Early Sunday Morning | Denene Millner

Some books tell about adventure. Some books tell about growth—the emotional kind or sometimes just the regular kind that happens in the garden (or sometimes both). And some books are about ordinary moments. There are no dragons; the tension is slight, just the recognizable tension we feel every day. These are stories that could maybe happen to us, but they don’t—at least, not in just the way they happen to the characters—and that difference makes these ordinary stories potent.

I may have four daughters, but they are not the Penderwicks.

My daughters may lose their front teeth, but they won’t do it in just the way Sal does on that one morning in Maine.

Early Sunday Morning, by Denene Millner | Little Book, Big Story

Early Sunday Morning is one of these stories. June is an African American girl, nervous about singing her first solo in the church choir. We get to walk with her through the weekend before it as her family tries, in their various ways, to encourage her and smooth her nerves.

Early Sunday Morning, by Denene Millner | Little Book, Big Story

It’s a beautiful, simple story that invites our family into the lives of another family and allows us to see how they speak to one another, what their church is like, how they spend their mornings. Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s illustrations add vibrant colors and texture to the story, enriching for us the glimpse of one loving family on one Sunday morning.

Early Sunday Morning, by Denene Millner | Little Book, Big Story

My favorite moment comes at the end—I won’t spoil it for you. It could happen, with slight differences, to another family, but the way it happens to June’s family draws us closer to them. And perhaps it helps us appreciate our own a bit more. Perhaps it helps us to love other families a bit better.


Early Sunday Morning
Denene Miller; Vanessa Brantley Newton (2017)

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Gone-Away Lake | Elizabeth Enright

Every year it’s hard to narrow my list of “best books” down from fifty to ten, but this year was exceptionally hard. I wanted to tell you about Jewel, another novel I’ll reread years from now; I wanted to at least mention The Stars, by HA Rey; A Charlotte Mason Companion nearly made the cut. But no book came closer to being the eleventh title on my list of ten than this one. Only the realization that I could justify writing an entire post about it saved us all from a rapidly expanding list (because if I added an eleventh, why not a twelfth? Why not a twentieth? Who’s to stop me—but me?).

Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright | Little Book, Big Story

And so, here is a book that rightly belongs among the best books I read last year. I found Gone-Away Lake on one of the Ambleside Online lists (more on those lists here); I reserved it from the library. When we picked it up, I skimmed the blurb on the back of the book, was immediately fascinated by the story’s premise—two kids find a ghost town among the marshes behind their house? Rad!—and asked Lydia to give me a turn with it when she finished.

She read it in an afternoon and assured me that I would love it, too, as she handed it over. She was right.

Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright | Little Book, Big Story

Gone-Away Lake follows the story of Portia and her cousin Julian, who discover a ghost town, complete with two people who know the town’s story. As I read this book I realized that the only thing better than mysterious, abandoned houses is mysterious, abandoned houses—and the stories behind them. Gone-Away  Lake is warm and friendly and fun to read, and—oh joy!—it has a sequel that is equally lovely.


Gone-Away Lake
Elizabeth Enright (1957)

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Best Books of 2017

This was a year of learning. Good portions of it were given to reading curriculum samples, blog posts, and books about homeschooling. But I also learned to tend flowers, to keep a nature journal, and I took to writing fiction.

Here is what you should know about me and writing fiction: in college, I played it safe and studied poetry and creative nonfiction*. I am glad I did, because creative nonfiction is what I do these days, both for this blog and for Deeply Rooted. Nonfiction seemed civilized: one could draw on one’s own life, one’s own actual experiences. Fiction seemed too much like the Wild West to me: people went there and died of starvation, or in a bar fight. There was too little structure, I thought, too few rules. No civilized folk to protest, “But it didn’t happen like that!” No sheriff.

But my last quarter of college, I needed to pad my schedule with a few extra classes, so along with Martial Arts 101, I took a fiction writing class. It was wild and a little terrifying at times. But I loved it. The air was clear and invigorating, the grueling travel to a story’s end worth the work.

And then I graduated.

Of all the books I read in 2017, I liked these 10 the best (book list) | Little Book, Big Story

Fifteen years later, I am trying out fiction again. I thought, maybe there’s no sheriff, but there are certainly good, established neighbors around who can teach me a thing or two about survival. I met a few of them this year through some essays on writing, and I read some stunning novels, truly beautiful books. I am now at work drafting some of those mediocre stories you have to write before you get to (here’s hoping) the good ones.

