The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.”

There is a wardrobe in an old room.  Picture yourself opening the wardrobe door.  You climb inside it, carefully leaving the door cracked open slightly as you push your way back in amongst the antique coats, which smell of dampness and age and silent history.  But wait!  It is cold underneath you and, as you reach down, you grasp a wet, slushy substance that could only be snow!

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The Wind In the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”

Like many readers, I read The Wind in the Willows as a child and was completely charmed by the adventures of Ratty and Mole and Badger and Mr. Toad and the other creatures who populated Grahame’s captivating tale.  Yet like any children’s book read as an adult, you wonder if it will have the same effect now as then. Would I relate to its characters, be able to vividly imagine its setting, to become part of the story instead of simply experiencing it? Fortunately, I found time had diminished none of its magic. From the moment that Mole discovered the river and began “messing around in boats,” I was there. I could hear the fresh wind rushing through the reeds and the splash of the water as Mole fell out of the boat.  I could feel the warmth of Ratty’s snug house and the fear of Mole as he trekked through the Wild Woods.  And what became appreciated once again became familiar and what became familiar became loved.

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Newbery Reading Challenge 2019

A Newbery Reading Challenge for 2019!  What could be better?! This is a new challenge for me, a challenge to read Newbery Award & Honor Books and Caldecott Medal and Honor books.  I love children’s books and this is an opportunity to focus on some of these books for 2019.

Julie from Smiling Shelves is hosting the Newbery Reading Challenge for 2019 and the rules are as follows:

  • 3 points for a Newbery Medal Winner
  • 2 points for a Newbery Honor Book
  • 1 point for a Caldecott Medal or Honor Book

There are five different levels to the Newbery Reading Challenge but I’m going to aim for the easiest, L’Engle at 15-29 points.

Mother and Child Reading by Alfred Smith Carlton source Wikimedia Commona

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Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

“One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins.”

While this book is numbered three in the Moomin series, it’s the first Moomin book I read when I was around nine years old, and the Moomin family has lived in my imagination ever since.  Portrayed as cuddly white hippo-like creatures, they are actually a type of troll, but sweet trolls with a lazy relaxed demeanour in spite of their penchant for finding themselves embroiled in adventures.  With the creature, Sniff, adopted into their family, the traveller Snufkin, the Snork Maiden and her brother the Snork, the Hemulen and the gruff philosopher Muskrat, Jansson created a world that has been rivalled by few others.

In Finn Family Moomintroll, when the Moomin family arise after a long winter’s hibernation, they look forward to the awakening of spring.  But Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin find a lone black tophat on the peak of a hill, which appears to be the catalyst to a number of strange happenings: fluffy white clouds that can be ridden like horses chase each other, a jungle grows in Moominhouse and there is a terrifying transformation of the Muskrat’s dentures.  Meanwhile, the Hemulen is sad that his stamp collection is complete and at the behest of the Snork, takes up botany.  A sailing trip to an island brings a rather startling encounter with the Hattifatteners, whose ghostly bodies and deaf and dumb demeanor is rather disturbing as they live only to journey.  Thingumy and Bob arrive with their unique spoonerisms and unknowingly bring the cold and chilling atmosphere of the Groke to Moominvalley, as she searches for her missing treasure.  Nothing appears quite as it seems and the Moomins, with their natural aplomb and pragmatism, manage to extricate themselves from exploits and dangers, while at the same time welcoming the adventures as they come, enjoying the undulations of life in their Moomin-world.

It’s rare that I recommend a book without reserve, but honestly, if you die without reading this book your life in this world will have been a little less rich.  But I warn you that once you visit the Moomins and their friends, you might never want to leave their vibrant and delightfully unpredictable world where you never really know what is going to happen next.  However, one can always be assured that if it gets too intense, Moominmamma will pat you on the head, sit you down and give some tea and cookies to soothe your nerves.  In this Moomin-world, life is always an adventure and one must be prepared!

This is my second book read for Amanda at Simpler Pastimes Children’s Classic Literature Event.  Now if only I can get my review up for the first one!

