Henry and the Chalk Dragon (a review)

Henry and the Chalk Dragon cover large

Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton (Rabbit Room Press, 2017).

TIE YOUR SHOELACES.

i am not an impartial reviewer of this book. i’ve been agonizing over this, because i want to write a review worthy of the book itself, but the truth is that i adore Jennifer Trafton. She makes me want to be brave, and sometimes, with her whispered kindnesses in my heart, i can be.

Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, says Henry’s chivalry. It’s hard for him to be brave, too. He is a knight, but he is also an Artist, you see, and his wild imagination is hard to contain, and just as hard to let out. When he tries to draw nice brown bunnies calmly eating lettuce, the Work of Art inside him aches to draw bunnies that jump so high they tear holes in the clouds and land on Mars, or a rocket-powered bunny with laser eyes. His teacher and principal don’t know what to do with him. He has one best friend, but is afraid the other kids won’t understand—even his best friend doesn’t always. So when one day he draws a magnificent jungle-green dragon on the back of his blackboard-painted door and it runs away, Henry is more worried than anything, even though his dragon thrills him. Suddenly, the Work of Art he has been hiding is out in the world for everyone to see.

i don’t know what i love best about this book—the chivalry, which is often funny (“Don’t feed girls to dragons”) and often cuts right to my own fears as an Artist; the golden trumpets of Jade’s bardic songs; the way Henry’s conflict with his best friend, and his dragon, and his Art, and his principal, all collide and swirl toward and past and around each other to resolve into beauty (the one moment with his dragon—oh! i might cry right now); Oscar and his pet octagon; their wonderful teacher Miss Pimpernel with her beaver-teeth hair (she was a superhero, you know)… i could go on for days.

My copy of this book has already been colored in. i couldn’t help it. After reading Henry, the colors won’t hold still. i am going to stop writing and go back to coloring—and then later today, i am going to go back to my own writing. Because when i am tempted to think i can’t, Henry’s chivalry tells me Tie your shoelaces.

Illustration by Benjamin Schipper. Coloring by me and Henry.

Henry and the Chalk Dragon releases April 4. You can preorder at the Rabbit Room—preorders come signed, and with two free coloring pages (but i do definitely recommend coloring in your book!).

Jennifer is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic. At last count i had bought twenty copies of this book so far. i love it with my whole heart. You should read that one, too.

Heresy Revealed: The Capstone Paper

This spring semester i had the hilarious and deeply satisfying experience of writing heresy—Budge-Nuzzard fanfic in biblical Hebrew—for seminary credit. It was an immensely engaging and creative endeavor, and i took no end of pleasure in offhandedly mentioning “my heresy” in my advanced Hebrew exegesis class and citing Thaddeus Glapp in the biography of my capstone paper. It’s crazy to think that i was permitted to get away with this nonsense. Classical Hebrew spec-fic? Inventing words in a dead language? Graduate-level Budge-Nuzzard scholarship? Weench midrash? Gosh. i am the luckiest nerd alive.

Those of you who’ve somehow stumbled through a wormhole and into this website may already have fallen victim to The Yaunsi Heresy. If you haven’t, you’re about to. The attachment that follows contains the complete text of that heresy—with commentary, on both my work and the Budge-Nuzzard. (It isn’t all heresy. The first half of the paper teases an entire semester’s study on Hebrew narrative style and literary devices.)

Enough piffle and blather! With very great thanks to Deirdre Brouer, Hélène Dallaire, Thaddeus Glapp, and A.S. Peterson, i present to you:

Narrative Criticism in the Hebrew Bible: Capstone report


The Yaunsi Heresy is a new work of fiction in classical Hebrew based on A.S. Peterson’s lobidious tale of the Budge-Nuzzard. It will be published in serial. Click “Yaunsi Heresy” above to read from the beginning—or to hear the story read to you. 🙂

Midrash

Hebrew narrative is full of gaps. It’s part of the literary art. Did Uriah know about David and Bathsheba? With whom did Jacob wrestle? How exactly was Abishai part of Joab’s plot to kill Abner? These gaps excite our imaginations and draw us into the text by means of curiosity and suspense, but they also leave us with niggling interpretive questions. The medieval expositors who engaged in midrash sought (“midrash” comes from the word “to seek”) to fill in those gaps by making connections, seizing on clues as small as stray consonants, drawing in folklore and mysticism, explaining background, imagining.

