Unwrapping the Greatest Gift | Ann Voskamp

For the past four or five years, we have marked the days of Advent by celebrating with a Jesse tree. The Advent Jesse Tree, by Dean Meador Lambert has served us well and taken us through Advent after Advent, but this year I decided to branch out (pun totally intended) and try a new book, a huge and beautifully illustrated book with a reading level more suited to our smaller children: Unwrapping the Greatest Giftby Ann Voskamp.

I ordered it with a certain amount of apprehension, though. I had read Voskamp’s book for adults, One Thousand Gifts, and found that her writing style was–ahem–not quite my cup of tea. There are certain authors who tinker so much with the way that they say things that it can be difficult to get at what they’re trying to say–the reader can’t help but focus on the words themselves, rather than on the image they’re trying to evoke–and this particular reader finds that crazy-making. But I have a theory about writers like this, and in this case, it was proven right.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift | Ann Voskamp

My theory is this: writing for children forces authors who might otherwise be flowery or verbose to cut to the chase and say what they mean, because children won’t typically put up with the fancy stuff. I’m not implying here that authors should dumb their writing down in order to make it appealing to kids–what I’m saying is, in fact, quite the opposite. The expectations (and attention spans) of young readers force authors to get on with the story and stop wasting time trying to reword phrases in a clever or edgy way, and that, ultimately, that is a good thing.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift | Ann Voskamp

For Ann Voskamp, the experience of writing for a younger audience has suited her writing well: she has created a book that takes families through the twenty-five days of Advent with daily stories from Scripture that set the Christmas story in it’s rightful place–in the midst of the grand story of the Bible–and those stories are so beautifully illustrated that they feel almost extravagant. I love the illustrations, and I know that our girls will love them, too.

Each story closes with discussion questions and service ideas (which our old book did not have), but no prayers (which I will miss). It feels like a big deal to move away from our tried-and-true book, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Unwrapping the Greatest Gift enriches our family’s Jesse Tree celebration by bringing in fresh perspective and–yes–illustrations.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift | Ann Voskamp

And if you’ve never done a Jesse Tree before, this is a great place to start. Celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree is a great way to keep Christmas from becoming a whirlwind two-day celebration of shredded wrapping paper and weepy kids, because it lays the groundwork so thoroughly for what we are celebrating and why well before December 25th hits. To get started, you can read my previous post on the topic, or just dive right in with Ann Voskamp’s recommendations in the opening chapters of Unwrapping the Greatest Gift.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift | Ann Voskamp

Next up: I have a special edition DIY post on cheap, easy, and lovely Jesse Tree ornaments slated to appear on Tuesday (I’ll also have some ideas of where you can purchase a set, for the DIY-averse). Stay tuned!

One Wintry Night | Ruth Bell Graham

As a new believer, I was seventeen, wore combat boots to church, and approached the Bible as I would any other book: I opened it, flipped past the table of contents, and started to read. I treated the Bible as a single story, at times confusing and downright unlikable, because I didn’t know any better.

One Wintry Night | Little Book, Big Story

I know now that many Christians advise new believers to begin with something easier to read and saturated with the Gospel, something like John or Galatians–I have, on occasion, done the same myself–and as a result, many Christians go for decades before meeting the bit players of the Bible or confronting the fine points of the Mosaic Law.

But when we approach Scripture like that, it becomes easy to see the Bible as a collection of story fragments that may or may not fit together to form a cohesive whole, and so I am thankful that I came to books like John or Galatians only after wrestling through the Old Testament with its laws, prophets, and poetry. After months spent reading the genealogies, detailed descriptions of things measured in cubits, and all that stuff in Ezekiel about the “likeness of living creatures” and the “likeness of a throne,” I was hungry for good news.

I didn’t know to put it this way then, but what I longed for was the Messiah.

One Wintry Night | Little Book, Big Story

And then, the New Testament. I sat in an armchair in a cabin by one of Minnesota’s thousand lakes with the door open, the screen door closed, while the smell of breakfast drifted through it from my aunt and uncle’s cabin, and I turned the page from Malachi, to the title page–THE NEW TESTAMENT–to this: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ . . . “ (Matt. 1:1). Now that was a genealogy I could get into. The morning light perked up; the song of the birds crescendoed. I held my breath and read on.

One Wintry Night | Little Book, Big Story

Ruth Bell Graham takes a similar approach to the story of Christ’s birth in her book, One Wintry Night: she doesn’t treat it as a story separate from the rest of the Bible, but as part of a larger story (the big story). The premise of the book is this: a boy named Zeb gets caught outside in a snowstorm. He finds sanctuary with a neighbor, an old woman who tends to his sprained ankle and tells him the Christmas story to help pass the time until the storm dies down.

