Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Recent (1950-1999)’ Category

Once upon a time there was an animal lover who opened her home up to cats. For anyone who reads pet books, there’s nothing new about that plot. So why should you check out the two offerings by Deb Barnes? From the gorgeous and charming artwork to the funny and conversational style, The Chronicles of Zee and Zoey and Purr Prints of the Hearts will certainly warm your heart. If pretty looks and engaging words aren’t enough to woo you, there’s also the fact that Barnes is an excellent storyteller. She deftly draws you into her world and makes you intensely care about what happens next to her cat clan.

In the prologue, Barnes explains the subtitle of A Journey Into the Extraordinarily Ordinary. Most of us like to imagine our lives better than they are. For one lovable male Maine Coon cat named Zee and one wild female leopard inspired Bengal named Zoey, however, Barnes believes that the ordinary is itself a gateway to unlimited adventure. This is true partly because of how cats are, but also because of the way Barnes choose to view her life with them. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And then Zee….” quips Barnes before proceeding to dedicate a chapter to her search for the perfect Maine Coon, a cat intended as a surprise for her sweetheart. She shares of how her criteria changed due to how few Maine Coons were available within driving distance and then how the deadline got altered thanks to an impending hurricane and finally about the arrival of “the chosen Almighty One”. The tale of Zoey’s arrival contains a similar tonal mix of amused and dramatic. “The possibility of getting a Bengal had already been in the back of my mind for quite some time, what with my ever-present obsession and love affair with anything leopard related,” note Barnes, before proceeding to describe Bengals and how the stunning Zoey was a creature to be reckoned with.

But The Chronicles of Zee and Zoey isn’t simply a story of how boxes can become forts and gardens can become jungles for two cats in love. It’s also about the consequences of felines blossoming into adulthood before being spayed/neutered. As is her personality, Barnes embraced the responsibility of being a cat parent while also finding magic in a home overrun by a litter of kittens. Even when the reality settled in of only one adoptive home being found, she issued this declaration: “We brought these cats into our home, so as such we have decided that the love and companionship they bring us far outweigh the scratches and damages incurred in our home.” At times, Barnes has extended apologies for the fact she realized too late how quickly cats can have kittens, but I admire how she allowed her life to be positively changed by that one misjudgment. Not only has she weaved a fabulous adventure about Zee and Zoey, but she’s also become an avid cat advocate.

One of the biggest challenges in reviewing a book is encapsulating the essence of a book into a couple of paragraphs. For example, in the prologue, Barnes writes that The Chronicles of Zee and Zoey wouldn’t actually exist if not for a beloved cat named Kit. Yet up to this point I hadn’t referred to Kit. For that matter, I also neglected to mention the numerous other strays including dogs that found their home with Barnes. The anecdotes that Barnes shares of them are just as engaging as those of her lovebirds, but obviously there’s only so many highlights I can feature. You’ll have to discover who all of the rest of Barnes’ family are by reading The Chronicles of Zee and Zoey.

But I do need to introduce you to Jazz, as he’s the star of Purr Prints of the Heart. Before Zee became the patriarch of the family, Jazz had been the residing male. Barnes had been watching a pet show and fell in love with the “Ragdoll” breed. She immediately began to do research and found Jazz through the classifieds. Discovering that Jazz came from a hoarding situation, Barnes immediately decided to adopt him. As Jazz progressed from being a kitten to an adult, he developed the quirky habit of playing fetch with wads of paper rolled up into a ball. He also liked tennis and lizards. As Jazz matured, he grew to earn the title: “Mr. Jazzy Grumpy Old Man Leave Me Alone I Don’t Want to Be Bothered.” These details and a few others are all ones that Barnes provides in The Chronicles of Zee and Zoey.

