Movies and Television as Literature: Page vs. Screen

movies and television as literature books vs movies

Why you should be both a discerning reader and active viewer.

In Parts 1 & 2 of Movies and TV as Literature, I've talked about the ways stories on the page and screen are the same. Now let's look at some of the ways they are different, and why you should be both a discerning reader and active viewer.  

Although I spent many years declaring "Books are better", I've altered my perception simply by learning more about what it takes to take a story from script to screen, and thinking in terms of "story" instead of "book" vs. "movie"--so I'm not going to argue the superiority of one over the other.  

However, I have to acknowledge that movies and television are often perceived as being stories for lazy people. And maybe that's true to some extent; it's hard to be a lazy reader, but easy to be a lazy viewer. However, stories can challenge us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, even if they are viewed instead of read.  

If we understand how these two story forms--books and TV/movies--are different, perhaps we can improve on our analysis and interpretation of stories, regardless of how they are presented.

Because the reading and viewing experience is so different, we open books or turn on the television with very different expectations, which can affect our perception. Being aware of these expectations can help us be better readers and viewers.  

One of the most obvious differences between books and TV/movies is that film has limitations a book doesn't have. I can sit and write about a visually elaborate, complex world in about 15 minutes for free, while on screen it can take months and millions of dollars. This accounts for the many changes that occur when a book is adapted for the screen, and why book lovers will declare--say it with me now--"The book was better!"

BOOKS

With books, the reader is dependent on their imagination, and therefore are to some degree in control of the story. Engaging the brain is the great strength of reading, and readers are often motivated by the anticipation of learning something new.

It's interesting when readers discuss how their experiences are vastly different with the same story. Each person brings their background and knowledge to a book. How they picture the characters and setting varies, and their past influences how they interpret themes, which then alters how they react to the story. 

Books can be expansive, taking place over hundreds of years and hundreds of pages with a huge cast of characters coming and going throughout the text. 

A book can put you right inside the character's heads. You can be up-close-and-personal with a first person narrative, or see and know everything with a third person omniscient point of view.

Reading is a direct communication between the author and the reader. We can feel like we are getting to know more than just the characters when reading a novel. 

The author exerts control over the setting and characters, showing you what they want you to see, and what the characters are thinking and feeling. The author paces the story to build to its climax and keep you turning the pages. However, the reader can still control the pace by picking a book up and putting it down, or by re-reading certain passages before moving forward with the story. 

Reading and writing are solitary activities. Writers may have the input of editors and a publisher, and readers may join a book club or BookTube so they can discuss books, but the act of bringing a story to the page and the act of reading are not typically group activities. 

Books continue to impact our culture, even if that impact has diminished over the years. Our vocabulary now comes primarily from television and movies where it once came solely from books. 

FILM

Film offers a completely different sensory experience than books. It's the ultimate in show, don't tell. We see and hear the story playing out, complete with sound effects, visual effects, a music soundtrack. . . the characters come to life before our eyes, and often without description or dialogue, we perceive what is happening and what characters are thinking and feeling. 

Stories on screen are limited by a budget, and shooting scripts are seldom more than 120 pages. A movie must focus on a particular story, and get it told in less than two hours.

For television, writers may have the luxury of telling a story over many episodes, and successful shows can be renewed for years. However, each episode must tell a compelling story if they want watchers to come back week after week—or binge watch on Netflix. 

On the screen, most of the imagining has been done for you, from what the characters look and sound like to how they react. Everyone in the audience sees the same thing, although they may still have different interpretations and reactions.   

TV and movie watching are often group activities with friends and family, so it's a more social experience, particularly in a movie theater when you immediately see and feel the reactions of others. And what are most people talking about at school or work , while hanging out with friends? They are talking about favorite movies or the last episode of <insert favorite show here>. As I mentioned before, movies and television now guide popular culture the way books used to do. 

Filmmaking itself is hugely collaborative--have you seen the length of closing credits, especially with a major blockbuster? It may take hundreds of people to get a film or show from script to screen, and it's possible for many of them to have a direct impact on the end result. You see the screenwriter's voice, the director's vision, the casting director's recommendations, the actor's appearance and portrayal, the editor's choices, the costume and set designers imagination, the impact of the soundtrack and sound effects. Cinematography and lighting can have a huge impact on how a movie looks, which affects how we feel.  

One doesn't have to become an expert in filmmaking to be an active viewer, but a certain degree of visual literacy is helpful. Understanding compositional elements, such as the use of camera angles and placement of people and objects with the frame can make you aware of the mood and meaning the director is going for.  

Stories on screen can be full of subtext; we must interpret from facial expressions, pauses, and hints laid down like breadcrumbs through the movie. Because our sense are so engaged, we may have to work a bit harder to discern subtle themes—or try to find an underlying message buried in the spectacle of special effects and explosive fight scenes. 

Films without a narrator depend on subtle cues to convey the characters' emotions. If an actor can show us grief, or anger, or making a decision only with their eyes, we may be awed by their talent, or take it for granted, but if they are obvious, we know it, and will describe the acting as fake and 'hammy'.

CONCLUSION

The point of this series has been to encourage you to develop an understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflicts, and theme, as well as how films are made, in order to move ourselves and our children from passive to active and discerning viewers. We may enjoy the sensation of being couch potatoes, but we must realize that:

  • Stories are powerful, regardless of whether they are on a page or on a screen.
  • We are responsible to teach our kids how to interpret what they see as well as what they read.

If you've enjoyed this series, please leave a comment below.

Movies and Television as Literature: Theme

In Movies and Television as Literature: Story Elements, I briefly described the importance of theme. 

Theme is the first element we should consider when discerning the quality and value of books, movies, and television shows.

That's why it deserves a deeper and more detailed look. 

Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net

Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net

It is easy to confuse theme with the subject or genre. For example, mysteries, thrillers, and police procedurals are often about the good guys catching the bad guys - but that's not theme. In most of these shows justice is being served, but that's not theme either.  

What is being said about justice?  

  • Justice is blind?  
  • Justice always prevails?  
  • True justice isn't possible, but the good fight is worth fighting anyway? 

Themes are messages conveyed to us through the choices characters make and the consequences of their actions.  

Don't confuse this with "And the moral of the story is. . ." The moral of a story is a lesson or principle the author is teaching us to apply to our lives. This often requires the story to be so broad as to be generic. In trying to convey a lesson as applicable to as many people as possible, these stories often lack depth. They are usually the stuff of picture books for kids. Which is not a bad thing. It just isn't the same as theme. 

Although themes should be easily understood, themes don't always reflect Truth, because they are based on what the author believes about the world. And some authors will raise purposefully raise questions by subverting our expectations, or offering up characters who are morally ambiguous.

themes are message movies and tv as literature

It takes a bit of time and effort to see past the genre tropes and the story line to discern theme. I'm going to help you with that by looking at the themes of a few popular books, movies, and television shows. I'm meeting these movies on the ground of their own premise – plot holes and physical impossibilities are for another post. 

Spoiler Alert: Because we are discussing themes, I may give away the plot twist or ending of a story. You've been warned. 

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Original story by C. S. Lewis; Written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely; Directed by Andrew Adamson

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an allegory, so symbolism is woven throughout the story, and while symbolism informs theme, they aren't the same.  

An obvious subject considered in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Good vs Evil. For theme we need to ask: "What did C. S. Lewis believe about Good and Evil, and how did he use this story to communicate this to us?" 

Good and Evil are set up as obviously opposing characters with Aslan and the White Witch.  

The White Witch is sadistic and ruthless. She has cast a spell of eternal winter over the land, robs the people of hope by banishing Christmas, and turns anyone who betrays her into stone.  

Aslan, who is wise and loving, endures torture with quiet patience, sacrificing himself to save Edmund. Upon his resurrection he defeats the White Witch once and for all.   

