Review of My Christmas ABCs

My Christmas ABCs is a board book that goes through each letter of the alphabet. For each letter the book describes something about Christmas. The letter A has an angel, B has bells, C has a candy cane, and so on.

It’s a really beautiful book with lots of bright festive colors. Adding to this is that every page, as well as the cover, is adorned with sparkles covering the letter and accents on the picture. They’re fun to look at, and fun to touch and scratch (and thankfully, unlike with other similar books I’m not finding sparkles all over the house, despite my daughter’s attempts to scratch them incessantly).

The result is an amazing book that really puts you in the mood for Christmas and the holiday season. Each picture is lovely on its own, but simply beautiful with the addition of the sparkles, from a gingerbread man, to a poinsettia, to a pair of mittens.

I do appreciate that the book doesn’t shy away from having plenty of references to Christ’s birth (imagine that in a Christmas book!) For example, the letter N speaks of the nativity, the letter J stands for Jesus, and so on. There’s a good mix of references to Christ, as well as references to other things that evoke the season, such as stockings and ornaments.

Certain details in the book impressed me. First, there’s no reference to Santa Claus, elves, flying reindeer, or anything of that sort. I know different people have different opinions about Santa Claus, but bottom line, I found it refreshing because I found this really helped put the focus of the book on the real “reason for the season” (plus, there are plenty of Christmas books out there about Santa Claus for people looking for that).  I noticed other little subtle details–the cartoon images of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph have them with a slightly darker complexion which would be more historically accurate (but it’s so subtle that most people won’t notice).

Overall this is a great book to have for the holiday season, especially for a toddler or preschooler learning his or her alphabet.

 

Review of The Cow Said Neigh! Picture Book

The Cow Said Neigh! is a new children’s book by Rory Feek. Rory Feek is an accomplished country music writer who has written songs for a whos-who of country music stars, including Clay Walker, Blake Shelton, and Tracy Byrd. Country music fans might also recognize his name from the country and bluegrass duo Joey + Rory. They were were a husband and wife duo who finished third in CMT’s “Can You Duet” competition in 2008, and went on to popularity, producing eight studio albums. Two of these, Inspired: Songs of Faith & Family and Hymns that are Important to Us, consisted of hymns and gospel music.

In February 2014, Joey Martin Feek gave birth to a little girl named Indiana. Only a few months later in May she was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She passed away in March 2016. You can watch a recent appearance on the Rachael Ray show here where Rory tells the story and the story of his remarkable wife (in addition to this book, Rory Feek recently released an autobiographical account of their story, which you can fine here–it’s a remarkable story that ). What makes the story even more poignant is that little Indy was born with Down Syndrome, and yet you can see how much love this father and daughter share.

This children’s book came out of that relationship–as Rory Feek found himself reading children’s books to his daughter all the time, he decided to write one of his own. And it’s good. The rhymes are natural without being simplistic, a reflection of Rory’s songwriting skills.

The storyline is very humorous. You follow different animals in a barnyard, but instead of your typical “the cow goes moo” or “the pig goes oink”, it seems that all the animals want to do their own thing (which might remind you of the little animal in your life). It’s a great story to read with a child who’s already mastered the basic animal sounds, and who will understand the irony of a horse saying “quack”, a duck saying “baa”, and a cat saying “hello”. SPOILER ALERT: The payoff is that at the end of the book it comes down to the farmer, who takes in all that’s just happened in his barnyard and lets out a hearty “Mooooo”.

I was expecting to see some kind of moral to the story–for example, how everyone should be happy with who they are, how everyone should accept those who are different from them, or so on. But there really wasn’t one. I guess if there’s some kind of lesson to be gleaned, it’s just not to take yourself too seriously, a lesson which a lot of grown-ups could stand to learn in this day and age. Otherwise, I’d enjoy it for what it is, just a silly story that’s a whole lot of fun to read with your child.

The illustrations by Bruno Robert are funny and colorful. As with most great children’s books, there are lot of things to see in the pictures which will keep them engaged.

This is definitely one on the short list of books that I’ll be reading with my toddler. It stands on its own as a great book, but knowing the back story make it all the more compelling a book to have in my library.