Here’s an example. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul (who had previously cast all the mediums out of Israel) has been rejected as king and has given up seeking G-d, and now wants advice from the man of G-d who anointed him. This is Samuel, but Samuel is dead, and the only way to consult him is to consult a medium. When he finds a medium and convinces her that no harm will come to her if she conjures a ghost in direct defiance of the king’s (i.e. his own) order, she consents. But as soon as the spirit rises out of the earth, she panics—“You are Saul!” Well, what on earth about the spirit gave her the identity of the flesh-and-bone man standing in her tent? The midrash on this passage explains it thusly: A spirit conjured from the dead will rise feet first, head down, except in the presence of the king. Then, out of respect, the spirit rises head first, feet down. Samuel must have done so, and the sight of him rising, upright, told her everything: This was Saul, the king.

Is that actually how she knew? We can’t be certain, although a possible misspelling in the Masoretic Text, corrected in the Septuagint, might support this theory. Either way, when faced with the question of why the woman, seeing Samuel, suddenly recognized Saul, the midrash expositors devised an explanation which harmonized with the received text, slipping cleverly into the gap the narrator left behind.1

Now, what i am doing with the Yaunsi Heresy i have often called fanfiction. Up till last week all i was doing, aside from switching main and secondary characters, was retelling the story, sometimes as directly as translation would allow. But there is a gap, a rather large gap, in the Budge-Nuzzard. It is a cunning gap, a subversive gap, one that invites wrestling, and i seek now to fill it. For the last year i have been drawing together threads from the Budge-Nuzzard itself—no folklore, no mysticism, but only from my source material—to put forth an interpretation which i believe to be consistent with the story’s own evidence. What has been fanfiction or even simple retelling is now becoming midrash.2

If you have not yet read the Budge-Nuzzard, do start now.


 The midrash on 1 Samuel 28 does not end here, and it is fascinating to read. For an introductory study, see my paper The Witch of Endor: Toward a Literary Treatment, written last spring.

The name of a Hebrew book is taken from the first major word of the book’s text. For example, the first word in Leviticus is Vayikra—“He called.” Rabbah—“great”—is the term given to the expansion of the text via midrash. The midrash on Leviticus is therefore Vayikra Rabbah, and my midrash on the Budge-Nuzzard is properly named Nolad Rabbah, as the first word of that story in Hebrew is Nolad (“It was born”).

A readaloud, a plea, and an inarticulate squeal

If you’ve been around my blog for very long, you’ll know that i love The Wingfeather Saga. If you’ve been around only for the last month or so, you’ll know that there’s a Kickstarter happening to fund a pilot for what we hope is a full-length animated series. What you may not know is what these books are about, or why i love them, or when this Kickstarter ends, so i’d like to clear all that up for you right now—because, last/first things first, the Kickstarter ends TONIGHT, and i’d love to see you there.

This series is a whimsical, woeful, wonderful epic about three young siblings who find themselves in the middle of secrets and armies, history and destiny. Their world has fallen to an occupying force of lizardfolk called the Fangs of Dang. These Fangs are venomous and cruel, and they serve an evil lord named Gnag the Nameless. If that were not enough, the Black Carriage roves the land, taking children in the night for some fell and unknown purpose.

But amidst these horrors, there is great beauty and hope in this world. There is danger within and without, but there are also singing sea dragons and love like a warm hearth on a chilly evening. Aerwiar, the world in these books, is wild and weird and more beautiful than i can tell you. The characters grapple with hard truths about their own hearts, and they become something more than they could have guessed. i haven’t wept over any books the way i’ve wept over these. i beg you to read them.

