A Chameleon, a Boy, and a Quest by J.A. Myhre

Ten year old Mu has lived with the family of his great-uncle, the mukumu (a African traditional priest who can cast curses and give protection from them), for as long as he can remember. Mu is treated more as a servant than as a member of the family, but at least he gets to go to school for half a day. Then one day on the way to school, Mu makes a friend, and everything in his life changes as his talking chameleon friend chooses Mu and calls him on a mysterious quest.

“The Myhres, Scott and Jennifer, are missionary physicians who joined Serge (then World Harvest Mission) in 1991, and have worked in East Africa since 1993: 17 years in Bundibugyo, Uganda; five years in Kijabe, Kenya; and now partnering with a busy Kenyan government hospital in Naivasha.”

Author J.A. Myhre is the “Jennifer” of the missionary couple, and she wrote this story as a Christmas present for her four children. Ms. Myhre is obviously well-versed in the flora, fauna, and culture of east Africa as a result of her many years spent living in that part of the world. As Mu travels through the savannah and up the mountains, following the chameleon’s instructions, mostly, the reader gets a wonderful introduction to the geography and culture of east Africa, embedded in an adventure story that is sure to thrill and intrigue. Mu rides an elephant; he sleeps in a warthog’s den; and he escapes from the evil rebel soldiers who try to use him as a child soldier. However, Mu is not without his own evil and cowardice, and he finds himself forced to make choices that are all too disastrous in their consequences.

The talking chameleon and other talking and helpful animals in the story give the tale a hint of “magical realism”, and the ending is pure fantasy. However, for the most part Mu’s story is all too realistic and somewhat sad. Hope is found in Mu’s animal guides and in his calling to an important quest. The book isn’t preachy at all, but it does give a lot of food for thought and discussion as Mu travels through the countryside. What will Mu do when he has the opportunity to rescue a friend, but at the risk of his own life? What will he do when his captors demand that he prove himself to be a man by killing yet another friend? The violence and evil aren’t graphic or gratuitous, but the story is also not without disturbing scenes. If your child isn’t ready to read about animal deaths and human cruelty, condemned and later redeemed but definitely a significant part of the story, then you might want to wait on this one.

I’m really looking forward to Ms. Myhre’s second and third books in this African series, the Rwendigo Tales:

A Bird, a Girl, and Rescue, Book #2
A Forest, a Flood, and an Unlikely Star, Book #3 (to be released in September, 2017)

If you want to know more about the Doctors Myhre and their work, now in Uganda, here’s a link to their blog.

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet

Jan Balet “was a German/US-American painter, graphic artist and illustrator. Affected by the style naive art he worked particularly as a graphic artist and as an Illustrator of children’s books. Besides this he painted pictures in the style of naive art. Referred to as a “naïve” painter, his works exhibit a dry wit and refreshingly candid, satirical view of life.” ~Wikipedia, Jan Balet.

Amos and the Moon by Jan Balet was first published in 1948. The AMMO Books reprint edition that I received for review is certainly a lovely re-gift to today’s children from the golden age of children’s literature. The story is reminiscent of James Thurber’s Many Moons, which won a Caldecott Medal in 1944. In Thurber’s story, the ailing Princess Lenore wants the moon, and her father, the king, directs various servants and courtiers to get it for her. In Balet’s picture book, Amos sees the moon in his mirror, believes it belongs to him, and goes out to find it himself when it disappears the next day. Various vendors and storekeepers give him gifts–a piece of ice, a horse, a watch, a moon-shaped cookie—- as he searches, but none of his friends can give Amos “his moon”. Finally, Joe Ming, the Chinese laundryman, wisely tells Amos, “No one has the moon always–just once in a while.”