This book also counts for my Deal Me In Challenge:

Week 10 – Deal Me In Challenge – Five of Hearts

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

“It was dusk —- winter dusk.”

I’d been waiting to read this book for almost my whole life — no exaggeration — so I was pleased when I drew it for this week’s Deal Me In challenge.  Wolves …… children left under the care of a ominous governess and imprisioned …. escape …..  What could be more suspenseful and exciting?  Or so I thought ………

Bonnie lives with her parents, Lord and Lady Willoughby, in a grand house called Willoughby Chase which is surrounded by woods populated by wolves.  One must take care in travelling at night as the risk of attack is quite real. As the story begins, Bonnie’s parents are preparing to leave on a trip because of her mother’s ill health, and her small cousin, Sylvia, arrives to keep her company in their absence.  Sylvia lives with Aunt Agatha, Lord Willoughby’s sister, who is really too old to properly care for her anymore, so she journeys by train to her new home.  On her way, she encounters a strange man, Josiah Grimlock, who attempts to befriend her, although his manner makes Sylvia uncomfortable.  When they arrive at the station and a suitcase knocks her companion over the head, stunning him, the man is taken with her to Willoughby Chase for his convalescence.  To the house also comes Mrs. Slighcarp, who is a distant relative and governess arrived to look after the girls. Neither child is taken with Mrs. Slighcarp, who immediately appears harsh, dictatorial and mysteriously assertive.  When Bonnie’s parents leave, enigmatic conferences begin between Slighcarp and Grimlock, and while all the servants except James the coachman and Pattern the maid are dismissed, the two girls are put to work as servants.

Bradley Manor, Devon (1830)
source ArtUK

However, Bonnie’s spirit, at least, is not in the least daunted and she attempts to get a message to the local doctor pleading for assistance.  The message intercepted, the girls are moved to an industrial village nearby to inhabit a school for orphans run under the watchful eye of a Mrs. Brisket.  When Slighcarp informs Bonnie that her parents have perished during their voyage at sea, all seems bleak and hopeless.  How could the help of a boy gooseherd and a sickly old woman be of assistance in their desperate plight?  One must read the novel to imagine how the fabulously implausible and unexpected are brought into order again.

Fighting Off the Wolves
Piotr Stojanov
source ArtUK

I’m sorry …… I tried to like this novel, I really did.  As a plot, it has some interesting characteristics, but while at times suspenseful, the writing held together about as firmly as stringy taffy.  Actions were related with a tone of practicality, yet sometimes those actions were highly improbable.  From a complete stranger being engaged to run your estate and watch your beloved daughter for months on end without any investigation or anyone to check on her while you’re away (even if she is a long lost relative — hello!  Warning bells!), to leaving your elderly sister completely alone again without anyone to check on her, to an area that produces blue geraniums.  Not to mention there were certain characters that appeared to simply be thrown into the story willy-nilly, without any true connection to the plot. Then to top it off, the wolves themselves were sprinkled here and there without much effect other than a slight bit of tension now and then.  Okay, I do understand the wordplay in that the wolves could be referring to the actual wolves or the human “wolves” of Willoughby Chase, but the intermeshing of the two was still rather sloppy.  Yet in spite of all my issues with the novel, I suspect your average reader would like this story a little bit more than I did.  I’m a connoisseur of children’s novels and have read some truly excellent ones.  In comparison, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase pales beside them, but overall it wasn’t a terrible novel.  It does deserve to be read once.

Wow, I have two children’s classics already finished for the year!  A short story is on schedule for the next Deal Me In choice, The Life You Save Might Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor.

Week 6 – Deal Me In Challenge – Seven of Hearts

The Tanglewoods’ Secret by Patricia St. John

“Philip and I lived with our Aunt Margaret in a white house on the side of a hill.”

Philip and Ruth reside with their aunt and uncle while their parents are away.  While Philip is a responsible and thoughtful eleven year old, Ruth, at nine, is impulsive, adventurous and sports a fiery temper.  Her relationship with her aunt is tenuously cordial and often she is disciplined due to some tantrum or neglected chore.  On one of the children’s daily rambles, they meet a poor boy named Terry who knows everything about their favourite pastime, birdwatching, and the three spend some lovely days together.

