Are Books Dead? Third-Grade Readers at the Crossroads

BLOG #8, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ARE BOOKS DEAD?
THIRD-GRADE READERS AT THE CROSSROADS
February 25, 2015

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Author Joe Wheeler, foreground left, and fellow Kiwanian Barry Sweeney, encouraged children to read by handing out certificates and books at Beaver Ranch on Feb. 3, 2007.

It appears to be a national consensus that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it is extremely unlikely that the child ever will. Because of this, thirteen years ago, the Conifer, Colorado Kiwanis Club launched out on uncharted waters. We had no guidebook, no map; we just knew something ought to be done about it. After all, every week, we recited the Kiwanis mantra, our reason for being: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world—one child and one community at a time. Kiwanis is for kids here, there, and everywhere.”

Over time, gradually, we felt our way, as we adopted five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Jeff, for short]. Recently, because there are so many homeschooling families in the Mountain Corridor, we added them as well.

Each year, we raise money for books; not bureaucracy or infrastructure—just books.

Because for us, this one thing we do, we have had an impact far greater than the size of our club would warrant. All our fund-raising is centered on reading. In my own case, every December, because every penny above cost of my books goes directly to third-grade readers, the largest grocery stores in the area permit us Kiwanians to set up inside the store. Kiwanians man the table and I inscribe from a very large selection of our in-print and out-of-print books. We also raise money by sponsoring a rest stop for bikers in the annual Triple Bypass Bike Race (“triple” meaning that it features three passes over 11,000 feet); drawing 4,000 – 6,000 bikers every year. And we also seek other sources of funding.

And every year, we Kiwanians hold a Reading Celebration for third-graders and their families, as well as their teachers and principals. On that occasion, the kids get to see Mr. Ron Lewis’s buffalo herd close up (he’s our club president), partake of refreshments, receive certificates of reading achievements, have one of my books (chosen by the child) personally inscribed as a gift from me. They will also join their teachers and principals, school by school, and tell us how last year’s money was spent, and how they feel about reading. They are then awarded the check for the upcoming year.

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That’s the fun part for me. During the past two weeks I have made appointments with area principals and third-grade teachers, to enter the classrooms and personally invite the third-graders to come to the Marshdale Reading Celebration. I brought with me fourteen of my books: ten collections of animal stories (series titled “The Good Lord Made Them All”), Showdown (sports stories for boys), Bluegrass Girl (horse stories for girls), The Talleyman Ghost (mystery stories for girls), and The Secrets of Creeping Desert (mystery stories for boys). Each attendee will choose one later, after first receiving parental permission to do so. Then I leave full-color posters depicting the 14 book covers with each teacher. By the time I leave, the kids are excited.

Often the teachers grant me time to talk with the kids about both reading and writing, and how they go together. At that age, being an author is a magical thing to them. When they’re told that I’ve written/edited 89 books so far, they are in awe. When I ask for questions, they are so excited, almost every hand is raised. Believe me, when all the third-grade sections are brought into one room for my annual visit, one section seated at their desks and the other sections seated on the floor (50 – 80 kids at a time), and seeing all those hands waving for my attention, it is an exciting thing to behold. Third-grade is a perfect grade to target for they are still excited about life and reading; fourth grade is too late.

This year, one of our schools, Elk Creek Elementary School, is being honored because its students made the 98th percentile in state-wide reading scores! Which gives Kiwanis validation for the thirteen years we’ve partnered with these area schools. And with parents–for unless they are partnering with us at home, our efforts are limited. But together, we can accomplish miracles!

As I see it, if my entire life were to be judged by just lighting the eyes of these children, one at a time, with the joy of learning, reading, writing, creating—it would be worth having lived.

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Washington and Lincoln: Are They Still Relevant?

BLOG #7, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WASHINGTON AND LINCOLN
ARE THEY STILL RELEVANT?
February 18, 2015

Are they ever! Again and again, I hear back from readers of my two Lincoln books: Abraham Lincoln, A Man of Faith and Courage, 2008; and Abraham Lincoln Civil War Stories, 2013 (both published by Howard/Simon & Schuster), comments such as these: “Do we ever need another Lincoln today!”, “I was deeply moved by your new Lincoln book.” Just ten days ago, a Parmalee Elementary School fourth-grader who walked up to me and asked, “Are you the writer of the animal books”? When I answered that I was, his face brightened as he said, “I have all ten of them–I love them all!” When I then asked him which one he liked best, without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Best of all? . . oh, that has to be the Lincoln book—I read it over and over!”

