Reading for Inspiration

 

rays from heaven

As a senior in high school, I took an English elective titled “Reading for Pleasure.” Every day in class, I was required to spend forty-five minutes reading fiction. This would be my favorite class of all time!
The catch? Over a ten-week period, I had to read thirty-six books from a general reading list or fifteen books from the classical literature list to get an A. Eager and ambitious, I signed up for the classics. How hard could it be? Less than two books per week, and I could just keep reading at night for homework. Oh, and I had to take a test over each book. Piece of cake.

Success in College

from the book, Success in College

I read the books – Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Count of Monte Cristo, Madame Bovary, Animal Farm, to name a few. I got my A.

I was so depressed.
Didn’t these writers believe in happy endings?? I’ll give Dickens a little credit. At least Oliver Twist got a new and better family after he’d been abused for the entire novel. And Louisa May Alcott proved an exception to all the gloom.
For the second ten weeks, I contracted for the thirty-six general books. My teacher was not pleased.

credit to rallythereaders.com

credit to rallythereaders.com

Yet, even after that intense semester, I love literary fiction. While I often read cozy mysteries, fun chicklit, and some spec fiction, I prefer highly complex stories of mainstream literary fiction. Someday, I hope to write complicated stories of my own. Only I want Jesus as the central theme when generations of my characters weave a tapestry of tragedies, adventures, and daily living.
I’ve provided a list below of Christian authors who create wonderful, many-layered novels. While no one pens a story as heavy as Tolstoy, these authors write in a literary style filled with hope in the midst of their characters’ trials, and they bring the reader, and their protagonists, safely ashore by Finis. They don’t sugarcoat the reader’s world, but they offer far more hope and joy than the most lighthearted works of Jane Austen.

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

Wouldn’t it be great if high schools had required reading lists with these authors?

Ann Tatlock

Gene Stratton Porter

Elizabeth Musser

Madeleine Engle

Lisa Wingate

J.R.R. Tolkien

C.S. Lewis

John Bunyan

Francine Rivers

 

Who would you add for Christian literary fiction?

 

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Historical Treasures Found in the Limberlost

Once upon a time I lived in small town Indiana, but I’ve been a suburbanite for decades. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a leisurely drive on a two-lane highway through the flat lands of the state, but this week I “wandered Indiana.”.

Home of Gene Stratton-Porter

Home of Gene Stratton-Porter

One destination was the state historic site of Gene Stratton-Porter’s home in Geneva, Indiana, an easy day trip. Having rediscovered this famous author and her books, I wanted to visit the town where she began her writing career. More fun for me – fellow Scriblerian Beth Steury met me there.

As I approached Geneva, the land subtly shifted from an abundance of corn fields to uncultivated wetlands. Each pond and marsh possessed its own water fowl, herons, swans, egrets.

Pisgah Marsh. Photo by David Cornwell, www.flickr.com

Pisgah Marsh. Photo by David Cornwell, http://www.flickr.com

Both docents at the museum center welcomed all questions and volunteered tidbits I would have never thought to ask. Here’s a quick rundown of what I learned:

  1. Geneva Stratton was born in Lagro (stress the second syllable), not Geneva. And here I’d thought she was named after her hometown.
  2. Youngest of twelve children and left to entertain herself much of the time, she spent her days watching birds and helping in the garden, activities that contributed to her skills as a naturalist and conservationist.
  3. As I suspected, Gene is the Bird Woman character in A Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles.
  4. She started her career by writing magazine articles on nature, which led to short stories, which led to novels, which led to movies.
  5. She moved from Geneva to Rome City, Indiana, to avoid autograph hounds.
  6. Having been one of the fortunate few to survive the Spanish flu, she then moved to California in 1918 to regain her health.
  7. Her husband’s attitude was way ahead of his time. Who else circa 1900 allowed their wives to dress in pants and spend their days lying in a swamp holding a camera and waiting for the perfect shot of a baby vulture?

The Porters built their home in 1895, a large house made of logs.I was surprised they didn’t build out in the country, but it sits in the middle of town. While I’m not an antiques enthusiast, I do enjoy visiting history via the furnishings of its time. The best part of the Porter home? I could touch the furniture. Nothing was roped off.

