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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Sing the Bible: Family Christmas | Slugs & Bugs

Remember two weeks ago, when I told you we wouldn’t listen to Christmas music until the first day of Advent?

We made it until the day after Thanksgiving. Here is why:

Slugs and Bugs: Family Christmas CD | Little Book, Big Story

My very favorite Christmas album is A Charlie Brown Christmas. No matter how many times I hear it played in my home, your home, my parents’ home, Starbucks, and the department store, I still love everything about it. If anything brings back warm, fuzzy Christmas memories for me, it’s that album. If any Christmas song consistently makes me weepy, it’s Vince Guaraldi’s rendition of “What Child is This?” If any CD calms me down when I have more to do than time to do it in, it’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. I play that album more or less on repeat for all of Advent.

My second favorite Christmas album is A Slugs & Bugs Christmas. It’s funny and touching and quirky at once and gets the blend of humor and wonder and just right. The affection for this one in our home is corporate—we all love it equally and, unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas, no one person is making everyone else listen to it all the time against their will.

Slugs and Bugs: Family Christmas CD | Little Book, Big Story

The only thing better than those two albums would be one that somehow combined the cozy jazz piano of Vince Guaraldi with the clever energy of Slugs & Bugs. Seasoning the whole mix liberally with lyrics pulled straight from Scripture would take this hypothetical album from good to great.

That is exactly the album that Slugs & Bugs just released.

Slugs and Bugs: Family Christmas CD | Little Book, Big Story

Randall Goodgame is, it turns out, not just a stellar songwriter but also a stellar jazz pianist, and he anchors the whole album with piano pieces that elicit of the warmth and nostalgia of A Charlie Brown Christmas. But the songs are decidedly his, with songs ranging in tone from charming to beautiful. Within the first four songs, I had laughed helplessly once, cried twice, and said “I love this album so much” to Mitch more times than I can count.

“Mary’s Song,” sung by Goodgame’s daughter Livi, is stunning. “Joseph’s Dream” is wonderfully peppy (“I didn’t know he could sing that fast!” said Lydia from the backseat). The rest of the album is good, too, I’m sure, and I’ll have listened to it all before this post goes up*. But I knew within the first song that I wanted to share Sing the Bible: Family Christmas with you, and so here I am, having listened to only seven songs before writing a review.

I’ll send you off with a little foretaste of that first song:

May these songs fill your Advent with light and warmth and joy (and jazz).

Footnote

I have listened to the whole album now, many times. The entire thing (and especially the last song, but also many others) is a thing of beauty.


Sing the Bible: A Family Christmas
Slugs & Bugs; Randall Goodgame (2017)

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Shooting at the Stars | John Hendrix

Over the years, I have written about some beautiful Nativity stories. But as I drew up my list of books to review this Advent, I noticed an unlikely thread: only one of them takes place in a manger. The rest are stories set at Christmas time (though one of them isn’t even that), in threadbare apartments and in trenches.

This is the one set in the trenches.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

In Shooting at the Stars, John Hendrix tells the story of the Christmas Truce of World War I. Have you heard this story? It’s a famous one and one I have loved for years. On Christmas Day, 1914, a group British and German soldiers reached an impromptu truce and spent Christmas Day giving one another gifts, singing together, taking photos, and laying to rest the dead spread over the no man’s land between the trenches. In the book’s afterword, Hendrix explains that, though we’d like to think this truce brought both sides closer to the end of the war, it actually happened fairly early in the war and its significance was unappreciated by military leaders. In fact, they took deliberate measures to avoid its happening again the next Christmas.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

But even so, Hendrix presents this story as a glimpse of hope, a moment when peace stalled a world war and brought opposing sides together, if only for a few hours. I love, too, the way this story puts faces to the enemy and makes them human: “Fritz,” the German army, becomes a band of young men as hungry and muddy and afraid as the British, and for one evening both British and German soldiers are allowed to see one another not as targets but as men with names and histories.