But woven into this plot are questions that reflect theme: 

  • What character traits are associated with Aslan? 
  • Does Evil have a necessary place in the world? 
  • How does the White Witch prey on and exploit human weakness? 
  • Is Evil by its nature self-destructive? 
  • Is Good inherently more powerful than Evil?  
  • How does Aslan's sacrifice of himself reveal the true nature of Good and Evil? 
  • No matter how often Evil seems to have the upper hand, will Good always triumph in the end?  

These are questions you can ask any time you and your children are watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. Listen to their answers because it will open your eyes to your child's understanding about these concepts.

Toy Story

Original Story by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Joe Ranft; Written by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow; Directed by John Lasseter

Toy Story takes us into a world where toys are alive when humans aren't looking. While some stories based on this premise might give us nightmares, Toy Story is a delightful romp. It also explores issues relevant to the kind of growth and change children experience as they mature.  

How does a cartoon illustrate the ways trust and teamwork are necessary for happy and healthy relationships? 

Woody is Andy's favorite toy, and his self-esteem hinges on how often Andy plays with him. He is deeply invested in the idea that life must remain the same in order for them to be happy. However, he and the other toys live in a constant state of anxiety, threatened by the prospect of being replaced every time a birthday or Christmas comes around.  

This insecurity causes them to react without thinking, and results in conflicts among the group. Woody's worst fear is realized when his place is usurped by shiny new Buzz Lightyear. The tension mounts as the toys react to Woody's attempts to regain his status. Woody's actions backfire and they jump to conclusions about his motivations. He is not only no longer viewed with respect and as the 'leader' of the toys, he is totally rejected by them. 

But as the story progresses, Woody, Buzz, and the other toys must face several perilous situations together. They stop competing with each other and start working in cooperation. A mutual respect begins to grow. They learn to appreciate what each toy brings to the group. Little by little, their anxiety about losing their place in Andy's life diminishes. Their motivations shift from a selfish desire to maintain the status quo to loving and serving Andy in whatever way they can. They actually want to meet new toys and add them to their group. Mr. Potato Head even gets his much longed-for soulmate. 

Woody's character arc is a reflection of the maturing process. Children have to move from being the center of attention to finding their place in the family and society. They must stop rejecting any change that feels threatening and learn to embrace change as not only necessary but good. They start cooperating with others who are different from them, and for a greater purpose outside of themselves. They find out that love means putting someone else's well-being ahead of their own desires. They understand that humility and sacrifice is essential to happiness. 

All that from a cartoon? When a story is well-written, genre doesn't matter.  Fun stories like this can be used to help kids understand the benefits of unselfishness and collaboration, and that's a big parental bonus. 

Jurassic Park

Original story by Michael Crichton; Written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp; Directed by Steven Spielberg

Who hasn't seen or at least heard of Jurassic Park? And what's not to love about an island full of real dinosaurs? Only this time the creatures get loose and wreak havoc on those who created them. Funfunfun. 

There are some major differences between the book and the movie even though author Michael Crichton had a hand in the movie screenplay. For this post I'm just going to examine the movie. The book is definitely for adults, while the movie is marketed to families. 

It would be a mistake to dismiss a commercial blockbuster like Jurassic Park. It has some great story roots, which is why we are still watching it 20 years later.

The fact is -- Jurassic Park has some interesting things to say about the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  

Jurassic Park is the result of the work of geniuses built on the work of other geniuses. The technology and expertise involved is staggering. However, "great men are not always wise" (Job 32:9) and are often so carried away by their abilities they do not fully consider all of the ramifications of their actions.  

I remember feeling a sense of foreshadowing when Dr. Grant gets into the helicopter with a non-functional seat belt and travels to an island beyond customary safety and ethical oversight. Again and again we see talented and knowledgeable people neglecting small but important details in their rush to scientific (and monetary) greatness. They also lack humility, a sense of mutual purpose, and teamwork. Each one stakes out his own territory without contemplating the needs of the Park as a whole. 

John Hammond, billionaire and owner of InGen, claims to have "spared no expense" in crafting the Park. But we see his preoccupation with automation, efficiency, and saving money. He only employs a minimal staff and security is dependent on computers, which contributes to the Park's downfall. 

Hammond and geneticist Dr. Henry Wu believe that because they have created these dinosaurs, they will also be able to control them. They've engineered the animals to be female so they can't breed without permission. Dr. Wu also inserted a gene that keeps the dinosaurs from processing the amino acid lysine, without which they will slip into a coma and die. The purpose of this contingency is to make the animals completely dependent on the Park for their survival.  

In spite of their understanding of genetics, Hammond and Dr. Wu neglect to fully address the complexities of animal behavior. They ignore the possible effects of completing the dinosaur's gene sequences with the DNA of other animals. The result is some dinosaurs are able to change from female to male because of the single sex environment Dr. Wu and his team created.

It's interesting that the staff misspells the names of some of the dinosaurs they are cloning, which is evidence of their preoccupation with scientific discovery without bothering with little details.  

image of misspelled dinosaur name from Jurassic Park

John Hammond boasts that he hired the best people in their fields to design the park systems. Dennis Nedry,  looking like he was plucked straight out of his mother's basement, is the computer genius. Although the safety of the entire park is in the hands of Nedry, Hammond treats him as an annoyance. This motivates Nedry to accept a bribe to sabotage the park's security long enough for him to steal some dinosaur embryos. Nedry (whose name at a glance looks like Nerdy) has been far removed from the dinosaurs themselves. This is probably why he never considers the dangers he is releasing into the Park by disabling doors, gates, and fences. Later he falls victim to his own short-sightedness and greed. 

Let that be a lesson to you. 

The Park's balance is more delicate than anyone realizes, and Nedry's betrayal acts as the catalyst to the eventual breakdown of the entire Park. 

Robert Muldoon, game warden and wildlife expert, is a sensible guy who understands the danger the Park poses to humans. However, his hunting skills and 'real life' experience with the captive raptors doesn't give him the insight he needs to avoid becoming their prey. He should have been at Dr. Grant's dig in the beginning of the movie where Grant explains the raptor's hunting tactics. 

John Hammond, Dr. Wu, and Dennis Nedry are contrasted sharply by the other characters who have the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler are true experts with dirt under their fingernails and between their toes to prove it. In spite of the emotional impact of seeing real dinosaurs in the flesh, they were not distracted from their doubts about Hammond's accomplishments.  

Grant and Sattler point out the arrogance of thinking that scientists could control living, breathing creatures -- even ones created in a lab. Grant, who spent his entire career studying fossil evidence, explains his anxiety about extinct animals suddenly being back in the mix with humans. He feels a sense of responsibility for these creatures even though he didn't have a hand in creating them. 

Sattler chides Hammond for choosing plants for their appearance without knowing they were also toxic. These 'decorations' posed a real danger to future guests of the Park. I guess after seeing raptors demolish a cow, no one cares about poisonous plants.

Dr. Sattler listens to Hammond's pity party, which reveals that he still believes he will be able to regain and maintain control over the Park. Sattler sets him straight and reminds him of the human lives at stake. 

Ian Malcolm has no hands-on experience with dinosaurs, but as an expert in chaos theory, he understands the unpredictability of complex systems. He has no faith in Hammond's vision or the skills of his scientists. Malcolm points out that those who don't earn knowledge don't respect it, and are too preoccupied with invention and progress to consider the consequences of their actions.  

These two groups of characters illustrate the difference between knowledge and wisdom. That's theme.

By understanding how to discern themes:

  • you can turn your kids from passive to active viewers
  • help them perceive the messages being conveyed to them through movies and TV
  • teach them to recognize the good and bad in popular culture
  • spark interesting conversations about complex and controversial issues
  • learn more about your child's understanding of the world.