The story is told in chapters and so makes a good devotional for Advent, beginning with the story of Creation and ending with the Resurrection. Graham writes clearly and well, and that clearness of tone pairs well with Richard Jesse Watson’s illustrations. The dust jacket says that he spent four years preparing the illustrations for this book, and it shows: they are highly intricate, delicate and lifelike, so much so that it is hard to flip past the beautiful double spreads to continue the story without pausing to study them closely.

Advent is a season meant for looking not just at the Christmas story itself, but at the way it fits in with the whole of Scripture, and books like One Wintry Night know this. In the opening pages, the old woman says:

“The first Christmas happened almost 2,000 years ago,” she began. “That’s when the angel appeared to the shepherds outside Bethlehem. But the story doesn’t begin there. It couldn’t have because the angel called Jesus a ‘savior,’ or a rescuer. Someone must have been in trouble.”

The story as we know it begins at the very beginning of the Bible.

5 Great Books About Making Art

I am a writer. An artist. A musician. A singer of ridiculous songs. Drinker of tea. Dedicated fan of Foyle’s War. I am not–or had always maintained that I was not–a teacher. But then God said, “Ha!” And now I’m a teacher.

I mentioned before that my daughter attends a small, Classical home school co-op and that I am the makeshift librarian there. But as of this year, I am also the art teacher, a plot twist that I have enjoyed quite a lot and that now means that not only are there books on every available surface of our house but also pans of watercolors, oil pastel trays, and paintings laid flat to dry on our counters and tables and floors.

5 Great Books About Making Art | Little Book, Big Story

I test a lot of lesson plans (translation: I paint a lot!), but I also read a lot of picture books about art, because I’m finding that books are a great way to introduce an art lesson (or anything else, really) to a group of kids. And I’m finding that there are some really excellent books about art out there. In a departure from our usual fare (we seem to be making quite a few of those lately, which must mean that I’ve reviewed most of my very favorite books and am now looking elsewhere for inspiration), I have decided to share a list of my five favorite finds from the art section of our school’s small library:

1. MIX IT UP!, BY HERVE TULLET

Mix it Up! | Little Book, Big Story

How do you teach color theory to kids when they don’t have paint on hand to mix for themselves? Tullet gives us the next best thing: a book that the kids can interact with.

Mix it Up! | Little Book, Big Story

I read this book to all three of my classes, grades pre-K through 4, walking up and down the desks so that each student got a turn to press, smear, and shake the book, and I just loved watching how differently the students responded to it. One thing was universal: they adored it. One kindergartener looked at me wonderingly and said, “That book is really magic.” (I let her take it home for the weekend.)

2. LINES THAT WIGGLE, BY CANDACE WHITMAN

Lines That Wiggle | Little Book, Big Story

This playful book introduces children to the many, many ways we use lines both in art and everyday life. I just can’t get enough of the illustrations. The colors! The creativity! The wiggly lines!

Lines That Wiggle | Little Book, Big Story

I haven’t read this one to the students yet (or to my own children, one of whom is a student after all), but I am definitely looking forward to sharing it with them.

3. PANTONE COLORS

Pantone Colors | Little Book, Big Story

I didn’t immediately see the appeal of this book: at first glance, it looks like a slightly-larger-than-normal board book about colors with no discernible story line at all. But the magic of Pantone Colors is in the color squares: they have lovely names like “Orangutan Orange” or “Mitten Purple” and practically beg you to sit with your kids and study them.

Pantone Colors | Little Book, Big Story

We like to name our favorite color on each page, or guess each other’s favorite color, or choose our favorite color name (mine? “Wet Sidewalk Gray,” followed closely by “Grandma Gray.” Also, “Teapot Blue”). I originally bought a copy of this book for the school, but then . . . we kept it. So I had to buy a different one for the school.

4. BEAUTIFUL OOPS!, BY BARNEY SALTZBERG

Beautiful Oops! | Little Book, Big Story

This book is a tremendous gift for kids who struggle with perfectionism in drawing, as it explores mistakes and the various opportunities they provide. It’s a charming book, full of pop-ups, overlays, and clever three dimensional pages, like this one:

Beautiful Oops! | Little Book, Big Story

Beautiful Oops! encourages us to view mistakes as unexpected opportunities, and that is sage advice (delivered in a creative package).