It’s a gentle, old-fashioned kind of story, and the illustrations are delightful. Mr. Balet was first and foremost an artist, and the pictures of the various shops that Amos visits in search of his moon will interest and appeal to anyone, young or old, who is inspired by detailed scenes, exquisitely rendered. The illustrations sort of remind me of Norman Rockwell or Currier and Ives or even the Impressionists like Manet, but Balet has his own style and subject matter. There is a European feel to the story and to the pictures, perhaps because of the many immigrants and ethnic groups that Amos encounters on his quest, even though the story is obviously set in an English-speaking, probably American, city.

AMMO Books has reprinted another of Balet’s picture books, The Five Rollatinis, which is a circus story and a counting book combined. Some of his other books, both those he illustrated that were written by other authors and those he wrote himself, are available on Amazon used. I really appreciate the publishers who find these old, treasured titles and bring them back into print for a new generation.

Seven Things That Made Me Smile in April

April was a difficult month, but I’m not going to tell you about all the things that made me do the opposite of smile in April. (Hint: for one, initials are DT, and police were involved in another frown-maker.) Instead, I’m going to play Pollyanna and tell you about the stuff that made me smile, sometimes through the tears, this month in the grand old year of 2016.

1. Speaking of Pollyanna and the the “glad game”, this post at Living Books Library, called “Are You Glad?” made my day a little gladder (gladder or more glad?) when I read it.

2. Randy Acorn’s book, Happiness, was a compendium on the subject of happiness from a Biblical perspective. He quotes practically everyone from the Bible itself to St. Augustine to Matthew Henry to John Piper, and most every Christian writer or thinker in between, all on the subject of happiness. I didn’t finish the book because I had to return it to the library, but I think I need a copy of my own anyway so that I can dip into it whenever the frowns and grumps seem to be gaining the upper hand.

“Being happy in God and living righteously tastes far better for far longer than sin does. When my hunger and thirst for joy is satisfied by Christ, sin becomes unattractive. I say no to immorality not because I hate pleasure but because I want the enduring pleasure found in Christ.”
~Randy Alcorn, Happiness

3. Podcasts. I am truly glad to have discovered podcasts a few months ago. They have made my driving times and other times much more enjoyable. I found a couple of new-to-me podcasts to add to my growing list of favorites. Here’s the list of favorites, which I notice that I have never before posted here on Semicolon:

Read Aloud Revival. The lovely Sarah MacKenzie talks all things reading aloud with your children. She’s interviewed such guests as Sarah Clarkson, Andrew Pudewa, N.D. Wilson, Anne Bogel, Melissa Wiley, and many more. Excellent podcast.
Homeschooling IRL with Andy and Kendra Fletcher. “Discussing the topics that you might not find covered at your local homeschooling convention, veteran homeschooling parents and bloggers, Andy and Kendra Fletcher, use humor, honesty, and grace to pull the veil back on Christian homeschooling.” Good, encouraging, real stuff here.
The World and Everything In It, a daily, Monday through Friday, news update from the people at WORLD magazine.
What Should I Read Next? with Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy. I wrote about this new-to-me podcast here.
Two from NPR: This American Life and The Moth Podcast.
Two from the CIRCE Institute Podcast Network: The Mason Jar, about Charlotte Mason’s ideas on education, and Close Reads, a book discussion podcast.
Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.
Tea or Books? with Simon of Stuck in a Book and Rachel who blogs at Book Snob. This one is velly, velly British, and I’ve just listened to one episode so far. But I like it–if I can understand what the two podcasters are saying, what with my hearing loss and their accents.

What podcasts do you recommend to make me smile?

4. My youngest daughter will be acting in a musical called Malcolm at the end of May, based on the book by George MacDonald of the same name. The book was edited by Michael Phillips and republished as The Fisherman’s Lady, and it has a sequel, The Marquis’ Secret. These updated versions of Macdonald’s romantic novels are, I’ve been told, quite well done and useful for modern day readers who might have trouble with MacDonald’s use of Scottish dialect and Victorian language. I’m already smiling to think of watching Z-baby and her friends in the musical version of Malcolm, and I hope to read The Fisherman’s Lady and perhaps another one or two of MacDonald’s books in May.