Though I haven’t yet put together a Washington story anthology, over the years I’ve gradually tracked down many of the most powerful such stories—they’re hard to find for they were written for a much more patriotic age than ours today. Sadly, neither civics nor American history are taught much any more.

Washington’s role in our history is every bit as significant as Lincoln’s, for he was the reason why we (with the timely help of the French fleet) eventually won our independence from England. Furthermore, without him, it is doubtful the perpetually squabbling colonies would ever have agreed to support any one leader as President.

So one man, more than any other, made possible the establishment of our republic, and another man, more than any other, made possible the preservation of our republic.

Which brings us to a key question: Just what are their most significant character traits?

I’d say, selflessness . . . persistency . . . determination to see something through to its desired end, no matter the cost, no matter how long it would take . . . strong belief in God and Providence . . . Humility (Washington refused to be crowned King) . . . Solid as a rock Integrity . . . accessibility to all . . . Fear of Power . . . Consideration for others . . . Ability to motivate thousands of people to join him in common cause . . . organizational skills . . . tact . . . love of family . . . far-seeing . . . ability to see the forest as well as the trees . . . fear of a permanent military establishment . . . visionary: could see far ahead . . . kindness . . . empathy . . . loyalty . . . willingness to be used, then gladly step aside for others . . . Wise foreign policy . . . fiscally astute . . . wise use of spoken and written words . . . consistency . . . unwillingness or reluctance to abridge freedom for longer than necessity demanded . . . no daylight between the talk and the walk.

These qualities and more are the key reasons so many people wish Lincoln and Washington were still with us today.

Of course, in a very real sense, they still are!

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Should you wish to pick up a copy of either or both of my Lincoln books from us, here’s how:

 

Abraham Lincoln Civil War Stories: $22.99 (plus shipping – $6.00)

 

 

Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage: $22.00 (plus shipping – $6.00)

Both books are dust-jacketed hardbacks. Specify if you wish them to be personally or generically inscribed (no extra cost).

Our mailing address: Sage & Holly Distributors, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.

Love — What Is It?

BLOG #6, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
LOVE – WHAT IS IT?
February 11, 2015

Valentine’s Day is upon us once again–and merchandisers are hoping to milk it to death before it passes. Romance is in the air – everywhere. Is not that a good thing? Of course it is! I ought to know: of our 89 books and counting – 74 being story anthologies—, love predominates. It is a key reason the Christmas in My Heart® series will turn 24 this fall. Readers young and old turn first to the love stories, and re-read them most often. They tell me about it in their letters to me.

But love – at least in America – is not what it was when I was growing up. Because of our so-called “Hookup Society,” in which sex is instant, bypassing all the traditional preliminaries and totally divorced from commitment or even long-term friendship, disillusion and heartbreak is almost a given. Ergo the current epidemic of suicides among the young.

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Perhaps it is time for me to revisit one book that features my favorite love stories: Heart to Heart Stories of Love (Focus on the Family/Tyndale House, 2000). Specifically, the Introduction: “The Many Faces of Love.”

What is love anyhow? It is the magical ingredient that no scientist has ever been able to isolate, the yeast that can transform a friendship into love, marriage, and family.

One of my favorite definitions of love came from the pen of Washington Irving, one of America’s first great writers. His only love, Matilda Hoffman, died when Irving was twenty-six. He never married but authored one of the most romantic books ever written, The Alhambra. The book contains one of my favorite love stories, “The Pilgrim of Love” (a little bit too long for this collection). In it, a prince who has been shut up in a palace tower learns the language of the birds, and a little dove teaches him what love is:

“Love is the torment of one, the felicity of two, the strife and enmity of three, . . . the great mystery and principle of life, the intoxicating revel of youth, the sober delight of age. . . . Every created being has its mate; the most insignificant bird sings to its paramour; the very beetle woos its lady beetle in the dust; and yon butterflies which you see fluttering high above the tower and toying in the air, are happy in each other’s love.”

