To Skim or Not to Skim
It’s seven o’clock, and you remember you have a book review due in the morning. But alas, you haven’t read page one! What now? Before you give up and turn to book report piracy, I’d like to recommend a tool that’s been very helpful for me: skimming!
Let’s admit upfront that skimming is not the same thing as reading a book. Too often, skimming is used by novices to extract the plot of a book, making the reading experience a hollow shell of what it was meant to be. But skimming isn’t just for unprepared, mushy-brained freshman! In fact, skimming is such an important life skill that you probably use it daily. When you surf the internet, or stand in line at the check out counter, you skim to decide whether you want to invest your time or money in an article or magazine. And skimming done correctly is often far more enlightening than reading a book summary.
Perhaps my greatest argument for skimming is that I use it to preview books my kids will read. As a book reviewer and parent, it would be great if I could read all the kids’ books that come my way. But since that’s not possible, skimming techniques help me protect my family and decide what we ought to invest our time in. Which makes it an invaluable tool in my book!
Skimming for Book Blueprints
Today I’ll focus on the type of skimming that I use to decide whether my kids should read a book. When it comes to this type of skimming, the metaphor I’ve found most helpful is one of architecture. Mind you, this isn’t a method for savoring a book the way a visitor browses through Biltmore Estate. But if I need to understand a book the way an architect knows his building, I need blueprints. These points are intended to help you extract those book blueprints:
1) Don’t read every word. When I’m skimming, I usually scan a page, reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph. I also read any dialogue, and I generally try to skip as much as I can in larger paragraphs. If I feel like I haven’t understood the gist of the page, I go back and try again.
2) Skim the first twenty pages or so. Three chapters is usually enough to see how an author sets up her story. What I’m looking for here is anything objectionable or virtuous in the plot. By the end of the first three chapters, you should also have a good feel for the aesthetic–the language and the way the story is told. At this point, I ask questions like these: How rich is the language? Is it at the right reading level for my child? Will they be challenged by the vocabulary but not overwhelmed? Any profanity or snarky attitude, and if so, is it too much?
3) Skim the last fifteen or twenty pages. My goal here is to see the skeleton of the book–the bookends, so to speak. By putting the beginning, the way the author set up the conflict, together with the ending, the way it is resolved, you will have a good idea of the meaning of the story. You should be able to discern what the author was trying to say, as well as whether it’s a message you want your kids to hear! You can also often tell the quality of the storytelling by asking questions like these: Does the author resolve questions or problems raised in the beginning? Have characters developed or changed in some way, perhaps learning a moral? Does the progression seem natural or overly rosy?
4) Read a few middle chapters including the climax, if you didn’t already cover it. The climax is almost always about three-fourths of the way through a book. The climax is often the moment of greatest violence or conflict, thus it often shows all the author’s cards. Is this an author you can trust to tell a riveting story? Can you trust him not to go overboard on violence or the fear-factor? The heart of the story is in the climax, and seen in the context of beginning and ending, you should have a good idea of the story’s blueprint.
Skimming The Lost Medallion
The Lost Medallion: The Adventures of Billy Stone by Bill Muir and Alex Kendrik. B&H Publishing Group, 2013. Ages 10-up.
I’ve been trying to get around to reviewing this book for a while, so I thought I’d put my skimming technique into practice using this book. Those of you who find it interesting may want to check out the movie.
**Spoiler Alert: the ending will be revealed below.**
Here’s what I notice right off the bat. In the introduction, co-writer Alex Kendrick notes that he helped write Courageous, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants. Which means the story probably meets some level of excellence, but it also means that these writers are probably used to writing for adults. The first few pages don’t seem especially kid-like. It has the tone and feel of Indiana Jones but occasionally assumes an adult knowledge of the world–for instance, a more experienced writer for kids would probably take time to spell out what a tsunami is. In terms of the literary value, the opening description of the magic medallion is pretty little clunky, but kids who persevere will probably enjoy some of the elements. So I press on!
The plot is definitely unfolding here: on a tropical isle somewhere, the stone of a magic medallion is lost by a king’s brash six year old son, Huko. With the medallion gone, Cobra–their enemy–will easily be able to attack and defeat them. Cobra himself is a character kids will love to hate. (“Tall and powerfully built, Cobra’s head was sleek and bald like that of a snake. A bright red cobra tattoo coiled around his arm. But the thing Cobra was best known for–and most feared for–was the fang-like fingernails of his right hand…coated in [poison].”) But the intensity of the description is clearly something my kids would be too scared to read. So, I’d stop right there for them, and put this book away for a few years.
We’re also introduced to Billy in the present, his dad who is searching for the lost medallion, and Billy’s friend Allie who lives at an orphanage. Cobra’s progeny, Cobb, is at odds with Billy and his dad, and they are searching for the medallion, too.
In these last few chapters, I can’t follow all the threads, but it’s easy to see that Billy and Allie have gone back in time, fought to save the old islanders from the first chapter, and Billy now faces a showdown with Cobra. This is the moment the rest of the story has been building towards, and it’s written in an Indiana Jones kind of way.
The big twist at the end is also where you’ll find the Christian message. While the medallion was important, Billy learns that what’s in his heart is far more important. On page 187, it says, “‘Our hearts help us love others,’ Billy explained. ‘It’s like this thing from the Bible my mom used to tell me about: Kindness comes from a heart filled with love, but evil comes from a heart filled with evil. God wants us to treat each other with love and kindness–that’s part of how we follow Him. It’s what’s in our hearts that makes us important. So if we fill our hearts with love and kindness for others, then God will help us do what he created us to do. He’ll help us defeat Cobra.”
Lots could be said parsing out the theology here, but my opinion is that because this moral seems to be tacked on to the rest of the story–he still has to fight Cobra, and if you clipped that paragraph out, it wouldn’t change much of the plot–it probably won’t make much of an impact for good or ill on readers.
The final chapters show Billy coming back to his home, where the world has been transformed–far too neatly–into a place where right has might and good prevails. And since these last chapters cover the climax, I’ve read all I need to know. While I can’t say I’ve read this book enough to do an official book review, I do have a good feel for what the book is about, it’s message, as well as its literary value. And I’d say it is pretty middle of the road on all of them. Not bad for fifteen minutes of investigation!
Do you have any tips for previewing your kids’ books and movies efficiently? Any thoughts on this particular book, or books that try to incorporate Christianity and pagan myths? We’d love to hear your thoughts!