Hendrix’s illustrations are, as always, rich in detail, and each detail seems deliberately chosen to add some surprising depth to the story. In the corner of one spread, a German soldier and a British one lift the body of a fallen British solider into a newly dug grave. In another, the soldiers play football with a biscuit tin, British boots running alongside German ones, but the field they play on is studded with broken tree trunks, the ground an ashy gray. Hendrix uses every opportunity to tell his story—including the foreword (on what the war was and how it got started) and afterword—and he does it beautifully.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

Advent may not seem like the time to introduce your children to trench warfare, I know, but Shooting at the Stars awakens that hunger for peace and restoration that is at the heart of our Advent waiting. We read of the misery of life in the trenches, and we long for the day death and brutality will be done away with for good. We see those illustrations of a barren battlefield and long for a time when the earth itself will be renewed by the coming of our King.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story


Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914
John Hendrix (2014)

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The Littlest Watchman | Scott James

The Christmas aisle in Costco is our reward. When we’ve made it halfway through the store and no one has cried, complained, or punched anyone else, we steer the cart through the Christmas aisle and ogle at the display. Life-sized, lit-up snowmen; nativity sets the size of our dining table; swag draped along the shelf like glittery, green boa constrictors: Costco does nothing small, and they’ve had it all set up since October. But at our house, the season stays closed until the first day of Advent. Then, I tell the girls already clamoring for Christmas music, then we’ll bring out A Slugs & Bugs Christmas. Then we’ll string some lights.

But I’m breaking my own rule here today, because you really need to know about this book before Advent begins. If I do it any justice at all, you’ll want it in your hands before the season opens.

The Littlest Watchman, by Scott James | Little Book, Big Story

The Littlest Watchman is the newest book by Scott James, creator of our beloved Easter devotional Mission Accomplished. In it, he introduces Benjamin, the youngest in a family of “Watchmen,” whose job it is to sit by a stump outside Bethlehem and watch for the new growth that heralds the Messiah’s arrival.

The Littlest Watchman, by Scott James | Little Book, Big Story

But before you wrinkle your brow and think, Wait a minute. I don’t remember that part of the nativity story, let me say that I wondered the same thing. I was apprehensive at first about the idea of introducing a new character (and an entirely new way of marking the Messiah’s coming) to kids, especially younger kids who are still learning the story of Jesus’ birth. I was about halfway into the book before my brow unfurrowed and I realized what James was up to: the Watchmen give young readers a clear picture of the people of Israel waiting and waiting, for hundreds of years, for the Messiah to come.

The Littlest Watchman, by Scott James | Little Book, Big Story

The Christmas story begins not in the manger but all the way back in Genesis 1, and there is a lot of history supporting the story of Jesus’ birth. James uses the Watchmen, who pass the probably very boring role of sitting and watching a dead stump down from father to son for generations, to give readers a sense of how long the Israelites had waited for the coming of the Messiah. Benjamin’s frustration with waiting provides a gentle insight into why some of the Israelites had stopped watching.

In an afterword (“You Can Join the Watch”), James explains very clearly that the “Watchmen in this story were not real, but the events Benjamin saw on the shepherd’s hill were.” Some children may find this harder to grasp than others, so please use your discernment there. I can already see this book inspiring some rich conversation among my girls when we read it together (on the first day of Advent and no sooner!).

The Littlest Watchman, by Scott James | Little Book, Big Story

Also worth noting!

The Good Book Company (if you made it all the way to end of last week’s exhaustive post, that name may sound familiar) also offers an Advent calendar and devotional that coordinates with The Little Watchmen. We obviously haven’t used ours yet, so I can’t give it a full review, but it looks promising and beautiful. If you want to use it as a Jesse tree, you can actually tear the flaps off the calendar as you open them and hang them on your tree! Brilliant.

