Today participants of the Week of Random Acts of Publicity were asked to write a book review. Here's mine.
I don't like pedantic children's books all that much. Especially when they're religious. Yes, I know that probably sounds surprising, given that most people know me as someone who writes for religious publications and spent a year doing publicity for a religious press. Thing is, I much prefer the rare religious children's books that infuse spirituality with engaging stories to books that are glorified tracts with pretty pictures. I'll happily take a well-crafted secular story any day to a poorly-crafted religious tract. (Incidentally, I hate that I have to refer to any publication as "secular" or "religious," but that's a whole other blog post).
I admit that when I first heard about the book From I-ville to You-ville by Mersine Vigopoulou (published in 2006 by Uncut Mountain Press), I assumed this children's title released by an Eastern Orthodox publisher was more "pretty tract" than "beautiful, spirituality-infused story." I'd heard of the book long ago, but assumed, quite unfairly, that it was yet another dull, preachy, morally "safe" book we'd have to force feed to kids who'd rather be reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Still, I'd heard good things about the novel from many folks I like, so out of curiosity I picked up a copy at a friend's house last weekend, sat down on the couch and started reading. Thirty-five pages later, I put it down only because I was at a party, and much as I wish this weren't true it is SO not cool to sit on a couch reading a book when you're at a social gathering. (Thankfully, my friend let me borrow the book).
'From I-Ville' is part picture book, part novel. Its hard cover, larger trim size and bright illustrations make it look like it's targeted at preschoolers, but it is actually fairly text-heavy, which means it would work better as a family read-aloud. The story involves a boy named "Stubborn" from a "great kingdom called I-ville." I-ville is ruled by a goddess-queen named "Conceit" who lives in a crystal palace at the center of the kingdom. The people of I-ville love their home, but they've got problems. They fight a lot. Every person wants to do things his or her own way. And the children never play together, because when they do each one wants to be the leader, and they can never agree on who gets that coveted role.
One day Stubborn happens to meet a stranger outside the walls of I-ville -- a girl named Serenity. She is traveling past I-ville with her father on her way home to a placed called You-ville. Stubborn immediately takes to Serenity because she is kind and sweet. He likes her even more after he challenges her to a race and beats her. After losing the race, Serenity lavishes Stubborn with praise, instead of complaining like the children of I-ville. "Well done!" she says, shaking his hand. "You run like the wind!"
Stubborn is surprised to learn that there are other kingdoms beyond the walls of I-ville, and he likes Serenity so much that he asks Queen Conceit if he can journey to the distant land of You-ville. She grants him his wish to be a "great explorer of I-ville" and off he goes on his journey.
Despite Stubborn's overwhelming self-confidence and the prideful notion that he'll have no trouble finding You-ville, he ends up wandering and can't figure out how to complete his journey. Then he stumbles upon a kindly "elder" (illustrated wearing the garb of an Athonite monk -- the one marker in the entire book that reveals the religious leanings of the author). The old man instructs him on the way to find You-ville. The entry to You-ville, he says, is a small, low passage, like a tunnel.
"I'm small," Stubborn says, "so I should be able to pass through."
"I don't think you'll fit," says the elder.
"I'll bend down then."
"The secret," the elder continues, "is this: in order to pass through, it's not enough just to bend down. You need to shrink your ego."
You might think, based on the naming structure of the characters in 'From I-ville,' that they are as one-dimensional as Goofus and Gallant. Surprisingly, this is not the case. While the people of You-ville are innocent, thoughtful and Gallant-like, the people of I-ville, selfish as they may be, are redeemable, human, and capable of love. This makes the story all the more intriguing, as we wonder what will happen when Stubborn makes his journey back from You-Ville to I-ville to share the good news with his countrymen about loving one's neighbors as oneself.
Yes, the book is simple and pedantic, in the same way that the great fables of Aesop or the Ancient Greek myths are pedantic, encapsulating critical life lessons in absorbing stories. 'From I-ville' speaks directly to readers living in a world where Ego is king, where selfishness is a virtue, and where "God" is a positive force whose sole reason for existing is to bring us the good things we wish for (think Disney godmother, except not as chubby).
The truth is, we live in a world full of fleeting joys that disappear like vapor almost as soon as they come. The happiness that lasts is the joy that comes from loving and serving our neighbors. Sure, it's important to take care of oneself to a certain degree, but if we spend all our lives making ourselves the gods and goddesses of our own personal "I-villes," we'll never really know true joy.
Imagine, for a second, if our world was You-ville -- a place where EVERYONE put the interests of others before their own. What ecstasy would we all experience if all humans were motivated primarily by the desire to bring joy to the lives of others?