Recent Reading: The Search for Delicious, by Natalie Babbitt

We liked Tuck Everlasting so much that we decided to get another book by Natalie Babbitt. We weren’t disappointed.

-Natalie Babbitt, The Search for Delicious (1969)

The Search for Delicious is a fairy tale of sorts. It involves an attempt at defining the word ‘delicious.’ Each member of the kingdom has his or her own opinion. Delicious is an apple; delicious is fried fish, etc. Needless to say, no one can agree on a way to describe what delicious is. This leads to a massive polling of the kingdom, carried out by the main character, a young man/boy named Vaungaylen.

There is  a wicked villain in the story who attempts a massive coup. There are dwarfs and mermaids. It’s a great fairy story. But the argument over what is delicious is the central running theme. Arguments break out everywhere the question is asked, until they surprisingly find something that everyone in the kingdom can agree is delicious. Many of the reviews of the book I’ve read emphasize the attention on diversity and disagreement, and how everyone can ‘find a way to get along in the end.’ But I don’t really think that’s the point at all. They really do agree in the end. There really is something delicious that all can agree on, despite their differing tastes. I won’t spoil the story, but I’ll say this: the thing they all agree is delicious is something that they do not appreciate until it is almost taken away.

This is a beautiful children’s story. It’s funny, it’s serious, and it tackles the interesting issue of objectivity and subjectivity, and how there is something that is objectively delicious, but we often fail to realize it because of our subjective situations. This one goes onto my recommended reading for children list.

Advertisements

Recent Reading: The Magic City, by Edith Nesbit

I have yet to read anything by Edith Nesbit that I didn’t enjoy. Her children’s books tend to be a bit long and plodding at times for the modern reader suffering from distractions and attention deficits, but that is part of what makes them all the more worthwhile. They are entertaining, yet countercultural reading for the modern child. At times her writing smacks of well-to-do Victorian England. But hey, that’s the world in which she lived. Not everyone has ponies and large gardens, but that shouldn’t cause us to despise her stories.

Her dialogue is always a pleasure, and this book has a lot of it. Her moral vision is helpful, and this book has plenty of that as well. This is not a review, and I will not spoil anything; I will simply give my main takeaways from the story.

The Magic City is imaginatively enlivening. The main character, Philip, is an imaginative builder, as most children are. What child in the presence of sand would not build a sandcastle? The difference is that Philip’s toy building projects come to life. His play castles become real castles in an alternate world.

Philip is orphaned and lives with his older sister. The main story revolves around Philip’s struggles as his older sister gets married. He will no longer be the main focus of her life. This causes his struggles. His new stepsister, Lucy, comes into play and has a sanctifying influence on Philip – drawing his hatred at first, but ultimately winning his love and making him a better person through her own. Chivalry comes to life in a new context with these two brave children, as they seek, despite the friction of being new step-siblings, to deliver Philip’s magic city from the hands of a Destroyer.

The love and devotion of children, in the midst of heartbreak and confusion, is the great takeaway of the story. It provides an imaginative glimpse into how bravery, humility, sacrifice, and selfless love (witnessed and practiced) can change even, or especially, a child. In addition to that, the lively imaginative feel of the book is inspiring for those who aspire to greater creativity. I heartily recommend the book to families with young children. My eight-year-old daughter enjoyed it tremendously, and I did as well.

The book is available in print or FREE for Kindle HERE. You can read an overview HERE. You can read a wonderful introduction to her life and writing HERE.

Recent Reading: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

I am not going to write anything in depth or profound here, just a couple of takeaways.

First, my kids love this book. My wife has read it to them before, but this is my first time reading it. Second, the movie was more different from the book than I imagined possible. Third, I’m struck mostly in the book by how Baum portrays the humility of some of the main characters.

The Wizard himself is far from humble. He is a liar, a huckster, a shyster, and a scam artist. Yet the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Lion (and Dorothy) all trust him in spite of the fact that they know this. Despite the amount of wrong that he inflicts on them, and to Dorothy most of all, they forgive him. And not only do they forgive him, they still look to him as though he had something genuine to offer them.