What I am getting at here is: I read a lot of fiction this year and a lot of books about writing it. I read a lot about the other things I’m learning to do, too. And in doing so I found some incredible books, at least fifty-percent of which I’ll read again (at least once). What a year!

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2017 | Little Book, Big Story

* I’m sure some could argue that there’s nothing particularly safe about either poetry or creative nonfiction, or that writing about your own life is infinitely more alarming that inventing lives to write about, but at nineteen, I preferred the known to the unknown. I knew my own life tolerably well, and I had written a lot of middling poetry and song lyrics. And so those genres seemed safest to me.

 

Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch, by George Eliot | Little Book, Big Story

I started this book when Josie was small. I wanted a big novel, so I got a big novel, and I began to read. But—alas!—I grew painfully bored after a few chapters and, being sleep-deprived, found myself dozing off during passages that were probably important. I shelved Middlemarch with a sigh and thought, Not right now. But this summer I picked it up again, grew bored in the early chapters, dozed off during some important passages, and found myself wanting to quit around the same spot where I had dropped off before, but I pressed on, and I am so glad.

This book is beautiful, stunning, breathtaking—any number of adjectives apply to its slow development of character, perfect pacing, and fitting conclusion. A few chapters from the end I began to realize that Middlemarch would join the ranks of my favorite novels. By the end I wondered if it hadn’t topped the list.

Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, by ND Wilson

Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, by ND Wilson | Little Book, Big Story

I took Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl with me on vacation last summer and proceeded to underline and dog ear it heavily—every other passage, it seems, is brilliant and brightly written. Wilson’s thoughts on this world, the wildness of it, were just right for reading on a cabin’s front porch overlooking a lake.

The Hidden Machinery, by Margot Livesey

 The Hidden Machinery, by Margot Livesey | Little Book, Big Story

We had a neighbor who kept the best-curated Little Free Library around. After a summer of supplying me with Wendell Berry, Flannery O’Connor and more (and I, in turn, kept it stocked PG Wodehouse, EB White and more), they moved and I mourned. Now it houses the usual department store crime novels and cast-off magazines (alas!).

But before they moved, I found this gem: I knew nothing about the author, only that it was about writing novels, and so I grabbed it. Margot Livesey looks at how writers learn from great writers by reading their stories; she discusses Shakespeare and Flaubert in glorious detail. This is one of my best free library finds to date.

No Little women, by Aimee Byrd

No Little Women, by Aimee Byrd | Little Book, Big Story

Aimee Byrd’s vision of women in the church is a challenging and uncomfortably convicting one. She both points church leaders to Scripture passages that press us to revisit some of the habits we’ve settled into within the church, and she encourages women to be knowledgeable about Scripture and quick to spot false doctrine.

One of my favorite features of the book was a chapter in which Byrd quotes passages from well-known books marketed toward Christian women and trains readers to ask pointed questions of the text. I’m sure she’ll offend every reader at least once, but in a good way, a way that means she’s prodding at something that needs examination. It is worth noting, though, that she doesn’t do this just to rile people up: her arguments are firmly rooted in Scripture, and her concern is loving, if direct. This book gave me much to ponder.

The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge

 The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge | Little Book, Big Story

I read and adored Goudge’s Eliot Family Trilogy last year, but this book was even better. Imagine an LM Montgomery novel set in the English countryside, with an protagonist not in the dawn of life but in its twilight, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s to love about The Scent of Water. I already look forward to rereading it.

Humble Roots, by Hannah Anderson

Humble Roots, by Hannah Anderson | Little Book, Big Story

In this graceful little book about humility, Hannah Anderson explores why it matters that we know our place as branches to Christ’s vine. She draws on stories from her community in rural Appalachia, and writes of plants and the rhythm of the garden in a way that reminds me of Lilias Trotter’s Parables from the Cross. I loved the way she framed the wisdom of this book within stories and linked it to the outside world.

The Laws Guide to Nature Journaling and Drawing, by John Muir Laws

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, by John Muir Laws | Little Book, Big Story

When I realized that I wanted to teach the girls to keep nature journals, I also realized that I needed to keep one myself—the habit wouldn’t take if I didn’t. So I made myself a little bag of supplies, dug a tiny sketchbook out of my desk, and checked this book out from the library. In it, John Muir Laws explains the concepts behind keeping a nature journal, but he also discusses drawing and painting techniques, explores a number of different mediums, and quietly cracks jokes as he goes.

