other.)

That’s a minor quibble, though.  These stories are a wonderful introduction to the giants of our faith. I read many of the martyr accounts during Holy Week and was incredibly moved by how these men and women literally staked their lives on a story we’ve somehow domesticated with fuzzy chicks and chocolate bunnies.

I didn’t learn much about church history – and certainly nothing before the Reformation – until I was in college. When I finally did, I found the faith I professed to be much richer, more complex, and frankly more interesting than I had ever suspected. The Withnows’ book is historically solid (just check the bibliography at the end!) and clearly animated by a love for the saints who have gone before. I think I won’t be waiting another year to read the next one.

Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den

Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den
Janet & Geoff Benge
YWAM Publishing, 1998

A few weeks ago Sarah and I visited her daughter’s school library and scoured the shelves for books that we might want to review here.  At one point we strayed from the theology section to the biography section because we’d like to build up a nice collection of middle grade biographies that we recommend.

After a brief discussion we decided that Corrie Ten Boom might be a good starting point.  The only problem was that there were four separate youth biographies about her on the shelves!  I added all four to my stack to check out, thinking that I’d read a chapter or two of each one to see which author I thought was the best.

A few days later I set out on my task.  I settled down with all of the books during my daughter’s naptime and read the opening chapter in the first three titles.  Honestly, most of them were perfectly fine.  Corrie Ten Boom’s life story is remarkable no matter how you construct the prose!  But after I picked up Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den, which is part of the Christian Heroes Then and Now series, I was at chapter five before I even looked up.  I had found my winner.

Most of you are probably familiar with Corrie Ten Boom’s life.  During the Holocaust she, along with her father and sisters (whom she lived with as an adult), provided refuge for Dutch Jews in their home because of their Christian faith.  Their secret room was so well hidden that the Jews survived a Gestapo raid – but Corrie and her family ended up in concentration camps because of their bold stance.  Several of her family members died in the camps, but Corrie survived.

Throughout her time in the camps, Corrie refused to give in to despair because of her deeply held conviction that “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”  That may sound like a truism to those of us who have not suffered much, but after reading about what Corrie endured you will be amazed that she proclaimed that message even in the death camps.  Not only did she believe it, she also lived it out by trying to give hope to her fellow prisoners through small acts of kindness, prayer, and Scripture.  In a situation when most people would be consumed with their own survival, she wanted to help others.

Janet and Geoff Benge’s account of Corrie Ten Boom’s faithfulness to God and neighbor during the darkest of times is well worth reading.  Our children need to grow up hearing stories like this one, stories that will vividly demonstrate for them what it means to know the depths Christ’s love and follow him no matter the cost.  It’s not a fun story to read, but it is an important one.  Through this book Corrie might even become a friend to our children and sustain them during times when they need a glorious example of standing firm in the faith.

Because of the subject matter, this book is best reserved for older children who are already familiar with this atrocious period in history.

Hero Tales

Hero Tales
Dave & Neta Jackson
Bethany House, 1996

When my husband and I were engaged, he was in graduate school and living with Haley’s in-laws. I was still in college nearby, and would drive up occasionally and stay with their family for the weekend. After dinner together, we would sit together around the table and listen to a chapter from a book; those that I remember are from missionary biographies. During that season of life, of course, I was full of plans for my own soon-to-be formed family, and it definitely included adopting this tradition.

Happily, my own daughter is just now reaching the age where this is feasible – although reading a long or in-depth chapter book is still a few years away. But Dave and Neta Jackson’s Hero Tales is just right for beginning to share the stories of heroic Christians with preschool and early elementary aged children.

The book tells the stories of fifteen Christians who lived their faith heroically. Many were missionaries, and all were evangelists, in the sense that they devoted their lives to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Reformers (Luther, Tyndale, Menno Simons), opponents of poverty and oppression (William & Catherine Booth, Harriet Tubman), foreign missionaries (Gladys Aylward, Adoniram & Ann Judson, Hudson Taylor) and bold preachers (Wesley, Moody) are all represented. Each receives a brief biographical summary, and then three short stories from their life each illustrate a character trait that God used for his Kingdom.

