Review of God Bless My Friends


Hannah Hall’s other books in the series (God Bless our Country, God Bless Our Christmas, God Bless My Boo Boo) are certainly filled with great reviews, so take this one with a grain of salt. There is a certainly an audience for these books, but unfortunately it’s not me.

Don’t get me wrong. the book God Bless My Friends itself is beautifully illustrated with gorgeous paintings of cute animals. These aren’t so much “funny cute” as they are “pretty cute”, so it’s sure to be a hit with little girls. Every animal you can think of is represented in a detailed picture, from bunnies to skunks to pandas to elephants to tigers, turtles, pigs, raccoons, and chipmunks. The animals are seen together in various scenes playing together as friends.

It’s the writing that I found a little jarring. First of all, there really isn’t a story, they’re just vignettes of moments with animal friends, culminating somewhat incongruently in a giant sack race. Also, the poetry just doesn’t do it for me. The writing is technically sound enough–using an ABCB rhyming pattern and iambic tetrameter–but the words (perhaps exacerbated by the lack of a storyline) just seem both redundant and random–redundant in that each poem is of an unlikely pair of animals talking about their friendship to each other, random in that there doesn’t really seem to be a unifying thread tying everything together. And overall the writing just seemed a bit to shallow for my taste. Here’s an example:

Let’s have a snack–we love this stuff / Each piece seems huge to me / You go ahead and have the most. / My belly’s full with three!

Now again, I should end by saying that I’m probably a bit more critical of the writing than most–after all this is a book for toddlers and especially with Christian books writing often gets a pass (especially with great pictures). Still, if I had to choose, I’d opt for other books with outstanding writing such as “Thank You Lord for Everything” and “All Aboard the Ark” before this one.

Review of Say and Pray Devotionals


My review of Say and Pray Devotionals is going to be pretty much the same as my review of the Say and Pray Bible. It’s a great kid-sized hardcover cook with thick stock paper throughout and full-color illustrations.

As with the Bible in the same series, the illustrations are cute cartoon pictures. While the Say and Pray Bible focuses on Bible stories, the Say and Pray Devotionals focuses on everyday events that may happen in a child’s life, from feeding the ducks with mommy to visiting a beach to eating a breakfast of eggs, toast, and blueberries. As with the Say and Pray Bible, there’s a colorful and detailed illustration of the scene, as well, as well as a short Bible verse quotation and a very short one-line prayer. The illustration is annotated with words describing different objects in the photo.

Honestly, while I love the idea of using the book as a way to teach my daughter different words by pointing to different pictures in each scene, I think it was a bit of a stretch to position this as a book of “devotions”. Some of the “devotions” say things like “God gives us helpers like brave firefighters” and “God made all the animals. The monkeys make me laugh”. Now granted, we’re talking children who can barely read, much less read Oswald Chambers-like devotionals, but on the other hand, this book felt a bit contrived, as if the publisher was just looking for an excuse to publish a new book like the Say and Pray Bible but ran out of ideas.

Bottom line, I’d rate this one “very good” but not quite “excellent” as I’d rated the original Say and Pray Bible. It’s a nice book for expanding your toddler’s library and teaching him and her new words, and I can’t fault any book that is God-centered and reinforces a verse and a prayer.

Review of Time for Bed, Sleepyhead


Time for Bed, Sleepyhead is an interesting book, to say the least. On the surface it looks like a traditional children’s book, with colorful illustrations of different animals, each with cute names like Eli the Anteater, Chloe the kitty, and Liam the llama. The illustrations are detailed and well done, sure to engage young readers before they go to bed.

Here’s where it’s unlike any children’s book you’ve seen. It was written by a child psychiatrist named, appropriately enough, Daniel Amen. In the preface of the book, the author explains that the book is a “sophisticated psychological visualization game” that he used himself with his three year-old daughter to get her to sleep. It worked so well with his daughter than he’s shared it with many of his young patients’ parents. In the author’s own words, the book has a “hypnotic nature” and he even warns never to read or listen to this book when driving in a car, as it might affect the driver.

Admittedly, I was a little creeped out while reading this in the preface. I was sort of expecting a nice story about a bunch of animals getting ready to go to bed, like so many other bedtime books out there. And true enough, the book starts out with Momma Bear telling Little Bear to go to sleep and explains the importance of sleep to the body and the brain.

At this point the book switches from third person to first person–the child (in the part of Little Bear) is asked to imagine himself getting ready for a long, fun day at the beach with seven animal friends. In the setup, you can see the author laying the foundation for the visualization. The day starts out in an excited state anticipating the day. The wheels of the van go “round and round and round” and the animals get to the beach where they have lots of fun.