Have you read Movies and Television as Literature: Story Elements?

Share your experiences with exploring themes in the comments below:

Movies and Television as Literature: Story Elements

Why I've altered my point of view about the value of film and television viewing, and why I think you should too.

Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net

Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net

Using an understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflicts, and theme, we can move ourselves and our children from passive to active and discerning viewers. 

I admit it. For a long time I was a book snob. I think there is a picture of me in my high school yearbook with the caption "The book was better". I've long thought of books as sacred – the evidence of my devotion to the printed word is the size of my home library.  

I thought, and was also taught, that movies and television were a media form suspect if not downright evil. In any case, it was trite, shallow, and too far removed from reality, and books are by nature vastly superior to anything on the small or large screen.

When the kids were much younger, we'd watch TV and movies with them, trying to find shows with positive messages and age-appropriate content. We have always been a chatty family, so we began discussing the characters and events we found compelling, touching, humorous, or frustrating. 

I not only love to read stories but write them as well, so I began to look at shows with more of a writer's eye. I could see some shows were well written, acted, edited, and produced by talented storytellers. Understanding the impact stories have on our lives, I realized the value of teaching my kids to treat movies/TV as literature by applying the same critical thinking skills to TV as we did to books.

It's true we have a tendency to watch television in a mentally passive state. We sit down at the end of the day, and we are weary in our bodies and minds. TV serves as a distraction, an escape. We don't engage our imagination, think critically about plot progression and characterization, or try to mentally picture the setting – it's being shown to us, complete with special effects, sound effects, and a musical score. 

But our new habit of looking at media more critically yielded some very positive results. My kids weren't as affected by what they saw because they were looking at it with a more objective eye. I needed to do less and less filtering because they weren't interested in shallow story lines, implausible characterization, and insipid dialogue. We could explore sensitive and controversial issues through the lens of different characters, situations, and worlds. 

Because of our positive experiences, I now encourage families to break their mindless viewing habits. By learning about the craft of storytelling, you can teach yourself and your child to be active viewers.

In order to be successful, movies and television must tell us satisfying and engaging stories. And most stories have the same basic elements. 

We tend to be too simplistic when we think of story elements, defining stories in terms of plot points; what happened first, what happened next, and how it ended. But plot is much more complex than three acts with a few commercial breaks. Plot is the path of the story, and it must remain in motion, whether it flows at a leisurely pace or races to the climax. 

Essential elements of a plot are: 

  1. The First Act, which introduces characters and settings. 
  2. The Inciting Event is when an event or antagonist forces the main character, or protagonist, to react in a way that sets the rest of the story in motion.      
  3. Rising Action shows us the protagonist continuing to react to the main conflict, being forced into more decisive action against whomever or whatever is acting as the antagonistic force. Quite often there is a point where the protagonist appears to be completely defeated. 
  4. In the Climax the main character gathers all his courage and resources for a final fight against the antagonistic force, and reaches a critical moment of decision. 
  5. Loose ends of the plot are tied up in the Falling Action as characters react to the Climax.  
  6. The Resolution is not necessarily the end of the story, and it can be a happy or painful conclusion, but it shows us how our characters have changed and often gives us indications of where their lives will go from that point.  

More about story elements:

Characterization is how the characters develop and change over the course of the story because of the antagonistic force. It is often the reason why we follow a story from plot point to plot point in anticipation of how the characters are going to react to events and to each other. Action and dialogue are key components  moving the story forward and revealing character progression. To put a finer point on it, we follow stories when we care what happens to the characters, and characterization determines whether or not we are emotionally affected by what the character does and what happens to them. 

Setting is also an essential element, whether it is a time, a place, a culture, or a planet. Setting can serve as a backdrop, such as in many westerns, in science fiction and fantasy, or in historical dramas. Setting can also be the antagonistic force in a Man vs. Nature story where the main character is trying to conquer a snow-covered mountain or survive a storm at sea. 

The Conflict hinges on what the protagonist wants, what is keeping him from it, or who is trying to take it away. The main character will have long term overarching goals, as well as short term goals which define each scene.  

Examples of conflict are: 

  • Man vs. Man, which is most often seen as Good Guy against Bad Guy. 
  • Man vs. Nature (or Environment), which can be anything from a natural disaster to a pandemic to a dangerous animal.  
  • Man vs Himself is when the hero is pitted against some aspect of his own character, such as cowardice, greed, prejudice, or addiction. He can also struggle against what he sees as his destiny. 
  • Man vs Society pits the main character against the institutions, culture, religion, or traditions of his society. This is obvious in dystopian fiction where the hero fights against a corrupt government, or a 'fish out of water' story with the protagonist suddenly being immersed in a setting foreign to him. 
  • Man vs. Technology usually plays on our concerns about how our own inventions can run amuck.  
  • Man vs the Supernatural is evident in any story where the antagonistic force is unnatural or inexplicable, so it is considered 'supernatural'. This, of course, includes the paranormal. 

And then there's Theme:

Theme is the most important story element because this is where we discern what the writer is trying to say, and it's what we take away from the story. It sounds intimidating, like some sort of psychological mumbo-jumbo, but it's fairly simple. Themes are derived from the actions and reactions of the characters and settings, regardless of genre.  

Police procedurals are a genre defined by certain elements, and whether it's DragnetNYPD Blue, or Criminal Minds, the story will have law enforcement as the protagonist, a crime as the main conflict, a criminal (or criminals) as the antagonist, and the procedural part is where we see the technical aspects of how crimes are solved.

However, just because it is a police procedural doesn't mean it will be simple cops-and-robbers. Themes of courage, morality, and ethics may be derived from an episode there one officer turns in his partner for breaking the law. It raises questions about what it means to be loyal, and the boundaries of friendship. That's theme.

In Jurassic Park, a Man Vs. Technology story, one of the themes is elegantly summed up by Ian Malcolm, who says: 

". . .scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should." 

In this techno-thriller, man's brilliance and imagination are eclipsed by his arrogance, and as a result, people are being chased and eaten by dinosaurs. Good stuff. 

Dystopian fiction shows us a world controlled by corrupted power, and how one or more people refuse to give in and choose to fight the status quo against overwhelming odds. Fahrenheit 451 , The Giver, and 1984 are classic dystopian novels. Modern versions of this theme are The Hunger Games and Divergent. These stories invite us to ask "Could this really happen?" and "What would I do in that situation?". It's notable that all of these books have been adapted for the big screen with a fair amount of success. 

Themes carry messages to us about how the world really is, but also how it should be.

We are also fascinated by post apocalyptic tales; zombie viruses decimate mankind in The Walking Dead, global destruction because of climate change happens in The Day After Tomorrow, and threats from space by alien or asteroid brought us Deep Impact and Independence Day. Characters must survive in these Worst Case Scenarios by being brave, resourceful, and sometimes ruthless; their desire to live and protect the ones they love battling against their fear of failure, or of losing their humanity.  These stories often resonate with themes of sacrifice and redemption.

Am I making my case here? We need to stop thinking of television as mindless entertainment, because of all the things it is, it isn't mindless. We can use this understanding of plot, characterization, setting, conflicts, and theme to move from passively 'vegetating' in front of a screen to instructive and lively discussions with our kids about what they are watching.   

Think back to how television and movies influenced you. Some of our earliest lessons about life were learned because we immersed ourselves in the story, and felt sorrow as someone grieve over the death of the loved one, cheered as they overcame a disability, or experienced dread over the consequences of self destructive behaviors. Many of our fears rooted in things we saw as children. We identified with our favorite character's struggles, and rooted for the underdog - or maybe even Underdog himself.  

