BOOK REVIEW: Best Fairy Stories of the World ed. by Marcus Clapham

Best Fairy Stories of the WorldBest Fairy Stories of the World by Marcus Clapham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects sixty-two well-known fairy and folk tales. While the bulk of the stories are European, there are a few entries from Indian, Japanese, Aussie, Slavic, and Middle Eastern folklore. There are several stories which will be familiar to all readers (often by virtue of their Disney adaptations,) such as: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” There are others that are widely known as go-to bedtime stories, e.g. “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Then there are others that are likely to be – at most – vaguely familiar to any reader who is not a specialist in global oral storytelling traditions, some because they are anachronistic and relate less well in the modern world and others because they are not well-known in the Western world (e.g. Japanese and Indian stories.)

For the most part, the selection of tales is not surprising. As mentioned, the collection is European-centric with all but about a dozen entries being from Europe. However, given the book is directed toward the English-speaking market, that narrow focus is to be expected. In fact, stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson together make up about one-third of the included works. Some readers may take umbrage that the proposed “Best Fairy Stories of the World” includes examples from so little of the world (ignoring Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority of Asia, altogether.)

What is strange about the collection is that there are just a few pairs of stories for which both stories in the pair are structurally identical. I’m not talking about having a common theme or moral. The common objectives of these stories often result in them having thematic overlap, but that is not necessarily a problem for readers. For example, there are several “rags to riches” type stories. However, these stories are widely different in story events and characters, such that reading them does not leave one with the feeling of having reread the same story. Instead, I’m talking about instances like the inclusion of both “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Tom Tit Tot.” In both of these stories, the lead is charged with a task they cannot complete, and some magic creature comes along and says they will do the work and, if the person can guess their name, it’s a done deal, but if they can’t guess their rescuer’s name, they will be owned by said savior. Even how the two stories’ endings unfold is identical except in the finest granularity of detail. On one hand, I can see how including overlapping tales would give readers some indication of how these tales spread and became adapted by other cultures. However, on the other hand, I would have preferred that the editor selected the better of the two and use the freed-up space to include, say, some Native American or African stories.

I enjoyed this collection. It took me back to my youth, and also exposed me to some stories with which I was unfamiliar. I do believe the title could have been better worded because to call these the best in the world and then to make them almost entirely from northern Europe could be interpreted as being pretty conceited. However, I doubt there was any such conceit, just a desire to sell stories that would appeal to a particular readership, and then to hype it in as big a way as possible.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Controversy swirls around this kid-friendly fantasy novel, a controversy not dissimilar to that which plays out among diehard “Star Wars” fans. This book was the sixth of seven books to be written by Lewis as part of what became “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but it’s a prequel that describes the creation of Narnia. Therefore, some people claim that it must be read first because it shows the dawn of the alternate world on which the rest of the series is based. Others, however, insist that the books should be read in the order written, i.e. beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” [Lest one think one is offending the author’s sensibilities by reading this one first, it should be pointed out that Lewis, himself, said he had no intention of writing more than the first volume when he started, and – therefore — it’s not as though reading this one first is an assault on his plans.] While I have no dog in the fight, per se, this is the first book of this series that I’ve read. I intend to read “Lion / Witch / Wardrobe” at some point, as it is one of the most popular books in the series. [After that, we’ll see; I’m not a huge fan of series books.]

The titular nephew is a boy whose mother is ill and his father is working in India, and, therefore, the boy and his sick mom are living with an aunt and uncle. Soon after Digory meets the next-door-neighbor girl, Polly, who will be his partner in adventure, the young explorers accidentally stumble into the uncle’s office / laboratory. The uncle is what Christopher Booker calls a “Dark Father-figure / Tyrant” – i.e. he is a manipulative and cowardly old man who uses others recklessly to his own advantage. In the case of Digory and Polly, he tricks the girl into donning a ring that will send her into a parallel universe, and then he manipulates Digory into going after her so that he can get a report in order to learn what is on the other side (The rings come in pairs and she has no “return ring.”) [Note: for the adult reader — and even many older and / or more sophisticated young readers – the weakest part of this book is the fact that the uncle was able to create these rings when it’s clear he doesn’t even know how they work. This element requires one to check one’s credulity at the door, and just accept the answer is “magic.” It is, after all, a kid’s book.]