Then, the “psychological visualization” start. On the next page it says “notice something interesting–a minute for us here will seem like an hour on the beach, two minutes will seem like two hours, and pretty soon it will seem like you have been there all day long”. The following page says, “Now notice something really interesting–any time you hear something besides the sound of my voice, you will hear it, but it will be a signal for you to become more relaxed, more comfy, and even a little sleepy”. After that, the story starts to slow down a bit, with the animal friends getting exhausted after a fun day, taking a bath, eating dinner, and getting sleepy. There are cues in the book where the reader is asked to “yawn”, further helping the child get

You can probably tell what I mean when I say I was a little “creeped out”. Now I should say there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” going on here–there’s no nefarious hidden message and the author is just using the power of suggestion to help little ones relax and calm down. But I have to admit, after years of seeing how hypnotism has been used (and misused) in pop culture, I couldn’t help but have just a little bit of an uneasy feeling. Granted, my daughter is still too young to understand (she loves the pictures), so I haven’t yet experienced the joys of trying to get a child who’s been pumped up with energy all day to try to get to sleep (yes, I know my time is coming). And so for a parent who’s tried everything, this book may be just the antidote.

Another thing I was a little disappointed with was that even though this book was published by Zonderkidz, it doesn’t seem to have anything “spiritual” in it. Granted, the story does reflect good Christian values, such as a parents’ love, the love of friends, and the blessings of a fun day out, but it doesn’t really get into things like thanking God for a wonderful day nor even saying a prayer before bedtime. Again, necessarily a bad thing in itself but a curious choice for a Christian book publisher. And despite a promising start, I never really felt like I “got to know” the characters–they just randomly chosen so the book could focus more on the mechanics of going to sleep. Contrast this to a book like the excellent God is Watching Over You, where I did feel an affinity for the characters after the book was over, as well as a warm feeling of comfort and peace.

Bottom line, if you’re looking for a comforting book to tuck your child in to bed at night, this may not be the one for you. But if you have a child who just won’t go to bed and need to use clinically proven techniques to help him or her calm down, this might just be what the doctor ordered.

Review of the Look and Tell Bible


The Look and Tell Bible is a board book designed by Make Believe Ideas, Ltd. in the UK and published in the United States by Thomas Nelson. If you’ve never read a book by Make Believe Ideas, you’re in for a treat. This isn’t the first book published by Make Believe and Thomas Nelson; if you look on Amazon you’ll see many more, including a great ABC Alphabet Book and Camilla the Cupcake Fairy. While Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, just about anyone will love how adorable and innovative their books are.

The Look and Tell Bible, of course, is a book for Christians. It was released in the UK back in April but is being released in the US this month (July 2016) with a new cover and “Americanized” writing. The book measures about 9″ by 9″. The cover says that it’s designed for children 3+, but it’s really suitable for children from 1-4.

Just looking at the book, I knew that it would become one of my go-to books as my daughter learns to identify objects and eventually learns to read. Each pair of two pages represents a Bible story, such as the story of Joseph and his coat, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the birth of Jesus, the feeding of the 5000, and so on. As the book is open, the page to the left shows 5-7 adorable color cartoon illustrations of various objects and their names. To the right is about 50-60 words of writing, interspersed with the illustrations.

You read it like a rebus. You read the words and then when you hit a picture, you can ask your child to tell you what it is. It’s a brilliant way to help your child transition from the time where he’s pointing at objects to a time when he can actually sit down and read with you. It works on so many levels–you can use it as a picture book with a young toddler to identify objects, or for an older child you can have her read the actual words with you and have a little fun matching the object to the picture.

The book is solid throughout and the colors are bright and cheery. It’s a really well produced book–the pages are all board book-thick, and the individual illustrations have a glossy, ever so slightly embossed feel about them. The cover itself is beautiful as well, with large embossed pictures of David and Goliath.

This is one that will definitely be used time and time again. Highly recommended.

Review of Counting Blessings


Sometimes when you listen to Christian music or watch a Christian-themed movie it’s pretty clear that the quality isn’t up to par with secular music or movies. Sometimes the message is beaten into us a bit too heavily, while other times the pendulum swings the other way and far too many compromises are made. And a lot of the time the production values aren’t quite there due to limited funding and a smaller talent pool. Yet we’re so starved for wholesome entertainment that we tend to give media a pass if it has the word “Christian” in front of it.