The Littlest Watchman, by Scott James | Little Book, Big Story


The Littlest Watchman
Scott James, Geraldine Rodriguez (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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Where I Find Our Favorite Books

High school was, for me and many others—maybe even you—a time of reining in. An exhilarating bass line, indigo eyeliner, the perfect shade of peroxide blonde: I could rave about these without compromising my carefully researched, deliberately executed image. But I savored in silence the pleasure of baking a just-jiggly cheesecake. I read Les Miserables and parts of it thrilled me, but I kept my delight tamped down.

One couldn’t gush about the Wrong Things.

Browse | Little Book, Big Story

But now, I’m grown up, and though adults do still feel pressure to like the Right Things, that pressure doesn’t bind the way it used to. So many of us love and geek out over and dedicate our life’s work to our own strange, specific passions: Edwardian cosmetics; a rare butterfly; an elegant line of code. That our enthusiasms are so strikingly different seems to me one of the beauties of our humanity. I may not understand your passion for the stark lines of minimalist furniture, but heck. I love listening to you talk about it.

Here, we gush about children’s books. I love sharing that with you. It’s true that, like my daughters after an unseemly binge on Halloween candy, I do most of the talking, but you’re great listeners and when you do chime in, you have the best things to say. Today’s post is meant to give you a greater share in the conversation, because instead of sharing a book with you that I think you should read, I’m going to pull back the curtain on some of my favorite places to find great books. I’m going to take you straight to the sources. But I want to ask you, too: where do you find your favorite book recommendations? Where do you find great books for cheap?

My list is compiled below.

Where I Find Our Favorite Books: A list of booklists and resources for finding beautiful books for pretty cheap | Little Book, Big Story

Prepare to be overwhelmed.

Read-Aloud Revival

Read-Aloud Revival | Little Book, Big Story

Surely, this one doesn’t surprise you. But the range of ways to find books through the Read-Aloud Revival might. Perhaps you find yourself indiscriminately ordering books while listening to an episode of the podcast, or you subscribe to the mailing list and receive a new list of seasonal favorites each month.

You could browse their (regularly updated) list of favorite read-alouds, or, if you’re a member, you might visit their forum to solicit recommendations for specific ages or situations (you might even contribute a few recommendations while you’re at it!).

If you’re into audio books, you might browse their list of Librivox favorites or their list of current Audible deals. That’s a wealth of ideas right there, and I’m almost positive I’ve forgotten one.

Westminster Bookstore

Westminster Bookstore | Little Book, Big Story

This carefully curated bookstore from Westminster Theological Seminary is one of my favorite places to find new books. If they endorse a book, I will probably buy it without doing further research, and I have yet to purchase a book from them that I didn’t love. (In fact, I was researching a book recently and the fact that Westminster didn’t offer it gave me pause.)

Of course, I realize that many of you share my love of literature but not my exact theological leanings, so I would encourage you to learn more about WTS before purchasing books unreservedly from their store. But if Reformed theology is your cup of tea, you love church history, and you thought The Biggest Story was brilliant, then I highly recommend subscribing to their mailing list. They regularly run deals on new releases, and I can say without exaggerating that a great number of the books featured on this blog were purchased (at 50-70% off!) in one of their sales.

The Rabbit Room Store

This beautifully curated store is filled with books I either own or wish I owned.  They offer worthy titles from other publishers, but Rabbit Room Press has also released a number of  beloved books, like Henry and the Chalk Dragon, The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog, and, of course, The Wingfeather Saga (written by Rabbit Room founder Andrew Peterson). Get thee on their mailing list, and you’ll be the first to know about sales and such.

The rest of the website, founded by Andrew Peterson, is full of equally lovely, hand-picked content.

Ambleside Online

AmblesideOnline Book Lists | Little Book, Big Story

One of my great struggles as a book-loving parent is keeping Lydia supplied with books that challenge her but don’t expose her to content she isn’t read to contend with yet. But just when I feared that she would tread water with Nancy Drew forever and never climb out of that pool, I discovered the AO reading lists. Our nook on the library’s hold shelf hasn’t been empty since.

