The Princess and the Goblin

princess and the goblin

The Princess and the Goblin, kindle edition, by George MacDonald. Published in 1872. 134 print pages.

This book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg.

I have never been a huge fan of fantasy novels. I’ve read two of the Narnia books, and one of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings installments. Despite their renown, the genre has never held enough appeal with me to inspire a desire to read more. It’s more about my personality than the books themselves, however, and I recognize this. So when my daughters were assigned George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin as part of their British literature study this semester, I saw a perfect opportunity for me to revisit the genre in a non-threatening way. By non-threatening I mean that this is a relatively quick read.

I’m very glad I decided to read it along with them, as it is quite a delightful story. So much so, that I am giving serious consideration to which of Macdonald’s books I want to read next. I’ll try to offer a brief overview without giving away too much of the plot.

Princess Irene lives in her father’s castle under the strict supervision of her nurse, Lootie. Lootie is to keep a watchful eye on Irene and take care to govern her under specific guidelines. Chief among them is that they are never to play outside after dark. What Lootie knows but Irene doesn’t, is that underground, below their kingdom, is another kingdom. It’s a kingdom of goblins who only come out at night, and they love to terrorize the “sun people” should they happen upon them.

Of course, Irene and Lootie inevitably find themselves outside on the wrong side of the sunset, but they are rescued and kept safe by Curdie, a brave young miner boy who is not afraid of the nocturnal, lurking goblins. He knows they’re weakness, and is adept at wielding the knowledge he possesses. During his brave nighttime exploration, he finds out the goblins are hatching a plot, that Princess Irene is at its center, and that he must warn the kingdom so that it can be thwarted. What Curdie doesn’t know is that Irene is under the protection of a powerful entity who can shield her from all of the nefarious happenings taking place in and around the kingdom.

This is a fast-paced story that simultaneously demands that the reader take the time to see the vivid imagery and overlapping activity taking place among the characters. It’s a children’s book, but a smartly written one. I found myself eagerly wondering what would happen from one chapter to the next. It’s a great read.

5 out of 5 stars.

I Need a New Butt

i need a new butt

I Need a New Butt by Dawn McMillan. Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird. Originally published in 2012. 32 Pages. Official summary, from Goodreads:

A young boy suddenly notices a big problem — his butt has a huge crack! So he sets off to find a new one. Will he choose an armor-plated butt? A rocket butt? A robot butt? Find out in this quirky tale of a tail, which features hilarious rhymes and delightful illustrations. Children and parents will love this book — no ifs, ands, or butts about it!

This is as much a rant about low-quality children’s literature as it is a book review.  Our local grocery store has a small section with various books available for sale. To their credit, there is as much inspirational reading as there are new and popular novels, children’s books, and reading about health. Recently, I noticed this book and thought how silly it looked, but my husband and I stood there and read it nonetheless.

He, being something of a kid at heart, found the first couple of pages funny in the way he might have when he was a kid. Boys and their bathroom humor! However, as it went on, it was increasingly clear to both of us that this was a terrible book, by almost any objective standard.

By way of disclosure, I can be something of a literary snob when it comes to children’s, fictional and humorous literature. My mind is open when reading nonfiction in a way that it simply is not when reading novels and children’s literature. Fiction should have some redeeming value and a children’s book should do more than making a child chuckle. It should certainly do that, but with some sophistication of thought, and “I need a new butt because mine has a crack!” doesn’t pass muster.

The interesting thing about this book, and its sequel, is how well it was received on Goodreads. It is possible that I overestimated the literary tastes of the Goodreads community!

To make myself clear, I’m not against silliness in children’s literature. I loved reading both Dr. Suess and even Sandra Boynton to my kids when they were very young. It could be that the whole idea of a book resting on the humor of one’s butt crack rubs me the wrong way 🙂 , but I look at this book and its runaway success as just another example of the coarsening of our culture. Here is the question of the day:

Is there a place for this kind of thing in children’s literature? Or am I overreacting here?

2 out of 5 stars

One Wintry Night

one winry night

One Wintry Night, by Ruth Bell Graham. Richard Jesse Watson, illustrator. Originally published in 1994. 72 Pages.