I’ve found the same for Christian-based children’s books. The world of Christian children’s books is littered with lots of subpar products. Granted, I have the luxury of selecting the books I review here, so I tend to try to select books that I feel are promising. But I’ve also turned down reviewing a number of books.

But when a piece of Christian music, a Christian-based movie approaches the highest standards of quality we set for any kind of music or entertainment, that’s something really special. And the same is true for children’s books.

Counting Blessings is a book that fit this description. I’ve read a lot of spiritual and secular children’s books, and if I had to choose only a handful of books to read to my daughter, this would be one of them.

It’s a board book, with a padded front cover and sturdy pages. The book is filled with full color illustrations by Lee Holland, following the adventures of a little baby bunny through a day. The illustrations are beautiful, adorable, sweet, and whimsical. They aren’t just simple line drawings or cartoons, but highly artistic and emotive.

The words are simple and yet beautifully expressive, in rhyme, talking about blessings that the little bunny experiences through the day “One family–loves you sweet / Two hands, two feet / Three sweaters when it’s cold / Four cozy toys to hold”, and so on. The text isn’t contrived or forced like other rhyming books, but flows very naturally and elegantly, almost like a song. Each page counts a number up to 10 of blessings to be thankful for.

Something else I really like about the book is that it isn’t “in your face” when it comes to talking about religion or even God. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (and books we’ve read like “Thank you Lord for Everything” and “God is Watching Over You” do it exceptionally well). But I appreciate how this book focuses on the blessings that children (and adults) need to be reminded never to take for granted–a loving family, healthy body, warm clothes, food, friends, kisses, music, and the wonders of creation. The book never explicitly beats you over the head by shouting”You Need to Thank God For These Blessings”, but it really doesn’t need to, because that’s the natural conclusion that any person of faith will reach, and then pass on to their children.

My 10-month old is intrigued by the colors and the cute animals, and I can’t wait to use this as a way to teach her to count. Highly, highly recommended.

 

 

Review of Chronological Study Bible by Thomas Nelson


The Chronological Study Bible is something that’s pretty close to a must-have for anyone who’s serious about studying the Bible. We live at a time when there are hundreds of cheap “themed” Bibles that are really not much more than a standard Bible with a few devotionals thrown in randomly. This Bible, published by Thomas Nelson, was put together by no less than 13 contributors, each Ph.D.s and Th.Ms in various universities around the country. In the introduction, they state that one of the goals of the Bible is to “help Bible readers join the scholar’s quest for historical truth”.

A lot of us who read the Bible make the mistake of reading it in a vacuum. But something important to remember about the Bible is that while it was inspired by God, it was written by human beings who lived in the world. And so while a lot of people just read the Bible as a theoretical religious book, understanding the world that the authors lived in really helps you understand the text in context of their world. And in turn, we can apply the text more effectively to our world.

The Bible is the regular NKJV text of the Bible, but both entire books and sections of books have been rearranged to reflect as accurately as possible the actual order of the events described in the Bible. This might strike some purists as a bit sacrilegious, but the truth is that through the Bible’s history there have been different orderings, including when Jerome translated the Bible in the 4th century AD, when the Greek translation called the Septuagint was created, and the original Hebrew manuscripts. The editors of this Bible are transparent about the difficulties of providing exact dates for certain Bible passages and even disagreements among themselves, but the end product seems to be a very good reflection of chronology. It different slightly from other chronological Bibles I’ve seen, but the ordering never seems arbitrary and is always explained.

In addition to the chronological text, there are a huge number of features. They divide the Bible text into what they call “Epochs” and describe what was going on in world history at the same time as the events described in the Bible were happening. Their attention to detail is amazing. They talk about what daily life was for people living in the times and places that the Bible’s events took place. The full-color pages include photos of archaeological discoveries that help you further visualize the areas and the day-to-day lives. Where appropriate in the context, they give a lot of insights into world history–it’s amazing how understanding the history behind the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans help you understand the context of the words in the Bible. This isn’t a “Study Bible” in the traditional sense where every verse in annotated with background information or explanation, but on the other hand, nearly every page does have a useful call-out that provides this kind of context. I also love details such as how the top of every page tells you what years (BC or AD) the events occurred.

The book itself is stunningly beautiful. The version I had a chance to read had a greyish-green and blue faux-leather cover with the words “Chronological Student Bible” embossed in the front. I prefer the imitation leather cover to the hardcover, as it makes it lighter. The book is 1700 pages and about 9″ by 6″ by 2″, so it has to use very thin paper; if you’re not very careful with it it can tear easily. The one slightly annoying thing I found is that a lot of the pages are “stuck” together when the book is new, and you need to carefully pry them apart. But it’s a reasonable price to pay to keep the entire volume in one, and each page also has gold edging to finish the classic look.