We've been deeply affected by movies and television, and we can be certain our children will be as well. So whether you love, hate, or are ambivalent about movies and television, they are an ingrained part of our culture, and our children need tools to discern the meaning, importance, and implications of what they see. An understanding of story elements and spending time discussing them with our kids is key to making the transition to an intelligent, discriminating viewer.

Use the free printable below as a guide to help you discuss TV and movies with your kids, and to encourage them to be smart, active viewers. 

Why authors and filmmakers have a responsibility to their young audience

authors and filmmakers responsible to young audience

During my extended ventures into YA territory to help my kids find good books, I've noticed how many obscenities, profanities, and sexual situations are present in bestselling books marketed to the age 9+ demographic. I must concur with this article in TIME magazine that many YA novels would be rated R if they were movies instead of books.

Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne and her colleagues analyzed profanity use in 40 teen novels on the New York Times’ best-seller list of children’s books published in 2008. All the books reviewed targeted children age 9 or older. . .
The researchers found that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity, which translates to nearly seven curse words per hour of reading. Of the 40 books in the study, 88% contained at least one “bad word.”

The "R" rating is reserved for movies that are restricted--a person under 17 must have an accompanying parent or adult guardian. A "PG-13" rating means that parents are strongly cautioned, because "some material may be inappropriate for children under 13."

It's very clear that many elements which would restrict young movie-goers are abundant in children's and YA fiction. And adults often do not pay attention to what their kids are reading, because we accept that television and movies need some sort of filtering. But we associate reading with knowledge and virtue, and pay little attention to the content.

It isn't just the presence of foul language and sexual situations that is problematic, but the characters doing these things are, according the the Time magazine article, often "young, rich, attractive, and of high social status."

This dynamic is going to influence a young person, especially one without involved parents who take time to help their children discern the good and bad on page and screen.

I'm not advocating for any kind of systematic censorship here. Rather, I believe authors and filmmakers who market to children and families need to take their responsibility to their audience seriously. Yes, dear story creators, it's a responsibility. Deal with it. Every human being bears the responsibility of caring for the best interests of their fellow man. And no one is more vulnerable and in need of guidance in our society than our children.

Publishing and movie-making should never be reduced to making a name or making a buck. Children quite naturally enter into the stories they see and read, and internalize messages and themes during these formative years. Books can shape us in ways that we often don't understand or even realize until we are much older.

 What does Meg Ryan’s character say about books in You’ve Got Mail?

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

While it may be true-to-form for a character to be involved in immoral, unethical, or illegal conduct, but are these actions are dealt with responsibly? Consequences must follow the choices a character makes, whether those acts are noble or criminal.

Sure--sometimes the bad guy doesn't get caught, and sometimes the innocent suffer. But we should never encourage young people to admire the selfish, cruel, or vulgar behavior of a story's protagonists or antagonists, nor should they be tempted to emulate those actions.

This doesn't mean that authors must create cardboard characters with good guys wearing white hats and kissing puppies, or bad guys tricked out in black leather pants driving black sports cars. Good guys can be flawed, and bad guys can be likable. But in theme and tone, an author influences and directs the reader to certain conclusions.

It's one of the reasons I've appreciated shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy and her friends make choices, and they almost always reap the consequences of their actions, sometimes entire seasons later. 

The duty to be more thoughtful about creating stories doesn't just lie with authors, however. Parents need to be vigilant and involved. We must take the time to read reviews and pre-read books for theme and content; not just to prevent our young 'uns from reading particular books, but as a way of being informed about what our kids are reading so that the messages conveyed can be discussed and faulty ideas corrected.

A great way to accomplish this is by reading aloud or by buddy reading books with your kids. Reading aloud isn't just for little ones--we read books together right up into the teen years, and it has been a wonderful experience.

Is this a lot of work? Yes. But it's essential, and the bottom line is--you make the time for the things that are important, and ensuring your children have a healthy view of the world and their place in it is at the top of the Parental Responsibility List.

Do you agree or disagree? Share your POV in the comments below:

Themes in post-apocalyptic fiction

Considering themes of humanity, morality, and community

Whether it's a pandemic, meteor strike, alien invasion, nuclear disaster, or zombies, we sure seem to love our apocalypses.  

themes in post-apocalyptic fiction

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a twist on the survival-against-all-odds story. We can look back as far as Homer's Odyssey to see themes of courage, creativity, and endurance in the face of epic disaster and brutal challenges.  Post-apocalyptic stories are full of explorations into questions of morality, ethics, and what it means to be human.

The big conversations at our house tend to revolve around the current hit show The Walking Dead. The main protagonist, Sheriff Rick Grimes, wakes up from a coma in the hospital about two months after the world ended. His journey – from upstanding lawman to desperate father to dangerous leader – is fascinating, as is the character development of the other people he and his group encounter along the way.  

I know, I know – it's a show about zombies, and many write it off as a gorefest. But as with most post-apocalyptic stories, the disaster is just the catalyst to bring out the innermost desires and beliefs of the characters in the story. Some survivors find a depth of strength, principle and compassion they didn't know they had, while others melt into despair. Some lose their minds and their lives in complete hopelessness, others devolve into raging violence against everything and everyone. 

With every episode, we watch these people face - not only the most gruesome and horrifying disaster we can imagine - but the challenge of finding food, shelter, medicine, and other supplies for survival.  

However, the real search is for the preservation of their humanity and the fulfillment of their need for community.  

As we immerse ourselves into the story, we ask: "What would I do in this situation?"

  • Would you risk your life to help a stranger? 
  • Would you leave someone behind to save your own life?  
  • Would you kill someone who had proven to be extremely dangerous but at the moment was unarmed? 
  • Where do you draw the lines of right and wrong when there is no more law, and cultural norms no longer apply? 

These are just some of the lessons post-apocalyptic fiction can teach us.  

Whether the protagonist is stranded in a house surrounded by murderous creatures, on a deserted island, in a land-before-time, or thrown far out into the future, the story of how someone can maintain their sanity and persevere when all seems lost speaks to us on a deep level. 

survival apocalypse quote

We are tempted to dismiss the post-apocalyptic genre as too depressing,  too fantastic, or just too gross, but this is a mistake. Some of the most interesting conversations you can have with your kids is to discuss the Worst Case Scenario and the morality of survival.  

Young people are particularly drawn to this genre. They find metaphors for their anxieties about their future. As our teens read and hear the news, they wonder what kind of world they will inherit, and if they are up to the challenge. Even while our kids seemed obsessed with new technology, they are concerned about the impact it has on our lives, and what life would be like if it were suddenly taken away. They wonder what would happen to them if they were separated from family and friends during a crisis. 

Experiencing the challenges of a full-blown apocalypse through the lives of beloved characters is cathartic because it gives them an opportunity to face their fears.

This can provide us as parents with an opportunity to talk to our kids about how to deal with their anxieties, as well as how to respond to a real life worst case scenario. 

See this process in action as my daughter Emma and I discuss the show The Walking Dead on her YouTube Channel, EJ Newman.

What are your favorite post-apocalyptic shows or books? Share the lessons you've learned in the comments below-

Exploring the Classics: Dracula

For years it seems as though vampires, werewolves, and zombies have taken over the country.  They heavily populate successful books, movies, and television shows. Much of it appears to be aimed squarely at the Young Adult market, but come to think about it, it's not really a new trend.

Vampires were popular when I was in high school. I read many novels about the blood-sucking undead, authored by Stephen KingRobert McCammonDan SimmonsF. Paul Wilson, and Whitley Strieber. It's possible they laid the groundwork for the success of Anne RiceLaurell K. Hamilton, and Brian Lumley. Movies featuring the Undead have not ceased since Vampire of the Coast in 1909, and lately we've been introduced to vegetarian vampires emoting and sparkling in the Twilight series. 