One of the loveliest summations of what love is was written by my cherished friend, Arthur Gordon, in his great book, Through Many Windows:

“Love . . . is a shining thing, like a golden fire or a silver mist. It comes very quietly, you can’t command it, but you can’t deny it, either. When it does come, you can’t quite see it or touch it, but you can feel it—inside of you and around you and the person you love. It changes you; it changes everything. Colors are brighter, music is sweeter, funny things are funnier. Ordinary speech won’t do—you grope for better ways to express how you feel. You read poetry. Maybe you even try to write it. . . . Oh, it’s so many little things. Waltzing in the dark, waiting for the phone to ring, opening the box of flowers. It’s holding hands in a movie; it’s humming a sad little tune; it’s walking in the rain; it’s riding in a convertible with the wind in your hair. It’s the quarreling and making up again. It’s that first drowsy thought in the morning and that last kiss at night.”

THE STAGES OF LOVE

God designed us to take joy in natural stages, including the natural stages of love.

His plan is simple but beautiful. First, we watch our parents: the love they show to us is the love we shall pass on. Second, we experience the love of God, which becomes the catalyst for our philosophy of love. Third, we love the innocent and pure love of childhood—friendship in its most disinterested form. Then there is the love of adolescence. If we preserve our virginity until marriage (God’s plan for us), this teen period will be a time for developing some of life’s stronger friendships. In this time of seasoning, of gradually developing values to live by, there is no place for sexual passion, which can do nothing at this stage but destroy, disillusion, and rob us of one of God’s greatest gifts: coming to the marriage bed as virgins. Adolescence is followed by young adulthood, time for us to be blinded with the rapture of first love; time for us to get to know each other as friends and soul mates; time for us to compare our pasts, presents, and futures, in order to see if we are truly compatible; time for us to see if our families would be compatible—for we do indeed marry families; time for us to discuss God and church and how big a role we would allocate to them. Then and only then are we ready to think seriously about marriage and family. God designed the process to crescendo as the marriage day nears, culminating in a wedding without guilt, stigma, or regrets.

Today’s media leaders seem determined to destroy all of this. They sell us a bill of goods. They tell us, as did the serpent in Eden, that God lies, that instant gratification will make us gods. They tell us that modesty, virginity, purity, and integrity are for fools. They tell us that minds and hearts and souls don’t matter at all; all that really matters is self-gratification, gusto. They tell us—over and over and over—that sex has nothing to do with friendship, love, respect, commitment, or being soul mates. Instead, they claim that sex is an acquired skill, like golf or hockey, and the more teachers we have in this respect, the better. They tell us that preliminaries are for the simple: five minutes after we meet, it’s time to disrobe and show the other “how good we are” in bed!

What the media doesn’t tell us is that virginity is an absolute: one can no more be partly a virgin than one can be partly pregnant. They don’t tell us that Eve’s first response after eating the apple was not godlike euphoria but a guilty realization that she was naked. They don’t tell us that, with the sexual act, all of the illusions, all of the progressive beauty of getting to know a soul, heart, and mind prior to getting to know the body—all of that is irretrievably lost. They don’t tell us that even the marriage ceremony itself is anticlimactic if we have already lived together.

Permit me to quote here from one of my books, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993):

Last year in my world literature class we read and discussed Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I have asked many previous classes to read the book, but it had never before elicited the response of last year’s class: “Dr. Wheeler, what naive innocents Cosette and Marius are! . . . Sitting there on a park bench day after day, just talking and looking at each other!” And for the first time it really came home to me what the media has done to our conception of love—in this case, romantic love.

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There is no magic to love anymore. No hauntingly beautiful, gradual unfolding of the petals of love, leading up to the ultimate full flowering of marriage and a lifetime together. No, in today’s fiction and celluloid portrayals, there are no courtships. There are in today’s music and MTV, in today’s advertising, not even any preliminaries! Boy meets girl, man meets woman, and bam! If the chemistry is ripe—and it apparently almost always is—before the relationship is more than minutes old, before they so much as date awhile in order to see whether or not they even like each other, before they so much as hold hands, before they so much as experience the rapture of that first gentle kiss . . . before any of this, within minutes they are nude and in bed with each other! This is what my students were really responding to in . . . the courtship of Marius and Cosette.

The truth that seems to have been forgotten in our modern era is that sexual purity before marriage nurtures and preserves the magic of romantic love. . . .”

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Even though this book is today out of print, we still have new copies available. The price is $13.99, plus shipping of $4.50; $6.00 if you want priority mail). Specify if you wish the book to be personally or generically inscribed, and to whom. No extra cost.

Our mailing address: Sage & Holly Distributors, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.

Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

BLOG #5, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #38
LEO TOLSTOY’S WAR AND PEACE
February 4, 2015

This is the 38th book selection in our Book of the Month series. Yet, as hard as I’ve tried to include the most significant books ever written, this is only the second that is certified by the literati to be one of the 10 Greatest Books Ever Written. The other is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (September 25, 2013). Because of its great length, I gave our readers two months in which to digest it. Since the unabridged versions of War and Peace are 1400 pages long, it seems both wise and humane for me to give Book Club members both February and March to read and fully digest the book. As always, I urge/beg our readers to be satisfied with nothing less than the unabridged text of a translation that has stood the test of time.

War and Peace so towers over the history of prose literature that it ought to be on every literate person on earth’s Bucket List, to read before they die. It is particularly timely right now because Russia has been, for some time, in every day’s news: What will Putin do next to try and get back every country Russia lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Once you fully digest Tolstoy’s epic, you’ll never again be able to look at Russia simplistically again.

Signet Classic 1968 Edition - Translated by Ann Dunnigan

Signet Classic 1968 Edition – Translated by Ann Dunnigan

But before we get into reasons why everyone should read the book, let’s check out some endorsements:

• “I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel the world has ever known. No novel with such a wide sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with such a vast array of characters was ever written before.” – W. Somerset Maugham

• “The greatest novel ever written. The characters are universal, for all time.” –John Galsworthy

• “Tolstoy stands at the head of novelists as Shakespeare among poets [and dramatists].” –V. Sackville-West

• “If one has read War and Peace for a page, great chords begin to sound; they come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.” –J. B. Priestley

• “Here is the greatest novel ever written. It has been called ‘life itself.’ Everything is in it. And it’s also as free as life. Its private joys and sorrows seem to continue when one has closed the pages.” –E. M. Forster

• “There is hardly any subject of human experience that is left out of War and Peace.” –Virginia Woolf

• “The greatest novel in all literature. This magnificent work has taught me more about life than any other novel in any language…. The vast canvas is covered by hundreds of figures, every one alive and distinct, and some of the leading characters, like Natasha and Prince André, are companions for one during the rest of one’s life.” –Hugh Walpole

• “War and Peace is generally considered the greatest novel of all novels…. Tolstoy couldn’t state the theme short of writing 1400 pages…. For Tolstoy… anything that human beings do has its glory. Humanity is equally glorious in its wars, its peace, its quarrels, its love affairs.” –Mark Van Doren

• “Reading War and Peace for the very first time is one of the greatest literary experiences; reading it again and again is to realize the immeasurable gulf that is fixed between a merely good book and a great one. It may be regarded as the greatest novel that has been written, the supreme fictional achievement in the literature of the world.” –J. Donald Adams

COUNT LEO TOLSTOY
(1828 – 1910)

One of his ancestors, Count Peter Tolstoy, had been a celebrated statesman during the reign of Peter the Great. Tolstoy’s father, Count Nicholas Tolstoy, had married Princess Marya Volkonski, an heiress with a great fortune. Leo was one of five children. Sadly, his mother died when he was only three, and his father six years later. So the boy was raised by his Aunt Tatyana, who he’d always adore. The children were all born on the Princess’s ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana (about 200 miles southwest of Moscow). Leo would study with tutors until he was old enough to attend university classes. Though he attended two, he never graduated from either. Thanks to his aristocratic connections, he was able to attend society’s balls, soirées and parties in Kazan, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Early on, he lost faith in Christianity because of the wide variance between belief and daily living. At that time, atheism appeared to be the only rational alternative to him. Without any spiritual keel, he became a heavy drinker, reckless gambler, and frequenter of brothels. He even lost his ancestral home, Yosnaya Polyana, for a time because of his out-of-control gambling. So it seemed wise to join the army in its wars in the Caucasus Mountains and Crimea (it was then that he contracted syphilis).

Eventually, he came to his senses, realizing that atheism provided no hope at all. Thus he once again turned to Orthodox Christianity. But he was disillusioned so often that he would spend the rest of his life formulating his own type of Christianity, based almost solely on Christ’s earthly ministry as chronicled in the Gospels. This evolution of his spiritual philosophy of life would take the rest of his life.

At 34, he belatedly decided to settle down. He settled on a lovely eighteen-year-old, Sonya Behr. She had a graceful figure, great vitality, high spirits, and a beautiful speaking voice. On their engagement night, he almost lost her, when he lent her his diaries, in which he’d faithfully recorded not only his hopes and thoughts, prayers and self-reproaches, but also his perceived faults, including detailed descriptions of his many sexual escapades and liaisons. Sonya read and wept all night. By morning, her virginal attitude towards life was so seared, she never fully recovered. Almost, she broke the engagement, but finally forgave him–but she never forgot.

