The Tinker’s Daughter | Wendy Lawton

Twice in one week, I found myself deep in conversations with friends about one question: Why is it so difficult to write about Christian characters?

The question surfaced after I narrowly resisted the urge to throw a certain children’s book across the room when the heroine–a Christian girl who held fast to her faith during adversity and yet to whom I remained thoroughly unsympathetic–“sobbed violently” one too many times. This offended both the reader and the editor in me, but also flummoxed the Christian in me, because shouldn’t a character’s relationship with the Lord form a compelling thread within a story? It’s something so beautiful, so rich. Shouldn’t authors be able to capture that well?

Some do. John Bunyan comes to mind, and so does C.S. Lewis. And Marilynne Robinson. But when the work is intended for children, somehow the Christian element emerges either in an understated theme or in allegory–both of which are fine–or else the Christian threads become so overt that they seem superimposed upon the story’s plot, lending the book an unwelcome awkwardness. A preachiness. And I don’t think anybody likes preachiness.

The Tinker's Daughter, or "Why is it so hard to find strong Christian characters in fiction?" | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a few children’s books that not only weave threads of Christian belief into a plot gracefully but also make them a key point of the story, and here they are:

Heidi. Treasures of the Snow. What Katy Did. That’s it. I have read a lot of children’s books and those are the only three that come to mind.

So, why is it so difficult to write believably Christian characters and to capture their walk with Christ in a way that is both genuine and appealing?

Here is my theory: Writing about something as intimate as a person’s relationship with an unseen God must fall into the same territory as writing about one’s own marriage without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. To succeed in communicating something so intimate about a subject to which you are so close, you must strike all the notes just right or the chord fails and turns from pure music to dissonance, and the reader finds herself (for example) tempted to chuck a book across a room in frustration, because the thing the writer attempted to do should have been beautiful but wasn’t.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

For a writer to capture something as personal as a character’s spiritual growth, they have to be willing to allow the character’s doubt onto the page at times, and to accept the fact that faith is complex–it is neither simple or moralistic. They have to be willing to step back from their own relationship with the Lord a little and observe how it works, and to lend their characters just enough of their own experience that the characters successfully cross that gap from stereotype to genuine, likeable person.

I say this as a reader, mind you. I haven’t even dared tackle this subject in my own writing. But I have seen novels make the ambitious attempt to scale the twin peaks of faith and fiction only to tumble into a crevasse somewhere between the two and land in my “used bookstore” pile. Which brings me back to that book that I did not finish.

That story should have been at least interesting, if not absorbing. But it wasn’t. And after I abandoned that particular ship, I found my desire for good, Christian literature hardening into a resolve to find good, Christian literature for our daughters, as well as for the kids at school. I took to roaming the e-aisles of Amazon, looking for potential gems.

The Tinker's Daughter, by Wendy Lawton | Little Book, Big Story

And that is how I found The Tinker’s Daughter. More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that I found Wendy Lawton, an author capable of writing a compelling story that neither cheapens her characters’ Christian faith nor makes them unpleasantly trite. The Tinker’s Daughter is a well-crafted, fictional account of Mary Bunyan, John Bunyan’s eldest daughter, during the time when her father was newly imprisoned for “unsanctioned” preaching. His faith throughout the story is abundant and beautiful to behold. Mary’s faith is that of a fledgling, taking off timidly by the end of the book.

Another point in Lawton’s favor: Mary is blind, and for an author who can make me feel and smell and listen to the world of a girl without sight, I have nothing but admiration.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a handful of books in this series so far, and I must warn you that Lawton does not tackle easy material: Shadow of His Hand relates Anita Dittman’s experience in the concentration camps of Germany; Freedom’s Pen tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Africa as a young girl and endured the horror of the slave ships before being sold to a wealthy New England family.

Lawton handles this material well, including just enough detail for the reader to grasp how truly terrible these historical events were without making the stories too heavy to bear. She allows her characters to ask hard questions through it all, and includes answers that satisfy the reader without oversimplifying the truth. So, I like the fact that these books tackle content like the Holocaust and slavery. But I don’t recommend handing them over to your children without reading through them for yourself.

That said, some of them I did allow Lydia to read on her own (after reading them myself)–The Tinker’s Daughter was one of those. We’ll wait on Shadow of His Hand and Freedom’s Pen for now. I believe there are nine books in the series, so I have more to read, but for now I’m savoring each new volume and rejoicing in the existence of an author like Wendy Lawton. These books allow me to hope that there are other authors out there like her.

