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. 🙂

A bit of nerdy commentary

Now then, dear readers, yesterday i promised you some commentary on a few of the nerdier aspects of Yaunsi episode nine. Since that time my boy Andrew’s Kickstarter has defied the laws of physics and has exsplatterated the brains of every third backer, and rendered the remainder unconscious. i alone am left to describe to you this scene of horrific and inevitable magnificence, and this is only due to my latent Pan* heredity; i slupped out of there as quick as i could when i saw the tidal wave of psychic gravitational forces heave toward me. (“Heave not!” i said during that moment’s long squirting, but they heeded not.)

*Yes, it is true that i was born and raised in the Green Hollows, but my family is largely of Pan-Weem descent. It is a scandal of which we do not speak broadly. You cannot imagine the dramatics and contretemps (i mean that literally) around holiday dinner tables.

So to calm my mind as the incomprehensible forces of Andrew’s Kickstarter continue to be unfeld, i shall regale you with the following nerdy bits of heresy-writing. If you also would like your sanity shattered by the ravenous glories of a fully-funded pilot for the Wingfeather Saga Animated Series, i encourage you to click over to his Kickstarter and see the many-splendored devastation for yourself. Meanwhile, on to the heresy.


Yesterday’s episode contained a pun, the likes of which i could not have conceived but was gloriously conceived in me during a moment of mad scribbling right before Hebrew class last week. “Oh my word. i love my heresy!” i whisper-shrieked to myself there in my seminary classroom. Then things got a little awkward.

The word in question is בֶּגֶד (beged). It’s a common enough word (it occurs in the vocabulary list in chapter 11 of our textbook), and in every biblical occurrence but two, that word is correctly translated “clothing” or “garments.” The exceptions are in Isaiah 24:16 and Jeremiah 12:1 where it is instead rendered “treachery.” Consider what we know of Yaunsi the Pan—what little clothing he wears. Consider that he and Cheresh are fellow Pans (Pannim, in Hebrew). Consider the horror such a word would certainly convey to these Pans of grand descent. Fie on those treacherous cake-turners!

Now while we’re talking about the Pan tradition of going scantily-clad (our family has left that tradition behind; worry yourselves not), Cheresh’s word choice when describing Yaunsi’s potential shame is quite strategic. You may recall that in episode one of my heresy, our narrator (is that me or not? you decide) said that Yaunsi did not cover himself with much clothing. The same word, “cover” (כסה, kasa), Cheresh uses here. Is this another reference to the Pannic feelings of repellence toward clothing? Hrrmm.

Oh, one more thing. In Hebrew, pronouns and verbs always agree in both gender and number with the nouns they represent. When i have referred to the Budge-Nuzzard in the past, i have thusly used a masculine singular pronoun and verb conjugation (third person, in Hebrew, is used for he/she as well as it. You may recall some consternation regarding this in episode eight). This time, however, Cheresh refers to “The Budge and its Nuzzard.” Which pronoun, which number, does he use? Plural, yes? Nope. Still singular. ::shudder:: (i had a very bad moment a couple of weeks ago while rereading the original Budge-Nuzzard episode “Gloaning.” But what horrors i saw in those words will have to wait for a later commentary. You are not yet ready to hear my brain’s ravings on this matter.)

Now then, let us all go forth with greater insight, fear, and glee. And while you go, do consider giving yourself up to the inexorable resplendence of Andrew’s Kickstarter.

See you next week. (Unless Andrew’s Kickstarter swallows the sun.)

Discovering Hebrew narrative, Part One

i am a pantser. My modus operandi, writing-wise, is just to dive right in and find out how things work. i have always done this with my English writing. The joy of discovery is too great to bother with outlines; if i already know what is going to happen, what is the point? And i started my Hebrew fiction-writing career this way, too, almost as soon as i started learning Hebrew. What else is language for but storytelling? And when the very fibers of my being all vibrate with glee at words like “robiderant” and “lobidious,” when a story causes my mind to be constantly running away to make connections both internal and external, when i am confronted at every turn with the delight of ordinary cereal or hunger or travel reimagined into something alien and (literally) breathtaking, well, what else am i supposed to do? Write, of course, and the sooner the better. There’s no time to wait.