Be warned, though: the AmblesideOnline website is a little hard to navigate, especially if you don’t use their curriculum. But the books on these lists are worth the work! Here’s how you hop straight to them: from the home page, click “AmblesideOnline Curriculum.” In the left toolbar, click the link that corresponds with your child’s approximate grade level. You should reach a page that looks a little like this:

AmblesideOnline Book Lists | Little Book, Big Story

Scroll down until you see a heading that reads “Literature.” That list and the lengthy one following it (“Additional Books For Free Reading”) are your gold mine.

AmblesideOnline Book Lists | Little Book, Big Story

If you wince when you read the first titles on the list, keep scrolling! The range on these lists is huge: Year 2 starts with Pilgrim’s Progress in the original language, but it also includes with Frog & Toad and The Courage of Sarah Noble. So don’t worry: you’re bound to find books that fit your child perfectly.

Story Warren

Story Warren is the creation of SD Smith, author of the Green Ember series, and it’s a haven of beautifully-written, thoughtful reviews of books and other media of various types. You might come for the book reviews, but you’ll stay for the gorgeous blog posts. (And you’ll probably go home with a wooden rabbit sword.)

House Full of Bookworms

House Full of Bookworms | Little Book, Big Story

Carolyn Leiloglou reviews books all across the spectrum—good, mediocre, and bad—with the idea of sparing overworked parents the trouble of reading the latest trendy series before recommending it to a child. I look here when I come across a book I want a trusted opinion on but don’t feel up to reading. Sometimes I look here when I have a book all picked out and want to know how Carolyn liked it. And her list of “Best Books for Every Age” is an excellent, printable resource.

See also: Common Sense Media

In a vein similar to House Full of Bookworms, this site features reviews of popular books, music, movies, and more, but these reviews are written by other parents. I peek in here when choosing new shows for the girls, since I’m far less likely to pre-watch than I am to pre-read.

Common Sense Media is a great resource, but do read discerningly: as parents we all have different comfort levels with different topics, so I would encourage you to look beyond the star ratings and take the time to read a few reviews before deciding to introduce or avoid a particular book.

Amazon Recommendations

This might seem obvious, but one of the ways I most consistently find  great new books is by browsing Amazon. Dang, but their recommendations are (usually) right up my alley.

Aslan’s Library

Aslan's Library | Little Book, Big Story

This was the blog that got me started, and though Sarah and Haley no longer write new posts, Aslan’s Library is still a wealth of beautiful, rich book recommendations. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to spend some time with their site: you’ll probably  come across titles that you wouldn’t have looked at twice on Amazon but that their thoughtful reviews compel you toward. It’s certainly happened to me.

ChristianBook.com

This site offers a wide range of stuff, some of which I would happily never purchase, but they do sometimes have great deals on truly great books. This is another mailing list worth subscribing to!

Books about Books

7 of My Favorite Books About Books | Little Book, Big Story

I shared some of my favorites in an earlier post titled “7 of My Favorite Books About Books.” They’re all still awesome.

Favorite Publishers

Patrol Books | Little Book, Big Story

One last group that I like to keep an eye on are publishers that release reliably awesome books. If you notice that a number of your favorite books share a publisher, subscribe to the publisher’s email list. Haunt their store. Watch for new releases. You may not love everything they launch, but you’re bound to find a few favorite books this way. Two publishers I keep tabs on are Patrol Books and The Good Book Company.


Where have you found your favorite books? Inquiring minds want to know!
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God’s Very Good Idea | Trillia Newbell

Timely.

That word, like the phrase tour de force, adorns books jackets with a fearsome regularity. Critics toss it at this novel or that anthology with such zeal that any potency it once had has been diluted by overuse.