During the first eleven years of marriage, the Countess would bear eight children; during the next fifteen, five more–thirteen in all.

And so the Tolstoys settled down to rural life. He and Sonya were very much in love with each other, and they reveled in family and family education and activities. And he wrote; he had been doing so for a number of years, and his literary reputation continued to grow within the Russian Empire. And then—

Campaign of 1805

Campaign of 1805

And then . . . he was 36 years old, in the prime of life, when he began writing a book about Russia’s Decembrist Revolution. But he kept wondering more about the events of 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia–and in so doing, changed the course of world history. He now moved the heart of the novel to 1812. Initially, the book was primarily about family, life among the gentry, the historical incidents merely a background. But the book grew . . . and kept growing. Sonya hand-copied the entire book. Eventually, apparently, seven times! before her husband was satisfied with it. It would be published during the six years it took to write it, in installments (1865-1869). First, he’d read segments aloud to his family. They quickly realized that there were real people they knew whose personalities were woven into the novel.

Though around 500 characters people the epic, four families are central: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins, and the Bezukhovs.
• It is said that the thriftless Count was inspired by Tolstoy’s grandfather.
• The pathetic yet charming Princess Mary, by his mother.
• The two “heroes,” Pierre Bezukhov and Prince André, it is generally concluded that they were modeled on Tolstoy’s own divided persona, and that he wrote the book in order to better understand himself. Alike in that, just as was true with himself, both characters seek mental peace, the answers to the mysteries of life and death, and neither finds it. Both are in love with Natasha, Count Rostav’s younger daughter. Maugham maintains that, in her, Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Natasha is undeveloped when the story begins: entirely natural, sweet, sensitive, sympathetic, willful, childish, already womanly, idealistic, quick-tempered, warm-hearted, headstrong, capricious, and in everything enchanting. Tolstoy would go on to create many memorable women, but never another who wins the affections of the reader like Natasha. Apparently, Natasha was modeled on Sonya and her sister, Tatiana.

Napoleon in Russia - 1812 - from the Inner Sanctum Edition of "War and Peace" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

Napoleon in Russia – 1812 – from the Inner Sanctum Edition of “War and Peace” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

But for Tolstoy, the real hero of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the Russian Commander-in-Chief, General Kutusov. Why? Because he did nothing, avoided battle, and merely waited for the French armies to destroy themselves. Just let Napoleon lead his armies so deep into Russia that his lines of communication can easily be severed. Result? The “Little Emperor” reaches the point where his once vast army is so thoroughly demoralized they’re nothing but sitting ducks for the Cossacks who sweep in and out, free the Russian prisoners, seize valuable supplies, and pick the French off, one bullet at a time.

Thus, the force dominating characters of the novel are Pierre, Prince André, Natasha, and Kutusov. Kutusov because, unlike vainglorious self-centered Napoleon, he remains humble, selfless, unmoved by personal glory.

Helen Muchnik maintains that, in the book, all the panoply of war, all its supposed military heroes, are secondary to events and forces beyond their control, secondary to what participants make of themselves.

John Bayley maintains that marriage is the novel’s ultimate theme, its climax, its apotheosis. The book ends with marriage, and features more happy marriages than in any other novel. Furthermore, that Tolstoy had planned and replanned the development of these destinies with such immense care, interweaving what actually occurred in history with his own invention of what must occur to complete and justify the fiction, until the reader can no longer see where truth ends and fiction begins: what happens appears inevitable. A prodigious one-of-a-kind tour de force—the world’s greatest novel.

LAST SUGGESTIONS

First of all, seek out a complete unabridged text. Then, over the next two months revel in a book unlike (and unequaled) any other.

CHIEF SOURCES

Vincent F. Hopper and Bernard D. N. Grebanier’s Essentials of World Literature, Vol. Two (Woodbury, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1952).

Maugham, W. Somerset’s W. Somerset Maugham Selects the World’s Ten Greatest Novels (Greenwich, Connecticut: Faucett Publications, Inc, 1958).

Muchnic, Helen, An Introduction to Russian Literature (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1947, 1964).

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Aylmer Maude’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: The Heritage Press, 1938).

John Bayley’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: New American Library, 1968, 1980).