Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Last Literary Analysis of the Year: Animal Farm

Dear Reader,

For our last literary analysis of the year we tackled George Orwell’s Animal Farm (see the earlier ones here, here, and here). This turned out to be a particularly good choice since we had studied both the American and French Revolutions in our homeschool this year.

My oldest picked up early on in our reading of the book that this was a thinly veiled commentary on a real revolution. Unfortunately, the one he picked was the French Revolution. We have not studied the Russian Revolution yet so that was not on his radar. And I do think the kids couldn’t see much past the name Napoleon (the main pig character for most of the story).

This did, however, give us a good place to start our discussion. I opened it up by telling them that Orwell had intended to comment on the Russian Revolution and posed the question of how the book might apply to all, or at least many, revolutions. To start with this was meant as a rhetorical question; we would return to it at the end of our discussion.

Form there we moved to the notes I had made from our guide book, Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.

I gave background information on the Russian Revolution (see notes below for details). We talked about which characters corresponded to which historical figures or groups. We also talked about what people in a monarchy (like under the tsars in Russia) can do if they don’t like how they are being ruled (answer: not much). We talked about why the author used animals as the main characters and why he used different species. We also reviewed what an allegory is and talked about how this book fit that definition. Compared to our previous literary attempts, the most surprising thing this time was that we followed my notes almost exactly and that the kids gave the expected answers (based on Deconstructing).

We then moved on to ask who the protagonist was. My youngest made a play for Snowball, at least at the beginning, but they all pretty quickly agreed on Napoleon. His being a bad guy was no obstacle in their minds. They also agreed pretty readily that the action he was advancing was his own aggrandisement (okay, no one used the word “aggrandisement”), contrary to the action he said he was pushing forward (equality for animals). Identifying the antagonist was a problem, however. The fact tat we couldn’t identify one character who successfully opposed Napoleon led us to some important conclusions. Like that nobody stood up to him. My youngest again was pretty quick to see that Boxer could have because he had the strength to do so. They even realized on their own that he was not afraid of the dogs (aka the secret police), just as Deconstructing had said. With just a little prompting, they also saw that Benjamin had the brains to know what was going on but that he just didn’t care enough to interfere, but that if he had and had gotten Boxer on his side they could have done something.

Lastly we asked what the author was trying to communicate. The consensus was “you shouldn’t trust your government.” I thought this was a slightly interesting twist on things. I expected more along the lines of “if you see something, say something.” But I guess I am raising a crop of little radicals ;).

Finally, to wrap things up, I returned to the revolutions we have studied. We talked about the French and Russian Revolutions and how they did have a lot in common – noble ideals, followed by lots of bloodshed and one guy who is supposed to rule alongside others but ends up seizing power all for himself. Then I asked why the American Revolution turned out differently. The two conclusions we arrived at were that our distance from the motherland and the (former) king helped and that George Washington’s character was pivotal. Seriously, the more I study, the more I am impressed with this guy. He could so easily have made himself a dictator; many expected him to and assumed he would, but he did not.

Here then are the questions and notes I had to go on in leading the discussion:

  • This story is about Russia in 1917 when the country was ruled by a tsar. What is a tsar? (ans: a king).
  • Is a king elected? (no)
  • Can a king’s subjects tell him what to do or ask for a new king? (no)
  • The tsar in 1917 was rich but didn’t do any work. Who is that like? (Farmer Jones; there are a lot of clear-cut answers in this book; that, I suppose, is the nature of allegory)
  • What if the tsar was mistreating people? How could they make him stop?
  • A group called the Bolsheviks rallied the poor, kicked out the tsar and declared Russia free and all Russians equal. Read p. 77 of Deconstructing to them re the events that followed.
  • Why did Orwell use all different animals and not just pigs? (to represent different groups in society)
  • Who did Moses the Raven represent? What is Sugar Candy mountain? (the church, heaven)
  • Who did Boxer represent? (workers) Benjamin? (intellectuals)
  • Define intellectuals – see Deconstructing p.78. The key point here is that they were theoretical thinkers and didn’t contribute much practically.
  • This is an allegory. What is that? Where have we seen that before? (Perhaps you have read Pilgrim’s Progress or others you can refer to.)
  • Why does the author use animals instead of people?
  • Who is the protagonist? What action is he trying to move forward?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • Does good triumph in this book?
  • What is the moral?
  • Why couldn’t the other animals stop Napoleon?
  • Why did the author write this book?
  • Is there anybody who knew what was going on? (Benjamin) What could/should he have done?

And that’s Animal Farm. I hope to do more books next school year and to incorporate other ideas as well, like those I am getting from How to Read Literature like a Professor.