Gene Stratton-Porter's dining room

Gene Stratton-Porter’s dining room

If I’d stretched out on the antique bed, I’m sure I would have received a reprimand, but I was welcome to brush my fingers against the fabric of the coverlet.

Why have I shared my sightseeing tour on a Scriblerian post? Remember, I told you in my last post (Lost Virtues Found in the Limberlost) how Porter’s books are great for homeschoolers. Visiting the Limberlost region and Gene Stratton-Porter’s home makes for a great field trip as well. In fact, the staff at the museum center plans a calendar of events which includes student activities.

Loblolly-Nature-Preserve

If you’re traveling through Indiana on vacation, make time for a visit. I’ve included a list of related websites below.

You’re welcome, Indiana.

http://www.indianamuseum.org/limberlost; http://www.bernein.com; http://www.swissheritage.org; http://www.BerneClockTowerInn.com; http://www.visiteasternindiana.org; http://www.fwhistorycenter.com; http://www.kidszoo.org; http://www.botanicalconservatory.org

The Aesthetics of Genre: Horror

deep-sea-anglerfishWhen it comes to the genre of horror, many Christians have pronounced it ugly, sinful, nasty, and won’t give it the time of day. Others may enjoy the adrenalin rush of a good scare from the safe distance of a book or theater seat, but may not admit it to their church friends. Then there are individuals, like myself, that find the genre of horror useful.

 

I like to read things that make me better, challenge me in someway. Good horror, like good science fiction and fantasy, will do that for me.  That’s not to say that contemporary fiction or YA fiction doesn’t do that either, but good horror has a very special way of challenging a reader on deeper topics. Before you chastise me for not mentioning the Bible, remember that you will find all the known genres, including horror, in that Book of books.

People seldom equate being frightened as useful.Like I pointed out in my last blog entry, being afraid of the right things can be helpful. To me, good horror isn’t about inciting blind fear or terrifying an audience. There is horror like that, and I almost never waste my time on that. Good horror it’s about challenging fear in the right way. This is where aesthetics come in. All genres have aesthetics (linked to definition above), it is what happens when an author’s story collides with a readers expectations, imagination, and world view. These are a few that a great horror story will touch on for me.

  • What is beauty?
  • What makes something beautiful?
  • What is good?
  • What makes something bad?
  • What is evil?
  • What makes something or someone evil?
  • If something looks beautiful, is it automatically good?
  • Can God redeem Evil?
  • Should God redeem Evil?
  • Should those given to Evil be redeemed?
  • If something is ugly to me does that make me the monster?
  • What happens when a human tries to play God (you know mad scientists)?
  • What does it mean to be human?

As frightening as a horror story may appear on first blush, it is my response to it that always interests me. Some of the most frightening stores to me portray Evil as banal or everyday. A good example of this is the bureaucracy of Hell in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

orange-skull-scary-background_G1jrYw5_

There are several things I find useful in good horror, and it isn’t blood and gore or the fact that a story may give me nightmares for months. In fact, the shock and gore horror is something I rarely care for, much like jump scare scenes in movies. Such tactics are nothing more than a trick at your audience’s expense, tricking an audience is inexcusable.

cartoon-angry-monster-face_fkTFzKhd

All fiction has the ability to challenge and inform. What makes horror so different is it’s ability to challenge specifically the things we fear. When done right, even cause us to evaluate those fears and perhaps strengthen our humanity. For your viewing pleasure, here is a good example of something from a sub-genre of horror. Something that actually hits a little closer to home and current events. The type of horror I find useful (It’s in two parts).

 

 

Would you classify these videos as horror? Why or why not?

 

The next post I do is on the topic of sub-genres of Horror. You might be surprised as to what you find in them.

The Genre of Horror: Let’s Talk About It.

Scary Young Girls Face On Halloween Day

 

For many Christians, the idea that horror literature could be legitimate as an expression of faith and love sounds like heresy. After all, how can someone that claims to serve the God of peace and love purposely intend to terrify people? I mean, isn’t intentionally scaring people some kind of sin, or if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?

