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Wise Up | Marty Machowski

In Wise Up, Marty Machowski (whose books The Ology and The Gospel Story Bible have become standards in our home), takes families through the book of Proverbs in ten-minute jaunts. He asks probing questions about selected passages, all with the aim of teaching our kids to value and pursue wisdom.

Machowski pulls passages from all over the Bible into the discussion as well, showing that the pursuit of wisdom is not a topic limited to the book of Proverbs, but one that is prevalent and highly-prized throughout the whole of Scripture. This is a quest that matters—to God and, therefore, to us—and Machowski is careful to emphasize that while not leaning toward a moralistic interpretation of Proverbs. The gospel is everywhere in this book, and that is beautiful.

But here is where I need to make a confession.

Wise Up, by Marty Machowski | Little Book, Big Story

When I flipped through this book just now, I found our bookmark, placed there months and months ago, holding our place at the reading for “Day 4.” I have written before about our inconsistency with family devotions, but I was sure we’d made it at least a week into this one before shelving it. So, I need you to know that: we haven’t read through this full book as a family. We didn’t try any of the projects (though I love the idea of them), and I don’t think we sang any of the hymns (though we love singing hymns). But I wanted to share this book anyway, because it is a great study and I want you to know about it.

Wise Up, by Marty Machowski | Little Book, Big Story

I also want to ask for your help: for those of you who make family devotions a part of your day, what does that look like? We read together before bed—sometimes from the Bible itself, sometimes from a story bible—and I just embarked on a study with the girls as part of our school day that I hope to share here a little later.

But I’m learning that when presented with pre-written questions, the five of us old enough to know what’s happening seem to wilt and conversation dries up. If we read a story Bible and follow the girls’ questions wherever they lead, a rich and rewarding discussion sometimes ensues (or sometimes, people flop on the floor and pretend to sleep). It’s harder to measure our progress when we have discussions that way, but I’m starting to make peace with that.

Wise Up, by Marty Machowski | Little Book, Big Story

What about you? How does your family read Scripture and hold devotions together? I’m on a quest for ideas here and, through that, I hope to win some wisdom.


Wise Up: 10-Minute Family Devotions in Proverbs
Marty Machowski (2016)

Harry Potter | JK Rowling

I read the first five books when we were newly married. We lived in a studio apartment where the shag carpet smelt of hashbrowns, and our mattress doubled as both sofa and bed. While drunk college kids tossed bottles into the street outside and the glass shattered with a sound like waves on pavement, I opened Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the first page and read, “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

We read that line to our two oldest daughters a few months ago and ushered them into the world of Hogwarts with us, where we trod shifting staircases, spoke with portraits, and savored chocolate frogs. Adding things like “rogue bludger” and “Alas, earwax” to our family lexicon brought all four of us a great deal of joy.

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

But I understand that many Christians have raised objections to Harry Potter. My point here is not to persuade you that you must read these books to your kids (though I will link later to someone who will try): I understand that our consciences prick us, sometimes, at different points, and it is not my desire to deaden your sensitivity to that. And I know, too, that a number of you love fairy tales or share with me a fondness for The Wingfeather Saga. You folks are probably familiar with the armchairs of the Gryffindor common room and don’t need me to recommend books that you have read several times already.

Why, then, am I reviewing Harry Potter?

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

Because what I really want to talk about is magic. Magic is a one of many threads in the Harry Potter books, but because it is viewed askance by many Christians, it tends to be the one skeptical reviewers highlight. Yes, the characters cast spells; they attend a school called a “the school of witchcraft and wizardry.” And yes, seizing some form of power to achieve one’s own ends is evil, both in our world and in the worlds of fairy tale and fantasy. JK Rowling does not celebrate that sort of magic—sorcery, really—but draws a clear line between the Dark Arts and the kind of magic most of the characters in Harry Potter employ.

That magic is a gift they have been given, one that they are sent to Hogwarts to cultivate.

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

One of the central themes of the series, one that is much more potent than the mere fact of casting spells, is the contrast between Harry, who rejects the Dark Arts despite moments of temptation, and Voldemort, who manipulates the Dark Arts to achieve his own horrible ends. Both are considered great wizards, but Harry uses his power to protect those he loves and those who come after him. Voldemort uses his to do “terrible things.”

JK Rowling’s story does not glorify the practice of sorcery. She does not send us away from the books with a desire to be brutal like Voldemort, or treacherous or cowardly, as many of Voldemort’s Death Eaters are. Instead, we close the pages wanting to be brave like Harry and his friends, or to be the sort of person, Muggle or magical, who is willing to lay our lives down for one another in love.

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

We read only the first two books to our girls this year—the rest will wait a few years more until they’re ready for deeper discussions. But when I found Lydia and Sarah on the neighbor’s trampoline, giggling and shouting “Wingardium leviosa!” at one another just before a really big jump, I did not fear for their souls: the sort of magic they practice is the magic of childhood, the sort that allows them to leap and for a moment, believe that they are flying. That is a magic rooted firmly in this world, and it’s one our children are born with, Muggle though they may be.


Want to read more about HArry?

Haley Stewart, at Carrots for Michaelmas, makes a compelling argument for “Why Your Kids Need to Read Harry Potter.”