This week, i started my Hebrew narrative independent study. i’ve read two chapters in a great classic work—The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter—and am starting to realize what an audacious thing it was to write fiction in a language i hadn’t yet internalized. Ancient Near Eastern fiction has its own literary conventions! Nothing could be more obvious once they’re pointed out, but i had given no thought to this when i was starting my story.

Type-scenes, for example: Mini-stories that occur over and over again, in a certain sort of way, which leads the reader to expect how things will play out. We do this on a larger scale, repeating whole stories with wide variation (orphan-with-destiny, for example). Biblical type-scenes are smaller-scale, like the elements of the hero’s journey. But where the hero’s journey type-scenes are just templates (inciting-event, threshold-guardian, return-with-the-elixir), biblical type-scenes are very specific (meeting-one’s-future-betrothed-by-a-well, annunciation-of-the-hero’s-birth-to-his-barren-mother, epiphany-in-a-field), and every detail matters. The brilliance, of course, is in the many ways one can vary the convention to highlight or suggest or surprise or subvert. And now my mind runs away again, and i must run to catch it. What are the type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? What about in its literary progenitor, Lovecraft? Can i use these type-scenes in my own story? Can i make them Hebraic? Can i identify any Hebrew type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? Are there any ancient type-scenes which will serve my story, and can i make them nuzzardous?

And dialogue! Hebrew narrative, it turns out, is dominated by dialogue. The characters discover and reveal themselves through what they say, how they say it, what they avoid saying, how they spin and how they lie. This isn’t particular to Hebrew narrative, either; read any good literary novel in English and you’ll find the same thing: Subtext. Hebrew authors don’t tell you what people are thinking; they let their characters absolve or hang themselves without interference, and they employ quite a bit of subtlety and ambiguity in the process. This is a thing i want to work on in general, in Hebrew and English. One particular thing i neglected to consider in Hebrew is how to introduce my characters through dialogue. The first words out of their mouths should tell the reader something about them. What impressions do my readers have of Yaunsi, or of Smithers/Cheresh? What sort of men are they? Are these impressions what i intended? Do my introductions lead me, and my readers, further into the story, or will i have to work against these impressions, or even contradict them, as i develop my characters? What about expressing emotions and attitudes and bearing? What about speech patterns? Can i draw distinctions, deepen sympathy or reservations, heighten tension, by contrasting the way my characters speak to one another and to themselves? These are all things Hebrew authors do. Again, we expect this in English, but it does look different in Hebrew, and i had given it no thought before this week.

A week in, and i am already thinking of whether i should start over from scratch—a thought both exciting, because of what i am learning that i could apply, and frustrating, because i want to get on with the story and explore what happens next. And i haven’t even started the second week’s reading yet.

One of my goals for this semester is to develop a more authentically Hebraic writing voice. And one of the things i hear consistently around the Rabbit Room is that revision is not a threat to be feared but a friend to embrace.

i wonder what Yaunsi and i will be like when we’re finished. We might both need a little revision.

A new writing class and an old ache

Three things happened today, all about writing. The first is that Jonathan Rogers’ Writing With Flannery O’Connor class started. The second was a Rabbit Room post which pierced me through. More

A few sentences

Last summer i began writing a short story about a hailstorm. Today i pulled it out again to reacquaint myself with it, as i mean to finish it this summer. Here are a few sentences, none of which i remember writing.

“He still called it a river, although the strict definition of a river involved water and thus he was stretching the truth somewhat.”

“But the drought had driven [the fireflies] away. They could not breed in the dust of the riverbed; their lights dimmed and went out, and the long years since had lost something of their magic. The earth became simply earth, the grass withered and grew yellow, and silence descended into muteness. The earth had stopped speaking.”

“The screen door screeched and banged again, protesting against the work for which it was created.”

“When it came, the thunderclap was loud enough to shake the house, and drops of rain fat as field mice fell from the sky like the sudden descent of the apocalypse.”

“His skin tingled with the charge in the air; the hair on his head and his arms stretched toward the heavens as if pleading with the black clouds to stop their vicious assault.”

“And still the hail poured from the heavens as if it desired the land below, as if no speed was adequate to the joy of arrival.”

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.