To get you started, here’s a FREE six-chapter preview, and below i’ll read you one of my favorite chapters from the series.

And as i said, the Kickstarter ends TONIGHT—Monday, April 4, 2016—at 9:00 pm Central. This Kickstarter funds a pilot episode, and there are a host of great rewards already funded, from stickers to t-shirts to short stories to a comic book. And since the next step is to find a studio to turn this pilot into a full series, every backer counts. If the sound of this story is compelling to you, now is the time; there is no other. If you can’t afford more than a dollar, that dollar still tells the studios that there is an audience for this series. If you don’t have even a dollar, you can still help by following The Wingfeather Saga on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram, and this is a huge help, because again, the studios are looking at those numbers.

Either way, i hope you enjoy this chapter and go on to read the books. (You can buy them here.) And now i’ll turn things over to Madame Sidler of Ban Rona. She loves the books just as much as i do. 😉

::squeeee::

i am a murderer

“Fin was lost. She pulled the trigger.”

i’m rereading A.S. Peterson’s The Fiddler’s Gun, and it’s hurting me. The first time, i read it aloud with my husband. This time, i am sinking into it alone. But the things that hurt most about this book are not the things i expected.

i know already the losses and lostness in this story. i know who dies, who wishes they did, who should have but didn’t. i know Fin’s loneliness and i know where it comes from. i know her sin. i know the sins against her. i know who’s to blame.

What hurts me about this story is the idea that someone i respect and trust created a person, utterly dependent upon himself, and then he hurt her. He spent ten years hurting her.

This hurts me because i also have created a girl, one who is utterly dependent upon me, and i am hurting her. i’m not done hurting her.

When Fin pulls the trigger, my chest opens up, and one thought pounds in my heart: i am a murderer.

i am a murderer.

i too am a murderer.

i hurt for Fin as she loses herself, but i do not identify with her. i identify with her maker. We are responsible for these lives we’ve made, and we have dealt falsely with them. We are unjust.

Whatever sin is in them, we put there. They act on it—neither of them are innocent. They make their own choices—a mystery i can never hope to explain, one that wonders me as often as it grieves me. They act on their impulses in their own volitional ways. But we are responsible.

It is glory for us to create, to make beings in our image as our Creator has made us. But our image is marred by sin that we cannot wash away. We, like they, need a redeemer.

i know that Fin’s maker means to redeem her. i know my own heart toward my girl; i long to redeem her. Redemption requires death. i know this. We never hurt these people because we don’t love them. We hurt them because there’s no way to make them beautiful, glorious, righteous, without bringing them to the end of themselves. i know Fin’s maker wept over her. i have wept over Rixi as well. Am i justified by my tears? When we are finished, will she understand?

For Rixi’s sake as well as my own, i need for Fin to be redeemed. i know where the story will take her and how her hurts and losses and sins will be addressed. But it is excruciating to get her there.

Rixi, no power in Nirth or in all of creation—nothing but your own will—will prevent me from turning all your pain to beautiful. Please let me redeem you.

Thank G-d i am but a subcreator.

Thank-you stories

i just had a crazypants, terrifying, exhilarating thought: You know those short stories i plan to write, inspired by the classes i take?

What if i give them to my professors at the end of each semester?

“Thank you, and here is one thing that your class inspired in me while i processed the material and discussions.”

Two new endeavors, both slightly terrifying

i haven’t done a great deal of writing lately—maybe i haven’t done any since that essay; i can’t remember for sure. But i have been reading, and reading, and reading. The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and CurdieThe Warden and the Wolf King (and Pembrick’s Creaturepedia!), A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Smoke on the Mountain, Peace Like a River, The Oracle of Philadelphia (and The Timely Arrival of Barnanabas Bead again, and the Budge-Nuzzard again), My Bright Abyss (although i am not sure i will finish it), King Lesserlight’s Crown, The Best of H.P. LovecraftGilead, Roverandom. And still somehow i have time for Facebook and other forms of time-wasting; clearly, i need more books. (Thankfully, there’s the Rabbit Room for that.)

