Monday, November 28, 2022

Book Review: Exile by Loren Warnemeunde

 What if a YA novel made you think of Dostoevsky?


It seems rather unlikely, but the new YA novel, Exile, moved me to think of Dostoevsky, the Old Testament, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. (And fairy tales - as we all know - contain shadows of the Gospels, right?) 


And it’s also just a good story! 




Loren Warnemeude says in the Author’s Notes that she set out to write a retelling of Grimm’s fairy tale, “Maid Maleen,” but it grew into something much more. I agree. In the beginning it does feel like a fairy tale, complete with the threat of a tower/tomb, a garden, an apple tree, a threat of exile…


But somewhere along the way, the literature teacher in me quit looking for imagery and metaphors, and I was swept into the story, just enjoying the ride. 


Princess Maleen is faced with an impossible choice: marry a man she doesn’t want or be exiled into a tower. She has only three days to make the choice and chooses the tower, confident that her true love Melinor will rescue her. The novel unfolds the consequences of her choices, the struggles she faces, and the unexpected growth she discovers in those struggles.


Let’s talk about why Exile makes me think of Dostoevsky, et al. It is definitely not long and heavy. Each character does not have seven names. The “horrible” father of Exile is not at all like Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. However, both stories incarnate an important idea of the Christian life: suffering can offer a chance for redemption. 


Very gently, and without preaching, Loren Warnemeunde unfolds the transformation of a young woman, a transformation that seems only to have been possible through her suffering.


Many scenes of the novel reminded me of Pride and Prejudice, of how blind we can be to the true nature of people and of the beauty that comes with new sight.


Exile is set in a fantasy world, and in the same way that Tolkien and Lewis include Biblical ideas without actually putting the name of God in the story, Warnemunde’s fantasy world is a mirror of the Scriptures. Christian readers will probably recognize the veiled references to the Mighty One, and I think non-Christians would still enjoy the story without making the connection.


I highly recommend it. If you still need to buy some presents for teens (or adults) in your life, Exile is a good choice.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Book Review: Into the Flames (& Other Plays on Saints' Lives)

 

My first experience of a children’s church play was at St. Nicholas in Shreveport, where my children got to participate in a play every December, for either St. Nicholas or for the Nativity. I was also blessed to spend a couple of years in Ann Arbor, Michigan at St. Vladimir Orthodox. Each year on their parish Feast Day, the children put on a play. It always impressed me afterwards how these kids could remember details from the stories, more than if they had only been taught a lesson. The plays enabled them to embody and absorb the stories.


I love plays!


That’s why I waited and waited (with no patience whatsoever) all summer to get my free preview copy of Into the Flames by Christine Siampos. And now I’m sharing my honest review with you. :)


I’m a drama teacher by trade, so I have opinions about drama, gained through years of putting on performances. I approached the book really hoping that I would be able to envision these plays being performed by regular kids, directed by regular parents and teachers, with easy props and costumes. 


It turns out that the playwright wrote these plays for the children in her own parish to perform, so she knows what it is like “in the trenches” of dealing with real children. She knew exactly how to write the script and adjust the directions for real kids. I could easily envision someone with no experience at all directing these plays, because the directions are so clear and easy to follow.


There is also room for options. A given play can be performed by six kids or by ten or more, depending on which of the options you choose. 


As I read through the plays, I imagined who might like to use them:


First, I want to share some ideas that might not immediately come to your mind. I think just the process of reading through and acting these plays out, scripts in hand, just for fun and not necessarily for a formal performance, could be fun:


Friends in the backyard

Babysitting job for a large family or during Mom’s Night Out

Childcare during a parish Retreat for adults 


Then, of course, there are the rehearse-and-perform venues: 


Special Feast Day performance at a parish

Sunday School classes

Vacation Church School

Summer Camp

Diocesan Conference Children’s Program

Classical School Drama Program (maybe not all the plays, but 


This new book of plays has so many possibilities. 


If you purchase five copies, Park End Books will allow you to make photocopies for the different children so they can highlight their lines and take home their scripts to practice, without fear of losing the playbooks.


I truly think this is a great resource for the Orthodox community and look forward to helping the children in my life perform some of these plays! Thank you, Christine Siampos and Park End Books!