5. I would take a picture if I could of the lovely books that I was able to purchase at Half-Price Books this week, a few additions to my library. But a list will have to suffice:
God King by Joanne Williamson.
Abigail Adams (Childhood of Famous Americans) by Jean Wagoner.
Rosa Parks (Childhood of Famous Americans) by Kathleen Kudlinski.
Elizabeth Blackwell (Childhood of Famous Americans) by Joanne Landers Henry.
*How Do I Love Thee? A Novel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Nancy Moser.
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema.
*The Sword and the Flame by Stephen Lawhead.
*The Dolphins of Laurentum by Caroline Lawrence.
*Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede.

I’m smiling about the ones I’ve already read and can now give to my family and library patrons and about the ones that I’m looking forward to reading (*).

6. WORLD magazine’s latest issue features children’s books, including an article about the WORLD Children’s Book of the Year, Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley, an interview with John Erikson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series, a discussion of Victorian author GA Henty and reading historical books in cultural context, and lots and lots of book suggestions. I was on the committee that picked the middle grade fiction Book of the Year and the runners-up, so I definitely had a smile on my face as I read the many articles about children’s books in this weeks issue of WORLD magazine.

7. I had three library open house dates for my private subscription lending library that I run out of my house here in southeast Houston. Several families came to visit, and it looks as if several will join the library. I really, really enjoy having a library for children and adults (mostly homeschoolers) and sharing my books with them.

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz

Kamran Smith, football star, West Point applicant, and homecoming king, has spent his entire life admiring, following, and emulating his older brother, Darius. But now Darius is accused of a heinous crime: Darius’s face is all over the news, and he’s acting like a terrorist. Can an Army Ranger, West Point graduate, and all-around good guy like Darius really be brainwashed or persuaded into joining al-Qaeda or some shadowy group of radical Muslim terrorists?

Code of Honor is a timely and opportune look at honor and treachery and the psychology of the family member of an accused terrorist. The action in the book is pretty much non-stop, and yet Kamran has time to think a lot about trust and and loyalty and commitment and whether or not people are good or bad or some mixture of the two. Karan’s unrelenting faith in his brother is a little hard to swallow since by all appearances Darius has changed and become an adherent of jihadism. And Kamran’s escape from a secure government facility (CIA prison) was really difficult to read without a large dose of suspension of disbelief. However, I went along for the ride and enjoyed it for the most part.

The book could have taken a deeper look at what makes someone decide to become a jihadist or terrorist, but that’s not the direction the author chose to take. Instead, it’s an action thriller for young adults with an understated moral lesson about not judging by appearances and keeping faith with friends and family. I can deal with that.

Other YA books about Afghanistan, terrorism, American military in Muslim countries, etc.:

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy. The fictional story of Zulaikha, a Muslim girl living in northern Afghanistan, based on the story of the real Zulaikha and on the stories of other people Mr. Reedy met during his time in Afghanistan.

Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams. When Cam’s brother, Ben, returns from Iraq with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and confined to a wheelchair, Cam sees only one way to impress Ben and get him to work at his own recovery: a bull-riding challenge.

The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan (and sequels). A thriller series that celebrates faith, karate, self-defense, and American values without being didactic or cheesy.

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan. Teenager Will Peterson and three friends, along with their youth director from church, go to some unspecified country in Central America to build a school. While they are there, a revolution takes place, and Will and his group are caught up in the violence and politics of the country.

The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney. Eleven year old American Billy is handed a mysterious package in a London Underground station, and his family’s lives are changed forever.