Those questions are valid and move this discussion from mere literature into theology.  When you consider The King James Bible has 71 instances where there is a command to “Fear not.” The idea of frightening people seems antithetical to the basic tenants of the gospel.

Any student of Church History understands clergy have been scaring people into the Kingdom of God for centuries, does that make it right? No one’s figured that out yet. One of the most noted and famous sermons preached from our side of the 16th century is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. That sermon is as much a horror story as any Stephen King novel. More important, the sermon underscores the one aspect of God that people seem to forget. Life apart from God is a life of misery and loss.

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Going to Hell is everyone’s right of choice and God doesn’t mind accommodating anyone’s desire to spend eternity out of his presence. For many of us believers the idea of being apart from God, now that we have tasted his love and generosity, is terrifying. Remember Christ’s words on the cross when the full judgement of the world’s sin came upon him, and his true parent turned his back to look away from the only Begotten of God?  Jesus said,  “My  God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s pure abandonment and fertile ground for the horror genre.

Horror is as much apart of the Bible as faith and blessing. Consider the beggar Lazarus wanting to warn his family about the judgement waiting for them and is told “no.”

Many people consider that horror is only about frightening people.  Who wouldn’t think that when looking at pictures of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, or watching a long list of movies made for the sole purpose of shocking and terrifying audiences. What people don’t realize is that horror isn’t strictly about scaring people.

scary-halloween-night-background_z1ohZadO(1)

 

Horror explores important topics like hubris, monsters, the unknown and our responses to things we don’t understand. This genre, when done well, allows us to explore our own darkness from the safety of our favorite chair. Some of my favorite horror stories such as  The Birthmark by Hawthorne, or Frankenstein by Shelly, or The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Marlowe deal with the topics of unforgivable sin and hubris. These dark tales aren’t grossly gory, but they are entertaining and cautionary in nature.

Horror can also deal  with hope, redemption, acceptance and love. Don’t believe me? Read the stories I mentioned and decide for yourself. Of course not all horror is good or even entertaining. Some of it is genuinely awful, but that’s true of all the other genres too.

graveyard-night-scene-in-the-moonlight_Gkx2h-Kd

There are those tender hearts out there that say,  “Fear is always bad.” To that response I’d  say fear as an emotion isn’t intrinsically a bad thing.

My family owned land and horses in Southeastern Washington State. It’s very arid and dry and home to rattle snakes, scorpions, millipedes, and a few other venomous creatures, Bringing the horses in from pasture could be an adventure as it sometimes brought me face to face with this innocuous little rattle from the tall grass or from beneath a sage brush. That little sound could make my heart stop, not to mention my feet.

I would turn around, and go back the way I came, why? Because I stood a good chance of getting bit by the thing making that sound.Was I afraid? Yes, but in a good way that kept me from harm.

Before we dismiss all instances of fear as ungodly. Let’s not forget that running away from temptation because we fear entanglement is completely encouraged. (1 Cor 6:18, 1 Cor 10:14, 1Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 2:22).

There are things that should genuinely should frighten us, like hardening our own hearts to compassion, kindness, and the leading of God’s Spirit. We should always fear injustice, bigotry, and genocide. The violence of Fergeson and Baltimore were far more horrifying than any zombie apocalypse, but very similar to those stories – except no one was eating brains.

Digital Illustration of a Dragon

The genre of horror serves a cautionary purpose, useful for discovering our own personal evils as well as exploring our own redemption, forgiveness, and pathos. I maintain that horror has as much place in Christian fiction as romance, fantasy, mystery, and any other genres you can mention – maybe even more so.

Click on the link below and be prepared for a pleasant surprise. It’s an award winning zombie short film that will surprise you and make you rethink the uses of horror.

Can you define the components of  horror as a genre? Do you think it’s appropriate for people who call themselves Christians to read it, write, or watch it? Why?

