Posts Tagged ‘Children’

A few children’s books: gods and fairies

May 5, 2016

Some brief notes about children’s books I’ve read over the past few months:

colum-golden-fleeceThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived before Achilles
Padraic Colum
(Aladdin, 2004) [1921]
320 p.

The story of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece is one of the best known episodes of Greek mythology. Padraic Colum re-tells the tale in a way suitable for children. The bulk of the story, as one would expect, is devoted to the voyage of the Argo and adventures encountered on the way. After the successful return of the Argonauts, Colum tells stories about some of Jason’s companions: Theseus, Heracles, Admetus, Peleus, and Orpheus, and he finishes up with the story of Jason and Medea (though not including, oddly, the particular story dramatized by Euripides in his Medea).

Colum also wrote a number of similar books, including one on episodes from the annals of the Trojan War and one on Norse mythology. I had hoped to read them, or suggest that my children read them, but now I am not so sure. I found Colum’s writing dull and lifeless. There is little stylistic colour, and the prose plods along. But perhaps my judgment is faulty or eccentric: this volume on the Golden Fleece was a Newbery Honor book when first published.

jacobs-english-fairy-talesEnglish Fairy Tales
Joseph Jacobs
(Everyman, 1993) [1890]
428 p.

A splendid collection of fairy tales collected from England during the nineteenth century. Well-written, occasionally gruesome, and almost always enjoyable. A classic.

hawthorne-wonder-bookA Wonder Book for Girls and Boys
Nathaniel Hawthorne
(Dover, 2003) [1851]
176 p.

For years now I’d been curious about this book, and its companion volume Tanglewood Tales. It was written, I believe, shortly after Hawthorne’s triumph with The Scarlet Letter, and was quite popular in its day. It is a re-telling of a half-dozen tales from Greek mythology: Perseus and Medusa, King Midas, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the Golden Apples, Baucis and Philemon, and Bellerophon and Pegasus. The tales are presented within a framing story in which a group of children, called by unfortunate fairy nicknames throughout (Cowslip, Squash-Blossom, Milkweed, and so on), are told stories by a young man to while away the time on a summer afternoon or before a cozy evening fire.

I could have done without the frame, which pops up not only at the beginning and end, but also between each of the stories; after a few episodes I began skipping it. The tales themselves, however, I enjoyed quite a bit. They are told in a down-to-earth manner, though perhaps with slightly too much informality for my tastes. I read the story of Pegasus (in which he helps Bellerophon fight the dreadful Chimaera) to my kids and they really enjoyed it; my own favourite was probably the story of King Midas.

Having said that, I wasn’t as taken with the book as I expected to be, and while I will probably leave a copy of Tanglewood Tales lying around for the kids in a few years, I’m not sure that I’ll read it myself.

black-ships-before-troyBlack Ships Before Troy
The Wanderings of Odysseus
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Laurel Leaf, 2005) [1993, 1995]
151 p. + 144 p.

I enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s paraphrase of the Arthurian legends so much that I decided to try these re-tellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, both intended for older children. I was not disappointed, exactly. The tales are extremely well told, but I did find that they moved a little too briskly for my taste. Whereas her Arthurian tales I think could justly be described as “novelized”, such a description would be a stretch here. Moreover, it seems to me that Homer’s poems are quite accessible in themselves (what with so many fine translations available), and as I read Sutcliff’s stories I wondered, more than once, whether I ought to put it down and just read Homer again. But certainly if a child conceives an interest in Homer and finds the poetry daunting, these volumes could be recommended with confidence.

Good Catholic books for kids

October 2, 2015

Not only am I a busy father, but I am also a busy godfather.  It is sometimes hard for me to keep track of all my godchildren, but I am pretty sure I could field a baseball team by now.  Our team would probably be called the Discalced Crusaders, or something similar.

(Incidentally, I have a hard time thinking of a good way of incorporating Catholicism into the name of a baseball team.  Think of baseball words: ball, bat, base, diamond, catch, pop, run, out, strike.  I can’t think of a way to pun on any of them in a religious sense.  When I was on the physics department’s baseball team we were called the Magnetic Fielders; I wish I could think of something with that kind of wit.  This might explain why baseball is not popular in predominantly Catholic countries.)

