So few new children’s books today seem to have much soul – that charm and spirit of older, beloved classics like Stuart Little, Frog and Toad, Narnia, Caddie Woodlawn, Black Beauty, Betsy Tacy, or the Burgess Bird Book. Reading modern stories today can be a bit painful as we try to find the ones that will most respect our children and help to cultivate their moral imaginations. SD Smith, at Story Warren, aptly calls his rabbit books “new stories with old souls”. His stories do exactly as he promises: they love our children, respect them, and nurture the best parts of them. I think that The Growly Books: Begin also belongs in that category.
Facebook friends met Philip and Erin Urlich at The Great Homeschool Convention and were smitten by the concept. They boasted about their new find on Facebook and Instagram, and I was intrigued. I visited the website and absolutely loved what I saw – a creative place with a classic feel. I noticed that the books were substantially sized (the first book is 256 pages) and that the covers were graced with innocent looking characters. It was obvious to me that these books would not fit neatly into any of the modern categories. The implied innocence seemed to be for an audience younger than those who could handle the length and complexity of the story. And yet, there was something not youngish about them at all. This series, like The Green Ember books, promised to be family books. Books with something special to offer to everyone in the living room during family read aloud.
Reading them aloud to my nine, seven and five-year-olds… they more than delivered on the promise. All three were engaged and enchanted, when they weren’t laughing themselves silly.
While we were reading, I could not escape the sense that Begin was a bit Little Bear meets The Hobbit meets Twenty One Balloons. The various animal families remind me of the wholesome family life of Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear stories. The family members each have their own history and story, but are bound together by a love for each other and their community. While the writing is much more complex than Little Bear, it still manages to capture that same innocence and credibility.
Early in the story we learn that Growly and his friends are departing from their village for a summer quest that will usher them out of cubhood and into young bearhood. The coming-of-age village tradition marks a moment in a bear’s life when he grows out of his early life of dependence, and into his life purpose. Growly’s quest is derailed almost immediately and becomes an “unexpected journey” instead.
Noticing a plea for help that cannot be ignored, Growly follows his moral compass and abandons his plan mere moments after getting started. Following a friend in need, Growly finds himself flying (hang gliding) into foreign land in pursuance of something bigger than himself. What happens next is exciting, scary, funny, and fun.
Growly crash lands into a strange and new place. In Bilbo’s Journey, Joseph Pearce talks about the white magic that Tolkien employs throughout the Hobbit: those moments when Gandalf appears at just the right time. In a lesser story, this technique seems contrived. In a well-constructed tale, however, it is a reminder of how the Holy Spirit is always involved in all of the events of our lives. In Begin, we get a taste of the good white magic – and it works.
In the strange new land, Growly meets characters who become precious to him, and he discovers the trail of a long-lost friend. Following the trail, Growly and his new friend risks their lives for a high adventure pursuit of the missing mutual friend. Love, courage, wisdom, and faith propel them forward on a noble but intense journey into the unknown.
This story is well-rounded and easily enjoyed by a wide range of readers and hearers. It is creative, satisfying, and compelling. In terms of age or maturity appropriateness, I would compare it to The Green Ember, the early Narnia books, Twenty One Balloons, or Five Children and It. There is no war, no violence, no true darkness. The danger in this book comes entirely from nature and adventure.
A couple of notes:
- Two of the primary characters (and their best childhood friends) are coming of age in this story. As such, their childhood friendships are changing into romantic ones and each couple are at the precipice of marriage. This topic seems like it could be a misfit for young readers but it is handled in such a wholesome and tender way that it is a beautiful testimony to what meaningful relationships look like.
- The last chunk of the book involves a high-adventure expedition. My kids had no frame of reference for the difference between rapids and waterfalls. I mentioned on our Facebook page that I had shown my kids the rapids scene from How The West Was Won. The Urlichs wrote back suggesting this insane (but family-friendly) video as well. (*Note: I think that someone is taking the Lord’s name in vain in Spanish in the comments – I just started at 1:27 for my kids. There is some other crass language up until the 2:00 point.) As my kids gaped at the images, they laughed in delight – understanding the intensity, danger, and adrenaline rush of the final chapters of Begin.
- This story makes use of hang gliders, zip lines, kayaks, and other creative engineering. In this way the story reminds us of Jules Verne or Twenty One Balloons. It was very inspiring to my oldest who marvels at technical ingenuity.