As with any time you’re reading scholarly and academic commentary on the Bible, you do need to prepare yourself. Most of the time, the editors of this Bible stick to clearly researched historical facts, but even when they veer into conjecture, I find their commentary fair and good for me to use as reference. I know that some people might feel comfortable, for example, when they read that things like the fact that there were other accounts of the flood, or that authors traditionally associated with certain books may not have been the actual authors. While I like about these editors’ commentary is that they present the facts without necessarily drawing conclusions for you (for example, one Amazon reviewer said that the editors’ inclusion of other accounts of the flood implied that the Bible’s account was not reliable, but I don’t see the commentators ever saying that).

 

Overall, I highly recommend this Bible as one of the main ones in your library.

Review of Baby Wren and the Great Gift


Most children’s books you see these days seem to consist of cute (and not-so-cute) little illustrated animals and children with simplistic rhymes and ditties. But every now and again you come across one that transcends the banal and approaches being a thing of beauty, and even a work of art.

Baby Wren and the Great Gift is published by Christian children’s book publisher Zonderkids. It’s the story of a little wren who lives in a canyon who encounters various other animals also in the canyon–a kingfisher diving into the water, a sunfish splashing in the deep, an eagle soaring above the clouds, and so on–and laments that he doesn’t have the same gifts that they have. In the process, the author Sally-Lloyd Jones uses her undeniable gift of language to express the beauty and wonder of creation. Her words are supplemented by simple and yet stunningly beautiful watercolor paintings by Jen Corace.

(Spoiler follows)

Toward the end of the book, when you’re feeling a little sorry for the little wren, the wren takes in all the beauty it sees around it, and then the tiny bird starts to sing a song of thanks for all the beauty it has witnessed throughout the story. The little wren’s song fills the entire canyon and all the inhabitants of the canyon are blessed by the little bird’s joy.

The story is simple and yet surprisingly moving and powerful. Within this simple little story are so many lessons. First, it’s a reminder to children (or for that matter, anyone who feels “small”) that even though they may not be able to do the sorts of things others can, that God has still given them gifts that they can use to find and achieve their purpose in life and to make the world a better place. And second, it’s a reminder that humility and thanksgiving are among the most powerful gifts one can have, a lesson I appreciate tremendously in this world where so many children are made to feel entitled and the center of the universe.

Something that I find really interesting is that the author conveys all this without mentioning the words “Jesus” or “God”. It reminds me a little of the book of Esther in the Bible, which also doesn’t mention the name of God at all, and yet you could feel God’s work throughout. A non-Christian could read this book and appreciate it for how it teaches positive messages to children such as the importance of being thankful and the importance of finding out what their unique talents and gifts are. But of course, to Christians the message becomes much more powerful knowing that there’s a loving God behind all of it.

The book is hardcover and measures 9 inches by 11 inches. The paper is glossy and relatively thick, with the beautiful full-color watercolors.

This is one that easily get 5 out of 5 stars from me, and it’s one I hope I’ll be able to read to my daughter over and over again. Highly recommended.

 

Review of God is Watching Over You


A few months ago I reviewed a new book called Thank You, Lord for Everything, but P.J. Lyons and Tim Warnes. It instantly made its way into one of the books that I read with my little daughter. The words were simple yet full of meaning, and the illustrations of the little bear and his friends and family were utterly adorable.

I didn’t think they could top that, but Lyons and Warnes have published their second book called God is Watching Over You. And its another winner.

Like its predecessor, it’s a sturdy board book that measures about 8 inches by 8 inches. The cover is slightly plush to the touch, and the pages inside are made of solid cardboard, so the book itself will ensure many nights of reading.

Also like its predecessor, the story is simple and sweet, this time following the adventures of a little lamb as he finishes a day of play in the park and goes home with his mom and dad, stopping on the way to watch the stars come out, the birds go to sleep. He takes a bath, reads a book, says a prayer, climbs into bed with his treasured bear, and is tucked into bed by his dad. He takes one last peek out the window, and the mom comes and tucks him into bed again. The rhymes are pleasant and soothing, and it’s one of the absolutely perfect books to read to your sleepy little one.

