The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

My reading life didn’t begin with a bang or even a spark last year. It was more like a puff of smoke, drifting in from the year before. Which is to say: at the start of 2018, I read plenty, but few of the books I read in those early months are worth mentioning on this list, and the ones that are worth mentioning have already been mentioned here on the blog.

The rest of my selections seemed to be mostly functional: I read a lot about homeschooling, and I pre-read a lot of middle grade books that went from my nightstand to my daughters’. I read about writing—picture books and poetry this year—but I also spent an embarrassing amount of time reading reviews of paint colors online. And researching light fixtures. And pinning pictures of subway tile.

(A tragic thought: maybe my best reading energy went to Pinterest this year.)

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018 | Little Book, Big Story

But then we moved out of our house, and I had to pack a single tote filled with everything I might want to read over the course of two nomadic months. It was hard to justify bringing functional books when I rightly suspected that I would need books to a source of both both rest and reinforcement. My portable library became a travelling source of truth, beauty, and goodness. And, excepting only the first one, all of the best books I read this year were in it.

(A thought worth considering: maybe I should read like books are a source of rest and reinforcement more often.)

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018 | Little Book, Big Story

Writing Picture Booksby Ann Whitford Paul

Writing Picture Books, by Ann Whitford Paul | Little Book, Big Story

I asked a friend where I should start if I wanted to learn more about writing picture books and this is one of the many excellent resources she suggested. Writing Picture Books explores the different components of picture books and the mechanics of making them work, but discusses the music of language and gives some excellent practical advice for revising and tightening manuscripts. This was the class I wanted to take in college but couldn’t find.

Note: I read an older edition of this book but loved it so much I bought and photographed the new one, too, which I haven’t yet read.

Enjoying Godby Tim Chester

Enjoying God, by Tim Chester | Little Book, Big Story

In a year of utilitarian reading, I needed a book like Enjoying God. Tim Chester reminds readers that God doesn’t just intend for us to obey him and follow him but also to enjoy him. According to the Westminster Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” is the chief end of man, so this is important stuff. Chester unpacks it well.

The Mistmantle Chronicles, by M.I. McAllister

The Mistmantle Chronicles, by M.I. McAllister | Little Book, Big Story

Go put these on hold at the library! Or, if you find them used, buy them immediately. I’ll explain why soon, I promise.

The Stars: A New Way to See Themby H.A. Rey

The Stars: A New Way to See Them, by H.A. Rey | Little Book, Big Story

Last winter I became besotted by stars. We studied them together during school, and H.A. Rey’s The Stars introduced helped us amateur stargazers make a little more sense of the night sky. Rey (better known for Curious George) has a knack for translating the abstract into the concrete, and his quirky sense of humor and his illustrations serve the subject well here. (Find the Constellations, his picture book for younger readers, is excellent, too.)

You Are What You Loveby James K.A. Smith

You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith | Little Book, Big Story

Many of us consider ourselves thinking beings (we think, therefore we are, right?), but James K.A. Smith asks “What if we’re not thinking beings but loving ones?” You Are What You Love  explores the idea that what we love determines far more of our actions and decisions than what we think. Consider the success rate of New Years’ resolutions: if we think we’d better get in shape and come up with a plan for getting up early, etc., but we love comfort and are willing to do pretty much anything to obtain it . . . how long will our plan hold out?

Smith’s thoughts on how liturgy and church life trains our affections was an especially rich part of the book for me as we found ourselves looking, rather abruptly and for the first time in thirteen years, for a church to call home. This book gave me much to ponder and is definitely a re-reader.

The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

John Hendrix brought his A-game to this one. The Faithful Spy is somewhere in between a graphic novel and a young adult biography, and I can only spottily imagine the amount of work he must have put into researching, writing, lettering and illustrating this fabulous biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The book deserves (and shall have!) its own full-length review.

Botany For Gardenersby Brian Capon

Botany for Gardners, by Brian Capon | Little Book, Big Story

If Mr. Penderwick wrote a botany book for layfolk, it would be this one. I borrowed Botany for Gardeners from the library while researching a writing project and fell for it hard. Capon’s language as he describes cell growth or the emergence of a root tip from a seed is winsome: his delight in plant life is contagious and had me thinking happy thoughts of apical buds and meristems. Though decidedly a science layperson, I bought my own copy of this book and read it lingeringly.

A Blossom in the Desert, by Lilias Trotter

A Blossom in the Desert, by Lilias Trotter | Little Book, Big Story

A few years ago, I read a biography of Lilias Trotter and finished longing to study some of her artwork closely. A Blossom in the Desert is a compilation of both Trotter’s devotional writings and her paintings. I read this while we moved from home to home, and it was a great comfort. Trotter’s words have a way of reorienting one’s heart, as she draws lessons from both Scripture and creation, and connects the two into beautiful parables.