They Thirst
By Robert McCammon

Television has given us a variety of takes on this legend, with the humorous and harmless vampire in Count von Count (Sesame Street ), the melodramatic Barnabas Collins of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, a vampire/demon slaying cheerleader named Buffy, vampires with a heart of gold in Buffy spin-off Angel and the Nick Knight spin-off Forever Knight, and you can find Sookie Stackhouse - a mind reading, vampire dating waitress in a world where vampires have come out of the closet - on HBO's True Blood.

I personally prefer the vampire-as-evil characterization, and am not comfortable with the wildly popular romantic version of a irresistibly handsome teenaged-but-centuries-old vampire who dates young girls. That's just creepy.

Vampires are usually explained as Undead--once human but reanimated. They are demonic, parasitic creatures, and they must kill humans in order to live--unless they are 'vegetarians' who live on animal blood. A few stories explain the vampire as an alien life form, or a creature that evolved along a slightly different track of natural selection.  

Even though there were vampire stories before Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, he is usually credited with popularizing the legend. Perhaps because Stoker did not follow proper procedure for obtaining a copyright in the United States, the name "Dracula" was used in many books and movies, so much so that it is as synonymous with "vampire" as "Coke" is with carbonated beverages and "Kleenex" is with tissues.

"Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!" ~ Dracula

{This is a detailed plot summary which contains spoilers}.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, a story woven from the journals, letters, telegraphs, and notes of Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray Harker, Lucy Westenra, Dr. John Seward, and Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Also included are communications from Quincey Morris and the Honorable Arthur Holmwood, news clippings from the Dailygraph, and the ship's log of the doomed Demeter, which provide the reader more information about important events in the story.

My perception of the story of Dracula is that it is less about the monster himself, and more about the reactions of the book's naive and wholesome protagonists. Jonathan Harker is a young, up-and-coming solicitor engaged to a model of Victorian womanhood, Mina Murray. Even Dr. Seward, the administrator of an insane asylum, has a boy-next-door quality about him, especially after we have empathized with him over Lucy's gracious rejection of his marriage proposal.

Arthur Holmwood is as noble as his title, and Quincey Morris is the red-blooded Texan who provides a little bit of rough-and-ready action. Lucy Westenra, Mina's best friend, is so charming and beautiful that Seward, Morris, and Holmwood all propose to her in one day. Her tragic death is pivotal in driving all of the others to destroy the monster, whatever the cost.

The story begins with Jonathan's trip to the Carpathian Mountains to meet Count Dracula and help him with the legal paperwork needed to purchase property in London and transport some of his belongings to his new home. Harker chronicles many details of his stay, sometimes out of sheer boredom, unable to leave due to the isolated location of the castle. Eventually Jonathan realizes he is a prisoner and that if he is ever to see his beloved Mina again, he must escape Dracula's castle.

Dr. Seward's asylum houses an inmate named Renfield, whose zoophagous appetite fascinates the young doctor. Renfield also acts as a proximity detector for Dracula's comings and goings, a fact that the Scooby Gang realizes a little too late to save Lucy. Dr. Van Helsing is brought in by Dr. Seward to help him diagnose Lucy's strange wasting ailment. Van Helsing is a man of science, but has also seen enough of the inexplicable that he keeps an open mind. These men--Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Quincey Morris, and Arthur Holmwood--give of their own blood to try to save Lucy, and this creates a very strong bond in addition to the love that led three of them to propose marriage. Her death and subsequent redemption at the hand of her fiance Arthur further strengthens their resolve.

When Jonathan finally makes it home and recovers from his ordeal, it is revealed from his journals who the culprit must be, and all the disparate events are now pieced together. Mina's skill with shorthand and a typewriter results in copies of everyone's notes, letters, and journals for intense study. They hide nothing from each other, understanding that their success is hinged on sifting through every scrap of knowledge they can gather about their supernatural enemy. This openness binds their friendship and they feel a fierce loyalty to each other.

Dracula, however, has been eavesdropping, and knows his plan to conquer London is in danger. He exploits their one vulnerability by starting the process of making the pure and virtuous Mina one of his vile creatures so he can control her. But in so doing, he not only provokes the group to redouble their efforts and chase him all the way back to Transylvania, but the link he created with Mina gives them their own GPS with which to track him.

Even though Mina understands herself to be cursed of God (the touch of the Eucharist on her forehead burns a red scar onto her skin), she advises the men to remember the peace that Lucy gained with her real death, and such a creature as the Count might be viewed with compassion as one who also desires to be free of his curse.

In the end, the monster is cornered in a dramatic battle with the gypsies hired to protect the Count. Dracula is dispatched by Harker and Morris, and as Mina predicted, a peaceful look comes over his face before he poofs out of existence.

Sadly, the courageous Quincey is mortally wounded. Jonathan and Mina are so grateful for her release that they name their firstborn after all those involved, but note that their child will be called 'Quincey' in honor of his sacrifice.

Our heroes are older and wiser, having shed their innocent view of the world in order to confront and defeat an unimaginable evil. Their enduring love for each other, and their faith in God and goodness are in the end their greatest weapons.

We are not given much of Count Dracula's back story, even though he is the title character and the stories that have followed tend to focus on the vampire. In Dracula he is seldom seen on the page, although his influence is felt, and he acts as a catalyst so the other characters grow and change . There is a little of his background provided by the Count himself as told to and recorded by Jonathan, and more history from Van Helsing's research. The Count claims to have descended from Attila the Hun, and in his wistful recounting of his family's glory days, there is a foreshadowing of his desire to expand his borders and become a conqueror again.

A vague explanation of Drac's Undeadness is given by Van Helsing, who posits that the Romanian mountains are "full of strangeness of the geologic and chemical world".  He speaks of volcanic activity that results in water with strange properties, gases that can kill or heal, and that the unique nature of the earth's magnetic and electrical characteristics in this area could combine with occult forces to result in the creation of the vampire Dracula. Some of the boundaries that limit Dracula's power and serve as weapons to fight his evil are from nature: garlic, roses, the tides, the sunrise. Others are religious symbols - holy water, the wafer, the cross.

There are some interesting contrasts in this story. Science struggles against mythology and superstition. Blood is a saving sacrifice, but is also sustenance for a monster. Beauty and youth are cursed by soullessness. An evil predator has a rapacious appetite for purity and innocence. The message of redemption permeates the tale.

When reading and discussing this story with my kids, there were a few elements in the story that grabbed our attention and sent us into Research Mode:

  • Communication technology - messages are sent via telegraph and letters.
  • Recording and stenography - Dr. Seward uses a phonograph to keep notes on his patients and record his diary, while Mina is learning shorthand and typing on a new-fangled typewriter in order to be helpful to her husband.
  • Cultural and gender norms - men are noble, polite, and chivalrous; women are virtuous, maternal, and modest. Both genders are presented as brave and intelligent, but the Victorian cultural mindset is unmistakable.
  • Blood typing and transfusions - Dr. Van Helsing transfuses blood directly from Dr. Seward, Quincey Morris, Arthur Holmwood, and himself into Lucy in his efforts to save her. Blood typing was not understood and developed until about 15 years after Stoker wrote Dracula.
  • Eastern superstition and legends - How do legends originate? Are they ever based in fact?

In spite of the virtuous Victorian vibe of the novel, there is a bright thread of sexuality all through the story. Dracula's brides seduce Jonathan Harker with their wanton beauty, and he allows them to feed from him. Dracula preys on the fair virginal maidens at night, hypnotizing them with his gaze and taking blood from them by biting their necks. Unlike most modern novels and movies featuring blood-sucking fiends, Dracula's scenes of violence don't involve geysers of gushing blood and splattering entrails. 

Dracula is not the hero of this story. He is cruel and greedy, and rather smelly. He is not likable in any way, and there are only a couple of brief moments of sympathy for him, such as when Mina wonders if perhaps he would be relieved to have his curse of eternal-life-as-a-parasite ended, and again when he is killed and a peaceful look passes over his face, confirming Mina's theory. 