5. SACHIKO UMOTO’S ILLUSTRATION SCHOOL SERIES

Illustration School | Little Book, Big Story

These books are great for slightly older kids (or adults, for that matter. I originally bought these for myself). Sachiko Umoto’s illustrations are fun to duplicate, and she walks readers through each one step by step. One thing I specifically appreciate about this series is that even though she draws stylized illustrations of people, plants, and animals, she pays special attention to the anatomy of the object under study: she doesn’t teach readers how to draw flower, but how to draw a poppy, or a hyacinth, or a daffodil.
Illustration School | Little Book, Big Story

Likewise, she not only teaches how to draw a person or a dog, but demonstrates the underlying skeleton, so we readers can see how the figure should move and why the limbs are placed the way they are. Her lessons are simple, but thorough.

BONUS

Here is my favorite series to work from while creating lesson plans for art class:

20 WAYS TO DRAW A CAT (OR A TREE, Tulip, MUSTACHE, AND MORE)

20 Ways to Draw a . . . | Little Book, Big Story

The 20 Ways to Draw  . . . series is fun because it doesn’t actually tell you how to draw a shark, but instead gives you a double-page spread of twenty different sharks, shown from various angles and drawn in various styles, to use as inspiration for drawing your own shark (or jellyfish or pine cone or fern).

20 Ways to Draw a . . . | Little Book, Big Story

I pull from these books when looking for a clear, simple way to draw, say, an apple, and my girls love to flip through them and request lessons on how to draw a specific picture. (On a related note, I have drawn a lot of cats since we got that book.)

LASTLY

If you would like more artsy inspiration, you can follow my Pinterest board which is about just that. I post lesson plans there, as well as free drawing sheets, crafts for home, and all manner of fun art ideas.

The Big Picture Story Bible | David Helm

After six consecutive nights spent awake and in the company of a congested baby, you start to forget important things like why you normally leave your glasses on the bookshelf near the door and not on the floor for the baby to find, or that you were going to mention to your husband the fact that a bolt is missing from the rear wheel of the car, or, incredibly, how to pronounce your own first name (please tell me that has happened to you, too). Or you panic for a moment, while on a walk with the children, because you don’t see the baby–where is she?–before realizing that she is in the stroller that you are pushing right in front of you as you walk, kicking her feet happily as her sisters drop fallen leaves in her lap.

The Big Picture Story Bible | Little Book, Big Story

You also forget things like why you wanted to write a blog post about David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible. The post is there, at the top of your list of drafts, but you find yourself sitting on the couch at 5:57 am, drinking a rapidly cooling cup of Earl Grey tea and thinking about that missing bolt.

The Big Picture Story Bible | Little Book, Big Story

However, there is a light pinging way back in the back of my mind, reminding me that the ladies at Aslan’s Library wrote a beautiful review of not only The Big Picture Story Bible, but also of the accompanying audio CDs. Not only that, but they linked to this excellent presentation by David Helm on how to teach your children the whole story of the Bible (I watched that and it was so good, great for watching while folding laundry, knitting, or staring off into space). So today, I will refer you to Aslan’s Library and go back to nursing my now lukewarm tea and savoring the final chapters of Lila, by Marilynne Robinson.

Notice the heavily worn binding of our book–evidence, surely of a book worth reading again and again and again:

The Big Picture Story Bible | Little Book, Big Story

PS: Speaking of Lila, I learned yesterday that not only did Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite authors ever, release a sequel to one of my favorite books ever–Gilead–this month, but the Abhorsen trilogy–one of my favorite trilogies ever–just got promoted to a quartet with the release of a brand new fourth book! Between Lila and Clariel, I’m a little giddy right now. Exhausted, but giddy.

Featured Author: C.S. Lewis

When I choose books to review on this blog, I find that there are some authors who have won my heart so thoroughly that I can’t decide which of their books to review first. These are the authors that I love for themselves, not for any single book, and whose name on the spine of an otherwise unknown volume is enough insurance for me to buy a copy without even peeking at the blurb on the back of the book. Introducing you to them is my way of saying, “Yes, we’ll get to the specific titles. But for now, just skip to the part where you read any book they have ever written.”

Today’s featured author is one who looms large in the recent history of Christian thought. He is one that you’ve doubtless encountered and may already love, but the thought that you may not have gone further into his work than The Chronicles of Narnia finally motivated me to put pen to paper and draft this post. Perhaps I’m reminding you of an old friend. Perhaps. But I hope that, for some of you, this post serves as a welcome introduction to a new author, one whose work will earn a well-dogeared place in your own library: C.S. Lewis.


To be perfectly honest, I labored through the first chapters of Mere Christianity when I first encountered it at 19. I made a few false starts before I pushed on through those introductory chapters and into the heart of the book, but once there I realized that I was in the hands of an author adept at explaining complex concepts, and I began to see that the very questions I wrestled with as a new Christian could not only be answered, but could be answered in a logical way. (I have read the whole book many times since.)