That last one, Roverandom, i just read this week in preparation for one of the titular terrifying new things i’m attempting this summer: Story Camp.

i run our church’s library, and this year i am finally making good on my years-old desire to organize a summer reading program. Somehow—because i am crazy like this—i decided that this would also be a great summer to have weekly read-alouds in the library (The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic), host a Skype chat with an author (Jennifer Trafton of Mount Majestic fame), and spend all July encouraging library patrons to write their own stories. This will take the form of Camp Nano-style write-ins for teens and adults, but for kids, i’m running a week-long program i’m calling Story Camp, where the kids and i will play storytelling games, read J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s story Roverandom together, use Roverandom as a jumping-off place for discussions on how to wrangle story elements like character, plot, description, setting, and theme, and then spend time daily writing our own books. i am really excited about this! And also fairly terrified, as i have never done such a thing as a) teach writing, b) teach elementary-schoolers, or c) run a week-long library program of any sort. But the planning is going well, and i will have a helper at least three of the five days, and i think it’s going to be awesome.

The other thing i’m doing this summer, also writing-related, starts on Monday. i’m taking an online writing class taught by Jonathan Rogers, acclaimed thinker of thoughts and author of the middle-grade Wilderking Trilogy, which combines meaning, action, and the best use of setting and written accents i’ve seen in awhile. He says the class, which is titled “Writing Close to the Earth,” could alternately be titled “Writing More Like Flannery O’Connor,” whom he has written a book about, and i am ashamed to say that i have never read any of her stories (although i have heard enough about them that i can pretend i have a grasp of her style). That class will require weekly writing—essays, and sentence exercises, which i am really excited about. i have already done the first week’s reading—i say that i have started early because this summer’s busyness requires me to work ahead while i can in anticipation of weeks when i’ll have less time for homework, but really i’m just a big nerd and i can’t wait to discuss the reading with other students and have JR tell me why my sentences are bad.

Last night, though, i had a hard time falling asleep because it occurs to me that if i am running write-ins this July, it really would behoove me to actually be writing some narrative fiction while encouraging others to do so. And not only am i going to have a lot of homework to do, plus Story Camp (which occurs during my class as well as during July’s write-ins)—i have no idea what to write about.

Sometimes i do wonder if i have already had all of my good ideas.

But aside from that pervasive nonsense fear (and the more realistic what-have-i-gotten-myself-into trepidation)—i am really excited about this summer.

Feathers and Talons

About a week and a half ago, i submitted an essay to the Rabbit Room. i was grateful to have had the opportunity to write that essay, and wanted to share it with the author of the books that inspired it. If he chose to share it with his community, i would be thrilled, but i had no expectations. Meanwhile, i knew that i was sending the essay to them at the very last minute if i wanted it to be read, much less published, before Kickstarter backers began reading the fourth book. i had gotten the public release date mixed up with the Kickstarter release, and so instead of sending them that essay a month or more before readers had a chance to begin finishing the series, i sent it to them in the middle of pallets and pallets of books arriving at their office. This week Andrew is signing multiple thousands of books, which are being sent to over two thousand readers. There’s no reason to expect them even to check their email during all this, although of course i must assume that they have. Whenever Andrew sees it, i hope he is blessed by my interactions with his story—whether the essay is deemed appropriate for the Rabbit Room or not. And whatever happens, i am grateful.

Today AP posted that their friendly neighborhood mailman was off with the second truckload of Kickstarter shipments, so regardless of the status of that submission, it’s time to release my essay into the wild.

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Artham must die

::SPOILER WARNING:: If you’ve not read the first three Wingfeather Saga books, please ignore this post. Instead, go buy the books!