Jazz, Photo from Purr Prints of the Heart Facebook Page

Jazz, Photo from Purr Prints of the Heart Facebook

In Purr Prints of the Heart, Jazz takes center stage as the narrator of his own tale from start to finish. Jazz shares his dismay of being labeled sick by his original owner. After all, his mom had raised him to believe that he was the most handsome kitten alive and somebody would want him one day because he was special. And when Deb Barnes walked into Jazz’s life, this turned out to be true. Yet at first Jazz wasn’t so sure. Crates, car rides, and quarantines all made him question if his new circumstances were better ones. But then he met Kit, who helped him acclimate. Just as Jazz falls in love with his new home, so I fell in love with Jazz who shared adventures of hurricanes, house renovations, new cat arrivals, change of jobs by the owners, and even saying goodbye to friends. By now, Jazz has begun to understand what Rainbow Bridge means, and to realize that this will soon be his future too. Although I like to avoid those stories which end with the inevitable death of a pet, Purr Prints of the Heart is unique in its approach. By having Jazz narrate his view of sickness and dying, Barnes avoids being sentimental and instead helps all of us owners see how growing old might feel to our beloved pets.

Deb Barnes and I connected about a year ago when I put out a call for articles about pet overpopulation. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch occasionally through email. As someone whose life’s also been forever changed by feline companions, I relate to many of the cat escapades that she shares in her books and on her blog. I also appreciate her dedication to making a difference in the lives of cats. She’s an inspiration to me and I feel honored to have signed copies of her books.

One of my favorite devotionals from my youth is Lessons from a Sheepdog by Phillip Keller. One reason is the unique angle of featuring an animal, instead of random stories about people, to illustrate Christian truths. Another reason is that Keller was well-qualified to write about sheep dogs, himself once being an operator of a sheep ranch. As I read Keller’s inspirational book of parables this week in one sitting, a third reason came to mind, that of the simplicity and brevity of the devotional.

In just over one hundred pages, Keller shares the captivating story of his experience with a beloved border collie, as well as lessons that Lass taught him about having a relationship with God. As part of completing his university training in science and animal husbandry in North America, Keller managed a ranch in British Columbia. Because he didn’t have sufficient funds to start out with cattle, he was obliged to start out with sheep. This left him with the dilemma of needing to find a sheep dog. He found one through an advertisement in the city paper. All the dog did was chase boys on bicycles and race after cars that came by. Even when Keller bought Lass, she initially wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Her trust broken, Lass leaped and snapped at him at every opportunity. But Keller felt she could be redeemed and worked to that end. In one pivotal moment, he even set Lass free on his ranch.

The instance Lass returned to Keller of her own accord, their relationship began. From their adventures together, Keller learned seven lessons about how God desires to interact with mankind. Dedicating each chapter to a lesson, Keller spends about ten to fifteen pages sharing one experience of his with Lass and the revelations about being a Christian that the particular experience taught him. For example, just as in Keller’s first encounter with Lass, God often finds his children “cast in the wrong role, caught in toils of our own intransigence, and misused by the hands of an uncaring master”. The owner of Lass obviously had no idea how to handle a sheep dog. Similarly, individuals are often shaped and directed by the world around them. When Keller rescued Lass, her full potential was able to be released. Similarly, when we allow God to direct our lives, we will discover He has our best interests at heart.

As I reread Lessons from a Sheepdog this week, I smiled in recognition of the various experiences Keller relates, which life has introduced me to over time. For example, volunteering in a no-kill shelter has acquainted me with dogs who need patience for them to find their place in a home. Taking classes at a local dog club has acquainted me with the rules of obedience that Keller taught Lass. Raising a multitude of pets has made me aware of the need for discipline as well as praise. The latter has also showed me many reasons to be proud of how my critters behave and respond to my husband and me. In other words, Lessons from a Sheepdog felt richer upon this reread.

For those walking in the Lord and possessing an appreciation of dogs, this devotional should stir your heart. It lovingly explains how God wants us to follow Him, trust Him, and obey Him. It illustrates through the form of parables how our faithfulness might be tested and why God hates to discipline. Most of all, God wants us to be ready to do anything for Him. Lessons from a Sheepdog will surely inspire!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

James Herriot is a master storyteller. Today I’m reviewing the 20th anniversary edition of his book All Creatures Great and Small, which is subtitled “the warm and joyful memoirs of an animal doctor”. In this first memoir of several, Herriot shares how he became a veterinarian assistant and all the adventures this occupation entails. His stories are funny, gritty, riveting, eye-opening, and a host of other positive adjectives. I’ve enjoyed reading Herriot’s memoir this week, as much I did when I first discovered it as a young person.