Book Review: How to Read Literature Like Professor

Dear Reader,

I have mentioned this book in some earlier posts (see here and here), but I have now finished it and wanted to give a proper review. How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster is definitely going on my “recommend” list. As its title implies, Foster shows you how to approach a work of literature as he, a college English professor, would. His goal, as he says, is not to deconstruct texts but to help you enjoy and understand them more. And you can really tell that he enjoys them. I got the impression as I read this book that here is someone who loves what he does and is trying to share it with others so they can enjoy it too. Now I will say that one man’s literary analysis can be another man’s deconstruction so there may be some who find that he goes too far. Foster comes to the works he discusses with a lot of background knowledge of the writers themselves and also of the history of literature. It can seem intimidating and I can easily see how someone without all that knowledge would find their head swimming and think “where is he getting all this?” and “how does he know it means that?” But I do think Foster’s goal is, as he says, to show why his approach is valuable and to give the likes of you and me some understanding of how to do what he does and some of the tools to do so.

Most of the book is spent on short chapters with topics like “It’s all about Shakespesre” and “Fairytales” ad “Roads.” Basically Foster goes through a lot of things that can influence writers or can be common themes or symbols one will find in literature. He tries to show how to identify these things and how to begin thinking about what they mean. He uses lots of examples and occasionally, though perhaps not as often as I would like, gives “how to”s. This is a huge, really limitless topic, however, and he is only going to be able to do so much. So one may come out of it not feeling a lot more equipped. I hope, though, that you will come out of it as I did, having a greater appreciation for this way of approaching literature and wanting to be able to do so. Beyond that, I think there is only so much Foster or anyone can add. At a certain point one just needs to start reading and reading and reading and with some thought hopefully connections will be made.

I think a stumbling block for some may be in the very premise of this book, that is, in the why of it all. So I would like to spend a minute on the why. Rather than rehash Foster’s arguments (go get the book and you can read those for yourself), I would like to say why I liked this book. Foster’s approach resonated with me because I found it akin to two things I am already involved in. The first is how we interpret the Bible. When reading biblical stories, one of the first things I often ask my kids is “what else in the Bible does this remind you of?” In biblical interpretation we call these types and antitypes. They are things like the flood and baptism but also the flood and baptism and the crossing of the Red Sea and Joshua parting the Jordan and Elijah parting the Jordan. God seems to use the same patterns again and again. A new reader will not see all things as being related but they are. The more we read our Bibles, the more we will be able to make such connections and from them we will learn ideas. Foster takes this same approach and extends it to all literature (and the biblical themes and symbols are also a big part of what affects other literature as well). It seems daunting because the Bible at least is self-contained and Foster is really looking at all of literature. No one will ever be able to take it all in, but the more one has read and knows, the more he will be able to read like a professor (as Foster’s title says).

The second reason Foster’s apprach resonated with me is that it seems to fit so well with a Charlotte Mason approach to education. CM’s philosophy is about making connections and that it exactly what Foster is trying to do – to make connections between disparate texts. It is also about ideas and that is what Foster is after as well; he asks what the author’s ideas are by looking beyond the surface of what is written. I think too that if this approach is done well one can’t help but form relationships with the materials and the minds behind them which is also very CM.

No book (other than the Bible) is perfect so I will be nitpicky and tell you that there were some things I wished for in this book. I wish there was more of a how-to. Foster does go through lots of examples but I wished there were more specific techniques given. I don’t honetsly know if there are more specific techniques that could be given, but I know I wished for them. I also wondered to what degree his approach could be applied to non-Western literature. Foster alludes to this problem but it seemed like a lot of what he looked at was based on Greek mythology, and Bible and Christian symbolism so I did wonder how all this would carry over into other cultures. Lastly, Foster seems to have his pet authors. I got a little tired of hearing about DH Lawrence and Toni Morrison.

Overall though this is a book I was really glad to have read. I hope to incorporate its ideas into our homeschool and perhaps will even make my kids read parts of it someday (carefully selected parts because actually Foster deals with a lot of adult themes – so read carefully!).


A Little Thought on the Value of Literature

Dear Reader,

I am sure I seem very opinionated here on this blog. But in real life I find it very hard to argue with people or to get out coherent thoughts in a decent span of time. I need time to process and come up with the right words which, I suppose, is why blogging works better for me; I am able to take my time to choose my words — and then to go back and change them before anyone sees them anyway.

So another homeschooling mom was asking me recently why we need to study literature at all and especially to study it critically. It is a conversation she and I have had before in various forms, but I didn’t have a good answer on the spot. However, I have been reading a book on literature, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster (review to come, I am sure), and it has helped me clarify my thoughts on one point in particular.