And it occurs to me that you might know about them: Do you know of any chapter books that center around characters whose Christian faith is a central part of the story? Please let me know in the comments!


The Tinker’s Daughter
Wendy Lawton (2002)

How I Learned to Love Love Stories

It used to be that mysteries and love stories were my two least favorite forms of fiction. But Flavia de Luce, Father Brown, and Sherlock Holmes won me over to mysteries, just as–well. If you’d like to read about the authors and characters that won me over to love stories, you can read my new piece, “How I Learned to Love Love Stories,” on the Deeply Rooted blog.

"How I Learned to Love Love Stories," on the Deeply Rooted blog | Little Book, Big Story

And while I’m sending you off to other sites, have you listened to Sarah McKenzie’s podcast, Read Aloud Revival? If you connect with anything on my blog at all, you’ll love it!

5 Books to Read Together During Lent

Our church celebrates Ash Wednesday with a simple liturgy read in a shadowy room. We light candles, draw the sanctuary’s chairs into a circle around our pastor, the table, and the ashes, and at the end of the service, file up to our pastor and wait for our turn with the ashes. As he draws a cross in black ash on each brow, the only sound is his voice saying, musically, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” to each of us. Even the children–and a high percentage of our small church body is under the age of five–fall silent for this.

5 Book to Read Together During Lent | Little Book, Big Story

Ash Wednesday leads us into Lent gently but decisively, just as Lent leads us toward Easter with the patience of a farmer sowing seeds. I love Ash Wednesday, though it tends to sneak up on me each year, coming as it does almost on the heels of Christmas. But this year, I got the jump on it: while planning posts for this blog, I saw it on the calendar and thought, “A ha! Not this year, my friend!” This year, I was ready for it. I dug out the Easter books and photographed them for you; I considered Lent with prayer for an entire week before Ash Wednesday.

And I gave thought to how our family would celebrate (we’re going to give this a try, for starters), which led me to think about how you might like to celebrate with your family. I suspect that, for both of us, a good celebration begins with good books, and with that in mind, I compiled a short list of books for you that our family has loved from year to year.

1 | Petookby Caryll Houselander

5 Book to Read Together During Lent | Little Book, Big Story

Houselander tells the story of Easter through a parallel story of a rooster named Petook; Tomie dePaola weaves little details into the illustrations that will surprise you and your little readers. (Read the full review.)

2 | Peter’s First Easterby Walter Wangerin, Jr.

5 Book to Read Together During Lent | Little Book, Big Story

Through the chapters of this picture book, Wangerin puts the reader right in Peter’s shoes, describing his love for Jesus, and his grief as he walks through the events of Holy Week. (Read the full review.)

3 | The Story of Easterby Aileen Fisher

5 Book to Read Together During Lent | Little Book, Big Story

The Story of Easter goes beyond telling the story of Holy Week (though it does that, too) and explains a bit about the traditions and symbols linked to Easter. This is one of my favorites. (Read the full review.)

4 | The Light of the Worldby Katherine Paterson

Though not strictly an Easter book, I love Katherine Paterson’s telling of Jesus’ life and think it perfectly fitting for Lenten reading, as it places Holy Week in a larger context and reminds us of what Christ accomplished on the Cross. (Read the full review.)

5 | The Donkey who Carried a Kingby R.C. Sproul

Five favorite Easter books for families | Little Book, Big Story

R.C. Sproul nests the story of the crucifixion within the story of a donkey named Davey. That story is nested, in turn, within the story of a young boy who is picked last for the team. It sounds confusing, but Sproul executes the story-within-a-story trick beautifully. (Read the full review.)

Lastly

These are my top five Easter favorites, but they are not the only Easter books featured on Little Book, Big Story. You can read the other reviews in the Easter section of the blog. I’ll share still more with you during the next few weeks, as a bookish way to observe Lent.

On Writing Stories for Your Children (It’s Easier Than You Think)

This post is my 100th post on Little Book, Big Story!  Finding books to share with you is just my cup of tea, and I can’t tell you how it warms my heart to hear that some of these books have found their way onto your own bookshelves. Thank you all for reading this blog! I love hearing from you and look forward to finding another hundred books to share with you.

The 100th Post: On Writing Stories | Little Book, Big Story

To celebrate hitting the hundredth post, I dug up one of my favorite posts from the last two years, fixed it up and added a little something extra at the end. (One thing I didn’t change but could have: I still write on the couch. Somehow, writing at a desk never took.)