#orthodoxchristian  #orthodox #bookreview #churchschool #parkendbooks #parishlifeconference #parishretreat #diocesenconferencechildren #largefamilyfun #classicalschooldrama

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Birthday of the Church (Pentecost)


Music Review

My oldest is almost 19 years old, but he can still sing all the words to all the songs on this wonderful album - Celebrate the Feasts! When he was a wee lad and his little siblings were strapped into their car seats in the old minivan, this cd was pretty much on repeat whenever we drove anywhere.

I love how the music is fun, but the lyrics are straight out of Orthodox theology, often even straight out of the services.

If you are new to Gigi Shadid, I hope you enjoy this song about Pentecost with your children this week. It will be a nice way to prepare them to engage in the Feast this coming weekend! 

Fun Links:

Speaking about preparing for the Feast, this research shows that just experiencing new things prepares a person to better learn them.

Here's the entire Youtube video list of Gigi Shadid.

From the Archives:

Have you ever wished things were different? If only... might make you laugh with me. 

Hatian Beans and Rice - because you can never have too many ways to make beans and rice!

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Help to do Shakespeare

I promise, you could just follow my own family's plan and get a good taste of a Shakespeare play.


However, you might like to go deeper for a number of reasons:

1. You are just curious.

2. You are nerdy like me and like going deeper to see more ideas.

3. You would feel better about answering your children's questions if you had a little more preparation yourself. This one might especially be true if your child was assigned Shakespeare in school and you want to be able to participate and/or help at home.

4. You want to learn more about a specific play in order to decide if it is appropriate for your family.

If any of these resonate with you, then this post is for you. I'll start with Free Resources, and then move to Paid Resources. Remember - not everything I list will be appropriate for your children. This list of resources is really for you as a parent. 

Free Resources for Shakespeare



If you can, start with the Lamb's version

Then move to the play itself. I linked to their Romeo and Juliet, but you can find most of the plays there. Just type Shakespeare into the search bar. 


The Play's the Thing Podcast - best free place for understanding the histories and tragedies

This podcast goes through Shakespeare plays one act at a time. The rotating hosts are all literature teachers and Shakespeare lovers. I have not listened to them all, but I can share my favorites:

Their series on Romeo & Juliet is enlightening. Hosts Tim, Heidi, and Sarah-Jane help you understand specific scenes, big motifs, and the frustrating question, "Why did this tragedy have to happen?!" 

I also really like their series on the History plays. Henry IV, part 1 and Henry V are incredible! The first deals with a prodigal son (Prince Hal) who has to make his way into manhood and take responsibility for the nation. Then, Hal become Henry V in the next play. If you are from the United States, you might not know that Henry V became a super popular military hero king, something akin to George Washington in terms of national popularity and historical legend. He is truly inspiring! I suggest listening to the first part of the first episode of a play before starting to read. The hosts usually do a wonderful job setting it up for you!

They have also done a nice job with King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing

The Literary Life Podcast - best free place for understanding how the comedies work



This podcast has done two Shakespeare comedies: A Winter's Tale and A Midsummer Night's Dream

This series is where I learned how the Shakespeare comedies structurally follow the Gospel pattern - what a beautiful set of images to take into your reading! High School students would be ready for this depth of instruction. (Remember, for Elementary students, the story itself will feed them what they need without our extra explaining.)

They have sponsored two free Read-Alongs that are recorded: A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. (You may have to sign up for their newsletter to access the videos. You might want to sign up anyway if you think your family might like to participate in the next Read Along!)


Hillsdale College Free Online Courses

This wonderful course, "Shakespeare: Hamlet and the Tempest" offers beautiful instruction via video lectures about both plays, comparing and contrasting Hamlet and Prospero. There are 7 videos, each about 40 minutes. You have to sign up and then you'll receive lots of emails from them, but you can just set your email to send those to the spam folder if you like.
 

Local Library Film Versions:

Since there are too many versions of Shakespeare on film to review in one blog post, I'll start with a play I remember vividly from my 9th grade English class: Romeo and Juliet. The Zeferelli film is gorgeous, but you will need to call a "bathroom break" after the marriage. While the kids are out of the room, fast forward through their honeymoon night. Marital relations are off-scene, but there is a shot of Romeo's naked rear-end when they wake up the next morning.