This review is late, using our traditional Western calendar, and I am regretful that I forgot to post the review in a more timely manner. However, since Orthodox Christmas has yet to arrive and many people celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas which extend until  January 5, this review is not as thoroughly untimely as it appears at first glance.

On Christmas Eve night, our family read this book together and it occurred to me that despite my intentions, I hadn’t offered reviewed this book as a wonderful addition to a family’s Christmas library. Despite the date, I’m offering it now.

One Wintry Night is the Christmas story, from Genesis to the Crucifixion, as told by a woman to a young boy who finds his way to her home after getting lost on his hike through the mountains near his home on a cold, wintry night. She begins the story by telling the boy that if the baby born to Mary was coming to “save His people”, then someone must be in trouble, and needs to be saved. From there, she goes back to Genesis and begins in the Garden of Eden.

Much like Adam and His Kin, which I reviewed some time ago, this book offers a loose dramatization of life in Eden, and in the life of the Biblical people whose narratives Graham touches on as she sets the stage for Christ’s advent into the world. Because it is a dramatization, she takes a few safe liberties. By safe I mean that while not found verbatim in scripture, the narratives she constructs are not in opposition to the tone and message of Scripture. However, her ascription of thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the Biblical protagonists are her own.

The illustrations in this book are striking, to say the least. Richard Jesse Watson’s beautiful work is a highlight of this book, taking it to a higher level of beauty and invoking wonder even for people like me who know the Biblical narrative well.

I highly recommend this book. If not for this Christmas, definitely for next. It is technically a children’s book but is enjoyable for people of all ages.

5 out of 5 stars.

 

Tales From Shakespeare

tales from shakespeare

Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb. Originally published in 1807. Hardcover, 304 pages.

This is a children’s book, or at least it’s supposed to be, but I absolutely love this compilation by the renowned brother and sister authors. These narrative renditions of Shakespeare’s works are quite well done. This is not a book of synopses of Shakespeare’s plays. They are the stories themselves transformed into literary narratives suitable for children. Here, as an exmple, is the introductory paragraph from the Lambs’ translation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

There lived in the city of Verona two young gentlemen, whose names were Valentine and Proteus, between whom a firm and uninterrupted friendship had long subsisted. They pursued their studies together, and their hours of leisure were always passed in each other’s company, except when Proteus visited a lady he was in love with; and these visits to his mistress, and this passion of Proteus for the fair Julia, were the only topics on which these two friends disagreed; for Valentine, not being himself a lover, was sometimes a little weary of hearing his friend for ever talking of his Julia, and then he would laugh at Proteus, and in pleasant terms ridicule the passion of love, and declare that no such idle fancies should ever enter his head, greatly preferring (as he said) the free and happy life he led, to the anxious hopes and fears of the lover Proteus.

Clearly, this is not Sparks’ Notes nor a Cliff Note’s paraphrase. These are well presented translations from gifted authors. Charles and Mary Lamb, whose stories are told in the introduction  of this volume, were a troubled and intriguing pair. Plagued by mental illnesses so severe that Mary Lamb was institutionalized for killing their mother, the two cared for each other throughout their lives.

Despite their troubles and hardships, they were highly regarded and well respected within the literary community. This volume of Shakespearean tales, along with other volumes, were commissioned to them to compile. Charles wrote the tragedies, while Mary wrote the comedies.

I received this book as a gift, and since I have only ever read four of Shakespeare’s many works, and three of those in high school, I took the opportunity to read the stories and familiarize myself with the characters and plots. I have neither the desire nor intention to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do appreciate a rudimentary knowledge of his lesser produced works. Tales from Shakespeare allows me to do acquire it.

The entire first volume is available for free online through Project Gutenberg. You can read it here, but I really like this beautifully illustrated, special edition in hard cover.

5 out of 5 stars.

 

Johnny Tremain

johnny tremain

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, originally published in 1943. 320 pages.

This is a historical novel set on the cusp of the American Revolution and is a good fit for middle grade readers, ages 10-13.