 

 

 

 

Review of NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (formerly the NIV Zondervan Study Bible)

The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible is a new Bible released by Zondervan. It was previously known for years as the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible”, but over the years Zondervan seems to have flooded the market with so many other “Study Bibles”–Life Application Study Bibles, Woman’s Study Bibles, Teen Study Bibles, Rainbow Study Bibles, Faithlife Illustrated Study Bibles, Quest Study Bibles, and dozens more.

To be clear, this is the original “study Bible”. As a study Bible should, it has exhaustive commentary and notes that seem to cover almost every verse in the Bible (over 20,000 notes). For the most part, I found the notes helpful when they provide extremely helpful historical context that you can cross-reference as you’re reading it (they’re a bit less helpful when they “state the obvious” or get a little too pedantic for my taste, but happily those are few and far between).

The illustrations, maps, charts and diagrams are in full color, and do a great job of helping visualize or organize what you’re reading. Each book of the Bible has a comprehensive introduction that covers all you want to know about the book, including its purpose, background, author, historical and geographical setting, structure, and theology, and provides an outline as well. There’s a concordance, but in this age of the Bible Gateway, such things aren’t really as useful as they used to be.

The list of contributors is an impressive panoply of theological scholars. For the most part, the commentary sticks to objective facts and doesn’t dive into “taking sides” on more controversial topics. There are also 28 articles including familiar names like Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, and T.D. Alexander, so in a way you’re getting some “bonus” content from these well-known authors as well.

If you already own the original NIV Zondervan Study Bible, you won’t see much different except for some cosmetic improvements, such as two ribbon bookmarks, an easier-to-read typeface called “Comfort Print”, and a layout that feels more “breathable” than the former edition. It’s interesting despite the improvements in layout this newer version feels lighter than its previous version (about a third of a pound lighter), so the typesetters did a nice job of making the layout more efficient as well as readable. Note that it is still only a 9 point font, so if you’re like me you may need to break out those reading glasses.

Overall, I’d say if you already own the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, there’s not a whole lot new here that you don’t already have. But if not, and if you’re someone who needs to prepare for Bible Studies or sermons, you won’t find many resources better than this book, at least not all under one cover. Understanding the historical background and context behind what you’re reading is one of the most important things you can do when you’re studying the Bible, and this Study Bible does a great job of giving you a comprehensive view.

Review of Cozy, Snowy Cuddles Touch and Feel

Cozy, Snowy Cuddles Touch and Feel is a short (10 page) board book for preschoolers. It follows the adventure of animals in the North Pole, including polar bears, seals, and moose.

The main attraction of this book is obviously its interactive elements. The cover has shiny sparkles that look and shine like snow that cover the book title and the snowy scene. Then, on each page of the book, you can touch and feel a small part of five different animals, from the leathery skin of a narwhal to the soft fur of a husky dog, to the smooth fur of a seal, to the smoother skin of a moose, to the fluffy coat of a polar bear. I’ve never touched any of those animals in real life, but they feel just about what I’d expect them to.

The illustrations are cute and evoke a nice, sweet, cuddly feel. Each scene shows a little polar bear walking and meeting different animal parents and babies as they prepare for the cold night. It makes for a great bedtime book in the winter months, as the weather outside grows cold and the mood gets warm and snuggly inside. The rhymes are simple enough for a young toddler to understand and also for a preschooler to start to practice reading.

If there’s one gripe I have about the book, it’s that it doesn’t really have much of a story line. The text on each page is pretty repetitive and generic, and seems to have little to do with the illustrations. It would have been nice, for example, to learn more about each animals as the little polar bear goes to say good night to them. Instead, there’s just a generic quatrain about curling up, cuddles, huddles, stars, and snow.

As with many books like this, there isn’t really a “story” per se, but the illustrations and words do paint a calm, peaceful picture of God’s creation. It’s a nice book for the holidays as everyone in the house starts getting in the mood of winter and snow.