When I initially read All Creatures Great and Small, the animal stories are why I liked it. One that appears frequently is that of Tricki, a Pekingese dog, who is owned an elderly widow by the name of Ms. Pumphrey. She dotes on Tricki so much that she overfeeds him. And she doesn’t just overfeed him dog food or even meat scraps. No, this dog also receives cake and other sweets. Because of Herriot’s respectful care of Tricki, he earns the prestigious title of Uncle, with which comes various favors including invitations to parties.

There are numerous other memorable animal stories too. Some our sad, such as that of a widower whose fourteen-year-old dog is his best friend. The dog’s swollen abdomen is due to inoperable cancer. Others are happier, such as that of the young farmer whose livelihood depended on a cow who had developed a bad case of summer mastitis. After a night of having her udder massaged every thirty minutes, along with other care, the cow surprises everyone by returning to normal health. Finally, some stories just show the varied nature of being a vet. For example, there’s the incident where Herriot proclaims a cow to have a broken pelvis and not capable of ever walking again, only to have the cow walking about the next morning in the fields as if nothing had ever been wrong. Or there’s the incident where a farmer tries to get Herriot to sign a statement that said his cow had died from lightning, when clearly she died of heart failure. There are many priceless tales!

Upon my recent rereading of All Creatures Great and Small, I found it to be as rich in stories about people as animals. In 1937, there was usually two or three vacancies with an average of eighty applicants for each one. For that reason, Herriot feels appreciative and excited about the opportunity to interview for an assistant position in the country. He spends the drive to his interview trying to imagine his prospective new boss. Once he arrives, however, he finds that the employee has left to visit his mother. He waits a couple of hours, during which time various clients come by to call on the doctor, before Mr. Farnon actually returns. The whole situation makes Herriot wonder if a joke was being played on him.

There are numerous other memorable characters too. An outstanding one is Mr. Farnon, who hates to admit to mistakes. When Herriot and Farnon receive a call to visit a neighbor, they argue over the correct name. Farnon turns out to be the one in the wrong, but instead he admonishes Herriot to be more careful in the future. Similar situations repeatedly happen. Farnon more than once blames Herriot for an incorrect diagnosis or for a careless use of the practice’s car. Another outstanding example is Tristan, who is Mr. Farnon’s brother. After failing his vet exams, Tristan turns up for a visit and never leaves. He then becomes the subject instead of Farnon’s wrath, except the difference is Tristan often deserves it. For example, when the three take on the simple task of raising hens and then pigs, Tristan cann’t even keep the livestock contained in a pen. Finally, there are the locals, many of whom believe that they knew more than the vets, and always enjoy an opportunity to prove the vets wrong.

When I first sat down to write this review, I struggled with deciding on what highlights to share. There are so many excellent qualities about Herriot’s memoir, including simply how well he writes. His stories foreshadow what lies ahead, hold conflict and no easy solutions, offer food for thought, and finally just simply entertain. I’m eager to have time to reread the rest of Herriot’s memoirs!

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Five of the six books by Andrew Clements that I plan to review this week are related somehow to the world of writing. Incidentally, because I plan to review several books in a short amount of time, my critiques will be shorter than the norm.

First up in my round-up is Frindle, the winner of twenty-two state awards, including the Christopher Award. How does it relate to writing? Frindle stars a teacher who is fanatic about words and a student who tries to invent a new word.

What do I like about Frindle? I feel sympathy for Nick, who didn’t plan to start a fad that would gain statewide attention but instead simply wished to waste enough time in class that there would be no time for assignments. Nick is not a good kid or a bad kid but just a kid with penchant for trouble because of all his creative ideas. The rest of the characters are just as true to life too, in that young people like to make up words, group together, rebel against rules, and follow fads. I can easily believe that Nick’s classmates would agree to stop calling the object we write with a “pen” and instead to start calling it a “frindle”. When their initiative leads to disciplinary action, I can also easily accept that Nick and his classmates would rebel against this perceived unfairness and insist on using their new word to the bitter end. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the fifth-grade teacher, whose love of structure led her to forbid the use of the word “frindle,” despite her being the one who students to fall for words in the first place.