For the first time in years, I have a writing desk. It is little and white and looks like a dresser when closed, but once opened, that desk is a tiny work space in a house full of daughters and cats and wing back chairs and one very patient husband. That tiny space is mine and I don’t have to share.

Until now, I’ve written at the dining room table, on the couch, or in the aforementioned wing back chairs. When I can, I write in coffee shops or at my favorite bar. But now, I have a desk. It is glorious.

Writing Stories for Your Children (It's Easier Than You Think) | Little Book, Big Story

In all of those places, I’ve written for you: stories about other stories that we have grown to love. But I’ve also written for my family, and that’s what I really want to tell you about today. You see, it suddenly dawned on me that those two realms might intersect. Here’s how:

You must enjoy reading to your children or you wouldn’t be here. But have you ever considered writing for them? Not “writing for children” in a sense that implies ambition, rejection, publication and book tours, but writing stories for your own children, the way Tolkien did when he wrote Roverandom and A.A. Milne did when he wrote Winnie-the-Pooh. Have you ever thought about doing that?

Writing Stories for Your Children | Little Book, Big Story

Here’s what I mean: when I discovered that Lydia enjoyed chapter books but struggled to find one suited for both her reading level and her age level, I wrote one for her. It’s cute and probably not that great by grown up standards, but what child doesn’t love recognizing herself (and her baby sister) in the pages of a story? She was thrilled to identify with the main character, even though I changed her name. I borrowed graphics from The Graphics Fairy, used Blurb to bind the book and ordered a paperback copy for around $15. Now The Oldest Crow lives on our shelves like a “real” book.

The Oldest Crow | Little Book, Big Story

Other books followed. There’s a collection of poems about our family in the style of A Child’s Calendar, and a picture book, illustrated with photos of girls acting out “Little Red Riding Hood” (for fun, I included that whole story in the slider below).

When Lydia’s favorite doll went missing for a few days, she and I collaborated on a story about what Maggie did while she was away and called it The Story of Maggie (and Blankie). There’s the classic “So Long, Binkie!”: A Story About Sarah, written in Sharpie and bound with Elmer’s glue and washi tape (you can read an abridged version of that one, too, at the bottom of this post).

Writing Stories for Your Children | Little Book, Big Story

The newest story, A Tale of 3 Sisters, tells the story of Phoebe’s addition to our family (you can read the whole story here).

All of these books have won a place in our girls’ hearts, despite being mostly first draft efforts that would not pass muster at a writing group, much less win the hearts of a wider audience. But my audience is small – just two – and they have a soft spot for the characters.

Writing Stories for Your Children | Little Book, Big Story

Perhaps having my own desk has gone to my head, you protest. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time on Pinterest and am taking the meaning of DIY to an unwholesome level. Perhaps.

But don’t tell me that you can’t write or draw, because you know who doesn’t care? Your kids. They’ll be thrilled to have a story written just for them, even if you do pinch the plot of a classic fairy tale or pepper the whole thing with stick figures.

You might not think it’s much but they’ll be delighted, I promise, especially if you’re able to include them in the process somehow. Writing stories for our children has merit, for us and for them, and so I thought I’d throw the idea out there this week as a review of The Book Yet Unwritten. You will write it, won’t you?

Read Little Red Riding Lu

You probably know this, but just in case it’s not immediately obvious, you can use the dots below the sliders to navigate from page to page.

Read So Long, Binkie!

So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg So Long, Binkie!, by Thea Rosenburg

The King’s Equal | Katherine Paterson

Almost a year ago, Mitch and I cancelled our Facebook accounts. This is not a good conversation starter: “So, we cancelled our Facebook accounts.” People get shifty-eyed when you say something like that. They tend to greet that news with polite nods and then silence and then a subject change, and I don’t blame them for not asking, “Why?”, but instead bringing up the weather or asking about my kids. You can practically hear the rant lurking behind that sentence, just waiting for that one word to unleash it.

But now that we’re not checking our news feeds, drafting witty status updates and so on, what do we do with ourselves? Well, we do highly profitable things like watch 30 Rock episodes back to back and not clean the house. And we do moderately profitable things like fantasize about built-in bookshelves and then take actual steps toward making them a reality. Or we obsessively sort our books in the hope of reducing our collection to a more manageable size, before moving them onto those invisible bookshelves. (By “we,” I mean “me.” I am the obsessive sorter in our home.)