A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

“In the spell-powered city of Tarreton, the wealthy have all the magic they desire, while the working class can hardly afford a simple spell to heat their homes. Twelve year old Isaveth is poor, but she’s also brave, loyal, and zealous in the pursuit of justice–which is lucky, because her father has just been wrongfully arrested for murder.” (From the blurb on the front inside cover)

I enjoyed A Pocket Full of Murder for several reasons. First, the book combines two of my favorite genres: magical fantasy and murder mystery. The fantasy world in A Pocket Full of Murder is well-imagined, with lots of rich detail. There are fun, made-up, Lewis Carroll-esque words like “neevils” and “Duesday” and “gobblewit” that are novel, but pretty much self-explanatory in context, and not so plenteous that they become annoying. The society and culture are described through the words and actions of the characters, Isaveth and her family and Isaveth’s mysterious friend with an eyepatch, Quiz. Isaveth belongs to a religious minority called the Moshites (think Jewish or other religious minority), and Quiz is a street urchin turned detective, also jack-of-all-trades, who volunteers to help Isaveth as she works to clear her father’s name and find the real murderer. The story includes trade unions and nobility and a partly democratic government and a manufacturing base and merchants and class divisions—all sorts of interesting elements to explore in a fully envisaged society.

As far as the murder mystery part of the book is concerned, I’m not really very good at guessing the murderer, even though I’ve read lots of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers, and sure enough, I didn’t guess the villain in this one until near the end. That said, it was fairly obvious when the solution presented itself, and you may be better at solving mysteries than I am. I would guess that middle grade readers are more like me and won’t see the twist and turns until just before they read about them. R.J. Anderson says in her author blurb that she’s a fan of the Golden Age detective novels of Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, and the influence shows in the book, but in a children’s bookish sort of way. The similarity of Isaveth and Quiz to Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey was just a hint, but enough to add a whimsical air to the mystery.

I also liked the themes embedded in the books. Again, the themes are subtle, no preachiness at all. But Isaveth learns to value her heritage and her religious beliefs, even though the Moshites are shunned and sometimes persecuted by the larger society of Tarreton. Politicians are shown to be sometimes corrupt, even those who seem to be promising to work on behalf of the poor and the working class. (Any application to current U.S. politics is purely a function of the universal truth that politicians don’t always follow through on their promises–and sometimes have purely selfish motives for their seeming altruism.) And truth and justice are the primary values of the minority in a city that is filled with corruption and injustice. I like the idea of teaching , through story, that truth will out in the end and that even though evil may not be completely defeated in this world at this time, it can be battled and foiled for a particular time in a particular place.

The ending is sufficiently satisfying to call it a happy ending, but also leaves an opening for a sequel. I would certainly like to revisit Isaveth and Quiz, and I think you might be in the same camp after reading A Pocket Full of Murder. And sure enough, the second book in the “Uncommon Magic” series, A Little Taste of Poison, is due out in September, 2016. I recommend the first volume to mystery and fantasy lovers everywhere.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

Wow! I was warned that this 2015 novel by one of my favorite authors, Gary Schmidt, packs an emotional punch, but I still wasn’t prepared for the almost overwhelming sadness and poignancy of Schmidt’s characters and his prose. The narrator of the story is a twelve year old boy, Jackson, and his voice is one of innocence and yet a growing wisdom, all at the same time.

I’m not sure the book is going to be very popular. It’s a middle grade novel, but the subject matter, a thirteen year old foster child who wants to see his baby daughter, is mature and emotionally devastating (no explicit sexual content, and hardly any language, but mature). Older teens don’t want to read about a thirteen year old and his twelve year old foster brother. Adults will see it as a children’s book, or as a book about subjects they don’t want their own children to have to deal with. Nevertheless, I would recommend it for mature teens and for adults. It’s sad, yes, and frustrating and emotional and . . . excellent.

Jack Hurd is included in the meeting his parents have with the social worker who wants to send a foster child to the Hurds’ dairy farm in central Maine. The foster child is Joseph, a boy with a history. Joseph is said to have tried to kill a teacher. He has been to juvenile detention. And he has a daughter, a baby girl named Jupiter whom he has never seen. Jack and his parents are sure that they can provide a home for Joseph, and Joseph and Jack immediately bond, with Jack becoming Joseph’s follower and his defender and caretaker all at the same time.

Suffice it to say that Joseph’s life and history and future are complicated, and tragedy ensues. Jack is caught up in Joseph’s drama, and he becomes the “Guy Who Has Jupiter’s Father’s Back.” But Joseph also has Jack’s back, and that’s partly where the tragedy comes in.