Is there anything I don’t like about Frindle? No, but I will caution that the story requires a suspension of disbelief, in that Nick’s actions not only leads to a revolution in all the local schools but catches the attention of businesses and the media. Also, the resolution doesn’t happen until after Nick graduates, and is fabulous but also larger than life.


Next up in my round-up in The Landry News, also a winner of many awards, as well as being a Golden Sower nominee. How does it relate to writing? The Landry News stars a student who aspires to become a journalist and a teacher who serves as advisor for a class newspaper.

What do I like about The Landry News? I feel sympathy for Cara, who didn’t plan to start a newspaper that would gain district attention but instead simply wished to post an editorial that criticized their teacher for not doing his job. Once again, Clements has a created a main character who is neither good nor bad but just a kid with penchant for trouble because of her outspoken opinions. He has also created classmates who are just as fun to read about, because of their excitement to learn about newspapers and to create their own. In a twist on the norm, however, Clements features a teacher (rather than a student) whose life is changed. Clements being a teacher himself knows how educators can eventually become burned out by apathy, regulations, among other issues. Mr. Larson had once won “Teacher of the Year” three years in row, but then he allowed himself to become the type of instructor who simply sits back and allows his students to fend for themselves with their education. Then along comes Cara, whose editorial inspires him to change. In the end, not only is he changed, but so are his students when the newspaper comes under attack for publishing a true story by a student about how divorce impact him.

Is there anything I don’t like about The Landry News? No, in fact, the book is also enhanced by the overt theme of revealing truth while also showing mercy.

The next two days, I’ll be back with more reviews in my round-up of books by Andrew Clements. Save the dates: October 22-23!

How would you rate these books?

“What have I learned so far about being an author?” This was the question that children’s book author, Andrew Clements, addressed at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Clements won annual book awards by the vote of American school children in about twenty different states for his debut novel, Frindle. In June of this year, Frindle was named the Phoenix Award winner as the best book that didn’t win a major award when it was published. What follows are the highlights of Clements’ presentation. The rest of the week, I’ll post brief reviews of six of his novels, including Findle. Save the date: October 21-23!

“What I think I have learned so far. Since we don’t have fifteen years, I’ll tell you about one thing…. I’ve learned how to suspend my disbelief.”

The above statement is how Andrew Clements opened his presentation. He then proceeded to talk about how a reader knows within ten minutes whether to go with a story and forget about everything else. The idea is drawn from the phrase, “willful suspension of belief” a term coined in 1817 by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.

A year ago, Clements was struggling to write a book entitled, The Loser’s Belief, which will be published soon. It has given him trouble longer than most of his other books. The idea is good or so others have told him. He himself also holds confidence in his belief in it, because he’s gotten other books published. Still, he has sat writing the first chapter, over and over. He can see the shape, but can’t get into “the darn thing”. Sometimes he’ll write 15,000 to 30,000 to get the first chapter right. His first chapters are normally only about 500 words. In rewriting and rewriting, Clements realized that he was trying to suspend his own disbelief about the first chapter. “If I can’t suspend my own disbelief, no one else will suspend theirs.”

There have been other times Clements has needed to suspend disbelief. For example, that of being a fourth-grade teacher in a self-contained room. Nothing had prepared him for that first moment of his being a teacher. On the first day, he couldn’t believe that there he was, having to be a teacher not a student. His first few weeks were disastrous. There were eighteen boys and not enough girls. He was given all the hard-case boys, despite two veteran teachers being next door. When asked by colleagues how it was going, in his head he thought, “I don’t know.” To others, he would simply state, “I’m making progress.”

Clements eventually learned that he didn’t need to create all his own teaching stuff; there were already resources available. He also learned management was about being in control of oneself. He even had a whistle. If behavior was getting crazy, he reached for his whistle, and everyone put their fingers in their ears. He learned to love the kids and childhood.

Living through your own does not acquaint you with childhood; being an adult around kids does.

In talking about the above statement, Clements explained that kids don’t go to school to get ready to life; they’re already living a huge part of their life in the classroom. Teachers try to keep up with them, and the curriculum, but what teachers are doing is being part of their world. Eight years in self-contained, three years in English, and seven more in English, all of these experiences has trained Clements to be the writer he is.