The heroes of this story are clearly the courageous young people who band together and risk their lives to fight a truly monstrous creature. Their dedication to each other and to Doing The Right Thing are elements to be admired. 

We could hardly ask any one, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story. Van Helsing summed it all up as he said, with our boy on his knee.

"We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake." ~ Jonathan Harker, Dracula

Is there a 'classic' you'd like me to explore? Make suggestions for future reviews in the comments below.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness [Review]

{This is a Parental Guidance review, and contains spoilers}

How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen? (p. 191 A Monster Calls)

I started reading this book with a few preconceived notions based on the cover and the inside blurb. Titled like a monster book, the cover dark and ominous like a monster book, and illustrated like a monster book. Hmmmm, must be about monsters. . .

Instead, I found the story to be a beautifully written allegory that explores the contradictory nature of grief.

Synopsis of A Monster Calls:

Conor has realistic, terrifying nightmares about a yew tree in his backyard. It invades his mind and his room, demanding that he listen to three tales. It also informs Conor that the fourth tale will be his to tell. It will hold a truth that he hasn't been able to admit to himself.

Conor is also dealing with the fact that his mother has cancer. The treatments are not working as well as they have in the past, and Conor refuses to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

At school he is bullied by students and coddled by teachers. His father lives in America and has a new family. His grandmother is not very grandmotherly. And at regular intervals, the yew tree walks and tells him another story that helps him learn to cope with the coming tragedy, until it is finally time for Conor to tell the fourth tale.

I wouldn't want to give any more detail than that, because this book needs to be experienced. Having lost my own father when I was 12, I could recall quite clearly all those conflicting emotions.

Commentary:

A Monster Calls explores themes that make great conversation starters with kids -

  • Laying blame when bad things happen
  • How others react to tragedy
  • The difference between thought/emotions and actions
  • Dealing with grief and loss
  • How shared sorrow can create an unexpected bond

The book's black and white drawings by Jim Kay give A Monster Calls a darkness and atmosphere of impending grief, but they are also appealing to look at.

It is also interesting to read the Author's Note in the beginning of the book, which tells the story behind the idea and inspiration for this this book. From an article in The Telegraph-

Patrick Ness, was passed the baton of an idea from a previous Carnegie Medal-winner, Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer in 2008. . . Although Ness wrote a book that was very much his own, the spirit of Dowd was in the book, and in the illustrations by Jim Kay.

Sensitive, Mature, or Objectionable Content:

  • Death - Conor's mother has terminal cancer, and her treatments are no longer working; her death is imminent.
  • Conflict - Conor is bullied at school, he trashes his grandmother's sitting room and destroys her favorite clock in a fit of anger. Conor is bitter at his father for having a family of his own and in essence abandoning him.
  • Language - Conor uses the word 'dammit' once.

A Monster Calls has received quite a bit of recognition in the literary world:

You can read more about the author Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay at:

Note: Parental Guidance Reviews do not advocate censorship. Rather, they are a tool to help parents find books appropriate for their child.

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker [Review]

{This post contains affiliate links from Amazon}

It seems trite to say, “This book changed my life”. But The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker changed the way I think about how to protect myself and my kids from abuse and violence--which changed the way I view the world, and how I act in it. I have no hesitation recommending this as a Must Read for every woman, and every man who is concerned about the women in his life.

In The Gift of Fear, de Becker has explored the patterns of violence and given us tools to predict possible danger:

I’ve learned some lessons about safety through years of asking people who’ve suffered violence, “Could you have seen this coming?” Most often they say, “No, it just came out of nowhere,” but if I am quiet, if I wait a moment, here comes the information: “I felt uneasy when I first met that guy...” or “Now that I think of it, I was suspicious when he approached me,” or “I realize now I had seen that car earlier in the day.”

Of course, if they realize it now, they knew it then. We all see the signals because there is a universal code of violence. (p. 7-8)

I believe this book is so important that every time I find a good deal on a copy, I buy it so I always have a copy to give away.

Christians believe we should not be governed by 'the spirit of fear' (2 Timothy 1:7), and I agree. But the author is not suggesting that we live with irrational, unwarranted fear; rather, he offers tools for effectively dealing with it. 

The book's premise is that we all possess instincts based on our lifetime of acquired information and guided by our previous experiences, and these serve to alert us when we are faced with danger. 

The Gift of Fear serves as a guide to interpreting survival signals, and to show us that we are equipped to predict violent behavior in others much more than we realize.

Gavin de Becker is recognized as an expert on these matters. He is the designer of the MOSAIC threat assessment system used to screen threats to Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, members of Congress, and senior officials of the CIA. It is also used by law enforcement all over America to assess cases involving domestic violence and stalking.

The Gift of Fear is a nonfiction book written in the tone of a thriller, with descriptions of actual cases that are often stranger than fiction. The first chapter, “In the Presence of Danger”, begins with the seemingly miraculous survival of a young woman who was the victim of a rapist/murderer. She learned that listening to her intuition saved her life, just as squelching it had put her at risk. The examination of the incident serves as a thread that runs through most of the book.

The next two chapters, “The Technology of Intuition” and “The Academy of Prediction” further explain what Mr. de Becker means when he uses words like 'fear', 'instinct' and 'behavior prediction'. He acknowledges that we often think of our “knowing without knowing why” as inexplicable and even magical, but he believes it is a cognitive process more firmly rooted in our conscious mind than we’ve given it credit. We often place ourselves at risk because in our modern era we are too invested in denying anything that doesn’t seem firmly rooted in logic.

The following illustration is a great example of this:

A woman is waiting for an elevator, and when the doors open she sees a man inside who causes her apprehension. Since she is not usually afraid, it may be the late hour, his size, the way he looks at her, the rate of attacks in the neighborhood, an article she read a year ago--it doesn’t matter why. The point is, she gets a feeling of fear. How does she respond to nature’s strongest survival signal? She suppresses it, telling herself ,”I’m not going to live like that; I’m not going to insult this guy by letting the door close in his face.” When the fear doesn’t go away, she tells herself not to be so silly, and she gets into the elevator.

Now, which is sillier: waiting a moment for the next elevator, or getting into a soundproofed steel chamber with a stranger she is afraid of? (p. 31)

Chapter 4 gives a list of behaviors that form a pattern of potential violence. Predators are motivated by the desire to dominate, manipulate, and control. There are some very recognizable ways they accomplish this.

  • Forced Teaming - this is a way to draw the victim in, by “projecting a shared purpose or experience where none exists” (p. 55) with comments that imply “We’re in this situation together”.

  • Charm and Niceness - the author advises us to think of charm as a verb and not a personality trait.

  • Too Many Details - People who intend to deceive often feel the need to offer detailed information to reinforce their story. The purpose is to distract you from the fact that you are being conned.

  • Typecasting - This is basically using a veiled insult to overcome objections. A woman refuses help from a man who makes her nervous, and he responds, “What’s the problem? Too proud to accept help?” So in order to prove she is not too proud, she allows a potential attacker inside her space.

  • Loan Sharking - The predator is looking for a way to get his victim under his control, or incur some kind of ‘debt’, like helping a woman to carry her groceries. It’s true that most men who offer a woman help are merely being thoughtful, but in combination with other questionable behaviors, it is a sign to be on the alert.

  • The Unsolicited Promise - A promise is supposed to convey honorable intentions, but for a predator, it is an effort to convince you of something.

  • Discounting The Word “No” - A person who does not respect the word “No” is seeking to control you. It isn't cute, and it isn't romantic. It's disrespectful and condescending. “No” is a complete sentence, not an opening for negotiations.