And while the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Lion see nothing but the best in the Wizard despite his flaws, they see nothing but the worst in themselves. The Scarecrow is perhaps the brain of the group, yet he insists that he is brainless and hopeless. The Tin Woodsman is loving and merciful and kind, and a persistent crier, yet he yearns for a heart. And the Cowardly Lion is the bravest of any character in the story, all without the courage that he covets. They see the best in others, and the worst in themselves. They are poor in spirit, which makes them rich characters and eager to gain what others can give.

While it is certainly not wrong to call a con-man a con-man, we could still learn some lessons from our friends here, such as In humility count others as more significant than yourselves, and Remove the 2 x 4 out of your own eye before you try to take the toothpick out of someone else’s. If you do so, you will be a very endearing character.

Beach Monkey (1)

Uno: A Monkey Pines

Marco the monkey lived deep in the jungles of South America. If this were a science book I would need to explain that Marco was a Howler Monkey, a species of New World monkeys. I could spend pages and pages telling you all about the different types of New World monkeys. But, though I just told you a couple of facts, this is not a science book. This is a story, so let’s get on with it.

Marco was like most Howler Monkeys. He liked to climb trees and slowly skip (if you could call it that) across the top branches from one tree to another. He liked to lounge around in the treetops and eat nuts and leaves.

Most monkeys would be perfectly content with such a life. Marco was free. He could climb any tree that he liked. He could eat any food that he liked. The weather suited him just fine. And he had plenty of friends and family to keep him company.

But, from as far back as Marco could remember, he had been a piner. What is a piner? It doesn’t mean that he liked pine trees. There were no pines in Marco’s jungle. It means that he was a daydreamer. Marco liked to climb up to the top of trees and look out over the forest while he filled his mind, or let his mind drift away, with dreams. He pined.

What did Marco dream of? What did he pine about? He didn’t dream of bananas, or getting married, or finding the perfect tree.

Years ago, when Marco was a young monkey, he met an older monkey called a Muriqui. Muriquis are pretty common in South America, but little Marco had never met one. He had heard of them, but until this point he wasn’t even sure that they really existed. They were known to be very wise (they were called sages, but Marco didn’t really know what that meant). So, naturally, he was quite excited to meet this monkey.

The Muriqui’s name was Gazer. And he drew quite a crowd among the Howlers, especially the young Howlers. They would gather around him and listen to his amazing stories – stories of lands that very few monkeys had ever visited.

But one particular story caught Marco’s attention in a major way. Gazer explained that there was a thing called ‘the ocean.’ This ocean was somewhat like the rivers that the Howlers had seen many times, but it was bigger. The ocean was like the king of all rivers. It was big and blue, but that was just the beginning. All of the fish in the world longed to live in the open waters of the ocean. The sun, Gazer said, rises and sets in the ocean.

Marco had always wondered where the sun came from, and where it went during the night. Gazer explained that every night the ocean swallows the sun, causing it, and all the sky around it, to turn red like blood or pink like a flower. And every morning the ocean, having become warm from holding the sun overnight, would release the sun to come out and warm the rest of the world.

Gazer also told the little monkeys that the ocean attracted a thing called sand. No one ever saw sand in the jungle. Sand lives in dry lands, like deserts (another thing Marco had never heard of). But the sand loved the water, and so it was always trying to get to the ocean, where there was an abundant supply.

Gazer said that the ocean was the source of all life. Everything needs water to live, and all of that water came from the ocean. Rivers were just little streams pushing forward, trying to make it to the ocean so that they could blend with the great Water.

Gazer was a traveling sage (though Marco still didn’t know what that meant), and so he didn’t stay around for too long. Like a dream, he was gone. But Marco, though he was quite young when he met Gazer, never forgot him, or his stories – especially his stories about the great Water known as the ocean.