The stories are brief and simply told, making them suitable for younger children – say, ages 4 to 8. And they don’t feel contrived to merely illustrate some heroic trait; they genuinely commend the humility, boldness, sacrifice, patience, and joy that these men and women embodied. Simple as the stories were, I was moved and inspired by many of them.

My only quibble with the book is really a by-product of its intended audience. That is, some of the treatment struck me as over-simple, especially the account of Martin Luther. I’m concerned that the portrayal of the the Catholic church – while essentially accurate – could contribute to the common Protestant misperception that it was a godless, superstitious place. The truth of the matter is of course much more complex: godlessness, cynicism and superstition resided alongside real piety and holiness. And that’s probably too much to try and show to a 4 or 5 year old in just a page and a half. But be aware: you probably don’t want this account to be the only or last your child hears.

Minor quibbles aside, though, this is a lovely book for introducing your child to the heroes of the Christian faith. May it inspire them to go and do likewise, whether you read it around the dinner table, on the couch, or at bedtime.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Best PageantThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Barbara Robinson
Harper & Row, 1972

When Haley and I began tossing around titles for Advent/Christmas reviews, Barbara Robinson’s classic The Best Christmas Pageant Ever floated up from somewhere deep in my mind – along with all of the childhood associations. Just glancing at the cover sitting beside me right now evokes a dim sense of my elementary school library, a place of excitement, anticipation, and possibility for a bookish kid. I remember sitting on the floor – maybe in the library, maybe back in our third-grade classroom – as it was read aloud, surrounded by red and green paper chains, our Thanksgiving turkey decorations curling off the walls, some tinsel in the window, the mingled delight in the story and the knowledge that Christmas was coming soon!

So it was with some trepidation that I checked this book out from the library a few weeks back. (Side note: I still get foolishly excited whenever I go into the library, even our crummy underground local branch. Especially in the kids’ section. I always feel like I’m getting away with something: they just let me walk in, hand over a card, and walk out with a giant stack of books! Will I love these books? Will I hate them? Will any of them keep me up too late at night? Change my life? Public libraries have to be one of the high points of late-modern Western civilization, and keep me in doubt as to our supposed decline.)

Anyhow, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I was afraid it wouldn’t stand the test of time, and some little corner of my childhood would get all sullied in my memory. Happily, I was wrong. I’m so glad to be able to recommend it to you for your family’s Christmas reading on the strength of mature consideration, not just nostalgia.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” So begins our narrator, who goes on to recount how these absolutely unchurched and woefully neglected hellions go on to take over the annual church Christmas pageant – and transform it in surprising and beautiful ways.

This little book is delightfully funny and alive. It’s wonderful for reading aloud – I remember our teacher, or librarian – reading a chapter each day, and wanting so badly for her to continue each time. The Herdmans are almost too terrible to be true, except that there’s something achingly real about their misguided attempts to deal with neglect. And their response to the Nativity story is so fresh, so untrained, and so genuine that it challenges all of us who only see Luke’s account through a hazy glow of sentiment and contentment.

Most importantly, though, this book is a wonderful reminder to children and parents alike of Jesus’ words: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) After all, isn’t that what we are preparing for and celebrating this season? Christmas is not primarily about a perfect performance, about gathering with friends and family, about cozily singing carols around the fire, about shutting out the unpleasantness of the world to enjoy peace in our little sphere. It’s about a God who forsook peace and comfort to call sinners, Herdmans and all, into his family.

If we take this to heart, a little chaos will probably ensue – just as it so surely does in this book’s Christmas pageant. But maybe that’s our way in to understanding what Christmas is all about. After the pageant is over, the child narrator remarks, “And this was the funny thing about it all. For years, I’d thought about the wonder of Christmas and mystery of Jesus’ birth, and never really understood it. But now, because of the Herdmans, it didn’t seem so mysterious after all.”