Andrew Peterson’s fourth and final Wingfeather book is due out on July 22, and for Kickstarter supporters, the delivery date is even sooner—perhaps next week! While i’ve been busy working on a more serious look at themes of brokenness and New Creation innocence in Peet the Sock Man’s character arc, that work is now finished and submitted, allowing me time before the book is released to make a few predictions and speculations about what might happen in the last installment of this beautiful YA fantasy series.

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Inquiry to admissions department at Denver Seminary

In looking over the degree options available to me at Denver Seminary, it seemed best to begin the process by sending an email to admissions prior to filling out the application. Here’s the email.
 
Hello,
 
For some time I have been considering returning to school, and lately it seems that the time has arrived to begin the process. My inclination is that I will end up pursuing an MA in Old Testament, but aside from my love of the Old Testament and a desire to study theology, I have some specific reasons for wanting to engage the Old Testament, and I wonder if you would be so kind as to hear those reasons and help me gauge whether or not I am on the right track.
 
I am a fiction writer. My primary genre is fantasy (although I am developing a science-fiction setting as well), and while all the writing I do is in one or another pre-Christian culture, I am increasingly finding myself needing to know how to address the problem of sin with my characters. For the development of themes, I look primarily to J.R.R. Tolkien, who sought to create a world and stories therein which were orthodox, yet pre-Christian. But Tolkien did not address sin as such; his world and stories discuss different themes, and where sin arises the answer seems to be a type of common grace, where one is justified by repentance, but the sin nature is not addressed.
 
As far as that goes, I am comfortable taking a similar tack. I want my stories to have a wide appeal, to slip past those “watchful dragons” and be instrumental in reshaping my readers’ imaginations and affections so as to prepare the way for the Gospel, rather than to preach it in the narrative; a clear Christ-figure is not what I am trying to write. My strong sense is that in our postmodern culture, a subtle approach will be the best beginning for those who love narrative but are antagonistic toward authoritarian presentations of truth. With two of my characters, however, I am at a point where they recognize their own depravity, and they are unable to get past their inability to walk away from their sin nature (not merely their sins), no matter how badly they want to be good and righteous. I have a strong sense that one of them, in particular, is calling out to me, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” It distresses me that in committing to a pre-Christian world, I have no answer for her, yet I believe I am called to tell such stories—that the pre-Christian setting as well as the themes of sin, brokenness, and redemption are specific to my own gift and calling.
 
This may seem backwards, as a Christian, to look for ways to answer this question without Christ rather than simply introducing Him, and I realize that without the incarnation and sacrificial atonement of Christ, there can be no final answer for sin. I would like, however, to give my characters hope, much like G-d gave Abraham hope, that an answer is coming, and in the meanwhile, discover what the Old Testament and common grace can tell me about what G-d’s answer was before Christ. My fictional worlds do not currently have a sacrificial system for expiation of sins, although that may be part of the answer (yet it does not come close to addressing the problem of the sin nature).
 
So my inclination is to study the Old Testament for clues as to how this might work. My long-term goal is to follow this degree with one in literature, so as to continue deepening my understanding of how to develop themes in my writing, but I don’t want to move forward in that without first having the strong undergirding of Scripture and theology to direct those studies.
 
In looking over the MA/Old Testament course path, I notice that there are several classes included in that degree that I am very interested in, but only one slot for an elective. Looking at the Theology and Christian Studies concentrations as well, I see that either would offer me more elective slots, but do not contain the language studies (which greatly interest me), and the OT track’s thesis option would give me some leeway to develop a particular area of interest outside of electives. Meanwhile, I have identified about twenty classes I’d love to take, all of which would have to be taken as electives (although many are only of personal interest and I might simply audit them after graduation).
 
Sorry to have gone on at such length, and I appreciate you hearing me out. Is there any guidance you can provide as to whether an OT degree is the correct path for me, considering my specific concerns?
 
Thank you very much,
Laure Hittle