And so, there sits Marco, perched in the top of a tree like a great bird, and he is daydreaming. What is he dreaming about? He is pining away for the ocean. He couldn’t even imagine precisely what the ocean looked like. What did a real wave look like? How big is this giant mass of water? In some ways, he wasn’t even sure that the ocean existed, but he really wanted to find out. He certainly wanted to believe in the ocean. Yet he could never be quite sure. Unless…

If only Marco could travel to the ocean. If only he could stand on the sand and watch the sun be swallowed up by the great Water. If only he could, like the sand, take a journey to the Water’s edge. Then he would know. Then he wouldn’t have to dream anymore. Then, maybe, the other monkeys would stop calling him names –

Names like Beach Monkey.

©Tides and Turning, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Introducing Beach Monkey

We have been celebrating my daughter’s birthday for the better part of a week (who says it can’t be birthweek instead of birthday?). My in-laws gave her a set of Boom-Its. What are Boom-Its? you ask. Playing Boom-It is pretty much like playing badminton, except the paddles, or whatever you call them, make very loud noises when you strike the birdie (or, again, whatever you call it).

As children will do, my daughter was randomly hitting things with said paddles. She began to hit balloons at one point (birthday balloons of course). And as she did so, for reasons which I still don’t fully understand, she began to repeatedly say the phrase, ‘Beach Monkey.’ She said it with enthusiasm: ‘Beach Monkey, Beach Monkey, Beach Monkey!’

As we say in the south, I got very tickled at this. I asked her why she said it. No explanation. She just said it. I liked it. I told her it sounded like the name of a book and that I would therefore write her a story about Beach Monkey.

I have written stories for my daughters before, and I have never let anyone other than my daughters read them. But this time I thought, ‘hey, why not make it public?’ I’m still in the process of writing it so it may take some time. And please remember that I’m writing this story for a 4-year-old!

Recent Reading: Toads and Diamonds

Toads and Diamonds is a fairy story found in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book. I always enjoy reading such stories with my children, and I’ve written about them quite a few times on the blog (see the On Fairy Stories section at the top of the page). Fairy tales are interesting on a number of levels. They are interesting because of the sheer enchantment for starters. They allow you to enter into imaginary worlds full of magic. They are also interesting because you rarely find one without finding a number of moral lessons put in terms that capture the imagination.

C.S. Lewis made the point on more than one occasion that the primary function of the well-ordered imagination is to be found in seeking after truth. One aspect of that truth is virtue. And so it is fitting that examples of, and exhortations to, virtue should be put in the form of imaginative stories.

I say all that because this is certainly a story with one such lesson. The basic plot is that the ‘fair maiden’ of the story (I’ll let you read it yourself to fill in the details) is given a gift by a fairy that causes flowers and jewels to spring from her mouth each time she speaks. Conversely, the main character’s wicked sister is cursed by the fairy so that toads and snakes issue with speech.

Our diamond girl is kind and loving and always speaks accordingly. Our toad girl is mean and cruel, and the toads and snakes correspond to her speech.

As I read this with my daughter, of course, the obvious question to ask was, ‘So, what about you – diamonds or toads?’ In some sense we are all speaking one or the other. And most of us, more likely all of us, are a mixture of both. We speak diamonds and flowers at times, and toads and snakes at others:

  • James 3:7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

It ought not to be so, and the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us the resources to change our speech. Jesus speaks to us kind words of grace. He speaks of blessing, of life, of love. He dies for the sins of our speech, and provides his Spirit in order to make new creatures, with new ways of speaking:

  • Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

If you constantly hear grace, it should constantly lead you to speak grace. If you are being built up by the gospel, then you should build others up. This is not simply a morality issue, it is an issue regarding a new creation. The old way of speaking has died, the new way of speaking has come.

And a fitting analogy for examining yourself might be, ‘am I speaking flowers and diamonds, or toads and snakes?’ If nothing else, it is certainly an imaginative way of putting the issue before children: ‘So, what you just said, was that a diamond or a toad?’

You can read the story HERE.

Recent Reading: Ribbiting Tales

Ribbiting Tales, Edited by Nancy Springer

For the record, this book has nothing to do with the Muppets or Kermit the Frog.