A Blossom in the Desert, by Lilias Trotter | Little Book, Big Story

An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler

An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler | Little Book, Big Story

Tamar Adler does for the egg what Robert Farrar Capon does for the onion: revels in it, writes about it with such delight that I had to poach one myself as soon as possible. An Everlasting Meal is Adler’s collection of food writing, based on M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf and with a nod to Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb. I’m reading this one slowly, not wanting it to end, and carrying it with me whenever I go to the kitchen.

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs | Little Book, Big Story

This is a simmering book, one I am still reading. When in a season of unrest, when so many things are changing at once, and so many needs seem pressing, it is good to be reminded rather firmly that God is unchanging and in him we have everything we need. This book is a beauty.


What about you? What are the best books you read this year?

God’s Timeline | Linda Finlayson

One of the bits of planning I struggled with most this school year was history: What will we study this year? (Modern history.) Which books will we read? (So many good ones.) How can I prepare for the hard conversations that will inevitably follow our readings on the World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I didn’t expect history planning to be emotionally draining—but oh, it was. Modern history isn’t a light read.

God's Timeline: A Big Book of Church History, by Linda Finlayson | Little Book, Big Story

But I found comfort both in zooming in and reading biographies of people who lived through those devastating wars and in zooming out to look at the whole scope of history and where those wars fit in context. Zooming in, because though the statistics are staggering, the perspective of one child in one city gives, in some way, a manageable picture of what it might have been like to live through a world war. And zooming out, because though there have been wars throughout history (and none like the world wars), the people who suffered through them have all been under God’s sovereign care. Not one of them lived or died without purpose.

I love zooming out.

God's Timeline: A Big Book of Church History, by Linda Finlayson | Little Book, Big Story

Linda Finlayson does exactly that with her book God’s Timeline. It is a survey of church history, laid out in a way that will make visual learners squeal with joy. From a fold-out timeline to biographical sketches of key figures to overviews of particular times in church history, Finlayson gives us a big picture view of God’s work through the history of the church.

God’s Timeline is the sort of book you could read for family devotions, in Sunday school, or in a solitary fashion under an apple tree. You could use it as a spine for history studies and tie it to lengthier biographies and such; you could use it (and I have) in your community group, to help explain to grownups when the Bible we know came to be. Or to refresh your memory about when the Great Awakening began.

God's Timeline: A Big Book of Church History, by Linda Finlayson | Little Book, Big Story

This is a versatile, beautiful book. It zooms out and takes in the whole of church history in one shot, and from that perspective reminds us that God has cared for his church throughout her whole history, even as he cares for her today.


God’s Timeline: A Big Book of Church History
Linda Finlayson (2018)

ESV Story of Redemption Bible

This full-length study Bible aimed toward adults may not seem like my usual fare. But I’d like to argue that, actually, it is. This is a children’s book (as well as a book for the mostly-grown, the fully-grown and the elderly), and it is certainly one that emphasizes the Big Story. What makes it seem like an unlikely subject for review, however, is the fact that I don’t really intend for you to read it to your kids.

Here is what I mean:

The older my children get, the more I realize that I can’t teach them anything I don’t know. And I can’t expect them to follow me in anything I don’t live. I can tell them, Yes, we must eat our salad. Here are three excellent reasons why salad is beneficial. But if they hear me say this and then watch me take the tiniest helping of salad and push it around on my own plate without taking a bite, they won’t be fooled.

ESV Story of Redemption Bible | Little Book, Big Story

Likewise, if, in my attempts to encourage them to love Scripture, it becomes clear that everything I know about it comes second-hand from Marty Machowski (excellent though his work is), they won’t be fooled by that either. What I need, in those heated parenting moments, is not a flow chart from a parenting book or an applicable devotional (though those are both helpful), but a deep love for the gospel and its Author. I need to know the Big Story of Scripture and how my kids (and I) fit into it. And I need to be fluent enough in it to remind them of it when called upon, in a heated moment, to do so.

This is brought home to me again and again.

I make no assumptions about you other than that you are, like me, in need of the gospel, and you clearly love good books (or you wouldn’t be here). So I offer for you the best book, in a format that makes that Big Story—the gospel—shine like a diamond just rubbed free of grit.