You see, along with Charlotte Mason whose philosophy of education I do my best to adhere to, I would say that the value in books is in the ideas they present and that we are able across time to connect with the minds of other people. I feel this profoundly to be true, but I had been missing one piece of the puzzle which Foster’s book has helped me discover. It is an assumption that I am making which I had not even realized. And it is this: That there is a progression in the thoughts and ideas of humanity as a whole. This may sound pretty basic but it is by no means obvious and it has profound theological implications.

From a purely scientific, evolutionary and atheistic point of view, there can be no progression. That is, humanity itself has evolved and one presumes continues to evolve (I’ve never actually been clear what such people think on this point, truth be known), but this evolution is merely change. There cannot be a progression in terms of a moving forward or advancing in any way because there is no standard by which to measure progress — to say this change moves us further towards some goal or standard — and particularly no moral standard.

But even for Christians, this is by no means an obvious conclusion. We have an absolute moral standard so we do have a way to measure but the question of whether the human race as a whole is getting closer to this standard is a  major point of dispute. And it has a lot to do with everyone’s favorite topic, one’s view of the end times. This is the point here we get to use fun words like dispensation and post-millenialism. It also hinges on our view of revelation.

Now personally, I believe the Bible is the complete and perfect Word of God and that nothing can be added to it. I am not a big fan of things like prophecy and tongues. I do not completely rule out further supernatural revelations from God, but I do not think they are His ordinary means of dealing with His people today. They were at one point but no longer. Now we have His written Word and in most times and circumstances, especially in places where that Word is available, He does not choose to give us other dramatic revelations. And even if He did do so, perhaps as a witness to the truth of His gospel on some remote Pacific island, that revelation would not supersede or add to the Bible but would only confirm and point to His written Word.

But, while I am pretty conservative on my view of continuing revelation, yet I still believe that God speaks to us today and that there is more truth to be revealed than is found in the Bible. The Bible, while perfect, does not address every topic nor is it all there is to say or know on every subject. It tells us what we need to know of God, but there is still a lot we can and have learned from other sources — science, for instance. There are Christians who will disagree with this. I think there are probably more of them in homeschooling circles than elsewhere. They believe instead that all we need to know on any subject can be found in the Bible. So they look to it for answers to theological questions but also to scientific ones and dietary ones and  . . . well, everything.

So this, then, is the first assumption I am making: that there is more that we, humankind, can learn beyond what is in the Bible. The corollary to this is that God does reveal truth to us through other means, human reason and scientific inquiry for instance. Though I will acknowledge that since our reason is fallen along with the rest of our natures that we must always question such things and put them to the test against God’s Word. Nonetheless, God does continue to reveal certain kinds of truth to us since the completion of the biblical canon. All of which is to say, that it can be worthwhile to read things other than the Bible.

The second assumption I am making is that we are progressing – that is that we are moving forward as judged by God’s eternal standard of right and wrong. This is again by no means obvious or widely accepted. Among conservative Christians I dare say the opposite belief abounds — that we are getting worse and worse and falling more and more into sinful ways. Just look at the issues our society is dealing with — abortion, gay marriage, and the like. But on the other side I could point to an end to the institution of slavery in the western world, acceptance of interracial marriages, the idea that in war one should not kill all the civilians as a matter of course, an acknowledgement and respect for the rights women have over their own bodies.

Foster, to return to him, talks in his book about how some author reinterprets a Shakespeare play (this is all going to be very vague because I am not actually at this moment looking back at the book). The play itself wrestled with some ideas but still accepted others as a matter of course. The later author created a very similar plot, clearly referring back to Shakespeare, but went further than the Bard could have done and also questioned the privilege of the nobility in the play, the inherent elitism, if you will. Something that could not have been imagined in Shakespeare’s day is called into question by a later author. This is not to diminish Shakespeare’s work — it would be hard to do that –but only to say that we as a people were able to move on and to discuss new issues. And sometimes it is not even about whether we agree with the author, it is just that we are able to wrestle with the issues.