My 7-year-old daughter picked out this book – with good reason. She knows I love frogs. It may be a guilt-complex. I did some not-so-nice things to frogs in my childhood. If you’ve seen Beavis and Butthead play frog-baseball, then you more or less know what I’m talking about. Before you cast stones, however, I want to assure you that I am doing my best to ensure that future generations love and respect frogs (as I now do).

Despite my past transgressions, I like to think that my love of frogs is more positive than guilt-driven. Some of the best fictional characters I have ever encountered were frogs. I am an avid fan of the Muppets (old-school, not so much the post-Henson stuff), and, of course, Kermit is my favorite character. A while back my daughter found an antique Kermit vase in the Goodwill. It had a broken arm, but was worth the $1.25 we spent for it. A little super-glue made it look presentable. It now sits proudly on my bedroom bookshelf. And sitting next to Kermit is Mr. Toad. Toad, from The Wind in the Willows, is perhaps my favorite character in all the fiction that I have read. I have written of him elsewhere (HERE), so I won’t continue this digression.

So, as I was saying, my daughter found Ribbiting Tales in the used section at Books-A-Million and decided, based on my love of frogs, that we needed to read it. The book is somewhat of a hodgepodge. It is a collection of several different stories, all by different authors, with the common denominator being that each story has something to do with frogs. Some are good, some not so much. None of them are great, but it was worth the 2 bucks I spent on it.

The most entertaining story, for me, concerned a frog who jumped over the moon. Another near the top of the list was about a young boy who discovers that he is a descendent of frogs (not in the evolutionary sort of way, but in the frog-prince sort of way) and is called upon by his frog-relatives to wage war against a factory that is polluting the swamp and causing harm to the frog population.The story ends without resolution – always a no-no in my book.

A good antagonist is always convinced, in some twisted way, that he is right.

The most thought-provoking of the stories is Polliwog, by Stephen Menick, which tells the story of the plagues of Egypt from the viewpoint of Pharaoh. It is an interesting take on the story. I think it is generally interesting to look at a story from the viewpoint of the antagonist. A good antagonist is always convinced, in some twisted way, that he is right. Menick does a fascinating job of showing how Pharaoh could have justified his actions. From the viewpoint of the story, Pharaoh is convinced that Moses is a magician, much like Pharaoh’s own magicians, who is using ‘a god’ in order to accomplish his quest for power. The story revolves to a good degree around Pharaoh’s hatred of magicians, which is a fascinating angle. Magic never served him well.

I find it interesting that it is clear that the angle of ‘magic’ is not at the forefront in the biblical narrative. The issue at hand is idolatry. Through the hand, and staff, of Moses, God is waging war on the beloved (and feared) false gods of Egypt. Each plague, including the plague of frogs, is a direct assault against one of Egypt’s deities. The frog god Heqet is mentioned in Polliwog, but, as the narrative goes, Pharaoh is more concerned with the evil of magic than realizing that there is a message in the ‘magic’ – the message that his gods were no gods at all.

The thing to remember, as I said, is that a good antagonist or villain must always believe that he is in the right. And rather than thinking that we are always on the side of the good guy, we should consider how we might line up with the villain of the story. We are always prone to justify ourselves, even when we are in the wrong. How would you feel if one of your fellow Egyptians turned out not to be an Egyptian at all, and then showed up 40 years later brandishing a staff with the power to perform all kinds of wonders, demanding that the Hebrews be released from slavery, touting the name of a God of whom you have never heard, proclaiming the impending death of your son? Would your heart be soft toward him? It’s worth considering? Perhaps we might attempt to justify ourselves in our opposition. That is all.

Self-Justification is the way of the world.

Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3).