The ring transports the dynamic duo to a forest that serves as a transshipment station between worlds. It is a quiet and peaceful place. Once Digory follows Polly through, the natural question arises as to whether they should go straight back home or check out one of the other worlds. They decide to go into another world to see what it’s like. One of the prevailing themes of this book is the very Biblical question of how one confronts temptation. When they get to the parallel world, they find that its inhabitants have been frozen by some sort of magic. The first [major] temptation of the book regards whether they should ring a bell, an action that will have unknown consequences. In a switch on the Bible story, this time the girl is the voice of reason who urges against temptation, while Digory is quite insistent and – ultimately — gets his way. This unfreezes the world, waking up a beautiful “queen” who turns out to be a witch and completing a collapse of the city that the freezing had interrupted. When Digory and Polly escape back to the forest, they unwittingly bring the Witch along with them, and – even worse – she manages to follow them back to their world.

While the Witch doesn’t retain all her magical powers on Earth, she is quite strong and does manage to create quite a ruckus. Realizing he is responsible for the mayhem, Digory realizes he must get rid of the Witch. In the process of trying to get the Witch back to her own world, Digory, Polly, the magician / uncle, a cabman, and the cabman’s horse are pulled into a different alternate world, a world where Aslan, the lion, is in the process of creating Narnia. The Witch escapes off to do mischief, happy to be back in a place of magic. In Narnia, some of the animals are of an intelligent / talking variety, and – as it happens – this includes the cabman’s horse, Fledge.

Digory believes that Narnia, being a magical place, might have something that can save his ill mother. While he tries to get Aslan to give him some such magical medicine, what Aslan actually gives him is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to again face temptation and to decide whether he will do the right thing. This opportunity involves Digory, Polly, and Fledge going on a mission for a magical MacGuffin, a mission that ultimately, Digory – alone — can complete.

I read an illustrated version of this book. The illustrations might be nice for reading to children, though they didn’t add a lot for adult readers, and were fairly sparsely placed throughout the story.

If one can get past the implausibility of the uncle – who is a bit of a doofus – creating these high-powered magic rings that allow trans-dimensional travel, a power beyond that of the Witch who is shown to be in all ways more advanced than the uncle with respect to magic (except, with regards to the rings,) then the rest of the story is reasonably sound for a fantasy novel. I found the book to be engaging and worth reading. As I said, I can’t say whether it is better to read this volume first or sixth, but it does read as a standalone story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hanuman by Anant Pai

Hanuman (1)Hanuman by Anant Pai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This comic book is one volume in a huge collection of graphic depictions of Indian mythology (not only Hindu, but also Buddhist, Jain, secular folklore, etc.) Having lived in India for the better part of a decade now, I must admit that, sadly, my understanding the country’s mythology and folklore is not up to snuff. In my defense, I have often found that my Indian friends tend to have a varied and or tenuous grasp of the subject, a given person might know about some story or deity in considerable detail, but know virtually nothing about others – even if they are relatively popular tales. It’s just such a huge and disparate collection of stories that only experts are capable of both a breadth and depth of understanding of the topic. Even those books that attempt to simplify, making the subject comprehensible to a layman, often get bogged down in the vast number of characters and stories. Having stumbled upon this series on Amazon Prime, I thus decided to change tack and take in Indian Myth and Folklore in the chewable (if child-centric) bites offered by these comic books.

This book tells the story of the monkey-god, Hanuman, particularly his role in the story told in the “Ramayana.” If one is looking for a broader story than that, you may be disappointed. Anyway, this tale seemed like a good place to start because I already knew the story, at least in broad brush strokes. Thus, I had some basis for comparison of how this series tells the story. In a nutshell, the story revolves around the conflict between Rama and Ravana. Ravana has absconded with Rama’s wife, Sita, and is holding her hostage at his stronghold in Lanka, attempting unsuccessfully to woo her. (Though the latter part is not addressed, herein.) Hanuman enters the scene because he allies with Rama, and the monkey-god is sufficiently superpowered to leap the sea from coastal India to Sri Lanka. Hanuman, therefore, goes to Ravana’s territory to reconnoiter. When discovered, Hanuman makes a daring (if mischievous) escape to report back to Rama. The monkey-god then plays a crucial role in Rama’s battle against Ravana.