ESV Story of Redemption Bible | Little Book, Big Story

The Story of Redemption Bible is something between a study Bible and a reader’s Bible: it’s beautifully formatted in a single column so it reads like a thick, pretty book, but woven through it is commentary by Greg Gilbert. Every interjection is meant to point back to that single narrative that arcs through all 66 books of the Bible. See how this connects here? he asks, pointing from some obscure prophecy in Malachi to the moment Jesus fulfilled the prophecy in the Gospels.

Making these connections always enlivens my understanding of Scripture. It helps to put those strange passages of Scripture in context. Understanding where the sacrifices began and why they were necessary makes Jesus’ coming—and his abolition of the sacrificial system—all the more beautiful. I love the Author of this story; I love that we are a part of it.

ESV Story of Redemption Bible | Little Book, Big Story

And the gorgeous design of The Story of Redemption Bible reminds me, when I read, that the Bible is no ordinary book. Peter Voth’s illustrations illuminate the text. Elegant maps and timelines don’t gather idly in the back of the Bible, waiting for an invitation to dance, but stand proudly where they’re most needed: right where they’re mentioned in the text.

ESV Story of Redemption Bible | Little Book, Big Story

The Story of Redemption Bible also offers two reading plans: one that will take you through the whole Bible in a year, from cover to cover, and one that will take you through the Bible in chronological order, interweaving the prophets with the narrative books about their lives, or interspersing Paul’s letters throughout readings from Acts. And a fold-out timeline of God’s redemptive story tucks into the back of the book, ready to be explored.

ESV Story of Redemption Bible | Little Book, Big Story

So this one, dear parents, is for you. Let us love our God more every day and draw freely upon his wisdom and grace when we need it. Let us remember that we’re not yet at the end of his story, but that that ending, when it comes, will be glorious.


ESV Story of Redemption Bible
Crossway (2018)

A Jesus Christmas | Barbara Reaoch

I am not one to feel warm and fuzzy about evergreen swag or potted poinsettias, so I decorate, rather chaotically, with Christmas picture books. We prop them up on shelves, gather them into baskets, and scatter them about the floor—anything, just so they’re  read and savored. Through them we hear the glorious refrain of Jesus’ coming again and again and again throughout Advent.

A Jesus Christmas, by Barbara Reaoch | Little Book, Big Story

This morning’s book is a new addition to our library, and one that takes a creative, more Exploring the Bible approach than most. A Jesus Christmas is formatted in a journal style and allows kids to read Scripture directly throughout Advent and respond to what they’ve read through words and art. Each reading contains a few questions, presented in a way that allows families flexibility in how they want to discuss them, as well as a short reading that expands upon the day’s passage.

There are several ways a family could use this. You could buy a copy for each of your readers, do the readings independently, and come together to discuss them. Or you could use a single copy as a family devotional, perhaps allowing different kids to be the “family recorder” for the day. With younger kids, you could do the reading, discuss it briefly, and turn it over to them for the drawing part. A Jesus Christmas is adaptable, and I like that.

A Jesus Christmas, by Barbara Reaoch | Little Book, Big Story

(And I wish I could have reviewed this earlier for you, but alas! It’s been That Sort of Year. But A Jesus Christmas is a resource worth bookmarking for next Advent.)


A Jesus Christmas
Barbara Reaoch (2018)


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.

A Few of Our Favorite Christmas Albums

Have you worn out your favorite Christmas albums yet? This is the point in the season for me when the old standards start to feel a bit stale and we’re ready for something fresh, something new. And so I thought I would share a few of our favorites with you in the hope that you might find a new song or two to enjoy.

A Few of Our Favorite Christmas Albums | Little Book, Big Story

Our Favorite Christmas Albums

The Light Came Downby Josh Garrels

Songs for Christmasby Sufjan Stevens

Waiting Songs, by Rain for Roots

Family Christmas, by Slugs & Bugs

A Slugs & Bugs Christmas, by Slugs & Bugs

A Very She & Him Christmas, by She & Him

Prepare Him Room, by Sovereign Grace Music

The Sounding Joy, by Elizabeth Mitchell & Friends

Christmas Stories, by Jenny & Tyler

Unto Us, by JJ Heller

Behold the Lamb of God, by Andrew Peterson

 

And while we don’t love every song on this last album, the ones we do love are excellent—perhaps our favorite versions of our favorite Christmas hymns. They’re perfect for epic Christmas kitchen dance parties:

Christmas Songs, by Bad Religion


Lastly

Wildflowers Magazine: Christmas Issue | Little Book, Big Story

Did you know that the Christmas issue of Wildflowers is available? Also, Wildflowers now offers two different kinds of subscriptions, so whichever one you choose, you’ll find each season’s issue waiting for you in your mailbox. Huzzah!