Review of Through My Father’s Eyes

Like many Americans, Billy Graham’s ministry had a big impact on my life, without me even really knowing it. When my mother came over as an immigrant in the 1950’s, she was away from the church she knew all her life, and watched Billy Graham crusades. During the 1970s and 1980s, whenever a crusade came on TV, we’d watch it as a family. While Billy Graham did have his detractors, it’s those detractors that usually come off looking petty or foolish when you look at this man’s character, his approach to ministry, and his teaching.

Through My Father’s Eyes is a book my Franklin Graham about his father, Billy Graham. It’s written as a series of vignettes, some of which read like historical accounts, some of which read like journal entries, some of which read like devotionals. They’re loosely organized by different broad topics, such as stories about Billy Graham’s years on TV, letters that were written to him, his approach to preaching, his approach to prayer, his approach to writing, and so on.

The first word that comes to mind when I describe this book is that it’s honest and transparent. Franklin Graham doesn’t mince words when he talks about “sensitive” subjects, such as his own struggles growing up, infighting that occurred in the BGEA, and very poignant accounts of his mother’s passing. He shares a lot of “insider” stories of his roles with the BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, but all in the context of how his father dealt with similar situations. Finally, he spends a lot of time talking about his father’s history, in the later years as a fellow worker in the ministry to whom his father would give advice and support, and in the earlier years as a historian. I was mesmerized when reading accounts of, say, Billy Graham’s early years on network television in the Hour of Decision, or his meetings with presidents, including the infamous Richard Nixon meetings.

This is not necessarily the sort of book you read cover-to-cover–as much as the author tried to organize the vignettes, it doesn’t really read like a cohesive narrative. But I found that when I pick it up and read a random story (which range anywhere from one paragraph to a few pages), what I read is invariably fascinating and gives insight not into just Billy Graham’s approach and philosophy, but Franklin’s as well.

I do like that the book isn’t merely a “tribute” or “hero worship”, but an earnest effort to capture the life of Billy Graham in a way that’s informative, encouraging, and replete with references to scripture. It’s a must-read for anyone whose life has been touched by Bille Graham, or who aspires to be in a ministry.

Review of Night Night Sleepytown

Night Night Sleeptown is the latest in a series of board books for toddlers by Amy Parker and Virginia Allen that includes such titles as Night Night Jungle, Night Night Train, Night Night Farm, Night Night Daddy, Night Night Mommy, Night Night Bible Stories, Night Night Blessings.

Each of these books follows a similar formula–the narrator goes around saying “Night Night” to different characters, in the case of this book to people in the eponymous town of “Sleepytown”, where the mayor of the town, a bear, brings you somewhat randomly around to different parts and people of the town–a farm, a school, a postman, a firefighter, a doctor’s office, a construction site, to tell you what they do and then to say “Night Night” and “Thank you for what you do”.

I love the concept of the “Night Night” books; it’s sometimes hard to find appropriate books for bedtime reading, as a lot of books for toddlers can be too exciting and have the unintended effect of getting the kids riled up. In the case of these books, the rhymes are soothing and the pictures are beautiful and detailed, but are of more tranquil scenes. The concept is clearly modeled after books like “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site”.

For earlier books like “Night Night Jungle” and “Night Night Farm”, it make a lot of sense. In each of these books, night is setting in and you visit different animals as they get ready for bed. In Night Night Sleepytown, though, it seems like the author may be trying to do too much at once. On the one hand, the book is taking you through a day in the town, jumping around from a farm and sunrise, to a school, to a scene of firefighters at a bubble factory, to a construction site with a digger. On the other hand, at each point you’re somewhat incongruously saying “Night Night”. I found the name of the town a bit incongruous too–I sort of expected to go around the town as different people were getting ready for bed.

Having said this, the detailed illustrations of bears, pigs, cats, raccoons, mice, and other creatures in this little town are certainly engaging, and toddlers will likely not mind the lack of a more logical or cohesive storyline. When I read it to my toddler, I find myself focused a little less on the story and a little more on each picture as we identify little details together.

For nighttime books, I’ve found that books like God is Watching Over You or Together are much stronger than this one with their tighter narratives. But if your child is already a fan of the Night Night series, this is certainly one that they’ll appreciate.