The first round of short stories begins

This summer, i set myself a goal of writing a short story for every class i take during my graduate studies career. Now is the time to start making that happen. Midterms are over and November is upon me. The plan is to write both shorts this month, taking advantage of the community and momentum that NaNoWriMo provides, although as long as they’re finished before next semester starts i’ll call it good. It took me awhile to come up with my projects, but here they are.

For Hebrew, i am actually going to write a story in Hebrew. i’m pretty excited about this. ‘Round about week three of class, when all of my vocab words started sounding alike, i realized how much opportunity there is here for wordplay. Asher (the name) sounds exactly like asher (a pronoun meaning who, which, or that), and shares sounds with yashar (upright/straight) and rasha (wicked) and ashir (rich) and asah (to make or do). That week i had to make sentences just to help me keep all the words straight. Asher yashar; Asher lo rasha. “Asher is upright; Asher is not wicked.” Asher asah kesef; Asher ashir. “Asher made money; Asher is rich.” (i love saying Asher ashir.) Jonathan said my sentences sounded like a Dr. Seuss book, so that’s exactly what i’m going to do—write a picture book full of wordplay in Hebrew. To make all this even better, one of my tablemates (we’re divided into groups of four) goes by the Hebrew name Asher, and has a two-year-old daughter. So fictional Asher will learn numbers and colours and other words, and have adventures, and render my readers tongue-tied in the process.

For Pentanteuch and Wisdom, i had a much harder time coming up with a story idea. All the ideas that were presenting themselves were based directly on the stories we were reading, but i am not interested in writing Biblical fiction. i wanted to write a story inspired by the class, not simply drawn from the reading. My exegetical paper was on one of the Lady Wisdom passages in Proverbs, though, and she fascinates me—but i didn’t know what to do with that. The solution turned out to be both simple and unexpected, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ve spent a fair amount of time so far this semester talking about how Israel adapted the literary traditions of neighbouring nations in writing their own history, creation myth/account, and even legal codes. Our professor broached the question of how far a Christian can go in engaging and adapting cultural forms in our own setting. And so i’m going to try something i’ve never thought to do before—intentionally adapt a cultural storytelling form towards which i would not naturally gravitate. i’m going to write a superhero story. i’ll seek to conform to the genre’s conventions, while inverting some of the themes and cliches. So far, my protagonist is about half-created. Her name is Hélène Hokma, named for my Hebrew professor (Hélène Dallaire—the name Hélène means “light”) and Lady Wisdom (Hokma, or Hokmot, in Proverbs). i’m still stuck on a nom de guerre and a concrete array of powers, although i do have some ideas and the beginnings of a costume. As for setting and theme, she’s going to live into a dark place like Gotham and do what Batman wishes he could do but can’t: Inspire hope and actual transformation of the city. Oh, i have ideas. You’ll just have to wait.

Writing Close to the Earth: A summary of findings

i got my instructor’s feedback on my last essay yesterday, and with that, this summer’s online writing class is complete. It was a great, challenging, growing experience. i’ve never taken a writing class before (or any online class), and i learned a ton. Here are a few highlights:

  • Dangling modifiers are a thing. Don’t use them.
  • No, seriously.
  • Parallelism is also a thing, and i think i love it. Now to figure out how it works.
  • i use more adjectives than i realized.
  • Concrete description is harder than it appears.
  • Some descriptive details contribute to the point i’m trying to make. Some details don’t. It’s a trick to figure out which is which, but it makes a big difference and will get easier with practice.
  • There are good ways and bad ways to be concise and economic in my writing. “Show, don’t tell” applies here as it does everywhere.
  • Intentionality in writing, as in anything, is huge. If i have an idea of what i want to say, and then make my sentences serve that goal, my writing will improve tremendously and have a greater impact on my readers.
  • Criticism is okay, and probably better-intended than my broken brain tends to imagine. And it’s okay to admit that it’s hard.
  • i have great friends.
  • i can edit my own writing.
  • i need to pay better attention to the world outside my head.
  • i have good writerly skills and instincts, and i can totally improve my craft; my issues are “very fixable.”
  • Literary fiction is not beyond my reach (even if it takes effort, practice, and intentional reading habits.)

My instructor said he’s working on putting together a “grammar for writers” class. It’ll cover dangling modifiers and parallelism both, and lots of other great things that probably exist despite my ignorance of them, and i can’t wait to discover it all and put it to work.

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.

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