More Gifts for Kids: a new Pilgrim’s Progress and a Christmas picture book

First an acknowledgement: Rousseaux Brasseur, the author of these books, was the much-loved children’s ministry lead at our church when our daughter was in elementary school. Last summer he served for a week as pastor at Camp Harlow, where our daughter volunteers as a teen counselor. Needless to say, I am hardly an unbiased reviewer. But I can attest to the character of the author as a clever, quirky, open-hearted individual with a deep love for Jesus and young people.

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I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle (1948) came to my attention as a novel recommended for aspiring writers. The Austenesque plot features a quirky, down-on-their-luck British family in the 1930s. A thwarted novelist father languishes at the helm while the oldest daughter pursues a loveless marriage to save the family fortunes. Her intended is the wealthy young heir of a nearby estate.

The heir has recently returned from America with his brother, who is enamored with the American West. Thus the narrative straddles not only the 19th and 20th centuries but the Atlantic Ocean, flanked by British venerability on one side and American innovation on the other.

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Fantasy in the Heartland: Lepunia, Kingdom of the Gallopers, by Kevin T. Ford

Lepunia will catch you up, carry you away, and set you down—right back in Kansas. But conveyed from a rabbit’s-eye view, it might as well be Oz. It was with some surprise that I realized, on reflection, that no magic takes place in these pages. None but that conjured by Ford’s lyrical descriptions. One part Narnia and one part Little House on the Prairie, Lepunia offers up an enchanted middle America peopled with rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, owls, prairie dogs, ferrets, and more. Cottonwoods, hills, lakes, and burrows become ancestral palaces and legendary landmarks, skillfully rendered in Michael Genova’s lavish sketches and eye-catching cover art.

In this first book of a planned trilogy, the curtain rises on the eve of Founding Day in the township of Lepunia (from the Latin lepus—hare). The festival marks not only the anniversary of the settlement but graduation from the academy for jackrabbit friends Lily, Fluff, and Jackson. Lily hopes to be admitted to the artists’ guild. Fluff expects to follow his father’s profession of baker. And the dearest desire of fleet-footed Jackson is induction into the Gallopers, an elite guard of jackrabbits tasked with defending the kingdom and conveying messages to its farthest reaches.

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Compelling Historical Fiction: The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi

It’s difficult to enumerate the many ways in which this historical novel impressed and delighted me. To begin with the most fundamental of fiction requisites, Joshi excels in conjuring the sights, sounds, scents, and savors of mid-twentieth century India. Descriptions of aromas (geranium, thyme, frangipani, jasmine, peppermint) and concoctions (pakoras, chapattis, masala, pilau, and lassis) grace the page and tantalize the reader. Having traveled in both North and South India on various occasions, such sensory details inevitably evoke familiar and fond associations.

But unfamiliarity with the subcontinent and its history won’t put readers at a disadvantage. Joshi deftly slips in bits of culture and history, intuitively sensing where explanation is required and avoiding excess. Readers are neither left in the dark nor overwhelmed with information. Nor does Joshi indulge in gratuitous detail. Personal narratives intertwine with the broad sweep of history; everything serves a purpose.

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The Major and the Missionary: The Letters of Warren Hamilton Lewis and Blanche Biggs, edited by Diana Pavlac Glyer

As an inveterate letter writer (my e-mails all too often turn into epistles), I greeted the prospect of this collection from the Rabbit Room Press with great excitement. Not least because it promised a better acquaintance with the elder brother usually portrayed as living in C.S. Lewis’s long shadow.

And indeed, I did learn a great deal about the Major, who also served in WWI. For one, Warren Lewis was an author in his own rite having written a series of books on 17th-century France. An admittedly narrow niche, but Biggs, confessing she had expected to find the subject dry, wrote that Lewis’s treatment proved “excellent reading.”

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Love and Assassins: The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams, by Daniel Nayeri

This is a love story. Or so claims Omar, the teller of this tale. Notwithstanding the mention of dreams, one might object to invoking assassination and commerce in the title of a romance. The Many Assassinations of Samir the Seller of Dreams is, nevertheless, a love story of sorts. Not in the way one might expect. But much about Daniel Nayeri’s difficult-to-class novel betrayed my expectations.

Prompted by the title, I anticipated a picaresque tale á la The Music Man; as narrator, an eleventh-century Harold Hill peddling a medieval brand of positive thinking along the Silk Road. Instead, the story opens with the orphan Omar’s description of “the first time [I] was stoned to death.” He goes on to describe how the eponymous Samir buys and thus rescues him from a mob of outraged monks.

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Beneath the Swirling Sky, by Carolyn Leiloglou

WaterBrook, September 2023, 304 pp. ages 8-12

Carolyn Leiloglou’s debut work for middle grade readers incorporates art history and principles of painting into an engaging narrative. Beneath the Swirling Sky isn’t the first book in which characters travel through paintings or engage with art history. Also familiar are tropes of belonging to an endangered ancestral line, questing to save an abducted sibling, and hunting down art thieves.

Such perennial devices nevertheless retain their appeal. What adolescent wouldn’t want to discover inherited gifts that enable them to profoundly change the world? Possibly those chary enough to recognize the probable weight of accompanying responsibility. But who has time to worry about that?

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Books for Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15

Hispanic Heritage Month came to my attention only recently, but the annual commemoration originated in 1968. Initially a week in duration, it was extended to one month in 1988. The event begins mid-month because it was on September 15, 1821, that Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala declared their independence from Spain.

I spent my first four years of life in California and Texas, where Spanish presence dates to the 1600s. Like most preschoolers, I was alert to little outside my immediate family, which happens to have northern European roots. By middle school my parents and I were firmly planted in Oregon. If a Latino presence existed in our small town, I remained ignorant of it. Nevertheless my parents, firmly convinced of the value of multiculturalism, enrolled us in a Saturday morning Spanish class at the local community college.

After high school I left the area for more than a decade, returning for grad school and remaining to start my own family. When my daughter started first grade—in the building that had previously been my middle school—she attended Spanish literacy classes alongside the children of the large Latino population that had grown up in my absence. The experience introduced us to a number of the books included here.

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Immigrant Architect: Rafael Guastavino and the American Dream

by Berta de Miguel, Kent Diebolt, and Virginia Lorente, ill. Virginia Lorente (Tilbury, 2020, 60 pp., ages 8-12)

I picked up this volume several months ago in a search for architect biographies. It was only today, upon taking a closer look, that I realized its perfect suitability for Hispanic Heritage Month. The two Rafael Guastavinos, father and son, immigrated from Spain in 1881. The elder Guastavino was a successful architect who brought to the U.S. a distinctive building method that would leave a permanent mark on American architecture and engineering.

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Hope in the Ruins: This Very Tree, a Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth, by Sean Rubin

Yesterday the sight of Rubin’s picture book, leaning against my desk amongst its assorted fellows, occasioned me some chagrin. I had checked it out from the library weeks (months?) ago, intending to compose a collective review of books about distinguished trees.

That article is still waiting to be written, and only yesterday did it occur to me that a solo review of This Very Tree would be well suited to the twenty-second anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Alas, it was rather late in the day to compose a  thoughtful review.

But it comes to me that the day after might be just as appropriate. After all, author-illustrator Rubin offers a chronicle of regrowth and persistence that picks up after the events of 9/11. It’s a story about carrying on in the wake of disaster.

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