I would almost recommend anything written by Gary Schmidt, sight unseen. But I’ve read this book, and I recommend it even more highly than I would if I hadn’t. If you don’t think your middle grader or YA read is ready for the book, you should read it because stories like Joseph’s and Jupiter’s exist. And we’re better off for exploring them, in a book, before we encounter them in real life. I think I’ll loan this one to my friend who works at a crisis pregnancy center. She might very well find it even more relevant and relatable than I did.

The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Set in 1972, this novel for middle grade readers tells the story of Peter Lee, a Chinese-American boy who loves baseball, and his very traditional Taiwanese father, Chen Lee. These two are the characters around whom the narrative revolves as Peter and his “Ba” (what Peter calls his dad) come to understand and even appreciate one another through the medium and backdrop of baseball.

At the beginning of the story, Peter describes his dad as a “man of science and great believer in cleanliness and order.” Peter’s dad doesn’t seem to be very interested in baseball, nor does he take much interest in Peter’s ideas or feelings. Peter’s school work is the only thing that Ba notices about his son, and mostly he notices when Peter is not doing well in school. Peter’s mother, who has been the emotional glue that held this family together in the past, has reacted to a tragedy in the family by retreating into a world of watching television and sleeping. Whereas she and Peter used to share an interest in baseball, particularly the Pittsburgh Pirates, now “Mom” is cold and unresponsive. And Ba simply allows her to continue to sit and do nothing.

The book is a fascinating account of a family dealing with the depressive illness of one of its members, even though the words “clinical depression” are never used. Perhaps in this traditional Chinese family, in the early 1970’s, there is no concept of depression as a treatable mental illness. Nevertheless, at the end of the book Ba says something very wise and insightful about dealing with an ongoing family crisis or illness, any such calamity:

“I don’t know what to do next,” I say (Peter).

Ba lowers his head and clears his throat. “What you do is keep moving. Some days you will only do small things all day. You get up in the morning and you get dressed and you wash your face. You go to school. I go to work. We have baseball.”

So wise. There are other issues and conflicts and wise (and foolish) decisions in the book: girls playing Little League baseball, bullying, fathers and sons and over-zealous coaches, the meaning of playing baseball. But the growing relationship between Peter and Ba was what made the book come alive for me. The Way Home Looks Now is a good story, full of baseball metaphors (and I really like me some baseball metaphors), and it paints a fine picture of a boy coming to understand and appreciate his father’s love and concern that is expressed in a way that doesn’t look exactly the way an eleven or twelve year old boy might recognize or want it to look.

Recommended for lovers of baseball and for boys and girls with fathers, which should include most everyone.

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson

Author John David Anderson (Side-kicked, Minion) seems to be interested in moral ambiguity for middle grade readers. In this kinda sorta medieval/fairy tale setting, our protagonist, Colm Candorly, shows talent as a pickpocket and is invited to go to a school for “dungeoneers”, adventurers who steal treasure from goblins and orcs and other nasty creatures. The teachers and the lessons are mostly all about greed for treasure and revenge for past wrongs, but maybe Colm learns a lesson about greed and revenge by the end of the book?

It’s obvious that Mr. Anderson did some Dungeons and Dragons-style dungeoneering in his (possibly misspent) youth. There’s also a touch of HP in the story as Colm makes friends at his new school and learns that not all of the students, teachers, and mentors at the school are trustworthy or even kind. Colm’s new treasure seeking team consists of himself, an erstwhile Rogue, Lena the Barbarian, who faints at the sight of her own blood, Quinn the Mage who casts stuttering, dangerous, and unpredictable spells, and Serene the Druid, a pacifist who is scared of big animals but communicates well with spiders. Together, the four of them are out to win at in-school contests, protect one another from their bullying compatriots, and get as much treasure as possible with the management taking fifty percent or more.