A sensible man will understand why a woman might be uncomfortable with his approach and will leave her alone. Unfortunately, too many guys have seen a bunch of romantic comedies in which creepy stalking is how you get the girl. 

Mr. de Becker addresses the fact that men often don’t understand why a woman would be wary, and treat their sisters, wives, daughters, and friends with impatience and even disdain for feeling anxious. They try to talk them out of their concerns and anxiety, but in a world where 3 out of 4 women will experience violence, a woman should not have to explain why she is cautious, or be subject to criticism for it. She needs support and encouragement to listen to her inner voice.

The rest of the book becomes much more specific about the topics already introduced.

  • Chapter 5, “Imperfect Strangers”, deals with stranger-to-stranger crimes.

  • “High Stakes Predictions” gives more information about the science of prediction.

  • “Promises to Kill” helps us understand the nature of threats.

  • “Persistence, Persistence” and “I Was Trying to Let Him Down Easy” offers a guide for dealing with people who refuse to let go and engage in ‘date stalking’.

  • Workplace violence is covered in “Occupational Hazards”.

  • The O. J. Simpson case provides some insight into domestic violence in “Intimate Enemies”.

  • A particularly heart-breaking chapter is “Fear of Children”, a look at violence committed by those in our society we consider to be vulnerable and harmless.

  • “Better to be Wanted by the Police Than Not to be Wanted at All” explores attacks on public figures, and includes information about such cases as the murder of young actress Rebecca Schaeffer (My Sister Sam), attacks against Frank Sinatra, baseball player Eddie Waitkus, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

  • “Extreme Hazards” explores the mind of mass murderer Michael Perry.

  • The last chapter, “The Gift of Fear”, outlines rules for balancing instinct-based fear against paranoia, and proposes that by allowing oneself to be open to intuition, you can, in a sense, free yourself from anxiety and worry.

We must give ourselves permission to leave an uncomfortable situation, and reject advances--however well-intentioned--that allow a man into our space. When too many warning signs are there, it may be necessary to act in a manner we would otherwise consider rude, but it is important to remember that the goal is to be safe.

quote about The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

These concepts are also important for men who have mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. They need to understand what it is like to need to constantly be aware of potential danger, and help the women in their life protect themselves when they are alone.

Does this book teach that women are helpless? Well, maybe Xena and Buffy can whoop up on a grown man, but the average woman is toast the minute a guy up to no-good grabs her by the arm. Self-defense classes are great, and might help you get away if you are ever attacked, but why not be able to predict possible violence and walk away?

Let's not forget that most crimes against women (64%) are committed by men they know and are already in their space. (U.S. Department of Justice Report "Criminal Victimization, 2010", page 9) They get into that space because they are predators, and this book may help you spot them before they are deeply embedded in your life or even in your home.

If you are sensitive about descriptions of violence, don’t read this book late at night, but do read it for your own benefit. It also contains a few obscenities that are part of quotes by convicted offenders.

Gavin de Becker is also the author of Protecting the Gift, a sort of sequel to The Gift of Fear. It teaches parents how to teach children the principles of listening to one’s survival signals.

Do you have questions about The Gift of Fear? Share them in the comments below -

What is a high concept story?

Compelling story hook? Big "Wow!" factor?

Here are a few things that are true of high concept movies and novels:

what is a high concept story.jpg
  1. Epic entertainment factor

  2. Fast pace, high stakes 

  3. Often sparked by a  “what if” question

  4. Contains unique elements

  5. Generally has mass audience appeal

Some genres almost require a high concept premise, like fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers. Agents and publishers want to see more than a unique premise - they want it to grab interest with just a brief description, sometimes known as the 'hook' or ‘elevator pitch’.

Stories do not need to be high concept to be entertaining or engaging--take Jane Austen’s novels, for instance. Her stories are about as far from high concept as you can get, but they are excellent stories with a big cultural impact. 

QUIZ: see if you recognize these high concept stories:

  1. One man struggles to find his individuality in a society dominated and controlled by a totalitarian government. 

  2. Two cities inhabit the same physical space, but somehow never meet. 

  3. A big city afraid-of-water sheriff faces must deal with a great white shark preying on his small resort island during a holiday weekend.

  4. There’s a top secret boarding school for girls training to be spies. 

  5. Advances in science and technology have enabled a powerful billionaire to create a unique tourist attraction - an island of living dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong? 

  6. Nonfiction: The book’s tagline is “The power of thinking without thinking”. 

  7. Nonfiction: The subtitle is: "The curious lives of human cadavers". 

How do these and other high concept stories fulfill each of the five characteristics? 

  1. High level of entertainment value: It’s impossible to define 'entertainment value', but this characteristic goes hand in hand with mass audience appeal. These stories often enter mainstream culture in a way that sometimes changes the way people think and speak.

    "I see dead people."

    "Use the Force, Luke."
  2. Fast Pace/High Stakes: The future of a culture, a nation, humanity, the galaxy, or the universe is at stake. The characters aren't saving a dolphin from an unscrupulous businessmen, or trying to keep their hair salon from going out of business. It's a life and death struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds, like asteroids and alien invasions and global pandemics. The tension mounts as heroes and villains go head-to-head in spectacular clashes of wit and might, and at the climactic moment, it seems that all is lost and we are doomed. The dénouement is usually very short--if anyone manages to survive, there's little left to say except "Let's go home and pick up the pieces".

  3. Unique Elements: What does it mean to be original or unique? It’s mostly about the approach angle. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley chose to have the humans terrorize the monster. In H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds, the aliens who can’t be defeated by all the world’s armies are taken down by microbes. In The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse has finally happened, and a small group of people struggle to survive and rebuild.

  4. Born from a “what if” question:

    • What if the human race became infertile? (The Children of Men, P.D. James)

    • What if a group of high school students were a town's best defense against a Communist invasion? (Red Dawn)

    • What if a Russian sub commander defected and tried to hand over the latest Soviet submarine to the United States? (The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy).

  5. Mass audience appeal: High-concept stories, even those of a specific genre, still draw an audience far beyond that genre’s fandom. They cross over from being categorized as SF, horror, fantasy, and become mainstream on bookstore shelves, in movie theaters, and in our cultural lexicon. Many who don’t consider themselves to be scifi nerds or 'into fantasy' have seen every Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter movie, usually more than once.

In high concept nonfiction, these characteristics still apply, especially since many are written in a literary fashion. Each chapter is crafted with scenes as the author offers up different views of the subject, builds their argument, or paints the view for the reader. The language of high concept nonfiction is usually written so Every Man can access and enjoy it. 

Again, high concept isn’t about a story being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, boring vs. interesting--it’s in the approach and characteristics of the story the writer has chosen to tell.

In case you were still wondering, here are the answers to the quiz:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. The City and the City by China Mieville
  3. Jaws by Peter Benchley
  4. The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter
  5. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  6. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  7. Stiff by Mary Roach

How did you do on the quiz? Do you have a favorite high concept novel? Share it in the comments.

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe by Madeleine L'Engle [Review]

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
By Madeleine L'Engle

When I saw the ebook Do I Dare Disturb the Universe by Madeleine L'Engle on Amazon.com, I had to have it.  It contains the text of a speech Madeleine L'Engle gave about different types of censorship and the responsibility of writers of children's literature to ask good questions and be faithful to the truth of things.

On censorship, I agree with the author that we all censor to some degree, just by choosing one book over another. But we are choosing for ourselves and our families, not for the entire community, not attempting to use the police power of the state to control what others have access to.

Books give us the opportunity to explore new experiences and ideas without leaving the safety of home, or the comfort and counsel of our friends and family. Books ask us questions we never knew needed asking, and quite often they leave us without any answers. Ain't that the way it's supposed to be?