This quickly became a favorite book, not just because I was new to nature journaling and it was helpful, but because Laws describes  certain concepts so clearly that my art skills leveled up more in the few months I spent with this book than they had in the previous ten years. He’s a master at explaining complex techniques in a few short sentences, and the step-by-step drawings throughout this book are worth their weight in gold.

Mystery & Manners, by Flannery O’Connor

Mystery & Manners, Essays by Flannery O'Connor | Little Book, Big Story

Flannery O’Connor is adept at describing her own work and the work of a writer in a way that cuts to the heart of things. This won’t surprise you, if you’re familiar with her stories. She does cut right to the heart of things. But for a writer trying to write stories that aren’t entirely aimless or bland, O’Connor is a sharp-tongued, discerning, articulate teacher. I am still reading these essays and have been reading them slowly for months, but I feel confident ranking them here because I’ve yet to find one that didn’t send me to my notebook with some new thought to ponder.

Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier

Du Maurier’s eerie novel about a young wife haunted by her husband’s deceased first wife is perfect from start to finish. Du Maurier’s eye for detail brings a scene to life with the mention of one fallen moth, one forgotten corkscrew. And the twists and turns of the plot! Egad! This book, too, has joined my list of frequently revisited favorites. (I wasn’t able to photograph this one because I promptly pressed it upon a friend.)

Cut Flower Garden, by Erin Benzakein

Cut Flower Garden, by Erin Benzakein | Little Book, Big Story

This book is the reason we skipped squash this summer and planted row upon row of flowers. Benzakein runs Floret Farm, a small flower farm not far from where we live, where she grows and arranges gorgeous blooms. In this book, she gives tips on planting, tending, and harvesting her favorites, as well as some ideas for arranging the harvested flowers. Cut Flower Garden was a glorious spring read.

What about you? Which books did you discover this year?
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Exploring the Bible | David Murray

Within one week of starting this reading plan with the girls, I wanted to review it for you. “Look!” I wanted to cry. “We found it! The One!” Our relationship with family devotionals has been tumultuous, and after my recent revelation that we had only made it four days into our last attempt, I had the sort of clarity one has when, while trying to eat raw onions on a sandwich, one realizes that one is an adult who neither likes nor has to eat raw onions.

Family devotionals aren’t working for us, I realized. And they don’t have to. We want to study God’s Word with our daughters; we want them to love it, to see the beauty and the brutality and the bottomlessness of it, and we want to them to love the One who wrote it. We need to find another way, I prayed. What does this look like for us?

Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids, by David Murray (review) | Little Book, Big Story

And then, behold! I ordered Exploring the Bible as a Christmas gift for Lydia, thinking it would be nice for her. But when I received it and flipped through its pages and began to see what it was about, I paused. I considered. I ordered two more copies. Lydia, Sarah, and I started working through it together and discussing it as part of our morning routine (while Phoebe colored Slugs & Bugs coloring pages and pondered the meaning of “atonement”).

A week later, Mitch asked me to get him a copy, too, and now we’re all studying through the Bible together, and it is glorious. I was ready to review it right then but I refrained, thinking it would be better if we were farther in, had given it time to stick, and could be sure that Exploring the Bible was as awesome months later as it was at the start.

Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids, by David Murray (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Months later: it is still awesome.

Here is what Exploring the Bible is:

It is a reading plan for kids. In one year, it takes readers through the entire story of the Bible by hopscotching from key passage to key passage. The point is not to read the entire Bible in a year, but to follow God’s Big Story through it in a series of short but central passages.

Here is how it works:

David Murray arranged the readings in a series of week-long expeditions: one week we spend with Noah, reviewing the big picture of his story within the context of the rest of Scripture, then the next week we spend with Abraham. Murray helps us find a focus for the week but is otherwise pretty hands-off. No guided discussions here, no personal application. I’m glad for that.

Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids, by David Murray (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Here is how it works for us:

Each day, our reading is about five verses long. Lydia, Mitch, and I do ours independently in the morning; Sarah does hers during our discussion. Later in the morning, the girls and I read the passage, then I ask one of the girls to narrate it back to me. Together we answer the one simple question in the workbook, and then we either stop there or we let discussion blossom however it likes. I love the questions in this book, because they point us back to the text: Murray doesn’t ask us to extrapolate on the text or draw out morals, but asks us instead to look back at a key verse and see what really happened.

“What did God say to Abraham?”

“How does Moses describe God?”

“Where was the sacrifice to be placed?”

They direct us back to the text itself, not to our own thoughts on it, and I love that. Our own thoughts bubble up naturally as we discuss the passage, but I am glad the questions anchor our discussion in what Scripture really said, not just in how we respond to it.

Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids, by David Murray (review) | Little Book, Big Story

So, most days offer those simple questions with the readings. Sometimes, there is a “Snapshot Verse” that Murray encourages us to copy out in the book and to memorize. The Sunday readings contain one of my favorite features: rather than doing an individual reading, we do what Murray calls “Exploring with Others.” First, we pause for a moment and look back on what we read that week; we answer a simple question about it. Then we have space for sermon notes that we all four work on during our pastor’s sermon. (This has been both enlightening and highly entertaining.)

Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids, by David Murray (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Also: Scotty Reifsnyder’s illustrations have this great retro feel that has spurred interesting discussion as well. And the book itself—both its design and its actual composition—is a pleasure to use. It feels so nice to hold it and turn the pages.

In Conclusion

Taking a year to trace the big story of Scripture through Old Testament and New has already begun to bear fruit in us as well as in the girls. We can pick out the main themes of each book more clearly; we have already spotted connections from one story to the next that we might have missed if we’d spent weeks on each story rather than days.

Do our kids still fidget and complain when it’s time to read Scripture? Yes. But Exploring the Bible is like a set of training wheels for the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Scripture reading, and watching our girls gain their balance and become more confident as they read the Bible has been delightful. I am already a little sad that Exploring the Bible won’t go on forever, but I am also excited to see what we learn from this experience and how that shapes our future family reading.


Exploring the Bible: A Bible Reading Plan for Kids
David Murray; Scotty Reifsnyder (2017)

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Little One, We Knew You’d Come | Sally Lloyd-Jones

We bought this book years ago, when Lydia was in the tornado stage—flinging books off the shelves at random, emptying baskets of toys on the floor—and The Jesus Storybook Bible was not an old friend, broken in by years, but a new acquaintance we couldn’t get enough of. I ordered Little One, We Knew You’d Come because it, too, was by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

Little One, We Knew You'd Come, by Sally Lloyd-Jones (review) | Little Book, Big Story

But (I’m embarrassed to admit this) I didn’t immediately love it.

The illustrations are of a style that, though beautiful, didn’t appeal to me at first. And the text, though beautifully written, never mentioned Jesus’ name. I remember thinking, Wait. This could be about any longed-for baby. It doesn’t have to be about the coming of Christ. I had that uncomfortable sense that I was missing something.

Little One, We Knew You'd Come, by Sally Lloyd-Jones (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Years passed and three more of our babies reached the book-flinging stage (Josie is firmly entrenched in it now). We have read this book to every child every year, and it has borne those repeated readings with grace. The gentle and quiet illustrations have grown on me; Lloyd-Jones’ poetic words have, too. And I have grown to love the way it doesn’t mention Jesus’ name, because while so many Christmas books illustrate his coming through the eyes of creation awaiting a Savior or Israel waiting on a king, this one lets us see his coming through the eyes of Mary and Joseph, who await not just God’s Son, but their son. He is their Redeemer, and he is the baby they have waited nine months to meet.

Little One, We Knew You'd Come, by Sally Lloyd-Jones (review) | Little Book, Big Story

I get it now. And it is lovely.

Also

Merry Christmas! I am so thankful for you all and pray that this season is filled with that deep-seated wonder—the one that comes not from the “childhood magic” of Santa, but from the true magic of a God who took on humble, helpless infancy for our sake. He is the One who took the shadow of the Law and gave it substance, the One who ripped the curtain so that God might, when all is ready, dwell among us. May the joy of this carry you through many long evenings in the kitchen, many unanticipated needs, and many overtired toddler meltdowns. May he sustain you and give you strength, and may he give you peace.


Little One, We Knew You’d Come
Sally Lloyd-Jones; Jackie Morris (2006)

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God Gave Us Family | Lisa Tawn Bergren

This isn’t technically a Christmas book, I know. But many of us are preparing to sleep on hide-a-beds in basements and fly red-eye flights cross country and pack wilting kids up for the fourth family engagement, so I thought maybe this might the right time for a little picture book moral support.

God Gave Us Family, by Lisa Tawn Bergren | Little Book, Big Story

Lisa Tawn Bergren—author of God Gave Us You, God Gave Us Easterand many other beautiful books—reminds us, in her new book God Gave Us Family, that family is a good gift in all its varying configurations. Through the curiosity of Little Wolf, she introduces us to a number of family shapes and connections, and she covers each one with gentleness and grace. This is not a book interested in showing what a family ought to look like, but in helping kids understand that many families just do look different without going into the reasons why.