The Romeo+Juliet film is a modern version with guns instead of swords, full of energy.



                                                                Watch the trailer here.

In general, unless it is a Laurence Olivier black and white version, I suggest you preview a Shakespeare film adaption BEFORE watching it with your children. This is true ESPECIALLY if you watched it as a teenager. We often don't remember details that passed over our heads as teenagers. Trust me, they are much more vivid when you are sitting on the couch next to your young children!




The good news is that you can find plenty of options for free at your local library and on youtube.

Paid Resources for Shakespeare

Recorded Videos from House of Humane Letters:

Roman Roads Press
I taught a co-op class one year and the students found this unit on Shakespeare very helpful. Like the other resources I've listed, these lectures help put the literature in historical context. The unit includes the following lectures, which average 30-40 minutes in length (and include more than just Shakespeare):

1. Introduction to Early Moderns (Wesley Callihan) 
2. Introduction to Shakespeare (Peter Leithart)
3. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Peter Leithart)
4. Shakespeare’s King Lear (Peter Leithart)

5. Shakespeare’s Richard III (Peter Leithart)

6. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Peter Leithart)

7. Metaphysical Poets: John Donne (Wesley Callihan)

8. Metaphysical Poets: George Herbert and Marvell (Wesley Callihan)

9. Introduction to Milton (Wesley Callihan)

10Paradise Lost I (Wesley Callihan)

11Paradise Lost II (Wesley Callihan)

12Paradise Lost III (Wesley Callihan)


One Last Note about Live Productions

Call the box office before buying tickets. Ask them if this particular production is family-friendly. 

Yes, many theatres like to push the boundaries and politicize their story-telling. However, most theatres will post a sign that says "Adult Content" if they plan to have Macbeth set in the post-apocolypse doing drugs, with images of children being hanged in the background. Or nudity. I didn't take my children to see one production of King Lear because of nudity after reading about it in a newspaper.

The theatre companies want to please their patrons and don't want angry folks marching out of a show. They usually want to inform you to keep you happy. 

I have found this to be very helpful. Also, you could just ask other people you trust about a particular theater's performances before buying tickets.

RICHES CLASS

I will be teaching an online class at St. Athanasius Academy next school year. We will feast on the enrichment arts together, reading aloud two Shakespeare plays in class, as well as memorizing poetry, observing beautiful art, and listening to classical music. The class is on Fridays, if you are interested.
 

King Lear: Cordelia’s Goodbye (1897-1898) – Edward Austin Abbey


This post offers only a sample of the resources available. If you have specific questions about a specific play, feel free to ask!

Friday, May 13, 2022

How to do Shakespeare at Home

Last week I shared some reasons WHY it can be good to read Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare’s plays have found a home deep in the gut of an awful lot of people, people from super diverse backgrounds and in varying time periods. This reveals that something within the plays transcends time and place – that something is truth. It's the same truth we see in fairy tales, because the plays are patterned after the same structure as fairy tales.

I've heard that perhaps we should avoid Shakespeare plays because all theatre is dangerous. I can think of one reason why this might be true: if his plays contradicted the Gospels, we would be wise to pass. While it is true that not all of the plays are appropriate for all ages, I think they complement the Gospels, and I’ll explain why next week. Of course, you the parent know what is best for your family and should make the final call!

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But for now, here's what I want to share with you.

3 Easy Steps to Understanding a Shakespeare Play

1. Read the story of the play from Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare for Children
2. Read the actual play aloud together.
3. Watch a production together.


The goal is to get the big picture. Not to understand every word. Not to analyze the symbols or settings or characters. Not to be able to answer test questions.

Just to receive the story on the most basic level.

Let me give you some tips for these three steps.

1. Read the story of the play from Lamb's.

You can access a free version, which can be printed one story at a time or downloaded to a kindle. Or, you might prefer an illustrated kindle version.

I found my old illustrated version at a thrift store for a few dollars.

If you like a book in your hand, Amazon has an economy paperback for $4.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can splurge for a collector's edition for $144 - crazy! It is beautiful...