The only part of the story that I remembered from before that wasn’t addressed was the bit about Rama wrongly accusing Sita of infidelity and her response. I suspect this was primarily because the story is directed at children, and marital unfaithfulness was considered to be too intense of a topic. However, it might have also been the case that this bit of the story was deemed to be too big a can of worms to open in a Hanuman-centric telling of the story.

I enjoyed the book. With superpowered characters and heroic deeds, it’s not all that much different from the superhero tales of modern comic books – which, themselves, are sometimes rooted in varied mythologies. The art is simple and clear (if a bit dated in approach,) and I found the text surprisingly devoid of the clumsy exposition that has historically plagued comic books. If you’re interested in taking in mythology and folklore in bite-sized chunks, it’s worth checking this one out – particularly if you don’t mind that some simplifications are made to make the story more kid-friendly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Matilda by Roald Dahl

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[The Sarah Walsh illustrated edition comes out October 13, 2020.]

 

Matilda is a precocious child with parents who are negligent and verbally abusive. The story picks up shortly before Matilda is set to begin kindergarten, presumably so that we can learn that she is a preschool autodidact and that she has crappy parents. We also witness how she takes to “punishing” her parents whenever one or both of them behave in a particularly vile manner, using what might best be described as pranks. The empowerment of children, girls, and bookish people is the central theme of the book

Matilda begins school and is at once delighted to find a kind and caring teacher, Ms. Honey, and dismayed to find that the Principal, Mrs. Trunchbull, is a horrible woman. While Ms. Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance, she cannot get the girl advanced to a suitable grade because both Matilda’s parents and Trunchbull refuse to recognize the girl’s intellect. Dahl takes on both the cause of feminism and the plight of nerds. In the case of the former, we see how Matilda is disregarded by both her parents because she is a girl and they don’t see much value in her education and can’t fathom that she would be good at learning. While Matilda’s brother doesn’t exactly get top-notch parenting, at least some effort is made to advance his education. In the case of the latter, Dahl shows the derision for reading and studiousness that is all too common in society.

I won’t delve into the details of the balance of the story except to say that when Matilda discovers that Ms. Honey’s life is even more harrowing than her own, the young girl resolves to use her talents and capabilities to help improve Honey’s lot.

I read the version of the book, illustrated by Sarah Walsh, that is coming out in the autumn of 2020. Dahl’s story is the same, but the art is different. Having seen the Quentin Blake illustrated books, I’m aware of the difference between the two. However, as a non-artist, I don’t have much vocabulary to give a detailed description of said difference. I can say the Blake art is more reminiscent of old comic strips and the Walsh work was more cleanly drawn and “realistic,” while maintaining a general sense of whimsy and a bright color palette. I enjoyed the artwork, though I don’t claim a particular eye for such things.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It’s written for children, but if you’ve gotten to adulthood without checking it out, it’s worth going back to read it. While the villainy maybe over-the-top for adult readers (i.e. there aren’t any nuanced characters,) the story has emotional resonance and is satisfyingly concluded. As to the question of the age of children it is good for, I don’t have much expertise in that either. However, as a litmus test, ask yourself if you think the kid can assimilate the image of Trunchbull swinging a girl by her ponytails – as in the hammer-throw – and tossing her over a fence.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jabu and the Lion ed. by Tanya Munshi

Jabu and the lion (Folktales)Jabu and the lion by Tanya Munshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a simple children’s book about the virtues of keeping one’s word and the nature of karmic justice.

Jabu is a boy, a cowherd in Africa. One day he’s taking his cattle to the river to drink when he comes across a lion in a trap. The lion implores Jabu to let him go. While the boy doesn’t trust the lion at first, he ultimately agrees. The lion decides to renege, but Jabu reasons with the big cat that it would be wrong to go back on the promise not to make a meal of the young boy. Jabu, recognizing he’s not an unbiased party, asks two animals—a donkey and a jackal—to give their view. The sly jackal helps Jabu.

This is book for young children. It has colorful graphics, and the entire book is less than 30 pages. It has a simple story that conveys a moral.

