The opinion we form of any book is greatly determined by the expectations we bring to it. This is apparent from the hundreds of online reviews I’ve read of The Green Ember. In this review, I’ll share how I discovered the book and how my expectations were set. I’ll share the strengths of the story that have made me a fan, the four most common criticisms and concerns, and what I think you can expect if you family chooses to dive into the story of The Green Ember.
But First, the Story
The Green Ember follows Heather and Picket, two young rabbit siblings, as they race to escape a pack of wolves who have just burned their home and captured their family. Through a series of twists and turns Heather and Picket elude the wolves and arrive at a hidden outpost, Cloud Mountain, where they learn their lives are caught up in a much larger, more dangerous story. It is a story where their gifts are needed and their character matters.
Discovery, Expectations, and Strengths
Early in the Spring of 2016, I was staying with my best friend, Jared, and his family, before he and I set out to hike a segment of the Appalachian Trail. Jared was getting his four young children ready for bed when he said, “Aaron, you should join us for our bedtime story. We’re re-reading The Green Ember.” I had never heard of the book, but his kids certainly had. At his announcement, they gathered around excited to hear the story told again. My expectations were set. Because my kids are similar in age (mine were 6 and 9 at the time) I expected my girls would equally enjoy the book.
I ordered a copy and we began The Green Ember when I returned to Colorado. My girls immediately fell in love with the story. “Please, just one more chapter, Dad,” became their nightly request. They began to work the characters into their make-believe play. Wolves and hawks became the new bad guys, and because we only had a handful of stuffed animal rabbits, dolls and bears had to fill in for some of the good guys. In other words, the storyline and characters captured their imaginations.
As a parent, it’s the kind of story I want influencing their hearts and minds, to have this kind of power in their play. The book has inspired the conversations every parent wants to have with their kids: conversations about telling the truth, the importance of our attitude, what it means to hope, and how we find our purpose. In The Green Ember, Heather and Picket need and value their elders’ guidance. I found this refreshing because in so much of children’s literature, the voice of adults is absent, irrelevant, or an impediment. Heather and Picket, however, need a community of friends and adult voices to guide their development.
“All of life is a battle against fear. We fight it on one front, and it sneaks around to our flank.” – Heather’s Father
A notable strength of The Green Ember, and what I’ve come to value most about the book, is its themes: good vs. evil, fear and courage, justice and betrayal, the tension between siblings as they grow, true friendship, hope for a world mended and remade, and the part we each play in its remaking.
Four Common Criticisms
1. “I can’t take bunnies seriously.”
My daughter reads a new book every couple days and recommends her favorites to friends. As she has recommended The Green Ember to friends, we’ve noticed that boys, in particular, have a difficult time buying into the idea of rabbits with swords. However, once they get a few pages in, they are captured by the story and identify with the characters. My response to the bunny-barrier is to instead take the story seriously. In recommending the book, I now lead with “The two main characters, Heather and Picket, are attacked by wolves and…” Because the author cast his characters as rabbits, instead of humans, he can expose a younger group of readers to the tragic and profound brokenness of the world. The rabbit world of The Green Ember tempers the heavier themes of the book and makes them palatable.
2. Picket’s Sullen Behavior.
One of the main characters, Picket, spends much of the book pouting, angry with himself, and generally bad-tempered. This could be taken as a bad example, but I think it depends on how we read the book and discuss it with our kids. One of my friends shared that Picket’s attitude provided the perfect opportunity for he and his wife to talk with one of their boys about his anger and poor attitude. Their son identified with Picket’s strengths and wanted to experience a similar transformation. All our children are learning to express and to be honest with their emotions. It’s a difficult journey. Like Picket, the tensions in our relationships with family and friends reflect our own internal battles. So, I like the fact that Picket doesn’t change immediately, and he doesn’t change on his older sister’s terms. In fact, his sister must wrestle with her older-sibling tendency to control and manage her brother. The change process is prolonged and difficult—like it often is in our own lives.
“Be careful of resentment and pride, Picket,” Uncle Wilfred said. “They have been the undoing of many a great rabbit.”
3. “The middle of the book is slow.”
For much of the book, Heather and Picket are working through and brooding over what has befallen them, dealing with an internal world of turmoil, and trying to find their place in the unfolding story. The long middle of the story is punctuated with bits of action, but it contains a lot of internal dialogue. While re-reading The Green Ember, I noticed that the middle does slow down and stretch out. I was discussing this with a friend who is re-reading The Green Ember to his kids (they chose it over rereading Harry Potter). His response was, “I can see how it slows down, but the characters have this whole new world of Cloud Mountain to explore. So, it pulls you along because you want to see what’s behind the next door.” Having read books two and three in the The Green Ember series, S.D. Smith crafts a more dynamic middle in those novels. Despite the slow middle, my kids were enrapt with the tale. I believe this is due to how Smith ends his chapters. Readers are left wondering what will happen next and curious to discover the missing pieces of the puzzle.
4. The story can be frightening for young children.
As in almost all good tales, there are scary parts. There is war, lightning, fire, betrayal, and death—all the things that cause us to ask, “What kind of world do we find ourselves in?” Younger children who are more sensitive may be frightened by the violence and more gripping scenes. However, these are well executed, free of unnecessary detail. Still, how we read these passages matters. In several of the more critical reviews, I noticed the reviewers expected the book to tell itself. However, when we read aloud any book, we also play the role of storyteller and interpreter. For example, my youngest is terrified by fires because her dear friend suffered through one. Because of this, how I read the fire scene at the beginning of the book matters. We pause and discuss what just happened, we talk about what the characters might be feeling, we join the author in his craft and play our part.
The Green Ember is just the beginning of Smith’s series. My family is eager for the next book’s release. I expect S.D. Smith’s storytelling will only grow stronger, the themes will grow deeper, and The Green Ember series will call our family alongside Heather and Picket to grow and develop with them.