The Golden Key and the Shadowlands (George MacDonald)

From time to time I’ll bust out a little devotional meditation based on a line of thought started by a random story. This is one such line of thought, and I’m relatively sure it’s similar to the line of thought George MacDonald would have wanted to stir up:

I’ve been reading George MacDonald’s story, The Golden Key with my daughter the past two days. I’ve read it before, but it has been a couple of years. I had forgotten how moving the description of the land of shadows is:

After a while, they reached more open spaces, where the shadows were thinner; and came even to portions over which shadows only flitted, leaving them clear for such as might follow. Now a wonderful form, half bird-like half human, would float across on outspread sailing pinions. Anon an exquisite shadow group of gambolling children would be followed by the loveliest female form, and that again by the grand stride of a Titanic shape, each disappearing in the surrounding press of shadowy foliage. Sometimes a profile of unspeakable beauty or grandeur would appear for a moment and vanish. Sometimes they seemed lovers that passed linked arm in arm, sometimes father and son, sometimes brothers in loving contest, sometimes sisters entwined in gracefullest community of complex form. Sometimes wild horses would tear across, free, or bestrode by noble shadows of ruling men. But some of the things which pleased them most they never knew how to describe.

About the middle of the plain they sat down to rest in the heart of a heap of shadows. After sitting for a while, each, looking up, saw the other in tears: they were each longing after the country whence the shadows fell.

“We MUST find the country from which the shadows come,” said Mossy.

“We must, dear Mossy,” responded Tangle. “What if your golden key should be the key to it?”

Of course Plato’s Allegory of the Cave comes to mind, but so does a famous quote by C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

Every day, especially Sunday, we see shadows. And the beauty of a shadow is that it is cast by an object with real weight:

  • Colossians 2:16 ¶ Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

And until that day we say with the singer,

  • Song of Solomon 4:6 Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense. 7 Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.

Now we get the foretastes of worship, then we will dwell in a shadowless land from which all of the glorious shadows come. We will have Christ – the substance, the body, the reality – in his fulness. He is the glory of the place, but also truly the key of entry:

  • Luke 11:52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.

Recent Reading: The Young Man who would have his Eyes Opened

This is a fairy story from Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book. I read it with my daughter. It is about a young man who wanted to have his eyes opened so that he might see the things ‘that took place under the cover of night which mortal eyes never saw.’ He found a wizard who could open his eyes. The wizard warned against it. I’m not retelling the story, just giving the gist.

With open eyes he saw the wood-nymphs dancing in the forest. He was never the same. He longed to see them again, but never did. ‘He thought about them night and day, and ceased to care about anything else in the world, and was sick to the end of his life with longing for that beautiful vision. And that was the way he learned that the wizard had spoken truly when he said,”Blindness is man’s highest good.”‘

Quite a stirring thought. As a Christian I can’t help but thinking of the ‘Beatific Vision.’ My theology here is highly questionable, but it made me think: God said to Moses, ‘You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’ (Ex. 33:20). Is it that a man who saw God’s face (his full-orbed glory) would literally die from the sheer awesomeness of the vision which no man is capable of handling – a spiritual heart-attack, if you will – or is it that he would no longer be capable of carrying on with life (as we know it) after having seen such glory? After all, Exodus 33:20 could quite literally be translated, ‘Man shall not see me and recover.’

And so, ‘We see in a mirror, dimly’ (1 Cor. 13:12). And sometimes it is overwhelming as it is:

God’s people do not always know the greatness of his love to them. Sometimes, however, it is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Some of us know at times what it is to be almost too happy to live! The love of God has been so overpoweringly experienced by us on some occasions, that we have almost had to ask for a stay of the delight because we could not endure any more. If the glory had not been veiled a little, we should have died of excess of rapture, or happiness. Beloved, God has wondrous ways of opening his people’s hearts to the manifestation of his grace. He can pour in, not now and then a drop of his love, but great and mighty stream (C.H. Spurgeon, from his sermon, Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son).

You’re Never too Old (or Young) for a Good Fairy Story (C.S. Lewis)

One of the great things about owning a book is that you get to underline things that you want to remember. From time to time I go through my books just to remind myself of notes in the margins and things I’ve underlined. Here are a few things I underlined in my copy of the collection of some of Lewis’ essays on stories, relating to age-oriented writing and reading:

I never met the Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. i am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz (C.S. Lewis, On Stories, p. 33).

Next,

Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up (Ibid, p. 34).

And,

…It certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then (Ibid, p. 48).