Side-kicked and Minion were about superheroes and the moral choices involved in becoming a hero or a villain. The Dungeoneers goes back to a more classic fantasy setting, but the theme is still same. Is a rogue, who steals from goblins and orcs, a hero or a thief? What’s the difference? Is there any honor among thieves? Will Colm choose to become a rich rogue or a honest but penniless cobbler like his father? If you have a talent for thievery and pickpocketing, what is it good for? Is Colm one of the good guys, one of the bad guys, or something in-between?

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

A post-apocalyptic (Hunger Games) sort of adventure story pitched for younger readers, maybe 9 to 12 years old. The nanites that were supposed to combat the air pollution of a long-ago civilization have instead taken over the entire surface of the earth, creating a deadly fog that brings sickness to anyone who spends time in it. The ruthless Lord Kodoc is out to get Chess, the fog diver or tether boy for a group of scavengers from the slums who use their air raft to search for salvage in the fog. Unfortunately for Chess, he’s a freak, born in a cage, down in the fog, with one fog-filled eye to betray his origins. As Chess and his scavenger buddies–Hazel, Bea and Swedish—try to escape the notice of Lord Kodoc, they also need to earn enough money to leave the slums and go to Port Oro where their mentor, Mrs. E, might be able to find a cure for her life-threatening fog-sickness.

The book moves along at a steady clip with lots of peril and near-death experiences. It also has lots of Star Wars references, which are fun to catch, and the plot itself is very Star Wars-y. There are humorous references to various pop culture artifacts and ephemera as Chess consults his father’s old scrapbook for an understanding of history but misunderstands many of the references. So the children think that Burger King and Dairy Queen were real monarchs from long ago, and they tell each other stories about Skywalker Trek and the X-wing Enterprise.

I though the ending was adequate, not really a cliff-hanger, although it’s obvious that a sequel is in the works. Fog Diver is one of the books on the shortlist for Cybils in the Middle Grade Fiction category. That’s why I read it, and I’m glad I did. I’m definitely looking forward to that sequel, The Lost Compass (May, 2016).

“My name is Chess, and I was born inside a cage.

Imagine a wooden platform jutting from a mountain cliff. Now picture a chain falling from that platform and vanishing into the Fog, a deadly white mist that covers the entire Earth.

That’s where I was born: locked in a cage, at the end of a chain, inside the fog.

And I would have died there, too, if Mrs. E hadn’t saved me.”

The Sign of the Cat by Lynne Jonell

Cat lovers (and tiger lovers) everywhere who also enjoy fabulous fantasy adventure stories should pick this one up right away. Duncan McKay has a special, secret ability: he can speak cat. Of course, cats understand human language anyway, but rare is the human who can speak to and understand cats in their own language. Duncan is going to need all the advantages he can get when he’s kidnapped, almost drowned–twice!–attacked by a tiger, locked in a cage, and stranded on a deserted island, not necessarily in that order. Will Duncan be able to save not only himself but also all the kittens and cats of Arvidia from a kitten-squishing villain?

What a great story! Duncan is a likable protagonist, almost twelve years old, and beginning to chafe under his mother’s restrictions on his behavior. So, it’s a coming of age novel with Duncan figuring out what it means to be honest, brave, and noble. The cats are personable with distinct and engaging personalities of their own. Some people complained on Goodreads and Amazon that the story was a bit predictable and that the big reveals were obvious and easily figured out, but I must be a little slow. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, although I had my theories, some of them right and some wrong. I think middle grade readers, even those who are not particularly cat lovers, will really enjoy this adventure story, unless they are too jaded, or too smart for their own good, or maybe too old. Just call me 58, dumb, and happily unobservant when it comes to discerning plot twists when I’m enjoying the ride.

This volume is probably the first in a projected series, but it’s perfectly satisfying as a stand alone novel. That’s what I like, and I like this one well enough to see if Ms. Jonell can do it again in the second book in the series. I would enjoy some more adventures with Duncan and the other characters in The Sign of the Cat. I’ve decided I like cats–in books.