A chance meeting with Mr. Tandy, a shepherd looking for his lost lamb, gives Ruth a glimpse of the Good Shepherd.  Slowly her perceptions change and she begins to see not only her behaviour in a new light, but those around her.  A new-found grace and understanding pervades her soul, yet Ruth carefully guards this precious secret.  Yet when tragedy strikes and Ruth wonders why the Good Shepherd can’t put things aright if he truly does love them, she finds that her secret is one that needs to be shared.

The Good Shepherd
Frederick James Shields
source ArtUK

This was a lovely, simple little book that demonstrates how the grace of God can change even the most selfish of hearts, and how disinterested selflessness can alter those around us, enacting a tangible transformation within community.

Apparently, the edition of the book I read is a sanitized version that was printed to simplify the language for modern readers.  Blah!  I’d now like to get my hands on the original text.  I’d imagine that the story would be more rich and meaningful without being dumbed down for today’s audience.

Curiously, next week, I’ll be reading George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, which will address the dumbing down of the English language. Stay tuned!

Week 4 – Deal Me In Challenge – Six of Hearts

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

“I might as well tell you —– this affair of Emil’s was a great surprise to me.”

As part of the Children’s Classic Literature Event hosted by Amanda at Simpler Pastimes, the read-along for this year is Emil and The Detectives. I’ve been wanting to read this German translated children’s book for years, so I was very glad when it was chosen.

Emil lives with his widowed mother in the small town of Neustadt.  As the story opens, he is bound for Berlin to visit his uncle, aunt and grandmother who live on 15 Schumannstraße. His mother works very hard as a hairdresser and has saved 140 marks, which she entrusts to Emil to give to his grandmother.  Emil is a good boy and determined to carry out his mother’s request, but little boys can get tired on long train rides and Emil falls asleep.  When he awakens, the money he’d pinned inside his pocket is gone!  At first distraught, Emil spies the thief and takes off after him.  Thus ensues a riotous romp through the city of Berlin with Emil, the thief, and numerous boy detectives, all of whom are determined to help Emil with his plight.  Will Emil recover his stolen cash, or learn a valuable lesson instead?

In spite of the Emil’s adventurous exploits and suspenseful situations, he also shows a deep understanding of human nature:

“Emil had known for a long time that there are always people who say, “Ah, well, things used to be much better.”  So he paid no attention when anyone announced that formerly the air was much more healthful or that the oxen had bigger heads.  Because usually what they said wasn’t true, and they belonged to the sort who refuse to be satisfied with things as they are for fear of becoming contented.”

Emil also notices the differences in a large city with regard to the lack of closeness of community:

“The city was so big and Emil was so mall.  And no one cared to know why he had no money and why he didn’t know where he had to get off.  Four million people lived in Berlin, and not one of them was interested in Emil Tischbein.  No one wants to know about other people’s troubles.  And when anyone says, “I’m really sorry about that,” he usually doesn’t mean anything more than, “Oh, leave me alone!”

Here are a few of the places Emil visited in pursuit of the thief and justice:

This book was absolutely delightful.  Being translated from the original German, it had a somewhat different tone, but the action and the repartee from the characters leaves the reader both in suspense and laughing.  There are wonderful contrasts of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old, and the importance of loyalty, duty, perseverance and family.  It is a clever and adventurous tale, both endearing and diverting.

The author himself appears in the story, as an unidentified man who assists Emil with money, then he later returns to take part in the mystery.  Erich Kästner was a poet, author, screenwriter and satirist, and when he wrote Emil and the Detectives in 1928, the book sold two million copies in Germany and was translated into 59 different languages.  With the advent of the Second World War, Kästner opposed the Nazi regime but chose not to go into exile.  He was interrogated many times, and personally watched Goebels book-burning of May 10, 1933, his books being part of the kindling.  His home was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944, and finally in 1945 he obtained permission to travel to the Tyrol for a fictitious moving filming, instead managing to avoid the Soviet assault on Berlin.  He was still in Tyrol at the close of the war; when he returned to Germany he moved to Munich where he lived until his death.