But to return to my main point, if we view literature as a great conversation humanity has with itself, then when we read and study the literature of a given period, it is because we agree that it is a valuable part of the conversation. We could, as Christians, stop with the Bible and say that is all we need and nothing significant can be added. We could, as many Christians seem to do, pick a point in history and say that everything since has gone down hill and is less valuable if at all. We could also exclude certain authors from the conversation, or at least from the parts of it we subscribe too. Many Christians would diminish if not ignore the contributions of non-Christians. This too, I think, is a mistake. We may take what an author says with a grain of salt but there is still a lot of wisdom that God can give us through non-Christians. This is the work of common grace that sends rain or sun on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

My little thought has turned into a very long post but I will try to boil it down one more time if I can. When we read literature, we participate in the conversation, the flow of ideas, humanity has with itself. By doing so, we implicitly say that there is something more to be said, that there can be new ideas and that they can be valuable to us. I would add that I think we have to have a pretty positive view of where things are going too. If you think there is nothing good since 1900, there is no point in reading books written since then. I am not saying that all human thought is moving forward. I think there are a lot of fits and starts, but I do find myself more and more leaning towards an optimistic view of human history. I don’t really want to get into the whole end times thing here; it is a huge topic and this post is already longer than I anticipated. Suffice it to say that if you expect a millennium of bad days before Christ come back yet and especially if you think we are in that time, then you are not likely to expect anything of value to be produced.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here?


Fairy Tale Follow-Up (More on Young Adult Fiction)

Dear Reader,

Do you know what I forgot in my last post? Mermaids! In that post, I talked about fairy tales and how so many kids, and especially young adult, books these days have main characters who are werewolves, vampires, etc. But I forgot mermaids. Yet today in my BookBub email of cheap Kindle books, I find that mermaids should indeed be included. The blurb on The Syrenka Series by Amber Garr reads:

“This stunning trilogy of sacrifice and love follows spirited 17-year-old mermaid Eviana as she flees an arranged marriage. But the decision to follow her heart has consequences beyond anything she can imagine… 

Now fairy tales are pretty much as old as humanity but this particular blurb highlights what I think bothers me about these young adult books. If you’ll notice, the protagonist is the mermaid. In most classic fairy tales (as far as I observe in my uneducated opinion), the fanciful creatures are not the humans or the heroes and heroines; they are the bad guys. But these days not only do the witches and vampires take center stage, they are often the main characters; the ones we are to sympathize with and relate to. What does this mean? What does it mean that so many young adults are fascinated by these books? Well, the obvious answer to me is that they are longing for something more and/or different than what they are, for escape from the world they know. This may not seem huge development in the history of teenagers, but I feel that there is something different in tenor about it all. It’s all very subjective, I know.

Another thing I forgot is that it is always wise to finish reading a book before one begins discussing it. This whole topic arose because I was reading Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner. When I wrote that previous post, I had not finished the book. Now I have (and I am also pleased to report that it was a bit shorter than I had thought; one drawback of reading things on the Kindle is that it is hard to know where one is; it turns out that a good chunk of the end of the book is notes and the reading bit ended sooner than I expected). And what I found near the end is that Warner at least begins to answer my questions. She talks about how fairy tales have been reinterpreted and rewritten. A key milestone in this history seems to be there reworking by the feminists in the 1970s. Warner says that:

“The contrary spirit of feminist fairy tale has also enlivened the growth of Young Adult fiction, with unflinching fantasists exploring the lives of girls — and some boys — through revisiting ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Snow White’, and other classics. The furious feminist protests of the Seventies have become axioms of children’s publishing and film producers’ brainstorming sessions.” (Kindle loc. 2075)

Now I can just hear those super conservative Christian parents saying, “Aha! Modern fairy stories are influenced by feminist thought. I knew they were all evil and here is more proof!” And I will admit that this should at least make one pause and think. It is always good to do so when selecting books for one’s children anyway. But I am also not sure that this means we need to reject all such stories outright.

My own inclination is that there is a very real, even God-given desire at the root of this kind of literature. Warner also alludes to this when she says that fairy tales, which she says elsewhere are about escape, are a means that “rational dreamers” use to think about, among other things, “ways of avoiding hell” (Kindle loc. 2264). Isn’t this astounding? Fairy tales are about avoiding hell?? I am not completely sure I know how Warner means this. She does say that such stories allow us to come to terms with real world evils in a context divorced from reality. So I suppose it is not too big a leap to surmise that as we try to deal with the evils of our world that we are also trying to wrestle with ultimate evil.

Another book I reviewed recently, Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner, helps me out here. Horner is a Christian and his thesis is that everything we humans should know about God we suppress but that this suppressed knowledge comes back out in other ways. In other words, we can’t really suppress it. In the case of the young adult novels I am discussing, this would mean that our knowledge that we are meant for something more comes out as stories about teens who are really werewolves or mermaids or half-vampires. It is the only human longing: “there must be something more than this.” And indeed there is.