If you’re teaching kids about being true to one’s word, this simple tale will help illustrate the point.
This folktale also nicely conveys something of life in Africa, which may be of value to students living elsewhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Murry family feels mopey. There are a number of run-of-the-mill factors in the family malaise. Meg, the story lead, doesn’t fit in in school, and is frequently in disciplinary trouble. Her younger brother, Charles Wallace, is thought to be mentally deficient because he doesn’t talk to strangers, but he is—in fact—a genius. However, the big cloud hanging over this family’s head is that their father hasn’t been heard from for a year. He isn’t the type of father who goes out to the store for cigarettes and never comes back. Instead, Alexander Murry—Meg’s dad—is a loving father and husband who happens to be a renowned scientist who sometimes does work for the government. Even when he’s off doing top-secret work, however, he checks in with his wife and kids on a regular basis, but now there’s been no communication for months. The townspeople both pity the Murrys and think them to be living in denial because they maintain that Alexander Murry will soon come back.

While the book begins with a real world premise and feel, it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t what they seem–at least not around the Murry household. (Things not being as they appear recurs as a theme throughout this book.) Our first inkling of this unusualness comes when we realize that Charles Wallace isn’t only a genius and preternaturally mature, he also appears to be psychic. Events really turn strange when Meg’s mother, Katherine, goes out to investigate a noise and comes back into the house with an old lady who—surprise of surprises–Charles Wallace knows, a Mrs. Whatsit. And, as he seems to do with everyone, Charles Wallace begins talking to the old lady as if he were a sage old man.

The story follows the adventures of Meg, Charles Wallace, a boy named Calvin O’Keefe as they go with three mysterious visitors (one of whom is the aforementioned Mrs. Whatsit) in search of Alexander Murry. While O’Keefe is a popular kid and a jock, he doesn’t really feel he fits in. In that way, he’s a counterpoint to Meg. Meg doesn’t fit in and it gets her in trouble. O’Keefe pretends to fit in, but has angst about it. Furthermore, O’Keefe seems to have some sort of supernatural ability—perhaps not of the level of Charles Wallace, but enough to exacerbate his feeling of being an outcast among his own family and community. It’s Calvin’s feeling that he’s at home with the Murrys that accelerates his inclusion in the story.

The sci-fi elements of this book, as with many other great works of children’s science fiction, facilitate the teaching of simple moral /ethical lessons. Don’t rush to judgement about people—Aunt Beast is one of the most endearing characters of the book. Fitting in is not all it’s cracked up to be, and if everyone were the same, what a dreary existence life would be. And, ultimately, love conquers all.

I’d highly recommend this book for children and adults alike. The story is highly readable owing to narrative tension and mystery.

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BOOK REVIEW: The BFG by Roald Dahl

The BFGThe BFG by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an excellent, little story about a big, friendly Giant [hence, BFG.] The main characters are the BFG and an orphan named Sophie. The former abducts the later from her bed, which sounds terrible, but he’s conflicted about it. He snatches her because she saw him during his late-night work delivering good dreams to children, and he can’t have any witnesses lest the townspeople get pitch-forky with him. Sophie has no parents or siblings to miss her, and she doesn’t mind being away from the orphanage and making a Giant new friend, but she doesn’t wish to live out her life in Giant Country. While the BFG is a kind and delightful character, he’s the exception to the rule when it comes to Giants. Furthermore, because he lives off the snozzcumber [a repulsive vegetable] rather than dining on people, he’s a runt among his human-eating species. Therefore, he’s no match for his nine mischievous fellow residents of Giant Country. Sophie and the BFG work together to try to achieve an end that is pleasing for all parties concerned—well, except for the nine human-eating giants.

The story is clever, and the BFG character is well-developed and interesting. BFG is wise, but he has trouble with language owing to his lack of formal education and he often mixes it up in whimsical ways. He’s also conscientious about his work of catching dreams and delivering them into the bedrooms of sleeping children so they can have delightful dreams. He also takes bad dreams out of commission by catching them in a jar and keeping them on shelves in his cave. Sophie is smart and likable—if not as interesting than BFG.

The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake in the same style as the other Dahl books. The version I have has black-and-white line drawings, but there is color edition that may be more appealing to children.

This is a great story presented with humor, and I recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Boy by Roald Dahl

Boy: Tales of ChildhoodBoy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first of a two-volume autobiography of the writer of children’s books, Roald Dahl. You probably know of Dahl from his fictional works such as: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “The BFG,” “The Twits,” or “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

I initially picked up the second part, “Going Solo,” which is about Dahl’s adult life–particularly his early post-school years in which he was an expat serving with Shell Corporation in Africa and—when the war broke out—a fighter pilot. I figured I should read the first part first because it’s short, readable, and might have bearing on his later life. I’m glad that I did, but not because it’s necessary to make sense of “Going Solo.” Rather, because this volume provides great insight into Dahl’s body of work.