Big John’s Secret by Eleanore Jewett

This was one of my children’s books that I had scheduled for my Deal Me In Challenge, and I was planning to review it only on my children’s blog, yet it was such a wonderfully uplifting story that I decided to share it here too!

The book is initially set in England during the reign of King John. The main character, John, is a twelve year old boy, yet big for his age, who works on the manor of Sir Eustace as a villein. Old Marm, is an old woman who acts as his guardian, and through her we learn of John’s noble connections, of how she saved him from an attack on his father’s castle when he was a mere babe.  With his father either dead, or missing, John’s heartfelt desire is to find him and wreak vengeance on the baron who attacked his family estate when his father fell afoul of the king.

One day, John’s gentleness with the animals is noticed by a visiting lord, who takes John with him in his company to work as a page.  The position means leaving Old Marm, but it allows John to work towards his dreams of reunification and revenge.  He is given to Sir Alwynn, a Knight of St. John and a participant in the upcoming Fifth Crusade.  Through various circumstances and adventures, John learns that his father was perhaps seen in the Holy Land, and is ecstatic to be sailing with Sir Alwynn to Acre.  In battle there, John, through giving mercy to a Muslim boy and allowing him to live, is taken by the Muslim commander and finds himself in Jerusalem.  Grateful for John’s actions of mercy, the boy’s father, Sultan Nur-Aslan, treats John as a guest and he becomes friends with the son, Yusuf.  An encounter with a monk called Francis, leads John to follow the monk to visit the ruler, Muslim Sultan Melek-al-Kamel; John is in search of his father, Francis a new convert.  In a situation of danger and uncertainty, bravery and grace are their only weapons.  Will the visit bring only more conflict and strife, or something entirely different?

This book was such an inspiring read, especially as the reader witnesses John’s desire for revenge come in conflict with his naturally compassionate and charitable nature.  As we observe John’s struggles and experience the positive effects that multiply with his acts of goodness, acts that can sometimes seem to be done against his own will, we realize that the world can give us perceptions that are often false, and we must look to higher standards to govern ourselves.

St. Francis before Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt
Giotto (wall fresco)
source Wikipedia

The visit of Saint Francis of Assisi to Melek-al-Kamel is documented history.  After failing to stop the Crusades by meeting with his own religious leaders, Francis set out with Brother Illuminatus to visit the Kamel, the nephew of Saladin, in an attempt to spread the Gospel, but while the sultan received the monk graciously, his visit left him unaffected and Francis was returned safely to the Crusader camp.  Also, the battle at Acre on December 24, 1217 to capture the fort on Mt. Tabor actually happened and Lord Ranulf, Earl of Chester was an historical figure who participated in the Fifth Crusades.

While Jewett manages to weave a story full of adventure and intrigue, the emphasis on understanding and forgiveness is most compelling.  She reminds us that Christians and Muslims were able to live in harmony, and show tolerance, mercy and compassion towards each other, even in the midst of the tumultuous times of the Crusades.  What John encounters through his experiences and with Saint Francis, shows him that mercy, instead of weakness, is strength; differences are only a big as we make them; and that forgiveness can be the most powerful action of all.

Deal Me In Challenge #5 

The Ides of April

Author:  Mary Ray

Illustrator:  Gino d’Achille (cover)
Era:  62 A.D.
Published: 1974 (first publisher unknown)
Award:  None known
Age Range:  12 years old and up
Review:  ★★★★

Senator Caius Pomponius Afer is murdered in his bed and the household slaves are taken into custody to face the sentence of death if even one has perpetrated this crime.  Aulus, Pomponius’ valet and the first slave to happen upon his master after the assassination, is suspected, but when he dies in prison, who will prove his innocence?  Yet the slave list has been neglected and so, no one is aware that two of the slaves are missing. Where is Assinius, the Senator’s steward, who had not been seen days before the murder?  And Hylas, the Senator’s Greek secretary is not in the party.