As I’ve said, I don’t think it is inherently wrong to read books like this. Fantasy itself can be used to convey truths in the hands of the right writers (think Lewis and Tolkien). And even in the works of non-Christians, there can be an awful lot of truth that comes out, at least about the human condition if not about the Divine. I do feel overwhelmed though when I go to my local library to pick out books for my older kids. There is just so much out there and I don’t have time to read it all. There are more of them than me and they read faster. So I do do a lot of judging a book by its cover and praying for the best.

What about you? How do you pick books for teens? Any good recommendations?


Literary Analysis: Babe, the Gallant Pig

Dear Reader,

I am ready to recount to you our latest foray into the realms of literary analysis. Our attempts are based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone which I reviewed here. Our previous attempts were on Charlotte’s Web and Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

This time we return to the world of pigs with Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith. King-Smith is one of my favorite authors for kids. Babe, of course, is well-known as there was a movie based on it. So too The Water Horse (for which the movie version is really quite different than the book). But he also has many other good books, most, but not all, about animals. They fill a nice void of easy to read, not too long chapter books.

Having read the book aloud to my kids over the course of a month or so, we turned today to its analysis. Since we had done this now twice before, my youngest was ready with her interpretation of the book. She said it was about not excluding anyone from jobs because of their species. Lest you think she meant “species” euphemistically for gender or religion or nationality, the child seems to really think she is married to a stuffed walrus. She had a wedding. We have pictures. She has a blog about walruses. Check it out here. Seriously, please do; she loves views. So she said species and she meant species.

My oldest said he had some ideas but they were silly. With some pressing he confessed one — that the dogs were politicians and the sheep the people. With more pressing it was decided that if this were the case that the message of the book would be that kindness works a lot better in ruling over people. I doubt this is what King-Smith had in mind, but I think it’s not half bad. One could certainly get something about leadership from this book.

We turned then to the questions I had prepared (se below). We talked about the setting and I explained what a microcosm is. Then I asked who the protagonist is (a concept we had introduced when looking at Charlotte’s Web). Here we began to have some disagreement. Some said Farmer Hoggett and some said Babe. I have to say I had thought Babe would be a clear answer. My kids thought that Babe just followed orders and never really did anything so he couldn’t be the protagonist. They argued that Farmer Hoggett did something — he made Babe into a sheep-pig. As the protagonist they felt that the action he moved forward was to help Babe change. We listed characteristics for Babe and I got the holdouts to admit that Babe does something — though he does follow the Farmer;’ orders, he is polite to the sheep and that is something new.

We then turned to find antagonists and could not find any for Farmer Hoggett but said that if Babe is the protagonist for showing sheep aren’t stupid that Fly is the antagonist. We talked about how she tells her puppies that Babe is stupid at first even though she has never met a pig and my daughter supplied that she was closed-minded and then we decided that that made Babe open-minded. All this is right in line with what Deconstructing Penguins says.

But when we turned to identifying the climax, we have more disputes. Only one child and I thought, as Deconstructing says, that the worrying dogs attacking was the climax. The other three thought that the dog trials were. We spent a long time on this and had to find the passage that defines climax, but even that didn’t help much. In the end, it came down to if the climax is the height of the action, they prefered the dog trials for the climax, but if the climax is when the most is changed, then the worrying incident was. We also said that if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the trials are the climax ,but if Babe is then, the worrying is because that is when Fly, his antagonist, begins to talk to sheep. We also said that there could be two climaxes and that there could be more than one possible interpretation of a book.

So lastly, we asked for each of these possible interpretations, what is the author trying to say. Here my youngest stuck by her assertion that, if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the message of the book is that certain species should not be excluded from jobs. We paused and mocked her a little for trying to get her walrus husband a job. The others couldn’t come up with much of a message for this interpretation other than pigs can herd sheep which doesn’t seem particularly profound or applicable to anything else in life. If Babe were the protagonist, they said that the message was “don’t assume people are stupid”  or “don’t assume things.”

All in all, it was not a bad discussion. There was not a lot that was hugely profound though our whole second interpretation with the Farmer as the protagonist was not in Deconstructing Penguins so I guess we have that to contribute to the world (though personally I think it is a weak interpretation). I still think there could be more to the leadership idea and what makes a good leader.

Here then are the questions I used to lead the discussion:

  • Define setting (when and where). What is the setting of this book? Where is the farm? Is it a big farm? When is it?
  • The animals are their own closed society on an isolated farm. Why does the author do this? Introduce the idea of a microcosm. What is a microcosm? (a small society that is an example of a larger world) Discuss the Greek roots of the word. Give examples. Does what happens in Babe‘s microcosm have anything to do with us? How does their world relate to ours?
  • Who is the protagonist? List babe’s characteristics. What is the most unique thing about Babe? (he’s a pig)
  • Has there ever been a pig on the farm before? How do we know?
  • What does Fly tell the puppies about Babe? How does she know? Play hangman to have them guess the word prejudice. Note that Fly never tells the puppies Babe is not stupid.
  • List possible antagonists. List Fly’s characteristics. How does she oppose Babe?
  • What is the climax of the book?
  • What is the author trying to say about prejudice and how it is overcome?