FAMILIARITY DOESN’T ALWAYS BREED CONTEMPT

credit to neilcommonplacebook.wordpress.com

credit to neilcommonplacebook.wordpress.com

 

Derwood, Inc. by Jeri Massi. My all-time favorite novel to teach my fifth-graders. For eleven years straight Derwood, Inc. was one component of the literature curriculum in my Christian school.
Now, I am NOT a person who despises change. I thrive on change. If I had to stay with the same text for three years straight, I searched for ways to tweak lesson plans and make them better. Make them more applicable. More fun. NOT BORING. Because everyone knows the old adage,

Credit to zazabong.blogsopot.com

Credit to zazabong.blogsopot.com

Derwood never got boring. Jeri Massi’s story is both hilarious and serious, absurd and real. Every year the antics of the Peabody kids were a new thrill for my students and a much-anticipated reading class for me. More than once, as we read chapters out loud, we would literally ROFL. Well, not the teacher.
The book stars Penny and Jack Derwood, the two oldest of a blended family. Together they make a great kid-comedy team rivaling Abbott and Costello. Stir in three more siblings, a gang of bullies, and an international crime ring, and you have a recipe titled, “Don’t Stop. Read the Next Chapter.” By the end of the book, the characters have grown in their Christian faith while the reader never feels captive to a sermon.
You’ll delve into dangerous mysteries to be solved, yet even in the darkest moments a giggle may slip out of you. You’ll listen to Jack’s crazy stories knowing full well they are absolute figments of his imagination – but little brother Freddy doesn’t know that. There are bad guys who are really bad and bad guys who turn into good guys and good guys who maybe aren’t as good as you thought.

peaches
From a fifty-ton-mile-long octopus to a near-lethal can of peaches, Jeri Massi keeps you highly entertained and on the edge of your seat. Not only did she write a wonderful work of entertainment, she did it five more times. There are six books in the Peabody Kids series.
Unfortunately, Derwood, Inc. is no longer in print. After a search of several websites, I found editions may be purchased for as little as thirty-nine cents and as much as a thousand dollars! Four to nine dollars seemed the average for a used copy. My own library doesn’t carry the book (shame on them!), and I’d share mine, but it’s so tattered I have to keep taping in the pages!
In addition, BJUPress published a guide which teaches children how to write a good story. It sets up exercises to practice creating characters, using the five senses in descriptive writing, and planning a stair-step approach to build tension in the plot.

 

Q: You’ve been hunting for a new favorite in middle grade humor?

A: Derwood, Inc. Ready, set, read!

The Chronicles of Narnia: Which Book is Your Favorite?

Imagine you’re a teenager in Britain whose godfather is the writer extraordinaire C.S. Lewis. One day he comes to visit and presents you with his latest manuscript. Not only does he use your name as one of the main characters, he dedicates the book to you. That’s exactly what happened to Lucy Barfield in May of 1950.

I hope that by now everyone who reads The Scriblerians would already be aware of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, but in case I’m wrong, let me introduce you. The first book published in this series of seven is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Set in 1940 England as well as in the fantastical land of Narnia, the story highlights the adventures of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy when they walk into a magical wardrobe and find themselves in a different world.

 

lion witch wardrobe

While the children do become heroes as they fight epic battles against evil, another hero outshines them all, beyond what any excellent king or queen of Narnia would ever hope to accomplish. Aslan, the great and terrifying Lion. (“’Course he’s not safe, but he’s good. He’s the King.”) He knows the deepest magic, and he sacrifices himself for the unworthy.

“Hmmm, 1950,” you’re thinking. “The world was more conservative then. I bet this book was accepted with open arms by the reading public. What wonderful lessons for our children!”

Think again. The literary leaders in the U.K. had already been bitten by liberal theology. Strike one: the book was fantasy, not realism. Stories of witches and make-believe worlds should only be in picture books for little children. Strike 2: using a novel to display an obvious Christian allegory was a method of brainwashing older children. Strike 3: the story was too violent. Children might be frightened.

However, Lewis and his publisher did not strike out. Children loved the book, and it sold, and it sold, and it sold.