I also enjoyed reading her introduction to A Wrinkle in Time, giving us a glimpse into the ideas behind the story, and surprising me with the number of rejection slips she received from publishers who didn't understand the story, or felt that it was too hard for children.

When have children's stories ever been just sunshine and puppies? There has always been death and pain, the face of evil, betrayal and hardship, in children's literature. Hansel and Gretel anyone? Through stories we can introduce and prepare our children for realities they've yet to experience, or to offer perspective and comfort to them when they have had their first taste of bitter tears.

The e-book finishes with a scanned copy of the original manuscript of A Wrinkle in TimeIt was interesting to try to understand the word choices and edits that mark the pages. Little is more fascinating to me than the writing process, and it was a pleasure to see a bit of that from the author of a much beloved children's book.

I highly recommend Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? to anyone interested in the topic of children's literature and censorship.

Analyzing literature from a Christian perspective

analyzing literature from a Christian perspective

As Christians who endeavor to apply biblical principles to every facet of life, I think we sometimes err greatly when it comes to choosing literature on page and screen for our children:

  1. We view every instance of sinful behavior as an objectionable element and dismiss the entire story on that basis.
  2. We Christianize the characters, themes, and plot lines to “redeem” the story, regardless of authorial intent.
  3. We assume “classic literature” means “wholesome literature.”
  4. We leave teaching literature to the “experts.”

None of these approaches are accurate or useful. They represent faulty methods of literary criticism—permissivism, exclusivism, pragmatism, naïveté, and the postmodernist tendency to declare everything relative. Worst of all, they represent a lost opportunity to parent.

First, we can’t declare something objectionable simply because it contains depictions of evil people doing wicked things; this eliminates the Bible itself, commentaries, and watching the evening news.

Nor can we try to force spiritual themes onto literature when the author didn’t intend to teach spiritual truths, or declare authorial intent inaccessible, thus allowing interpretations that fit our agenda.

Ancient literature is definitely not more wholesome. Old English sounds so enlightened and sophisticated—which is usually why we don’t understand what it is they actually said. Who knew The Canterbury Tales were so naughty, well-sprinkled with sexuality and crude humor? Our exposure to much of classic lit was excerpts and abridged versions placed in literature textbooks which excluded the more colorful and objectionable passages.

Parents shouldn’t abdicate something as meaningful and formative as literature to “experts,” be they teachers or textbooks. What does Meg Ryan’s character say about books in You’ve Got Mail?

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

Are you sure you want someone else to be choosing books and explaining them to your kids?

What we can do is approach stories from a biblical worldview and train our children to discern truth and meaning from texts and their contexts. We accept the Bible as our source of truth for faith and practice. So while the Bible isn’t what we would typically think of as exhaustive, it does give us enough explicit commandments and guiding principles to form the filter through which we are to see the world.

Because of Scripture, we understand the implications of these truths:

  • Great men are not always wise. (Job 32:9)
  • Good people can do bad things. (Genesis 20:2)
  • Wicked men don’t always receive their just desserts in our lifetime. (Psalm 37:35)
  • Innocents suffer and are victimized through no fault of their own. (Exodus 1:22)
  • Actions ripple to create unexpected and unintended consequences. (2 Samuel 13)

Teaching about such issues to children is difficult, and since it is sometimes hard for children to connect with ancient history, stories are a handy-dandy tool every parent can use to help them internalize many profound and problematic truths. Through stories our children can also learn coping skills, empathy, and the nature of sacrifice.

Our family has, over the years, struggled to find a balance that wasn’t too permissive, too exclusive, or too pragmatic. Our process of analyzing and choosing stories boils down to choosing those that illustrate universal truths, taking into account the role objectionable elements play in the story, how they are portrayed, and what purpose they serve.

When our kids were young, we looked for stories with enough detail to give us an understanding of what was happening and why, but didn’t cross over into gratuitous abuse, violence, sex, substance abuse, etc. We wanted them to see positive role models and complex villians, character actions resulting in natural consequences, and the many faces of courage.

Kidlit isn’t always helpful in this area. Personally, I am tremendously bothered by “princess” stories. Forget about the teeny bikini—The Little Mermaidsells her soul to get the guy! Some family members thought we were completely anti-Disney because we didn’t let our kids watch most of the popular animated movies, and we often opted for adult biographies or classic science fiction over the usual children’s books. And they were definitely confused when I stated that I much preferred my daughter to view Ellen Ripley as a role model over Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or Belle.

But Belle is a good role model because she is brave, she loves books, and she turned the Beast into a Prince, right?

Only if you are going to be OK with your daughter being held captive by a controlling and abusive boyfriend and submitting to her captivity because she thinks she can change him. Let’s hear it for Stockholm syndrome!

For us, the underlying message took precedent over the presence of objectionable elements (within certain limits). As the kids matured, it became more important for them to see depictions of healthy relationships and the fallout from manipulative and abusive ones. We dove more deeply into popular but troubling character tropes, such as the anti-hero. We had many discussions about the ramifications of poor choices illustrated in the stories we read and watched.

This is one of the tremendous advantages good stories offer; they let us explore many hard topics from a safe distance, without finger-pointing or sermonizing. Our kids can see the wide reaching ripple effects of greed, vanity, lust, and loss of self-control. We can talk about the ways that yielding to harmful influences eventually blossoms into chaos and ruin. We can deal with the fact that bad guys don’t always lose, and the good guys don’t always “win,” especially not without pain and sacrifice.

On a positive note, we can also fully explore the nature of courage, generosity, and what it means to hold on to your integrity. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories are particularly useful for watching character development through a worst-case scenario.

I know what some of you are thinking—most parents don’t feel equipped to teach and analyze literature to their children, especially if they didn’t enjoy reading as a child—but I believe you must try. The teacher at school knows how to teach the nuts and bolts of story structure and plot analysis, and the textbook can explain enough meaning so your kids can answer the reading comprehension questions at the end of the chapter. But stories give parents an amazing window into a child’s heart and mind, creating bonds of trust and memories of shared experiences.

Most important, choosing stories that challenge them intellectually, morally, ethically, and emotionally give you the opportunity to fine tune their conscience and prepare them for the real world.


Here are some links to articles that address literary criticism from a Christian point of view, proposing some interesting ideas about interpreting literature, and offering some definitions of 'objectionable elements':

A Christian Approach to Literature by Jim Hendry at His Image Ministries. This is a free downloadable .pdf that briefly but thoroughly covers pertinent aspects of the Christian using and enjoying literature.

Literary Criticism and Postmoderism, part of a series by Robin Phillips. Mr. Phillips discusses the influence of German hermeneutics, French philosophy,  American social sciences, and the postmodern trend of dispensing with authorial intent.

Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part 1 by Robin Phillips. Here Mr. Phillips further explores the topic and outlines three ways we engage with literary texts.

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission, ©1992. It is a very comprehensive treatment of the subject. (Article link used with permission of BJU Press.)

Reading books about books and reading

books about books and reading

Some of my friends occasionally make fun of me when I read books about books and reading. Folks get a strange look on their face when they see you immersed in How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler, as if perhaps Allen Funt is lurking nearby.

However, if you want to add richness and depth to your child's reading life, books about books and reading are a great place to gather ideas and insight.

Maybe you weren't a reader as a child, and don't feel adequate to the task of teaching literary skills. You may have problems communicating any enjoyment of reading because you don't find reading pleasurable. You may find yourself parenting an offspring who devours books, and suddenly you need to understand the inner workings of a bookworm.

On the other hand, you could be one of us, and you'll savor these books for your own gratification. 

Check out these recommendations for books that can assist you in further developing a rich reading environment for your children, while some - part book review, part memoir -  would make a great addition to your older student's high school book list:

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma

The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan

Book Crush: For Kids and Teens - Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Interest by Nancy Pearl

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books by J. Peder Zane

What are your favorite books about books?