But I will still use it here.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Because God’s Very Good Idea is a timely book; it is the right book written at the right time. When questions of race and immigration, refugees and citizenship are on the tip of our collective tongue, when they burst forth at the dinner table, on the radio, and in picture books, it is good to see the subject addressed by a Christian author who invites us to view it through the lens of Scripture.

Many books now work to promote equality, inclusion, and diversity, but few of them take the conversation back far enough to remind us that those ideas originate with the gospel, with the Son of God who died for the sake of people from all nations, to unite us in one body:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

Trillia Newbell takes the story back even further, opening the book with the beautiful sentence:

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

In the beginning—in fact, before the beginning—God had a very good idea.

The book itself is beautifully written—Newbell explains some big and heartbreaking concepts in language that is direct but never insultingly simple—and illustrated with all the delight I’ve learned to expect from Catalina Echeverri.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Newbell takes this concept of “God’s very good idea” beyond skin color in a beautiful way: rather than focusing solely on outward appearance, she introduces our varying gifts, interests, and abilities as other ways God put his “good idea” into action. Meanwhile, Echeverri displays, through her joyful, vibrant illustrations, a beautiful picture of people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds laughing, praying, feasting together, and serving and comforting one another. It is a gorgeous book, both in its message and in the hope the illustrations convey.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

I loved reading a book that says so perfectly what so many books point toward but fall short of saying: we should love one another, even (or especially) those who differ from us, not because it is The Right Thing to Do or because we wouldn’t like being excluded because we were different, but because it was God’s idea to create such a wide array of people in the first place, and he made all of them made in his image. His idea was a very good one that is heading toward a definite, awesome conclusion:

This is God’s very good idea: lots of different people enjoying loving him and loving each other.

God MADE it.
People RUINED it.
He RESCUED it.
He will FINISH it.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story


God’s Very Good Idea
Trillia Newbell, Catalina Echeverri (2017)


Teeny tiny 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 Mysterious Benedict Society | Trenton Lee Stewart

I occasionally meet a book that doesn’t want me to to tell you a thing about it. Part of the appeal of these books is letting the story lead the me where it wants to go, rather than expecting it to stick to the itinerary mapped out on the back of the book. I know nothing about it when I start but the title, the author’s name, and the name of the reliable friend who brought it to my attention, and that is a pleasure.

The Mysterious Benedict Society (review) | Little Book, Big Story

I want you, if possible, to have this pleasure with The Mysterious Benedict Society. After a few pages, Lydia announced that this book is, indeed, mysterious, and though I’d read it once before, I agreed. Trenton Lee Stewart invites us into a world that is colorful and quirky, that is like ours and yet not like it (for an example of what I mean, consider Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), but he introduces us to it slowly, giving us only what we need to keep reading. That is all I will tell you about the plot: it is mysterious, quirky, and fascinating.

The Mysterious Benedict Society (review) | Little Book, Big Story

I will tell you a few things more about the book itself, though:

  1. The quirkiness of the story does not undermine its seriousness. The characters face real danger and tough moral conflicts. They sometimes make the wrong choices; sometimes, they make questionable choices for the right reasons. Stewart deals skillfully with those moments, acknowledging that sometimes our choices are made in murky circumstances, and the outcomes are beyond our control. He gives his characters room to wrestle with doubt, too, and that lead to some great conversations on our couch. But there is, under all of this, a clear theme of sacrifice. It’s beautiful.
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society is illustrated by Carson Ellis, one of my favorite illustrators ever. That may be the reason I picked this book up in the first place.
  3. This is the first of four books, and the only one I’ve read (perhaps because it’s the only one illustrated by Carson Ellis?). But Lydia has moved on to the second book and assures me that it’s just as good as the first.

The Mysterious Benedict Society (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Now, that is all I’ll give you. That and the hearty exhortation to go forth and read this book!


The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart, Carson Ellis (2008)

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