Be sure to let me know if you discuss the book and what conclusions you reach.


Literary Analysis: Charlotte’s Web

Dear Reader,

Today we made our second attempt at literary analysis. You can read about the first one, on Mr. Popper’s Penguins, here. The whole enterprise on based upon the book Deconstructing Penguins which I really loved and reviewed here. Last link! — You can also read some thoughts I had on how we’re tweaking Deconstructing here.

So to get down to the nitty-gritty. I read my kids Charlotte’s Web over the course of a few weeks. Ideally, each child would read the book himself but I find it’s a lot more likely to get done when I read aloud to them all at once.

I had a list of questions, based on the account given in Deconstructing Penguins (see below). But my oldest had mentioned the previous day that he had some ideas about the book so we started there. His big observation was that when he knows Charlotte is dying, Wilbur begins to use longer words. So we started there and I asked why they thought this was so. It was observed that Wilbur changes and with a little pressing my daughter provided a key word: “maturing.” Wilbur matures in the book. I will say I hadn’t noticed the word thing. The fact that Fern changes is pretty obvious in the book and my kids all noticed it as well. But, though I hadn’t really thought of it, I do think Wilbur changes as well.

We moved on from there to talk about protagonists and antagonists, a concept which Deconstructing introduces in this chapter. I read them the book’s definition (protagonist moves action forward; antagonist tried to keep it from moving) and we discussed which characters they thought played each of these roles. Our suggestions were: for protagonist, Wilbur, Charlotte and Fern (and later in the discussion Old Sheep was also put forward) and for antagonist Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman and “his crew” (i.e. Lurvy, Mrs. Zuckerman, etc.).

We then listed characteristics for each of these characters. It became obvious pretty quickly that Wilbur was probably not our protagonist since the words we listed for him were along the lines of “follower”, “obedient” and “not an idea man.” But for Charlotte we had “leader,” “thinker”, and the like. With a little pressing we also added “brutal” and “bloodthirsty.” A key phrase one of the kids came up with boiled down to “she is very aware of the shortness of life and her own mortality” (not quite how they said it but they had the idea).

From there we listed qualities of Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman. Of the two, Templeton proved far more interesting. Our words for him included “self-interested”, “self-centered” and “hungry.” My younger son, who has a lot of issues with being in his older brother’s shadow, contributed that he thought Templeton was justified in his behavior and that the other animals never treated him nicely or spoke politely to him. We ended up adding that Templeton was the victim of prejudice (against rats, you know).

We then took a vote on how we thought the protagonist was and it was unanimous for Charlotte. So we began to discuss what action she was trying to move forward. Saving Wilbur of course is the obvious answer so we asked why she does this. I had them read a quote from the end of the book in which Charlotte explains her actions to Wilbur. Basically she says she was trying to lift her life up a little. My older daughter felt that Charlotte was trying to atone for her bloodthirstiness in eating bugs. She really latched onto that idea though I have to say I think the atonement bit is misplaced.

There was quite a bit more discussion involved but let me skip to our conclusions: We decided that Mr. Zuckerman rather than Templeton really opposes Charlotte’s action but that Templeton is a kind of foil (didn’t use that word) to her character in that he lives to eat and is completely focused on his own belly and needs whereas Charlotte eats to live and tries to help someone else. I asked them which character they though the author would side with, that is, which view he was espousing. I thought they’d go for the obvious — that Charlotte’s way is right– but they were not convinced (other than my youngest). That younger son who had stuck up for the rat insisted Templeton’s way was right. The other two thought that neither view was presented as the right one.

Finally, I had asked them which approach to life they thought was right and biblical. Here, with a little teasing out, we decided that while Templeton lives only for himself, so does Charlotte really. She makes it obvious in the end that she helped Wilbur to give her own life meaning so her ultimate end is still self-centered. They were pretty quick to see that though their actions were different that their goals were not really so different and my youngest was the one to state the obvious conclusion: that it would be better to help others unselfishly, without any self-focused motive.