Wildflowers Magazine: Christmas Issue (Illustration by Thea Rosenburg) | Little Book, Big Story

In other news: I got to take a stab at illustrating for this issue, and it was so much fun, I’m coming back next year as a full-time illustrator!


Which of your favorites should we listen to?

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey | Susan Wojciechowski

The other day I pulled a pile of Christmas books out of the shop and tried to covertly photograph them while the girls were distracted. But they were at my elbow in minutes, hailing old friends, eyeing new ones with suspicion (“I don’t remember that book”), and trying to sneak favorites off the pile while I wasn’t looking. The most adored, the most likely to be snatched from the pile and spirited away to a comfy chair was this one: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey | Little Book, Big Story

Jonathan Toomey is a woodcarver in a small village, known (and feared) for his gruff manner. But before the story itself truly begins, the author lets us in on a secret: Mr. Toomey wasn’t always this way. Once he was young and full of life, but he closed himself off after suffering terrible grief. Because Susan Wojciechowski introduces us to this side of Mr. Toomey first, watching his transformation throughout the story—as he meets the young widow McDowell and her son Thomas—is like watching someone open a gift we just know they’re going to love.

Here is the thing about the widow McDowell and Thomas: they show up at Mr. Toomey’s door with a request. They’ve lost their set of nativity figures and ask him to make them a new set. But Thomas also wants to watch Mr. Toomey work. His comments throughout the story and his true “little boyness” has us all giggling every time we read it, and yet this is a genuinely deep, sorrowful yet joy-filled book that also makes me cry every time I read it. That balance seems to me just right. (The illustrations are gorgeous, too. P.J. Lynch captures the characters’ expressions in such a living way that I feel as if I’ve walked in on the characters mid-conversation.)

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey | Little Book, Big Story

One of the things I love about this book is that, though it is called The Christmas Miracle, Etc., Jonathan Toomey’s transformation doesn’t come about through some nebulous holiday warm-fuzzery. It is nurtured by his interactions with the pieces of the nativity, as Thomas explains beautifully the purpose of each figure. It also nudged along by acts of gentle kindness, both to him and, eventually, by him, as he learns to give himself to others and to welcome them into his life again. And so it is one of the books the girls welcomed most eagerly into our lives this year. This book deserves such a welcome.


The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey
Susan Wojciechowski; P.J. Lynch (1948)

A Very Noisy Christmas | Tim Thornborough

A funny thing happened when we started packing: our books, that fill shelves throughout our house and are already quite a presence, seemed to multiply. One shelf’s worth filled three boxes, yet there were dozens of shelves to go. We understood, early on, that the bulk of our packable possessions are books.

It also became clear, while we were moving about from place to place, that the bulk of our portable possessions are also books. Lydia packed her entire collection of Redwall books, because she feels at home wherever they are. Josie needed her Sandra Boynton library; I filled a plastic tote with books I intended to read (Enjoying God), books I hoped to read (A Girl of the Limberlost), and books I might feel the sudden urge to re-read (The Lord of the Rings)And none of that includes our school books, of which there are also many.

A Very Noisy Christmas, by Tim Thornborough | Little Book, Big Story

But here is where this works out well: I spent the summer posting re-runs here and the fall posting nothing. But all summer and fall, our family was buying and borrowing and reading and falling in love with new books. Which means I have an abundance of wonderful books to share with you. I am, frankly, finding it very hard to wait to share some of them.

But I will start with this one, because it is so much fun to read and so seasonally appropriate:

A Very Noisy Christmas, by Tim Thornborough | Little Book, Big Story

When you have a toddler or a preschooler (or, like me, one of each for the past eight years or so), the volume in your home fluctuates quite a bit. There’s the high setting: squealing, giggling, ricocheting off furniture, weeping, and so on. And there’s the low setting: sleeping, snuggling, drawing on the wall with mom’s best lipstick.

A Very Noisy Christmas turns that knob up and down as you read the Christmas story, with prompts that encourage kids to whisper and bellow along with a telling on Jesus’ birth. It begins in a whisper, with the shepherds sleeping, and turns to a yell when the angels burst on the scene. Tim Thornborough’s text is fun to read aloud, and Jennifer Davison’s illustrations are full of energy, movement, and color (a great combo for energetic, ever-active, and certainly colorful kids).

A Very Noisy Christmas, by Tim Thornborough | Little Book, Big Story

This book would be great in a Sunday School class, or with a group of kids. Or with a toddler on one knee and a preschooler on the other. Or, really, just any time with any little kid.


A Very Noisy Christmas
Tim Thornborough; Jennifer Davison (2018)


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.