Arch of Nero (completed 62 AD)
Thomas Cole – 1846
source Wikiart

Hylas, as it turns out, escaped detection in the house and is working steadfastly to find out who committed the dastardly deed.  He is certain that it was not one of the servants, but who could have had the opportunity and motive to commit such a vile execution.  Enlisting the help of Pomponius’ son-in-law, Camillus Rufus, the nobleman and slave investigate, and unearth devious plots that could possibly rock the foundations of Rome’s political body and cost them their lives.

Ray included various historical characters in her narrative including Thrasea Paetus, a Senator and former consul, who lived during the times of three Roman emperors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  We also have a glimpse of Seneca and Emperor Nero whom Ray portrays in a realistic fashion.

The Cascatelli (View of Rome from Tivoli)
Thoma Cole
source Wikiart

The real life of Publius Clodius Thraea Paetus is particularly compelling. By his actions in the Senate and in public life, he exemplified a man of honour and convictions, often going against the status quo in favour of principles.  Upon Nero’s murder of his own mother and the Senate’s obsequious behaviour towards the Emperor, Paetus walked out of the Senate meeting, refusing to be part of it.  His opposition to Nero continued and eventually his admirable ethics caught up with him.  Nero contrived charges against him, accusing him of neglecting his senatorial duties and he was sentenced to death by his choice.  At his suburban villa, he elected to have the veins in his arms opened and died with serene dignity.

While the mystery aspect of the story suffers from some contrived plot manipulation, this disappointment is balanced by the rich description of Rome and the historical detail painted within the pages of the book.  It’s certainly a story by which any child would be captivated.

An extended summary of the book can be found at my children’s blog, Children’s Classic Book Carousel.

Deal Me In Challenge #8 – Four of Hearts

The Forgotten Daughter

Author:  Caroline Dale Snedecker

Illustrator:  Dorothy P. Lathrop

Era:  2nd century B.C. (around 113 B.C.)

Published:  1933 (Doubleday)

Award:  Newberry Honor (1934)

Age Range:  8 – 14 years old

Review:  ★★★★

Twelve year old Chloé lives with her companion, Melissa, in a shack in mountains of Samnium outside of Rome.  The daughter of a Greek slave and a Roman centurion, at her mother’s death she is abandoned by her father to her fate, which is that of a slave.  As Chloé grows to womanhood, she draws from the animals and nature around her as companions.  Her character is as lovely as the woods around her, yet still she nurses an abiding hatred for the man who should have loved, nurtured and raised her as his own.  When a young Roman nobleman arrives at a neighbouring villa and encounters the young girl, Chloé’s circumstances appear destined to change for the better, yet her past finally catches up with her and Chloe must decide whether she will hold on to the ghosts of the past or reach forward into a new future.

Map of Ancient Samnium
from the Historical Atlas William R. Shepherd (1911)
source Wikipedia

Snedecker was known for her extensive research using only primary or secondary sources, and The Forgotten Daughter sings with a melody of the past.  Snedecker’s writing brings Roman life to the reader in vibrant colours and poignant emotions.  The descriptions of the setting are beautiful and living, and as a reader you feel that you have stepped right into the story.

Chloé’s life as a child slave was perhaps the most troubling and effective portrait that I’ve every read in a book.

“Forever besetting mankind is this temptation — to make other men into machines.  Always in a new form it comes to every generation, and always as disastrous to master as to slave.”

 Snedecker delves into the emotions of the characters in such a visceral way and with an uncanny perception.

“Despair in the old is a grievous thing, but not so bad as despair in the young.  The young have no weapons, no remembrances of evils overcome, nor of evils endured.  They have no muscle-hardness from old battles.  They see only what is present, and they believe it to be forever.  And they are very sure.  Besides, joy and up-springing are the right of youth, and without it youth falls to the ground.”

The theme of slavery was obvious on the surface but also subtly explored through other occurences, weaving fine threads of insight through an already well-constructed story.  I absolutely loved this read and will be seeking out other books by Snedecker.

This book was read for Amanda at Simpler Pastimes Children’s Literature Event.

A more extensive review can be found at my children’s blog, Children’s Classic Book Carousel.

Deal Me In Challenge #3 – Ace of Hearts