I grew up with divorced parents, and so I appreciate the mention of the goose family whose father lives in another pond. The childlike way that Bergren addresses that, giving just enough information without delving into the specifics of marital difficulty, custody plans, or even the value of an intact home, was beautiful. I could imagine myself as a child finding comfort in that the same way I did when I read The Babysitter’s Club for the first time and learned that Kristy, too, had been through her parents’ divorce. I didn’t know that I would be grateful for that, but I am.

God Gave Us Family, by Lisa Tawn Bergren | Little Book, Big Story

We want our kids to be wise and grounded in the Word of God, rich in his Spirit, so that they can discern the thread of truth amid the knot of lies the world presents them with daily. That means talking to our kids about what a family ought to look like, how it is meant to function. It also means loving others well whatever their families look like, while still helping our kids put the wiring in place so that one day their own families, should they have them, might shine like lights in a dark and broken world.

But it’s important to see, too, that the children reading this book—whatever their constellation of relatives looks like—did not make the decisions that shaped their families. Some might expect Bergren to sermonize a bit on the beauty of God’s purpose for families (I thought I wanted her to, at first), but I’m glad she didn’t. Kids so often feel responsible for the shape of their family, as though they caused it to be what it is somehow or as though they’re the ones who must fix it: perhaps it would be a gift to them to show them that their family, too, is a family, and it is the one they have been given.

God Gave Us Family, by Lisa Tawn Bergren | Little Book, Big Story

Bergren and illustrator David Hohn do this beautifully, through the warm conversation of Little Wolf and his parents as they prepare for a family reunion. Little Wolf is candid about his thoughts on his own family (especially some frustrating younger cousins), and his parents gently show him, by contrasting their own family with those of their friends and neighbors, that his family is unique. It is something to be grateful for; it is a gift. And that message is itself a gift to young readers.

On a completely unrelated note

Phoebe turned four this week! Tomorrow we celebrate with a giant birthday donut and presents and probably a dance party.

I originally wanted to share with you one of the sweet, professional photos we had taken recently, one of just Phoebe, by herself, being Phoebe. But I couldn’t resist sharing this one instead, because that wrinkled nose, those big brown eyes, the evidence of a marker recently applied to her cheek, that big sister caught in the act of teaching her little sister how to climb up onto the forbidden window sill—that is Phoebe in a nutshell right now. Disarmingly sweet and often plotting something nefarious. We love her.

Sisters | Little Book, Big Story


God Gave Us Family
Lisa Tawn Bergren; David Hohn (2017)


Disclosure: I did receive a copy of this for review, but I was not obligated to review this book or compensated for my review in any way. I share this book with you because I love it, not because I was paid to do so.

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The Gift of the Magi | O. Henry

I had read this story before but reading it this time, on the spongy brown carpet of the piano teachers’ house, within sight of a woodstove and warm with both Phoebe and Josie in my lap, I still sniffled. You have probably heard this story, too. It is an old one, frequently adapted and retold, but that frequent use serves only to polish it to a shine.

The Gift of the Magi tells the story of young Jim and Della Dillingham Young, newlyweds who face Christmas together with their savings scraped bare. Della wonders how she can possibly afford a gift for Jim, decides that she must find a way, and does it. But the story doesn’t end there, and it’s the final pages that make O. Henry’s work endure.

The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry | Little Book, Big Story

Not all editions of this book are equal, though: the one I read while Lydia and Sarah took lessons was an adaptation. It was sweet in its own way, but when I ordered this copy, unabridged, I realized how much the other edition had left out and how dramatically Jim and Della’s story had been reduced in editing. This version contains the full text, complete with some grand words–mendicancy, parsimony, meretricious, to name a few–but PJ Lynch’s illustrations are so rich and nuanced that I found my girls were still able to keep up with the story (with perhaps a helpful nudge here and there).

The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry | Little Book, Big Story

But though the language is beautiful and the illustrations, too, the prettiest piece of this story is Henry’s depiction of love. We talked for a while afterward of how nice it is to be loved the way that Della loves Jim and Jim loves Della, and how we would like to love others that way. For as often as I try to exhort my children to love one another sacrificially, it is beautiful to see loving sacrifice lived out in the lives of the Dillingham Youngs, though O. Henry does not moralize much about it. He tells us a great story with a bit of a twist, and lets us do the rest.


The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry, PJ Lynch
(Original story: 1905; Illustrated edition: 2008)

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