Johnny Tremain is a young and talented but arrogant orphan being apprenticed by a highly regarded but aging Boston silversmith. Mr. Lapham, Johnny’s master, has grown so frail and infirm that Johnny basically runs the silversmith shop. The Lapham women, comprised of Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law and her three daughters, feed Johnny’s vanity, treating him like a king because of his extraordinary talent and because he is set to inherit the silversmith business which they all depend on for their livelihood. Mr. Lapham makes every effort to counsel Johnny in the ways of piety and humility, often to no avail.

While violating his master’s rule regarding not working on Sundays, Johnny severely injures his hand trying to fill a rush order for a wealthy client. Just like that, his entire life is turned upside down. He is turned away from the Laphams and the silversmith shop. He is no longer the heir apparent. After many struggles, he finds a new path and a new purpose as the American colonists ramp up their rebellion against the British crown and the Revolution gets underway.

I enjoy well written historical fiction, but this was the first one I’d read in a long time directed toward children. Esther Forbes does a really great job illuminating the different arguments, factions, and issues surrounding the break of the American coloniies as well as the turmoil that it brought upon major port cities such as Boston.

One of the things I enjoyed about Johnny was his wit and his rugged ability to rise to the occasion and survive no matter how rough things got. His understanding of the grave turn life had taken in Boston is revealed in a dialogue he shares with a young woman who belongs to a family loyal to the crown:

“How old are you Johnny” she asked.
“Sixteen.”
“And what’s that-a boy or a man?”
He laughed. “A boy in time of peace and a man in time of war.”

I liked this book. Esther Forbes’ spin on the American Revolution with engaging characters and a story filled with action and intrigue offers a good opportunity to delve deeper into the American Revolution with young readers.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

Russell Hoban’s Frances Series

bedtime for frances

Some stories never get old or go out of style. The children’s picture books featuring Frances the Badger by Russell Hoban is a series which fits this bill. My children have aged out the books, or at least I thought so, but we’ll get to that a little later.

For the past several months, a lovely young homeschooling mother who is a friend of mine has been teaching our daughter to play the piano. Despite numerous attempts to offer her remuneration for her time and talent, the only thing she requests of me is that I read to her youngest children in exchange for the lessons. Since her native language is Korean, she’s determined that the time I spend reading to her kids is a valuable exchange.

Our home library is constantly evolving, so I’ve exhausted all the books we have which might sustain the interest of a three and five-year-old (even accounting for repeating books!). So yesterday I went to the library in search of books to read to the children this week. After reading through several newer children’s books and finding only two of nine worth checking out, I searched my mental Rolodex for specific authors that might suit my needs and narrow my search.

I originally thought of Arnold Lobel, but there was nothing on the shelf at that branch which sparked my interest. Then I remembered Frances, and all the stories about her that are funny, well-written, and teach lessons in ways that are profound and true without being preachy. My children thoroughly enjoyed the books when they were younger. I found copies of several books in the Frances series:

While preparing breakfast this morning, I noticed our 12-year-old sitting at the table with the entire stack of books in front of her, saying to herself, “Ooh! I love these books!” She cracked open Bedtime for Frances, and got my attention as she read a funny exchange from the book out loud.

After several unsuccessful attempts to fall asleep, and several trips to her mother and father with various excuses and fears about things that go bump in the night, Frances’s father puts his foot down, exasperated with her constant interruptions which are disrupting his sleep:

Frances said, “There is something moving the curtains. May I sleep with you?”

Father said, “Listen Frances, do you want to know why the curtains are moving?’

“Why?” said Frances.

“That is the wind’s job,” said Father. “Every night the wind has to go around and blow all the curtains.”

“How can the wind have a job?” said Frances.

Everybody had a job,” said Father. “I have to go to my office every morning at nine o’clock. That is my job. You have to go to sleep so you can be wide awake for school tomorrow. That is your job.”

Frances said, “I know, but…”

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you don’t go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?”

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances.

“No,” said Father.

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances.

“Right!” said Father.

“Good night!” said Frances, and she went back to her room.

We had a good laugh, and I realized that we never really age out of a good story. Russell Hoban, using Frances the little badger, provided children with great stories.

If you have young ones and you’ve never read these, you should check them out.

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.