 

love books

Later, in some fundamentalist circles in America, he had the opposite problem. The word, “witch,” was in the title. What kind of Christian author writes about witches? While I was teaching in a Christian school in the 1990’s, one of my students was not allowed to read the book in our literature unit.

In recent years, movies have been made that remain quite true to the novel, but if you haven’t read it yet, READ IT! Words on the page of a classic can outperform the best actors and scripts every time. And once you’ve read it, keep going.

My advice? Don’t read them in order of publication. The Magician’s Nephew has so many delicious secrets to reveal, it would be a shame to miss odd details throughout the series by reading it last! Either read them in chronological order of the characters’ adventures, which means start with The Magician’s Nephew, or do what I used to with my fifth grade classes. I read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe aloud first, followed by The Magician’s Nephew. The final chapter elicited so many delighted “ahas,” the local library had a difficult time keeping Prince Caspian and the other four books on the shelves!

 

chronicles of Narnia

Short survey: which of the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia is your favorite? My best friend loves The Last Battle. Mine is the Magician’s Nephew.

 

Does your novel need a Teacher’s Guide?

One of my few fond memories of the junior high years occurred in seventh grade English class. Together we read Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Our teacher seemed to have a lot of knowledge of the story, and she made it come alive. But I never noticed her referring to notes. She reviewed new vocabulary words with us and asked an occasional question to spark discussion, but otherwise we simply read. It didn’t feel like school at all! It was reading, something I did for pleasure at home when I had the opportunity to get books from the library. (My parents didn’t have the budget for purchasing books at the time.)

TeenBoyReading

By eighth grade, my family moved. Organized reading at my new school consisted of the SRA Reading Laboratory.

Laboratory? That was enough to discourage me right there. It was a color-coded system of cards containing segments of stories, at least in its early stages when I encountered it.

And I hated it.

“Why can’t we read a real book?” I asked my teacher, and she ignored the question.

I’ll admit that the top reader in my class said she enjoyed using the system. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the SRA Reading Laboratory, it adjusts to students’ reading abilities by starting them at a color/level they’re capable of and allowing them to work through and upward into higher levels at their own speed.)

But back then I wondered if these dissected stories were real literature. At thirteen years old, I hadn’t been exposed to enough books, particularly the classics, to recognize them. And I wasn’t fond of having to stop reading after each segment/card to answer questions before I could continue. Talk about interrupting the flow of a story.

I’m sure the SRA Reading Lab has improved since my day, and if you or your child loves it, that’s great. If you’re a teacher, and it helps assess and place students at the appropriate reading level and encourages their reading, I think that’s wonderful.

But each time the teacher passed out her copies of Around the World in Eighty Days, I felt such a thrill. I couldn’t wait to get that book into my hands again, and I was sorry when we turned them in at the end of class. I would’ve been extra sorry if I’d known how rare an experience reading a good book together as a class would be. I never again experienced a group read in school.

Do entire classes ever read a book together nowadays? I hope so. (And I don’t mean each student reading the same book on a computer screen.)

To encourage teachers to bring more classic and new literature in paper form into their classrooms for a group reading project, more and more middle-grade and young-adult authors are creating teacher’s guides.

I’ve looked online and found a few I like for some of my favorite debut novels. One was on the author’s website, another on the publisher’s. Everyone seems to do something a little different, but these guides are not simply a list of several discussion questions, as for a book club. They include a variety of activities and questions covering a number of subjects, from the arts to the sciences.

My Teacher’s Guide for Bird Face is on my website, www.cynthiattoney.com, listed under My Work on the home page as well as on others. It’s a reproducible PDF, so anyone is welcome to download and copy it as needed for use. It’s currently eight pages long, but each time I review it, I think of something I want to add.

I just came across a 45-page guide for using a novel to teach reading and language arts specifically: How to Teach a Novel. I wish I’d found it much earlier because it’s loaded with ideas for teaching any novel.

This is probably the longest post I’ve written for The Scriblerians, and there’s more I’d like to say about developing teacher’s guides! But I hope those of you who are familiar with them or who’ve begun creating one yourself will share some of your knowledge in the comments.

Thanks, happy reading, and happy teaching!

cynthia-toney Cynthia