And that was our discussion. I was pleased again with how willing the kids were to discuss the book. There were observations — like the first one on Wilbur’s maturity, especially backed up as it was by a literary device (longer words) — that impressed me. There was not necessarily  a whole lot of agreement on some of the main questions. I’m a little worried about the son who keeps taking the rat’s side, frankly. But overall it went pretty well. Before I go, here are the questions I used to guide the discussion (though one must adapt as one goes, these are a place to start):

  • What is this book about? (see p. 29 of Deconstructing Penguins for ideas from the book)
  • What is a protagonist? Read p. 26 of Deconstructing Penguins for their definition of pro- and antagonist. Give an example from their lives (as in the book, we talked about bedtime and how some family members seek to get certain other ones to bed and how those other ones seek to delay)
  • Who is the protagonist in this book? Make a list of candidates.
  • Who is the antagonist? Again, list candidates.
  • List character traits of the possible protagonists — focus especially on Charlotte.
  • What is Charlotte’s view of the world?
  • List traits for the possible natagonists.
  • What is Charlotte’s goal; what action is she trying to move forward?
  • Who is her antagonist?
  • What does Charlotte say to Wilbur before she dies? Wat does she mean?
  • Is Templeton happy in the end?

If you discuss Charlotte’s Web too, please comment and let me know what conclusions your family reaches.

Next time: Babe, the Gallant Pig.


A Bit More on Literary Analysis

Dear Reader,

I am very excited to be attempting some form of literary analysis with my kids. As I posted earlier, we are basing what we do on the book Deconstructing Penguins (review here) and are going through some kids’ classics with an eye to learning how to ferret out what the author’s hidden message is. I say the author’s message because that is how Deconstructing speaks, but the truth is that I don’t take author’s intent too seriously. I know there are two schools of thought on this, but I have always thought that works, whether of literature or art, can have a meaning beyond what their creators intended. I think the authors of Deconstructing really feel this way too since they say that there is not one right answer and that one just needs to be able to defend one’s position from the text. If it all depended on what the author intended to convey, then we could call them up and find out what the one right answer is.

All of this is just precursor to what I really want to say which is this: In addition to the questions that Deconstructing suggests to us to ask, I think we as Christians also need to ask how the stories we read fit into The Big Story. As Christians, we believe that we are living within a story (I am indebted for this language to the Storyformed Conference I attended last year; read about that here). The fact is that there is an Author (notice the big “A”) who is Himself part of the story and who shapes the people and events around us. It is the story of all creation, from perfect creation through fall and redemption and continuing on until the completion of time.

As we discussed Mr. Popper’s Penguins, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my elder daughter found a Christian message in the book (you’ll have to look back at that earlier post to see what it was). Now I don’t want to find a Christ-figure in every book or to make every book have a Christian message. The message might not always be a good one. It might just be a picture of what the world without God is like; it might be an accurate depiction fo the human heart (which is not a cheery thing). I’m pulling together a lot of strands in this post, but I am also indebted to the book Meaning at the Movies (review here) for these ideas. In that volume the author, who is a Christian, discusses how we view movies and particularly how to discern the worldview behind them. He says, and I agree, that a movie need not be Christian in any way to be valuable for Christians to watch. Again, you’d have to read my earlier review for more details (sorry; I don’t mean to promo my own posts so much; it’s just working out that way), but he says all the truths which humans try and suppress pop up in other ways they don’t intend.

Which gets us back to the fact that we can’t rely on the author’s intentions alone. Because authors are human and might not even realize in what ways the truths they are trying to suppress come through in their stories. The very fact that we do create so much fiction, and in so many forms, is evidence of this. We are, as I said, living a part of The Big Story and we humans tend to naturally express ourselves in story. When an author writes a story, it is already a story within a story (the story of his or her own life, the story of creation and time). So when we sit down to say “what does this book mean?”, we must also ask “how does this story fit into The Big Story?”


Our First Attempt at Literary Analysis: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Dear Reader,

Since reading Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (see my review here), I have been wanting to have a book group with my kids. For a little review, Deconstructing is the account of a parent and child book group the Goldstones ran at their local library. It is written anecdotally, telling of their own experiences, but along the way it also goes through a number of children’s books and tells how they would understand the books. The approach is the most important thing though; the authors are careful to say any answer is right if one can support it from the text.

I debated asking other homeschoolers to join us in a book group but in the end, not knowing how well it would work, I wimped out and decided to try it with just my own kids. There are four of them, though, which I think gives us a quorum for a good discussion.

The first book we attempted is the one Deconstructing Penguins is named after — Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Deconstructing is not written as a how-to guide but I went through their chapter on it and came up with my own list of questions to steer the discussion. It took us a while to read the book because we did it a chapter at a  time a read-aloud. But finally today we were ready to discuss. I guess I had told my kids ahead of time that there would be a mystery to solve– this is the Deconstructing approach, each book is a mystery and we must dig deep to find out what the author is trying to tell us.