The King's Equal | Little Book,  Big Story

That last one’s the sort of exercise that unearths gems, both in the books that have fallen behind the other books in the shelves and in the new books that one gets with trade credit at the used bookstore when one arrives with boxes and bags of books in hand. The King’s Equal was one of the former: a book that I’d purchased at a library book sale a year ago, read to Lydia once and then lost among the books at the back of the bookshelf, only to find it recently while rummaging through our ever-expanding collection of books.

Paterson has turned up on this blog before, as the author of The Light of the Worldbut her second appearance here is for a very different sort of book: it is a fairy tale in the old style, but with a twist, as the prince is an arrogant punk who no one–not even his ailing father–wants running the country. Just before his father dies, he declares that his son cannot wear his crown until he finds a wife who is his equal. The prince sees that as in impossibility, for who could ever be his equal? But he wants that crown, so he begins a search that takes the him down a path peopled with rich characters, transformative events and talking wolves.

The King's Equal | Little Book,  Big Story

The King’s Equal is available as both a long picture book or a short chapter book, which makes it easy to find a version that will appeal to your child’s interest level. And it’s a good one for both girls and boys, given the presence of both a prince and a lovely lady named Rosamund, neither of whom are the bland stereotypes sometimes present in fairy tales.

Lydia spent a long while camped out on the couch with it after our copy emerged from the recesses of our bookshelves. When I asked her how she liked it on this read-through, she said, “Good.” And that was it. But the way she bent over the page intently, reading the text and absorbing the illustrations without fidgeting once, assured me that I’d better share this book with you quick. It’s a keeper.

The Adventures of Robin Hood | Roger Lancelyn Green

Our two oldest daughters do not like movies. The call, “Let’s watch a movie!” is enough to send one of them from the room whimpering, no matter how much popcorn we throw in to sweeten the deal, while the other maintains an interested distance, watching wide-eyed from the doorway as we settle onto the couch.

Their mother understands this. She, too, prefers the slower, less stimulating pace of a good book to the exhausting speed of cinema, and for a variety of reasons. But their father would like to watch Star Wars with them one day, and he’d like to do it without one of them buried in his armpit, trembling, while the other one cowers in the next room. And so we began a campaign. We call it “The Get the Girls to Like Movies Campaign.”

Our strategy is simple: Watch a movie or two a month until we find one that they actually like. Find more movies like that one. And so on.

The Adventures of Robin Hood | Little Book, Big Story

We struck out a few times (having forgotten how terrifying Pixar movies can be), but this month, at last, we succeeded! We won them over with a movie  pulled from the murky depths of our own childhoods–one whose success with our daughters surprised even us: Disney’s 1973 movie, Robin Hood. We hoped they would at least tolerate it, but a few minutes into the film it became apparent that they had already moved to a deeper level of affection: they loved it.

They now both answer to Maid Marian, have both announced their intentions to have Robin Hood-themed birthday parties and have taken a renewed interest in the bows they received for Christmas. When I told them that Robin Hood is also a book–and not only that, but a book that we have right here in our house–they looked at me like I had just announced that we shall, henceforth, eat only ice cream for breakfast.

Maid Marian in Training | Little Book, Big Story

Obviously, we started reading the book together.

Have you read The Adventures of Robin Hood? I had. And I have to admit, I had read it since starting this blog and decided, on the first read through, not to include it here. I so badly wanted the book to end after Chapter 21 (“King Richard came back and they got married! The End”), but the story goes on for two more heartbreaking chapters while everything that I loved about the book until that point slowly bled out of the story by the last page.

Maid Marian in Training | Little Book, Big Story

After reading through it again, though, I loved those first twenty-one chapters so much that I decided to include it here with a simple warning: if you do not want to end the story with a deflated whump, stop at the end of Chapter 21. It pains me a little to recommend that, because I am usually the sort to read not only the entire book–whether I liked it or not–but also the acknowledgements, notes, and author interview at the back (if available). I am thorough and a little obsessive about this.

The Adventures of Robin Hood | Little Book, Big Story

But enough about that. Now I will tell you why I love (the first twenty-one chapters of) The Adventures of Robin Hood:

Robin Hood. Robin gives up everything he has–lands, title, marriage, wealth–in order to fight for his absent king and care for his down-trodden neighbors, but he is not self-righteous or obnoxiously perfect. He is likable, bold, and gentleman enough to laugh when fairly beaten. (I like that in a hero.)