Dahl was Norwegian, but spent his school years in Britain, attending boys’ schools and a boarding school. The English schools provided much inspiration for Dahl’s villains and fueled his adversarial view of the child-adult interaction—a view that serves writers of children’s literature well. While I suspect the teachers and administers were just strict and reserved as one might expect at a prestigious school in Britain, it’s easy to see how this lack of affection becomes villainy in the mind of a child. (Not to mention the upperclassmen, who too easily become like the kapos from Nazi concentration camps.)

One feels this child’s perspective throughout the book. The book is written for an audience of children, not so much in the language [which is approachable for young readers] as in the attitude. Dahl presents the world from a kid’s-eye view. He also makes occasional notes to emphasize to children the ways in which the world was changed. Travel and communication for today’s youth are completely different enterprises than they were in the interwar years.

Besides seeing how the teachers, administrators, and upperclassman provided Dahl with villains for books like “Matilda,” one also learns about the origins of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl and his classmates were given sampler boxes of prototype chocolates from Cadbury in exchange for a product review. This started Dahl thinking about laboratories and research facilities inside a chocolate factory, and a book and movie enterprise was born.

Quentin Blake, illustrator for most of Dahl’s books, provides numerous illustrations in the style of the other books. However, there are also many photos and notes from Dahl’s personal archives. The back of the edition that I have has a number of short ancillary features that are oriented toward kids.

I’d recommend this for anyone who is interested in Dahl’s life specifically, but also for anyone who’s interested in writing for children. I think writers can learn a lot from how Dahl presents his childhood in this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: What Does Fear Do To You? by J. Krishnamurti

What does fear do to you?What does fear do to you? by Jiddu Krishnamurti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book is one in a series called “Krishnamurti for the Young.” It deals with an important subject: fear and the adverse consequences of fear unchecked. Jiddu Krishnamurti was an Indian philosopher who was being groomed for a leadership position in the Theosophical Society as a young man, but he withdrew from that organization to pursue a more independent-thinking and non-sectarian philosophy.

Judging from the fact that the first edition of this book is dated 2004 and Krishnamurti passed away in 1986, it’s safe to say that this work is cobbled together from a combination of unpublished and previously published speeches and writings. There’s a page of sources and acknowledgements that provides the citations for the previously published writings. This is presented in end-note format.

The first half of the book is a story from Krishnamurti’s life that transitions into the basic theme of the book. The second half is presented in the form of questions and answers. The questions are clearly of the type children would ask, and so they may have been from school visits and the like.

It’s a short book of fewer than 30 pages–appropriate in length for kids. It has simple child-friendly drawings that were based on originals drawn by children. While the text is edited to a readability level suitable for children, as I’ll explain below, the material by-and-large isn’t presented in manner conducive to reaching children.

The book is a bit cerebral for young children in places–both in terms of the approach to delivering the material and the concepts presented. It may be of use to older children (but they may feel it’s targeted for younger kids based on the graphics.) The central message is sound: that one can watch one’s fear and see that it’s a mental product and then one can figure out how to respond to the emotion without acting impulsively or destructively. However, a more story-centric approached would better serve kids. There’s a story at the beginning about Krishnamurti walking close to a rattlesnake, but after that it becomes much more of a philosophy and psychology lesson. Krishnamurti frequently uses Socratic Method (asking questions instead of lecturing to help the reader discover a conclusion.) This method is of greater benefit to adults and young adults than young children.

I also felt that this was clearly an adults-eye view that could have benefited from a more child-eyed worldview. There’s an assumption that kids are afraid of everything and everybody and that adults are the experts in being fearless who can teach kids everything they need to know. Only an adult whose inner-child had been brutally murdered could think something so inherently ridiculous. As someone who’s taught kids yoga and martial arts, I can tell you that this is clearly not the case. In some domains, kids are far more expert fearlessness than are adults. This is something that could be tapped into to better make the point.

It seems to me that this book might be most productively read by someone who’s going to teach kids about fear and how to manage their fears. It’s great information, but it’s not presented in a manner that seems likely to grab a child’s attention. It’s not presented in an interesting fashion, and it deals in topics like conscious and consciousness that are heady for a youngster.

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