 

 

Review of Little Book of Thanks

Back in the 1990s, Precious Moments were all the rage. It seemed like you couldn’t get through a graduation, birthday, or anniversary without seeing at least one Enesco figurine of the wide-eyed children. The Precious Moments characters made their way into greeting cards, posters, needlepoint, and even their own theme park.

It’s now almost 30 years later. Precious Moments certainly doesn’t enjoy the popularity that it once did. But interestingly, the children who loved Precious Moments when they were young have grown up and are now having families of their own–and are looking to share the things they loved with their own kids.

There have been a number of Precious Moments themed books, some of which we’ve reviewed already. The latest one is the Precious Moments Little Book of Thanks. It’s a small hardcover book perfect for little ones’ hands that is filled with poems, each titled “Thank you, God, for…” followed by things little ones can be thankful for, such as wonderful sounds, songs, colors, playtime, all kinds of weather, special days, and so on. Each page, of course, is filled with colorful illustrations of the Precious Moments children doing all kinds of activities that mirror the poetry. There’s also a Bible verse on each page.

The illustrations are beautiful as always, and of course are the star of the book. The poetry, I’m not so sure about. The poems are nice in the sense that they rhyme, but too many of them seem just thrown together. While the titles all start with “Thank you, God”, the poems aren’t prayers as the title would have you think, but just general poetry about the subject. I later realized that this is because there’s already a book called Precious Moments Little Book of Prayers, which I feel is a much stronger offering. Here, often, the rhymes seem a little too singsongy and contrived. I can’t shake the feeling that the writing was forced just to fill up space between the illustrations.

So I’d buy the book with that in mind. Don’t expect too much from the poetry, but the illustrations and Bible verses do make this worth a purchase, especially for avid Precious Moments fans young and old.

Review of Candy Apple Blessings

Candy Apple Blessings is a board book suitable for toddlers and preschoolers. The cover is a bright and colorful picture of a cartoon dog, cat, and mouse under an apple tree, with foil accents that make the red apples and the gold edges of the fall leaves glimmer. If I were to judge a book by its cover, this cover is certainly one of the most eye-catching ones I’ve seen.

There isn’t really much of a story per se, but more so little vignettes as you follow the cat, dog, mouse, and other friends like bunnies turtles, pigs, and raccoons through different fall activities, from eating candy apples, to going to school, to decorating the home for autumn, to going on hay rides, to jumping in the leaves, going to the pumpkin patch, and going through a corn maze. The last page is one where they buy corn dogs from a food stand, and where the book says they thank God for their treats, and for fall blessings.

The pictures on the hard board stock are just as colorful as the cover, with lots of details that you can use to engage your young ones as you read to them. The illustration style is unique, almost like collage drawings. The pages are nice and thick and will withstand multiple readings.

Overall, this is a nice book to buy if you’re celebrating fall traditions with your child and would like a book to reinforce these traditions and some of the sheer joy of the season. While the book is a Christian book, there’s really no mention of God until the last page. Normally, I don’t mind this–some Christian books go the other extreme and can be too “preachy” or heavy handed in their message. But in this case, how they brought God into the book seemed a bit tacked on, as if it were a bit of an afterthought. I would have liked to have a message of God’s love and the beauty of his creation woven into the story a bit more, although it does take tremendous skills to do that without sounding contrived. Overall, a very good book, especially as you prepare to do Fall activities with your child.

Review of The Call by Os Guinness

I first heard of Os Guinness when I saw him speak at Socrates in the City in 2012 about his book “A Free People’s Suicide”. In it, he spoke of the “Golden Triangle of Freedom” in speaking of the American founders’ vision of a free society. Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. It was one of those truths that seemed fairly obvious on the surface, but as you started to think about how society has grown so far away from concepts like faith and virtue, you start to realize how radical his commentary is.

Os Guinness wrote “The Call” in 1998 and was immediately considered a classic; it’s recently been updated with several additional chapters and a thought-provoking study guide after each chapter to help you reflect on the chapters.

This book couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m in the middle of a career transition, plus being a new parent, plus going through a mid-life crisis. So I’ve been asking the questions we all ask with increased urgency: “what’s the purpose of my life?”, “what was I put here on Earth to do?”, and “how can my life be meaningful?”