Maid Marian. You may remember her as the good-natured, long-lashed fox from the cartoon, but that, my friends, is just one paltry interpretation of her character. In Green’s book, she is “tall and beautiful, but strong and fearless also, a very fitting wife for such a man [as Robin].” This lovely lady is an expert archer and wields a sword with as much mastery as Robin himself, but she is also a gracious hostess, virtuous maiden, and loving but strong-willed daughter. I adore pretty much everything about her and prefer her, hands down, to King Arthur‘s Guinevere any day.

The Adventures! The whole notion of living in the nooks and crannies of Sherwood Forest while fighting for the sake of the rightful king is deeply appealing to me as well as to my daughters (and we are not “outdoorsy” people). But how we love reading about Little John, Friar Tuck, the despicable Prince John! How we long for those moments when Robin Hood throws off his disguise and saves the day!

These stories have been told again and again by poets, authors and filmmakers, but I do love the elegance and excitement that Roger Lancelyn Green weaves into his version. As I said earlier, this book is not perfect–ending aside, it is a little uneven in places–but Green captures the energy and humor of the stories in a beautiful way, and while the language is fairly advanced, I have been surprised at how much both of our girls, at six and four, pick up and enjoy from each story. (I have taken to retelling Robin’s adventures as bedtime stories, though, just to be sure.)

All Things Bright and Beautiful | Ashley Bryan

That morning, our car wouldn’t start. It made a sound like an emphatic no, and that was that. So we had it towed–the first in a series of car-related but otherwise disconnected events that would end four days later, with a crunch that was the sound of another driver colliding with (and, ultimately, totaling) our parked car.

The same day that we sent our car in for a minor repair, I had a backache. I assumed it was the sort of thing one gets for carting a toddler around on one hip all day, so I took a bunch of ibuprofen and went to bed early in a room redolent of Tiger Balm. What it was, though, was the flu–not the gruesome kind that leaves you sweaty and asleep on the bathroom floor, but the kind that whittles away at your constitution until you’re gaunt and delicate and feel the way I imagine Victorian invalids felt as they sipped boullion in beds hung with damask curtains.

I was the first, but we all caught it. Two weeks later, as I write this, three of us still have it.

I have forgotten what it’s like to feel rested.

All Things Bright and Beautiful | Little Book, Big Story

If confronted with one of these things at a time, I would probably feel badly used by the universe. I would complain and feel bad about complaining, but I would complain anyway. But because the troubles have come all at once and have so shaken us out of our schedules and routines that I cannot rely on any single day to look the way I think it should, I have taken to peering behind every new issue to see what God is doing back there and how the heck we are supposed to respond.

And then J.I Packer comes to my rescue:

. . . the whole purpose of [the Christian’s] existence is that with heart and life they should worship and exalt God. In every situation, therefore, their one question is: what will make the most for God’s glory? What should I do in order that in these circumstances God may be glorified?

All Things Bright and Beautiful | Little Book, Big Story

How can we glorify God in these circumstances, when we are feverish, fatigued, and on hold with insurance companies? We can praise him by making homemade chicken broth and fetching water bottles for each other even when we’d all rather lie on the couch. We can get up with the baby again (without grumbling). We can keep the teapot full.

Little Red Teapot | Little Book, Big Story

We can glorify him by showing patience toward insurance agents, each other, and the other driver. We can give thanks for the fact that the driver–having fallen asleep at the wheel–hit our empty, parked car and not a building. Or an oncoming car. Or a pedestrian.

Do we do this perfectly? No. Not even close. But it helps to remember that, even at 3:30 in the morning (when there is typically a lot of grumbling), we can thank God for giving us these particular trials at this particular time, because through them, we see him at work in us. We depend upon him, because we can’t take for granted some of the things that we’ve grown accustomed to–our health, for one. Our car. Our quiet nights.

All Things Bright and Beautiful | Little Book, Big Story

None of this really has to do with today’s book. It would be a neat little conclusion if I could tell you, “And this book was so encouraging to us while we were sick!”, but in truth we read a lot of Mo Willems, watched Robin Hood about four times and read this book not once.

But All Things Bright and Beautiful is lovely and restorative and I like looking through it now–it’s the literary equivalent, perhaps, of that Victorian boullion. Notice the lively, paper-cut illustrations! The comforting words of a familiar hymn! The fact that we check this one out from our local library over and over again!

All Things Bright and Beautiful | Little Book, Big Story

And notice the joy! The joy is good. I needed the memory of that joy around 3:30 this morning.