Well, anyway, my youngest who is 9 years old, started us off before I could even ask questions this morning by saying she thought she knew the answer to the mystery. Her guess was that the author was trying to ask if penguins could live in other environments than their natural one. This kind of threw me, but I thought we would go with it. So we started by discussing her proposition and asking what the answer would be. Could penguins live elsewhere? How did they fare in the book? And what about the other characters? How did Mr. Popper do outside his natural environment? What about Mrs. Popper and the children? Though I didn’t see it coming myself at first, this actually tied in well with what Deconstructing said was the main idea — that Mr. Popper, unlike all the other people in Stillwater, was a dreamer; that he was “different” and they were “normal.”

For our own part, we ended up saying that some people, like Mr. Popper, could thrive in foreign environments, but that others, like Mrs. Popper, could not. We also discussed which of us would do well in other environments. Some of us are more adventurous than others.

My older daughter also made an interesting observation. She said that Mr. Popper is like a Christiaan because he doesn’t really belong in Stillwater; he belongs somewhere else, just as for Christians we are aliens here and our true citizenship is in heaven. We tried to make the penguins or Admiral Drake a Christ-figure but decide this might be going too far 😉

The conclusion is that I am very pleased with how our little book group went. The kids really came up with ideas that seemed to fit the book and yet went beyond what Deconstructing Penguins itself said. And, honestly, I liked their ideas better too.

Even though we didn’t end up using them as written, I would like to share with you the questions I can up with in case you would like to have your own book group. If you do, be sure to let me know how it goes and what conclusions your reach!

Questions for Mr. Popper’s Penguins:

  • What is this book really about?
  • Why penguins?
  • What kind of town did Mr. Popper live in?
  • Why “Stillwater”? Is the town’s name just accidental?
  • How would you describe the people in the town? (Have the kids guess “normal” in a  hangman-style game.)
  • What about Mr. Popper? (Again have them guess “different.”)
  • What makes him different? (Deconstructing‘s answer is that he is a dreamer.)
  • Why is it important to have dreams?
  • Does it bother you to be different? Did it bother Mr. Popper?

I plan to do future posts when we discuss more books. It may be a number of weeks between such posts though since it takes us a while to read them (hey, what a great reason to start following me!).

I would also like in future years to have similar discussions about movies based on another book I read recently, Meaning at the Movies (review here).


Book Review: Deconstructing Penguins

Dear Reader,

In addition to having an excellent title, Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Gladstone is well worth reading. It is an account of the authors’ experiences leading book groups for children and their parents at the local library. In the first chapter, they give a very funny account of their first attempt at discussing Mr. Popper’s Penguins hence the title of this book. As the book progresses they weave together their own experiences and the answers they received from children and their parents with their interpretations of the books they used. And they go through quite a number of books, most of them well-known.

I learned a lot from this book. Though I consider myself reasonably well-educated, I had never thought of approaching books as they do. They go through common terms like setting, plot, protagonist and antagonist, but along the way they also manage to ferret out the deeper meaning the authors have hidden within their works. Indeed, their approach is to tell kids each book is a mystery and their job is to solve it.

Not only did I feel more educated after reading this book, it made me really want to do these book groups with my kids. I am still contemplating how to do that and if I want to try to start a homeschool group in my area to do so. This book is not set up as a user’s manual per se but it is written in a way that I think would make it reasonably easy to follow in the authors’ footsteps and to try to recreate what they did. If I do attempt this, I suspect I will let you know about it here.

Deconstructing Penguins is definitely a book I would recommend for teachers, librarians, and parents (especially homeschooling ones!).


Book Review: Landscape with Dragons

Dear Reader,

I have heard  a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by  Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.

The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he has to say. These include:

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)

  • Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
  • Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:

“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)

In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when O’Brien gets down to the specifics of what he means.

O’Brien gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:

“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)

These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things which can happen in the real world and what can happen in  stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.

O’Brien also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:

“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)

But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. O’Brien is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:

“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)

I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that O’Brien clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.

Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think O’Brien also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.

Now I would like to address another major point O’Brien makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, O’Brien says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. O’Brien himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:

“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous  because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)

In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).

The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). O’Brien laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:

“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)

O’Brien also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:

“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)

I think part of the difference I have with O’Brien may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a  number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but O’Brien also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:

” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)

And again:

“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)

Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like O’Brien sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man’s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, O’Brien makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.

On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. O’Brien thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. O’Brien doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.

To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things O’Brien says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind O’Brien’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations of these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting point for forming one’s own opinions on these works.