Why does Clements keep writing about kids? Obviously, he enjoys it. But the main reason, he contends, is that the most important thing happening on any given day is school. You know that everything is okay when kids are in school.

After sharing about his teaching experiences, Clements returns to talk more directly about “suspension of belief”. The concept can be restated in the positive as “acquisition of faith”. Coleridge says this condition constitutes poetic faith. Think of the Psalms. Think of the second last chapter of Charlotte’s Web. In the books you love, you’ll find the moment an author leads you beyond the suspension of belief to the acquisition of faith. Faith is something all teachers know about it. So do parents. Clements notes how his own teaching and writing life became a matter of acquisition of faith. If we trust that students can love reading, then students will begin to believe too. If parents will instill the value of reading, a teacher’s job is largely done.

Clements calls childhood a constant. When he starts to look for ideas, he reflects on his past experiences. He doesn’t watch modern shows or hangout in current schools. To him, as long as he remembers his own childhood of the 1950’s, his own children’s life of the 1970’s, and his own teaching life, everyone seems to believe he has his pulse on today’s school. Clements doesn’t believe he does, but notes that when he walk into a modern school, he sees the same things that he did in the past. Childhood is still childhood. Yes, there is 20th century technology, standardized tests, and other changes. However, schools don’t shape childhood, even if more and more they seem to be trying to shape children.

To end his presentation, Clements shares his personal writing process:

  • a lot of thinking to come up with an idea
  • a lot of thinking to come up with a narrative
  • a lot of thinking to make it become real
  • the submitted draft is a tightly-wound element
  • his editor has no investment in it and will tell me about the book’s flaws
  • at first he will emotionally rebel; his logical mind normally agrees
  • eventually he sees his novel as a long, loose ribbon of words, then he can snip and trim as needed

Keeping his audience in mind, Clements also offers concluding advice to teachers. If you look at the students, he says, you’ll know what you need to do. Childhood hasn’t changed. Children still need love, instruction, and guidance. When he thinks back on teachers from his youth, he doesn’t remember instruction; their kindness is what mattered. Teachers are being stretched to act more and more as parents. In the midst of everything, Clements encourages, remember to care for the kids. That’s what they will carry forward.

After his presentation, Clements accepted questions. From these, I learned about more of his background as an author. For example, his timeline of books began in 1985 with picture books. Frindle itself started out as a picture book called Nick’s New Word. His editor told him to change it into a chapter book. Clements replied that he wasn’t a chapter book author and proceeded to send his picture book to other editors. After five told him the exact same thing, he asked himself, “Is it possible? Could it be that I am the idiot here?” He turned his picture book into a chapter book and received a contract for two more books. After those were published, his life changed! He received a contract to let him stop doing everything else.

How did his most famous novel, Frindle, come about? In 1989, Clements was a visiting author at a school. The first two presentations worked. Then in a small hot room of over 100 young kids who had just returned from recess, his third presentation proved a struggle. Clements had his Websters unabridged dictionary. He dropped it on the floor. All the students sucked in their breath and fell silent. Clements said I’m standing on thousands of words. One student asked where do words come from. Clements replied that the truth is that people make up words and that if we all called a pen a frindle the dictionary folks would notice and put frindle it in the dictionary. (According to Clements, if 15 million people are using a word, it’ll get put it in the dictionary.) Years later, while wondering what to write, Clements decided to turn the above into a story.

In his final few moments of this presentation, Clements told how on June 5, 2015, his career arrived. Less than six months before, a deranged young man had methodically killed teachers and students at an elementary school. Within two weeks, the school was transplanted. There were police everywhere. Teachers put aside their own trauma and soldiered on. As everyone worked to show that goodness is normal and evil it not, a new motto was picked: We choose love. They wanted to show that good can drive out the bad. When the school needed a book without hate, guns, death, one would unify the school, the book chosen was Frindle. When Clements visited, he was asked not to make sudden noise or movement. An air of kindness pervaded. State standards was not on anyone’s mind. His wife and him agreed that their time there was among the best they had ever spent.

I am grateful that my every effort to sustain childhood has been appreciated. It’s an honor for me to be in the business of literacy and childhood.

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee



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