Wednesday, March 25, 2015

‘Little Baby Buttercup’ (Book Review)

This has got to be one of the cutest toddler books I’ve ever read. Little Baby Buttercup (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015) is a “Mommy and Me” story about daily activities and growing up. Readers will join Buttercup, as she eats, plays with blocks, “helps” her mother in the garden, and explores the outside world of nature and busy people around her.

Author Linda Ashman tells the story using bouncy rhymes that are simple and fun, propelling the story forward. The vocabulary presents a few opportunities for your child to be exposed to new words, like “traveler” and “journey,” and learn to pay attention to sounds, not just actions. While the story follows a bunch of mini-adventures, there is still a sense of dramatic structure. There’s a definite build-up, followed by a point of conflict – rain! – and a calming resolution. Not always what’s expected from a toddler book. Impressive writing, indeed.

Bringing to life Buttercup’s world is illustrator You Byun. She uses sort of an East-meets-West style of drawing and feminine-looking watercolor painting to create pictures that look “vintage” without being “outdated” and “Asian-inspired” without causing the reader to feel like she’s looking at manga. The illustrations are bright and large, sure to capture and maintain a young child’s attention. They are also relevant to the story, driving home the ideas and sounds that Ashman presents.

I think Little Baby Buttercup is all around adorable. There is a diverse multicultural crowd of kids at the playground and people moving about the town. I wouldn’t say it’s geographically ambiguous, because there’s an obvious east-coast town feel. However, California babies can easily identify with squirrels, coffee shops, and getting caught in the rain.

Before you rush out and buy this book, note that, while Little Baby Buttercup is clearly targeted at toddlers, it boasts a jacketed hardcover and paper pages. You might want to hold off on it, or at least store it in a safe place, until you’re sure your child knows that books are not to be torn and eaten. Properly cared for, this book could be read and loved well into the early grade years.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Monday, March 23, 2015

‘My Senior Year at a Christian Fundamentalist College’ (Book Review)

Author Jeri Massi has spent much of her career reporting on sexual abuse committed by clergy at what are called “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist” (IFB) churches and universities. This research has led to books addressing legalism, patriarchy, and spiritual abuse in churches today. Since Massi is a novelist at heart, it’s not surprising that she would also find inspiration for fiction in these real-life tragedies. This is what Secret Radio: My Senior Year at a Christian Fundamentalist College (Twenty-Five Years Ago) By Grace Jovian (Jupiter Rising Books, 2014) is all about.

We’re introduced to college senior Grace Jovian, probably named in honor of GRACE, the organization that investigated Bob Jones University’s handling of complaints of sexual abuse. As the book opens, her summer vacation has been ruined and her spiritual foundation rocked by the discovery that all is not squeaky clean in her family. Upon returning to college, Grace begins to question everything she’s been brought up – brainwashed? – to believe. Once a model female student, her newly-found open-mindedness leads her to befriend the religious outcasts and butt heads with the college’s entrenched authoritarianism and androcentrism.

To be honest, I think this book and I got off on the wrong foot. One of the first things I noticed was that the cover and frontispiece unabashedly make “Grace Jovian” out to be the author. Sure, the copyright stuff and the “advisory” clearly show that the book is a novel by Jeri Massi, but who’s actually going to read those? I felt that the author or publisher was purposely trying to mislead the public into thinking this fictitious work was an autobiography and that the events told were true. Believe me when I say that questioning the author’s integrity is not the most enjoyable way to begin reviewing a book.

Once I got into the story, I’ll admit the Secret Radio sort of grew on me. Massi knows how to keep a story moving forward and hang on to her audience. Yet even as I turned each page, curious about what would happen next, there was a nagging feeling that all wasn’t right with the book. I don’t just mean to point out the typos and too-small margins. There were fundamental problems with how the novel was worked out.

When the reader first meets Grace, it seems that she has already rejected, in just one summer, everything her faith and identity has been founded on. Those of us who have gone through those sorts of experiences know that, in real life, it often takes years of reevaluating your beliefs before you can confidently claim to hold new positions. Grace, however, seems to do so overnight. We don’t see her struggling against, say, an entrenched belief in male superiority. She just decides it’s wrong, and assumes that the reader hearing her story will go along with that. It’s enough to wonder if the character really ever held those views at all. Or more appropriately said, Massi doesn’t convince me that her character was ever the “fundamentalist” she was supposed to have been.

I also am weary about who exactly is the target audience. Plainly clothed and 470-pages thick, Secret Radio is not exactly set to attract younger readers, and attract younger readers it must. Stereotyped black-and-white characters engaging in juvenile behavior such as snooping, pranking, and sneaking out doesn’t make serious literature. On the other hand, the issues discussed in the book are not what would normally be deemed “appropriate for children,” and debate over religious doctrine would likely bore most young readers. I think I would’ve preferred a novel addressing the same problems but in a way that would appeal to adult readers: a heroine who actually seems conflicted, realistic supporting cast members who lie on the continuum between “totally good” and “totally bad,” and a main plot incorporating the sorts of tragedy that inspired the story in the first place. Then I’d say Massi was on her way to publishing a winner.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

‘Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity’ (Book Review)

Opinions differ as to what fundamental beliefs and practices make someone a Christian. When someone wants to promote a particular set of them, he painstakingly shows how each item in the list is “backed by Scripture.” Yet, the final product is still a man-made construction built on the wobbly foundation of selective prooftexting. You can’t find every item on the list in one place, and certain things are made conspicuous by their absence.

