Review: Be, the Journey of Rol

Is anyone else ready for a trip? As concerns over COVID-19 continue to put normal activities on hold, families are spending more time in the house than usual this season. If you cannot retreat to your usual summer haunts, perhaps your family might find some meaningful escape with a literary friend who finds himself on an unexpected journey.

Be: the Journey of Rol by Ric Colegrove is a story about a young man who must set out on a journey to find his home, after an accident leaves him bereft of his uncle and teacher. An unlikely and fun-loving youth who has always wondered at his master’s cryptic lessons, he must now depend upon his own resources as he returns to his family’s home. But, after years under the tutelage of his Uncle DaTerrin, he doesn’t quite know where that is.

Rol’s journey is full of adventure, but hardly lonely. As he follows a vague and worrisome map with little more than a pack full of crackers and a length of rope, he meets a couple of companions and a whole host of colorful characters along the way. He makes challenging decisions and meets with danger, but he remains so calm and kind that his new friends wonder at his strength.

As Rol and his fellows reach what he hopes is their destination, he discovers something he had not foreseen. Reflecting upon his completed trek, he realizes another marvel: that he did not merely survive it, but met every day with prayer and every challenge with grace. He had learned his uncle’s most important lesson. He had learned to be who he was made to be.

Written in a humorous and quirky style, Be is a coming-of-age novel that won’t strip children of their innocence. Free of the aggressive attitudes that sometimes plague this genre, Be sends a message of hope, resilience, and everyday holiness in the journey of life.

The setting for the story as a fantasy works well for Rol’s development, and for the reader’s too. As Rol sets out on foot with staff in hand, his surroundings are almost recognizable as something historic, perhaps medieval. But the threat of grumblegoblins and the lure of rainfruit remind us that Rol is not in our world. This perspective loosens our expectations, and the reader can walk alongside the winsome hero with an open heart.

Yet this tale isn’t so fantastic as to be frightening to young readers; there is a familiarity about Rol’s surroundings that resonates with our own desire for family, friendship, and home. Likewise, the lessons he learns are rooted in goodness, but not so overtly didactic as to be clumsy. The message is firmly but tastefully embedded in the story to guide young bookworms in longing for what is good.

Preteen readers who are learning to make sense of life will enjoy the thrill of adventure and the playful banter in Be: the Journey of Rol, while parents will appreciate the wholesome content. Younger siblings will be giggling at the amusing descriptions, making this a sound option for reading aloud as a family.

Review: Stone Soup

Summer is usually a balmy experience in our neck of the woods, with only a few days of sweltering heat as July rolls into August. This year, however, the air turned sticky by the end of June, and it remains so hot that my proliferous melon vines show signs of attacking anyone who ventures too near. The cows stand in the shade and swat flies, the chickens retreat to their coop in the heat of the day; and what do my children want to help me make for supper?

Soup.

What is it about soup that makes us crave its warming comfort even when the sun shines its brightest? Perhaps the answer lies in the pages of this favorite that my two youngest have been enjoying lately: the 1947 Caldecott Honor Book Stone Soup by Marcia Brown.

In this rendition of the well-known story, three soldiers are journeying home from the wars. Coming upon a village and having had nothing to eat for three days, they politely beg a little food. But the people claim they have nothing to spare; remarking among themselves that soldiers would surely consume everything, and surreptitiously hiding their plentiful stores. Guessing at the citizens’ real motives, the soldiers sigh and loudly concede that they will just have to resort to making stone soup.

With the villagers watching, the soldiers are poised to share the secret of making a meal from stones. But of course, they’ll need a kettle filled with water and some firewood. Well, the people can spare that much. The soldiers carefully choose their stones and drop them in the pot, stirring the “broth” satisfyingly. If only they had some seasonings! The children run to fetch salt and pepper, and soon the whole town is producing hidden foodstuffs to make that rich soup even better. The evening ends with a celebration and a truly fine repast.

Brown’s version of this old moral tale is sweetly humorous, letting children in on the soldiers’ scheme of teaching their hosts a lesson in generosity. The three travelers aren’t simply greedy: they are genuinely in need, and ultimately give quite as much as they take. The unwitting villagers discover a sense of community, and enjoy the fruits of their own labors far more for having shared them.