What I really appreciate about the Lamb's version is that they have kept many of the most important lines intact, as well as the important themes and ideas and tensions. All the while, the language is completely appropriate for any age. Here's an example:

In Much Ado About Nothing, a young count is tricked by an evil villain into thinking his fiancé has been unfaithful. He confronts her on the wedding day.

Claudio: (referring to Hero) Give not this rotten orange to your friend... She knows the heat of a luxurious bed!"

In Lamb's version, Claudio thinks he sees her talking to a man outside her window, and the next morning "Claudio, in the most passionate language, proclaimed the guilt of the blameless Hero..."

See? You can share the stories with your children without any worries.

I will admit that I didn't start reading the actual plays aloud until my youngest was ten. The kinds of lines like the one I quoted above just go over his head, but you will know what is best for your family.

What if you want your family to act out at least a part of the real play, but not read the whole thing?



I highly recommend this coloring book, which also has one-page scenes your children can act out, like my youngest two did with King Lear.




Once you've read 2-3 paragraphs (just pause when it feels right, when the scene changes or characters leave or enter) ask the children to tell you back what they heard. Tell them they will be asked to do this before you begin.

Why Tell it Back?

1. Knowing they are going to have to tell it back to you helps them pay attention while you read.

2. The process of sorting through what they heard and sharing it aloud helps them absorb the play better. It can be compared to chewing food. You wouldn't want them to swallow a steak whole, and neither would you want them to swallow a Shakespeare story whole. Telling it back allows them a chance to chew and digest.

One last tip for Lamb's: I suggest the parent or a very capable teen read this version aloud for everyone. The language, though appropriate for children, is not simple. 

As you read, do not rush! Take it slowly - even just a couple of paragraphs per day - until you have worked your way through it. Pause and try to emphasize words, vary your tone of voice, and share the feeling of the story. You do not have to be an actress or do special accents or voices, but do try to avoid sounding monotone.

Let's move on to the second step:

2. Read the actual play aloud together.

Purchase a copy of the play for each family member, so everyone can hold their own script. The books do not have to be the same because you can find your place by referring to Act, Scene, and line #s instead of pages.




I picked up these inexpensive copies at our local thrifty bookshop, which is near a college campus and has dozens of each play.

Caveat: try to avoid No Fear Shakespeare for read-alouds. These editions might be a useful resource for studying a play, but that is not what we are doing. The formatting is distracting during a read aloud. Every left-side page is Shakespeare's play, and every right-side page if a simplified modern translation of the same lines. Sometimes a child will keep reading into the right page and all the sudden sound strange.... or a child might stop to interrupt every few lines to tell you exactly what something you just said means. That defeats the goal of getting the big picture and enjoying the flow of the play.

Ask for volunteers or assign roles. Perhaps give yourself the longest, hardest speeches.

Assign someone to read the stage directions. They are usually in italics, something like enter Claudio and Hero.

Go for it!

You might be surprised how well you all do! It really helps that everyone already knows the story. Remember, the goal is not to understand every word, but to get the gist of the story. Sometimes you will encounter characters that were not in the Lamb's version, but you can just remind your children that they couldn't include everyone.


3. Watch a production together.

One year I found out a local college was performing The Tempest in the Spring. I called and asked if the show would be family friendly or a more experimental version (important to know!). Once I knew it was good for us, we spent the fall working our way through Lamb's and then the play. It was fun to see the live versions of the characters we had come to know, and it provided lots of conversation afterwards.

Older Globe Theatre productions are amazing. You can buy them from Great Britain or find used ones on ebay. They are acted out with an audience in a reproduction of the theatre Shakespeare's plays were orginially performed in! Stick to the older ones, though for a more PG experience. Newer ones are just like newer TV shows in that respect.

If you have a Shakespeare-in-the-Park near you, those are fun outdoor productions.

Film Versions

Be aware of modern, agenda-driven films.

You can find Laurence Olivier versions for free on Youtube.

Your local library probably has quite a few selections. Just check the rating to make sure there is no surprise nudity. (Sometimes you can avoid a particular scene in an otherwise great film by announcing a "potty braek" and fast-forwarding while everyone is gone. You have to preview it yourself first for that to work.)