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

C.S. Lewis fought in one world war but lived through them both, and he was a writer that spoke specifically to his time. But his voice carries, and his answers to the big questions about God and Christianity still satisfy readers today, when we, like the British soldiers and civilians of his original audience, struggle to understand why we should bother with Christianity–or any religion–at all.

Yet while he reasoned clearly on complex issues, he was not above telling stories that still appeal to children as well as adults, Christians as well as non-Christians, bookworms and those who are only caught by a good, old-fashioned adventure. His works span every genre and range in level of difficulty from those written for children (The Chronicles of Narniato works for adults; they cover everything from the afterlife (The Great Divorce) to prayer (Letters to Malcolm) to the question of pain and suffering (The Problem of Pain), all from a layman’s perspective, but with a scholar’s depth and a pitch-perfect ear for language (and humor).

Mere Christianity | Little Book, Big Story

C.S. Lewis seemed always to have the perfect metaphor for the most abstract ideas, and that is, I suppose, why his illustrations turn up in sermon after sermon: if C.S. Lewis has written about the issue in question, then I doubt if anyone else has written about it better.

” . . . it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy has been offered to us. We are far too easily pleased, like an ignorant child who goes on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.” (The Weight of Glory)

Fiction for Children

– The Chronicles of Narniathese are the books that earned Lewis a place on this blog, after all.

The Chronicles of Narnia | Little Book, Big Story

Fiction for Adults

– The Science Fiction Trilogy: these are all worth reading, but I bet you’ll be particularly taken with the second book, Perelandra.

The Science Fiction Trilogy | Little Book, Big Story

– The Screwtape Letters: letters from a senior devil to a junior devil, on how to tempt and enslave a man.

– The Great Divorce: an exploration of the afterlife, in narrative form. Utterly unforgettable.

– Til We Have Faces: a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told by Psyche’s older sister. Unique and absorbing.

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

Nonfiction for Adults

– Mere Christianity: an examination of what Christians believe and how they live in the light of those beliefs. A classic, and for good reason.

– The Weight of Glory: a collection of talks and sermons given at various points in his career. One of my favorites, it contains a number of his best-known illustrations, and is a good introduction to his nonfiction.

– The Four Loves: Lewis writes about the four different types of love.

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

– Surprised by Joy: Lewis’s “autobiography of faith,” in which he examines his own conversion from atheism to Christianity.

– Letters to Malcolm: one side of a correspondence about prayer.

– Reflections on the Psalms: a concise meditation on the psalms, from the perspective of Lewis as a layman. He answers some of the common issues in the Psalms (the vindictive violence, for example) in satisfying ways.

– Letters to Children: sweet and charming responses from Lewis to the children who wrote to him about his Narnia books. This book is lesser known, but it’s a treasure.

 

The Boy and the Ocean | Max Lucado

Here is my thesis for this post: The Boy and the Ocean is beautiful. I loved it. The writing is rhythmic, the illustrations uncommonly gorgeous, the story endearing, and the whole thing describes the love of God in a way that appeals to my daughters–and to me.

The Boy and the Ocean follows an unnamed boy as he vacations near the sea with his parents. The story appears in three parts, as he explores the ocean, the mountains, and then studies the night sky with his parents, and reflects on how the ocean, mountains, and sky, like God’s love, are endless and unchanging.

This book is a little like Does God Know How to Tie Shoes?, a little like Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” And the illustrations are . . . oh, how to describe them? Like the sort of thing I think about before falling asleep–but that doesn’t exactly help you, does it? Suffice it to say, they are stunning, absolutely stunning:

The Boy and the Ocean | Little Book, Big Story

The color blue that T. Lively Fluharty uses throughout the book is one of my very favorites (a small detail, but one worth noting).

The Boy and the Ocean | Little Book, Big Story

The Boy and the Ocean was well received by both our six-year-old and our (newly) four-year-old–it was her birthday gift– so I would recommend it for a wide age range. Even a toddler might enjoy looking at the illustrations (I know that I, an adult, sure did).

Deeply Rooted, Issue 3 is here!

 

And inside it, you’ll find a little something special:

If you remember how much I admire JJ Heller, then you can guess how thrilled I was to have the opportunity to interview her for Deeply Rooted, but in case you’ve forgotten, know this: I did at least one happy dance when I got the assignment. And as much fun as the article was to work on, it’s just a tiny piece of the overall loveliness of this autumn issue, which tackles subjects like grief, gratitude, the exclusivity of Christ, and how we as busy moms can serve those outside our families. Also, there’s a recipe for a kale and sausage casserole. I made it for dinner on Saturday, and the casserole was delicious.

You can order your copy of the magazine here. (And you can read about why I write about Deeply Rooted on my blog for kids’ books here.)