The illustrations, like the previous volume, are also amazingly cute, fun, and whimsical without being saccharine. The little lamb is absolutely adorable and your little one will  feel an instant bond. There are wonderful details throughout you can have fun pointing out to your child. The full color illustrations pop off the page and are sure to catch the attention of your child.

The best age for the book is probably just when your child is starting to read–the words are simple enough for him or her to read along with you. But even if you have a younger child, he or she will still appreciate the soothing rhymes and the beautiful illustrations. And once again, the message is simple yet powerful–every day and every night God is watching over you. It’s a great lesson not just to your child, but a good reminder to you and me too.

In just two books I’ve become a big fan of Lyons and Warnes, and can’t wait to see what they come up with next. In the meantime, these two books definitely have a place in our bedtime routine for the next few years.

Review of Snuggle Time Prayers


Snuggle Time Prayers is another beautiful board book. It measures about 5 inches by 7 inches and has a slightly plush cardboard cover and about 15 sturdy cardboard pages inside.

The premise of the book is fairly simple. Each page features a short poem. Each poem has a simple title such as “I’m Amazing” or “God’s Love” and is accompanied by a scriptural reference and a beautiful full-color illustration that spans two pages.

The poems themselves are simple and each is written as a prayer to God, thanking Him and praising Him. While I did appreciate the message in each poem, I have to admit some of the poems just read a bit stilted to me, as if the author relied a bit too much on a rhyming dictionary to piece together the verses.

For everyone I played with / For food, and fun, and rest; / For every smile that came my way / Thanks, God–you’re the best!

Granted, the audience for these books is infants, toddlers, and young children who probably don’t care too much about sophisticated rhyme and meter, so we can cut the author a little slack. That said, I’d be sure to thumb through a preview of the book before you rush to buy it if you’re a bit picky when it comes to children’s poetry. I think most children and many adults will appreciate it, but there is a subset of adult readers who may have that “fingernails on a chalkboard” feeling when reading these rhymes. Simplicity is fine, but some may find the verses lacking a certain bit of artistry.

Similarly, the illustrations are beautiful, but while some might look at them as adorable and cute, I can see others possibly seeing them as a bit too schmaltzy or sentimental. If you like things like Cherished Teddies or Precious Moments figurines you’ll probably appreciate the artwork, but if you find those things a bit too “cutesy”, you may want to move on.

This is definitely one of those books that’s probably best judged “in the eye of the beholder”.  It wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it may be yours.

Review of Little One, God Loves You


Little One, God Loves You is a board book that clocks in at under 10 pages and roughly 80 words total. It was written by Amy Warren Hilliker. If the “Warren” sounds familiar, it’s because the author is the daughter of Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold over 30 million copies.

This book is actually a reissue from the original version that was released in 2004. The original version had illustrations of a cartoon multicultural family. In this version, they decided to go all bunny. The illustrations by Polona Lovsin are painted in watercolor style. The detail is exquisite, from the flowers and butterflies of the opening scene, to the family dinner of mommy, daddy, and brother/sister bunny sitting down to eat their carrot dinner with grandma and grandpa bunny (with the grey fur). The little baby bunny who’s the protagonist of the story is really, really adorable, and your child will instantly be able to identify with the little one as it wakes up, eats with its family, plays, helps out with chores, and says good night.

The message is “inspired by The Purpose Driven Life”. If you never read that book in years (or ever), here’s a reminder of how that book is organized:

  • What on Earth Am I Here For?
  • Purpose #1: You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Worship)
  • Purpose #2: You Were Formed for God’s Family (Fellowship)
  • Purpose #3: You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship)
  • Purpose #4: You Were Shaped for Serving God (Ministry)
  • Purpose #5: You Were Made for a Mission (Mission)

 

Rather than teaching these principles in a heavy-handed approach, this book does a nice job of demonstrating these principles through the life of this little baby bunny. The rhyme that corresponds to Purpose #3 reads “Little one, little one on the go / God’s the one who helps you grow”, along with cute pictures of the bunny playing in the grass. Purpose #4 is communicated by the rhyme “Little one, little one, show you care / Be God’s helper everywhere” with an illustration of the little bunny helping gather acorns.

 

Even though this book was inspired by The Purpose Driven Life, the book works regardless of whether you know that or not. That’s because the principles themselves are scripturally sound. It’s never too early to start to teach kids that God does have a purpose in their lives, and that their lives will be successful if they love God and serve others.

Great book, great illustrations, great message, and an easy read with lots of great pictures to look through. The marketing material for this book says that it’s for kids aged 4-8, but it’s so simple I think you can go younger.