You don't have to do this last step, but it is a nice way to end your time with a play.



As you share a play with your children, you will build a relationship with the ideas in the play and with each other. Of course, being aware of the stories is NOT a path to virtue. You have to pray and read the Scriptures and pray and read the Lives of the Saints and pray and struggle together with your children.

Even though the plays are not a fast-track to attaining virtue (there never is a short-cut, is there?) they are still full of good and true and beautiful things that open a person's heart to seeing beyond our material world.

Perhaps you are still concerned about hurting your children's imagination. This is a valid concern! You might would like to learn more about what the Church Fathers teach about the imagination before jumping into Shakespeare? St. Gregory Palamas explains how good art helps the imagination. Here’s a great place to start:

 

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(You may have to scroll down to March 2022 if you happen to be reading this at some future date.)







Thursday, May 5, 2022

Why Shakespeare?

A couple of years ago, I read aloud Lamb’s version of King Lear to my kids. When the villain, Edmund, was scheming to hurt people, my 8 year-old son clenched his fists in anger. His eyebrows drew in and his voice grew tense. He hated it!

The story gave him a way to experience for himself an inner knowing that such scheming is bad – in a way that trumped anything I could have preached to him about the topic.

Likewise, when the good and faithful servant, Kent, stuck by the king after everyone else had abandoned him, my son set his jaw and drew up his chest and said, “I want to be like him!”




Isn’t this what education is supposed to do?

·       To open our children to seeing what good can look like.
·       To teach children to love what is worthy of loving.
·       To help them recognize those things that are not worthy of our love.
·       To teach them to despise the despicable.

The Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children puts it this way in Kontakion 10:

“Raise my children to hate sin and all transgression.”

“Raise my children to love good and all virtue.”


No Lesson Plans!

I did not set out to teach my son that scheming to gain power is bad. I did not make a list of virtues to point out when we found them in King Lear. No! I just served the play to them like a beautiful meal and allowed the Holy Spirit to teach them what was appropriate for each. 

We know it works this way in our own reading lives as mothers. We will read a passage of a book and gain one thing from it. Then years later we read the same passage and see a new truth.

It is not that the truth was new. It was that we were in a different place and now ready to see that truth.

Our children are the same way. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, they will see the truths they are ready to see.

So relax, breathe easy! 

If our kids are assigned Shakespeare at school, we can help them without worrying about whether we are teaching the right thing or not. 

If we decide to read a play with them this summer, we don't have to plan what to teach when we read it. 

We can just let the play do its work in the heart of the child. We may never know until months later something a child learned. We may never know ever.

And yet the Shakespeare play still does its work in the heart of the child.

I have seen my children begin to learn to hate sin and to love good in their experience with Shakespeare’s stories.

Here’s another example from Julius Caesar, which we were reading aloud together last fall. Honorable Brutus wanted to do what was right, but listened to the wrong voices in his ear. He listened to Cassius, who was trying to manipulate him. Brutus also listened to the fake letters of praise tossed through his window, effectively flattering him, Brutus, you are our only hope!

My children made the connection pretty quickly:

    “Cassius and the letters are like the demons shooting darts into our minds!”

    “The logismoi!”

    “Why can’t Brutus see that Cassius is trying to manipulate him?”

    “Brutus is more likely to believe Cassius because his pride is getting involved!”

That sort of personal revelation is priceless. The children now have an image in their imagination of what it could look like to be persuaded to do something against their better judgement. They have an image of how pride can blind them.

Why do Shakespeare’s plays work like this?

The short answer is, because they are good art. Good art reveals spiritual truths using material means. Good art expands our understanding of reality. 

One way to know if something is good art is to see if it has stood the test of time. Shakespeare’s plays, written in the 1400’s, have proven themselves in the last 600 years. They don't show us merely what one character is like, or what one place is like. They show what life is like. What human nature is like.

What about this summer?

Perhaps consider approaching a Shakespeare play - either for yourself or with your family. 

Next week I will share my strategy for making sure we all understand the play. You might be surprised how much an elementary student can understand of Shakespeare. 

Maybe the next time you go to the library, pick up a copy of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare - or use that link to access a free version you can print or download onto a kindle. 

Read with an open mind.

And enjoy the feast!