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.

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The Cistern

(The following is an essay i wrote for Jonathan Rogers’ online writing class. The assignment was to describe a place that shaped me or explains something about me.)


I grew up the daughter of a wandering missionary-hopeful. My parents met at Bible college, and my childhood was shaped by Bible stories and the knowledge that God is real, that His Kingdom is truer than any physical place we could ever see. Because we moved so much, and because we were homeschooled, that reality was much more consistent for me than any town or house.

In our homeschool, my mother used Vacation Bible School curricula alongside math worksheets and penmanship exercises. We learned Bible stories with a homemade flannelgraph. Figures for stories that didn’t occur in the curricula she made with drawings and spray flocking. I suppose most kids didn’t learn the story of Jeremiah in the cistern in Sunday school, but we did at home, sitting on the greenish, worn carpeting of our rented house’s living room, light pouring in the big windows. I was a child with an active imagination who loved stories and lived primarily in her head, and those Biblical figures became real to me. They were my friends, the inhabitants of my inner landscape, just like Princess Irene and Curdie Peterson and the Pevensies and Francis the Badger. I could see their faces in my mind. Jeremiah was straight-backed and bearded, noble and sad, brave in the face of his loneliness.

One evening my parents went out, I suppose to visit our adopted Grandma Strand, the older woman who lived alone next door. My three younger siblings went with them, but my parents decided that at eight years old, I was old enough to stay home by myself. For the first time in my entire life, I was completely alone.

The big house with big windows felt too big, and I was too small. It wasn’t long before being alone unsettled me thoroughly. I knew God was always with me, that Jesus, my playmate, would never leave me. And thinking of that reminded me of Jeremiah. He had also been alone, but he had been able to be brave because he knew he had not been abandoned.

So I went into our bedroom, with the big window facing the street, and held my breath while easing open the closet door. I slipped in and pulled the door shut behind me, and sat on the floor amidst clothes and toys. The closet was small and dark, just like Jeremiah’s cistern. Sunday dresses hung down and brushed my face. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was Jeremiah. And the walls of the closet were like safe arms that held us both until friendly faces appeared at the door.

Busy, crazy, alive

Almost three weeks into my online writing class. Met with my academic advisor on Wednesday. Story Camp starts on Monday. Hosting four write-ins a week this month. My first short story is a whopping 86 words long so far.

i am probably crazy, but what fun is there in sanity?

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.

Essaying, part 2

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

Well, i promised you all a bit more about that essay.

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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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On and on and on

Andrew Peterson and his wonderful little family sang this song in an online concert last night, and partway through the song something hit me that has never occurred to me before, despite my knowledge that the new earth that we’ll live in forever isn’t just limbo but life, not some ethereal harp-playing noplace, but a real, REAL, fully-redeemed physical place.

Jonathan and i were talking earlier yesterday about getting older and i said, “i’m so behind.” He nodded and said he feels that way himself sometimes. We’re in our mid-thirties, and he’s in school, and i’m looking to start school, and we’re only just sort of getting an idea of what we’re for, and meanwhile guys like AP are manhandling multiple careers with aplomb, having known who they were from the time they were 20 or younger.

But halfway through this song, these lines (which they’d already sung several times) spoke to me:

And it hurts so bad
but it’s so good to be young
And i don’t want to go back
i just want to go on and on and on
So don’t lose heart
Though your body’s wasting away
Your soul is not
It’s being remade
So don’t lose heart
Don’t lose heart
Your body will rise and never decay
Day by day by day

And it hit me: i WILL go on and on and on.

i think what we do in this life matters immensely, but:

All the stories i don’t get around to telling while in this old body will still be written. The difference is only in who gets a chance to read them (and what measure of grace and what manner of mystery inform my storytelling).

And that does matter—immensely—but there is still hope that who i am will remain; what He’s calling me to do does not end in my death; and i will have eternity to tell His stories. On and on and on.

That gives me a very different motivation to get on with it, and freedom to face the next two thirds of my life with eagerness to write, and without anxiety over whether i’ve done enough.

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