Told in story-telling fashion and sprinkled with dialogue that expresses a range of attitudes, Stone Soup is fun and easy to read aloud. It is long enough for children to feel the progression of a good story, but moves quickly enough to capture even a toddler’s attention. Young eyes will discover many details and patterns in the simple shaded two-tone illustrations. The story is styled as an old one, with the soldiers sporting uniforms reminiscent of the early nineteenth-century and the villagers decked as French peasants; but it is a familiar kind of old, assuring us that kindness and hospitality – like a warm bowl of soup – are not limited to any place or time.

As our gardens begin to yield their bounties and world events cause us to regard our neighbors with new appreciation, sit down and read Stone Soup with your children. It is surely a dish we should all learn to make.

If you liked this book, you might also enjoy: Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic Leodhas and illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian

Review: John Ronald’s Dragons

My imagination was recently captured when a friend shared an enchanting book she had found at the library. I was quite swept away by both the factual and fantastic details in John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, written by Caroline McAlister and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.

This picture book is actually a children’s biography of the revered professor who created Middle-earth in his fictional tales of The Hobbit and the epic The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s life is here told like a story itself, beginning with a bookish lad growing up in the Midlands. His idyllic boyhood shenanigans hint at a mind primed for adventure, but his experiences are quite normal; or at least, generally lacking in the need for sword-fighting.

Young Tolkien meets with sadness at the death of his mother, and finds little comfort with his forbidding aunt. His guardian – a Catholic priest – sees to his education, and he marries the beautiful Edith. The Great War takes its toll upon his generation, but he survives the trenches and returns to Oxford to teach. He meets with his friends down at the Eagle and Child, and raises his family. Amid the fullness of ordinary life a most extraordinary story begins to emerge, which readers will recognize as The Hobbit.

Throughout this charming account runs the theme of dragons. Dragons swirl throughout John Ronald’s childhood stories, and dance across his imagination. He loves them, and he seeks them; but he never encounters them. Until he creates one himself, crouched upon the treasure of the dwarves under the Lonely Mountain.

What I find so endearing about this remarkable biography is the splendid normality of the subject. Too often we imagine J.R.R. Tolkien puffing his pipe in a gilded library, when in fact he was a real man with heartaches and worries and a desk job. But he was also a man of ideals, learning, and the sort of imagination that carried him far beyond the quiet life he led. McAlister acknowledges his Catholic faith and deftly portrays him as the fun-loving boy, battle-scarred veteran, devoted family man, dedicated scholar, and impossible dreamer that he was. The result is genuinely inspiring, and one can see the influences of his life upon his work.

The style of McAlister’s text reads like a storybook, with the factual details cleverly worked into the pattern of John Ronald’s burgeoning imaginative world. Friend and Tolkien scholar Dr. Holly Ordway assures me that, with some possible discrepancy as to the date when The Hobbit was begun and the inexplicable misspelling of Rayner Unwin’s name in the notes, this representation is generally considered to be accurate. There are several pages of notes in the back from both the author and the illustrator that shed more light on the life and work of this fascinating man.

The detail of Wheeler’s accompanying illustrations is incredible. Not only is Tolkien shown following his characters on their famous journey, but his own well-researched surroundings depict the everyday things that likely inspired the sensitive young author’s imagination: smoke curling from tall chimneystacks along a city street, a bearded headmaster’s pipe, explosions on the battlefield and the stately beauty of an ancient tree. The notes at the back lend even further meaning to this outstanding representation of a man whose “surroundings, interests, and experiences clearly permeate his creative landscapes.”

John Ronald’s Dragons is an absolute pleasure to read, and not so long that younger children won’t be enraptured by the boy and his dragons. (See how long it takes older readers to realize who the boy is!) Difficult subjects of parental loss, loneliness, and war are handled with care. A reader of any age could surely benefit from this thoughtful depiction of a great imagination reaching beyond the bounds of daily life, but ultimately reflecting the images and challenges found there.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Finding Narnia: The Story of C.S. Lewis and His Brother by the same author and illustrated by Jessica Lanan