The Call doesn’t answer those questions for you–to paraphrase Billy Crystal in City Slickers, that’s an answer everyone need to come up with themselves. On the other hand, the book does provide valuable context in which you can ask those questions.

As a Christian apologist, Guinness doesn’t mince words in laying out what the word “Calling” means. Early in the book, Guinness lays out his definition of calling: “Calling is the truth that God call us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service”.

He goes on to discuss two common “distortions”. The first is one he calls the “Catholic distortion”, that your “Calling” can only be fulfilled by doing sacred or “holy work”. The second is one he calls the “Protestant distortion”, discussing how in our society today, words like “calling” and “vocation” (derived from the Greek word “voice” or “call”) have taken on generic and watered-down meanings–you refer to something you do well or something you enjoy doing. His argument is that whatever place God has put you, and whatever talents God has given you, that can be the basis of a highly meaningful calling.

Each chapter further unfolds the concept of “calling”. Do we fear God enough to hear and acknowledge the call? How can we distinguish the voice from other voices? How can we achieve the full potential we were created to be? How do we dedicate our lives to answering the call? Are we frustrated with a church that seems to have lost its heart? How do we live an examined life? Do you view and use your talents as something for yourself, or for something greater? Do you feel jealous of others with a similar calling? Does money cloud your understanding of calling? Do you long to rise above a mediocre and tedious life? Is your faith just something you see in private or is it salt and light to others?

I won’t lie–this book is dense and not the easiest of reads. Because of the range of topics it covers, it’s not exactly the kind of book you can pick up an read in one sitting. If you’ve ever heard Os Guinness talk in person, the language of the writing mirrors his speaking style–imagine a distinguished, upscale British voice pontificating on deep matters. It takes some getting used to, especially for those of us Americans that have been grown accustomed to taking information in 140-characters at a time.

But on the other hand, you will hardly find a better assemblage of insights, stories, and teachings relevant to the question of “What is my calling in life”. Funny thing is, as I read it there were no parts that really jumped out at me as “a-ha! That’s the secret”. It all seemed more or less like…common sense. But like Ezra reading the Torah after decades of exile, it all seemed refreshingly new too, as if all the misconceptions and deceptions that the world has used to obfuscate the original meaning of “Call” is methodically swept away.

Like I said, this book won’t answer your questions about what your call is. But if you can make it through it (and I’d suggest doing it one chapter at a time, perhaps spread a few days apart), you’ll have an excellent foundation and background to start really thinking about the question.

Review of Go to Sleep, Sheep!

Any parent of a toddler knows that bedtime is one of the first places where a child learns a lot of skills–how to negotiate, how to think quickly on your feet, how to compose fiction. As a grown-up, we sometimes forget what it’s like to be a kid. How can anyone sleep when there’s so much of the world to explore, so much fun to be had, so many things to see and do?

Go to Sleep, Sheep! was clearly written by a parent who’s been through this. It’s the story of a mother lamb who tries to get her four little kids to go to the barn to sleep. They go through all the delay tactics we all know: “We’re not tired” “I’m still hungry” “Just one more story” “I’m thirsty’. Finally, they say their good night prayers, the littlest lamb tells her mom she loves her, and they sleep under the stars. It’s a story that will resonate with little ones because it’s their story–and it may even help them do a little self-refection as they read the story from the mother sheep’s perspective and pull for the mother to get her sheep to bed.

The book itself is a board book that’s uniquely shaped like a barn. The pages are thick and durable and will be able to withstand multiple readings. The illustrations are cute—not so much in the “funny cute” way, but more so in the “pretty cute” way. Each of the baby sheep has distinguishing characteristic–one has a blue bow, one has a red scarf, one has glasses–so you can make up your own little stories about each one. As with all great children’s books, there are plenty of details in the pictures such as other barnyard animals that you can use to engage your child and teach new words.

I’m rating it 4 of 5 stars. It’s a great book that helps reinforce the bedtime routine in a fun and playful way. It is simple, so it’s probably best suited to be read to children from 1-3, although given its simplicity it’s also a great one to bring out for toddlers who are learning to read (each page ends with “Go to Sleep, Sheep!” which is fun to read and say).