So we turn to the Bible itself. Is there some sort of list provided in there that we can work with? Arguably, the best candidate is Hebrews 6:1-2 (ESV):

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Since the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews didn’t go into more detail about these basics, author D. Thomas Lancaster, a non-Jewish preacher who left the evangelical church to embrace Messianic Judaism, has done so for us. Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity (First Fruits of Zion, 2014) morphed out of an expository sermon series on this passage, from which Lancaster identifies six basic teachings that make up the foundation of Christianity: repentance from dead works, faith toward God, instructions about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (p. 9). Each teaching is summarized in the introduction, but is also explored later on in more detail.

The chapter that I appreciated most was the one on “washings.” Many Christian authors will go to great lengths to discuss Christian baptism in the New Testament without providing a context in which to understand it. Lancaster, however, discusses its origins as an ancient Jewish purification ritual and its practice by the early church as put forth in the Didache (i.e., The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).

The chapter I wasn’t too impressed with was the one about the “laying on of hands.” Lancaster starts off making a very convincing biblical argument that this was necessary for a new convert to receive the Holy Spirit, but then balks, concluding otherwise. He seems unwilling to take such an extreme position merely because it makes him uncomfortable.

Where I would’ve liked further discussion is on “faith toward God.” The author builds a case for “faith on God” over “faith in God,” but doesn’t even address the translation issue of “faith” (i.e., belief) versus “faithfulness” (i.e., fidelity). I find this extremely puzzling because the latter choice would have fit so well with his interpretation of “faith” as a matter of behavior, not belief.

Despite a few difficulties, I generally liked Elementary Principles. Lancaster takes seriously a passage that too many teachers overlook because they’re eager to get to the “good stuff” – the heavy, advanced stuff – when sometimes their students need to review the basics to make sure everything is in order. These sermons can serve as guidelines for preachers and teachers to design their own sermons and lessons on these topics. (They might face a few challenges though since, being a collection of sermons, the book lacks endnotes and a bibliography to facilitate further study.)

Something else Lancaster accomplishes is staying on topic, not getting sidetracked on tangents or bogged down in a lot of controversy. This has its pros and cons. Even though the author set out to provide some simple answers, I felt that the book inadvertently raises more serious questions than he might have anticipated. Why is this all-important list only included in a book whose canonicity was seriously disputed? And why doesn’t the Bible contain a primer for us explaining these elementary principles? These issues are clearly beyond what Lancaster intended to cover in these sermons, but I hope he endeavors to take them on some point in the future.

Monday, March 16, 2015

‘Where Is Baby?’ (Book Review)

There are many books designed to introduce babies and toddlers to prepositions used to describe spatial relationships (e.g., above, below, in, out). Where Is Baby? by Bonnie Ferrante (Single Drop Publishing, 2014) is not as attractive as most of them. The basic idea – using an actual baby’s photographs to illustrate the concepts – is clever, but the finished product lacks the sort of polish that most shoppers are often looking for in toddler books.

Where most similar books succeed and this one fails is with the pictures. They need to convey clearly what is said in the narrative. When “Baby is peeking around the chair,” the chair is barely shown. Ditto for “behind the door.” “Baby is below the tree” looks like “in front of” and really should be “under.” “Baby is under the hat” should’ve been replaced with “The hat is on Baby.” And unless the reader is introduced to “Baby’s sisters,” there’s no way a child will be able to identify the older girls that way. Not unless the child is the one featured in all of the pictures.

While I do like the feel of the book, the cut-and-paste cover makes it look like a DYI project. Inside, the pictures are nice and large. However, some are not in the best focus, and others are too dark. The selection was probably made from a previous album rather than a planned photo shoot. It’s the sort of book you’d flip through and think, “I can do this.” And I agree. Take your own baby’s photos, and make your own book. You’ll be happier with the result, even if it looks amateurish, and your child will be thrilled.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Friday, March 6, 2015

‘Railway Ribaldry’ (Book Review)

Like most American children, I was first introduced to engineer Rube Goldberg’s wacky machines through Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and other vehicles of modern culture. However, unlike most American children, I was also introduced to Goldberg’s British counterpart, W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944). My parents had a book of his illustrations, and I spent way too many hours during my formative childhood trying to make sense of it rather than struggling through my McGuffey Readers. So when I recently received a reprint of Railway Ribaldy, Being 96 Pages of Railway Humour (Old House, 2014), sweet nostalgia was in the air.

In 1935, the Great Western Railway (GWR), which linked London to west England and Wales, celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. Well-known World War I illustrator Robinson produced Railway Ribaldy to commemorate the occasion. His cartoons are political and cultural commentaries on the railroads in general and the GWR in particular, suggesting in a highly imaginative way how they evolved into efficient and comfortable means of transportation. That is, with fantastic contraptions that defy physics and the adaption of some of strangest social practices that have been giving laughing readers belly-aches for close to a century.

So if you’re in the mood for some entertaining visual stories documenting railroad “history,” check out this new edition of Railway Ribaldy. I’ll admit the book suffers from an unattractive cover design. The colors and lettering especially scream “outdated” rather than “timeless.” I feel that Robinson deserves something with a bit more posh. I also fear that too many readers will give up too easily on it. Some of the jokes are sure to be lost on today’s American readers, as there are no notes explaining some of the nineteenth century public’s concerns and the GWR’s dilemmas. Yet that can be seen as another opportunity for the reader’s imagination to take over. All flaws aside, I hope your family will enjoy this volume just as much as mine did.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.