Anyway, one of the pleasures of being a godfather is that I get to give gifts to my godchildren from time to time, when the fancy strikes me, and I am fond of giving books.  The trouble is that when I go to my local Catholic bookstore and peruse the books for kids and young adults (my godchildren range in age from 4 to 21) I can’t help noticing something: there’s a lot of crap.

So I am looking for recommendations of good Catholic books for kids and teenagers. (I don’t have as much trouble with adults.) Suggestions are most welcome.

Let me mention a few of my own favourite books of this kind:

cooney-jugglerThe Little Juggler was adapted by Barbara Cooney from a French legend, and was first published in 1961. It tells the story of a young boy in medieval Europe who wants to serve God but only knows how to juggle. The story has been adapted, with some differences, by others (such as in Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God), but this one is the best. The illustrations are wonderful, and the text is elegant and moving.

hodges-christopherMargaret Hodges has adapted a few classic tales about saints for children, and I really like her Legend of St Christopher. The story, which comes from The Golden Legend, tells the story of a strong man who wants to serve the world’s most powerful king. He first serves in the court of a great ruler, then he serves the devil, and finally he serves Christ. The illustrations are superb; they were done by Richard Jesse Watson.

gubbio-bedardThere are shelves of books about St Francis, but my favourite (of those I have seen) is The Wolf of Gubbio by Michael Bedard, with illustrations by Murray Kimber. It tells the story of how Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio. Once again, the illustations are a big part of the draw here; they are fantastic.

One begins to discern the limits of my knowledge: these are all picture books suitable for young children. They are all narrative and quasi-legendary, rather than Biblical or catechetical. I’m not saying that’s a problem, but it is a limitation.

I’d be grateful for recommendations of other good books for Catholic children.

Children’s books, briefly noted

April 24, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve read a number of children’s books set in medieval Europe. Here are brief notes on several of them:

The Quest of the Grail Knight
Katherine Paterson
(Puffin, 1998) 127 p.

This is a brief re-telling, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the story of Parsifal (Parzival) and his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail. I’ve not read von Eschenbach’s version, but I did note numerous differences from Chretien de Troyes’ earlier version of the story. Paterson’s tale moves quickly, and it told clearly but a little dryly in this unillustrated edition. There is a firm moral center to the story, and a strong Christian element. Suitable for young listeners aged 6 and up, and for somewhat older young readers. 3.5 stars.

Dragon Slayersutcliff-dragonslayer
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Penguin, 1961) 107 p.

A prose re-telling of the Beowulf story. All of the essential plot points are included, and atmospheric touches are added. The writing is strong, with a pleasing directness and raw vigour. Some violence, obviously, but the virtues of loyalty and courage are stressed. The grammar would be challenging for an early reader. Age 8-12? 4.5 stars.

good-mastersGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
(Candlewick, 2007) 85 p.

An interesting premise for a book: a series of loosely connected dramatic monologues intended for performance, each in the voice of a child from a medieval English village circa 1225. The monologues (plus two inventive dialogues) run about 2-4 pages each, and were originally written for the author’s own students. The language is solid, and doesn’t avoid obsolete words. There is an earthy quality to the whole. The historical accuracy is reasonable, although I do quarrel with a few of the marginal notes. (Villeins were not quite the same as slaves.) Age 10-16? 4 stars.

The Door in the Wallangeli-door
Marguerite de Angeli
(Yearling, 1949) 128 p.

This Newbery Medal winning book was recommended to me by a friend, and a good recommendation it was. Young Robin falls ill and becomes lame, but is befriended by a monk and taught a trade. Eventually, by a series of courageous and resourceful actions, he is able to save his friends from peril during a seige. The book paints an attractive picture of the Middle Ages. Age 8-12. 4 stars.

gray-adamAdam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
(Viking, 1943) 320 p.

This is a superb adventure story set in thirteenth-century England. Adam is an 11-year old boy, the son of a distinguished minstrel, who aspires to practice the same art. Adam’s beloved dog is stolen and he sets out on a quest to retrieve him, becoming separated from his father in the process. Adam must rely on his own resourcefulness, courage, and wit — and the kindness of strangers — to find his dog and re-unite with his father. The medieval world portrayed here is one of gaiety and gallantry, and the religious character of that society is woven naturally into the story. A splendid book for boys, especially. Winner of the Newbery Medal in the year of its publication.  Age 8-12? 4 stars.


I’ve just now noticed that all of these books were written by women.