Andrew Peterson (author of The Wingfeather Saga) wrote a piece about Potter that is just beautiful.

ND Wilson’s thoughts on magic largely informed my view of it. You can read an article he wrote on about this for Desiring God, or you can listen to his episode, “Magic and Fear in Children’s Books,” of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast (that episode is, for the record, my all-time favorite so far).

The Harry Potter Series, by JK Rowling | Little Book, Big Story

A note on illustrations

We love the new, large-format versions of these books, illustrated by Jim Kay, but I should warn you: the illustrations are much darker than the originals by Mary GrandPré. I personally preferred reading the original editions of the books, but Jim Kay’s illustrations are eerie and striking, and we just kept returning to them (you can get a glimpse of Kay’s work in this charming video). Mitch and the girls loved both editions, so we ended up toggling back and forth between the two as we read. I have linked to both below.


The Complete Harry Potter Series
JK Rowling (1997-2007)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (pre-order)
JK Rowling, Jim Kay (2015-2017)

The Biggest Story ABC | Kevin DeYoung

What I loved best about Kevin DeYoung’s book The Biggest Story was the way he distilled the grand narrative of Scripture down into a straightforward, engaging book for children. I was impressed. Funneling a vast story like that into the uncluttered language of childhood (without dumbing it down) is a challenge, and DeYoung succeeded admirably.

With his new book, The Biggest Story ABC, DeYoung distills the gospel down even further and writes a remarkably coherent explanation of it for toddlers, using the letters of the alphabet as guideposts for the story.

The Biggest Story & The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung | Little Book, Big Story

This approach seemed a little too cute to me at first, but not so cute that I didn’t pre-order it the moment I saw it listed on Amazon. But when I finally read it, I was shocked—shocked, I tell you!—at how beautifully the gospel does fit into an alphabetized book. Even the plagues are neatly alphabetical (Egypt, flies, gnats, hail):

The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung | Little Book, Big Story

as are portions of Israel’s history (judges, kings, law, Messiah):

The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung | Little Book, Big Story

And the way DeYoung describes concepts like substitution and atonement is truly beautiful. Don Clark illustrates these concepts richly, opening visual doors in them so we can behold their beauty in a new way.

The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung | Little Book, Big Story

I set The Biggest Story ABC aside as a Christmas gift for Phoebe, and that seems a painfully long time to wait to share it with her. I can’t wait to read it through together and hear what conversation stems from this story—our story. The one we are never to young—and never too old—to hear.

The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung | Little Book, Big Story


The Biggest Story ABC
Kevin DeYoung, Don Clark (2017)

John Ronald’s Dragons | Caroline McAlister

Announcement!

The hyper-observant among you (I am decidedly not one of these, my husband will assure you) may have noticed that the “Bookshop” link is no longer available in the menu up there. Alas! Amazon no longer supports the store feature, so I had to retire it. The Book List is still there, though, so if you want a flyover view of my favorite titles, that’s the place to look.

That is all.


There are those who like to know the story behind their favorite stories, and there are those who don’t. Lydia is one of the latter. Biographies of her favorite authors, interviews or seminars—when offered, she turns them down with a polite “No, thank you.” She maintains that she likes the stories the way they are, without bothering with the shadows and scaffolds behind them.

But I am one of the former. I watched all of the extras on the Lord of the Rings DVDs. I read interviews with favorite authors, as well as prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and author’s notes. Those “in progress” videos my favorite illustrators post to Instagram are among my life’s simple pleasures.

John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister | Little Book, Big Story

And so books like John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, which tell the life of a beloved author in words and pictures, are just my cup of tea. But this one, with its well-told story and endearing illustrations, suited Lydia, too. McAlister follows JRR Tolkien from childhood until the creation of The Hobbit, using Tolkien’s lifelong love of dragons to shape a story that deals gently but honestly with childhood, loss, war, and love.

John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister | Little Book, Big Story

Eliza Wheeler’s illustrations, meanwhile, are beautiful. I know there’s a better adjective out there to describe them, something that conveys a sense of coziness, of light and dark, of delight, but I haven’t found it. Her surprising use of perspective and the way she works biographical and historical detail into each painting (and documents them in, yes, the Illustrator’s Note) adds another layer of meaning to the story, allowing us to read, in the margins, more about the inventive Tolkien and the major events of his life.

John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister | Little Book, Big Story

John Ronald’s Dragons gives us an enchanting look into the story behind one of our favorite stories, and it’s one I know our family will return to again and again. It also motivated me to look for the story behind that story, and in my sleuthing I found a fascinating post about Eliza Wheeler’s research trip to Oxford, as well as this trailer for John Ronald’s Dragons. I also found her on Instagram.


John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of JRR Tolkien
Caroline McAlister, Eliza Wheeler (2017)

The Door Before | ND Wilson

Is there a better moment for a bookworm than the one when a favorite author announces that his newest book will be a reentry into the world of one of his most beloved series? I doubt it. But is there a more depressing moment than the one that comes when a reader realizes, halfway through the new book, that the original series was better without the late entry? No. After a few experiences of that sort, I’ve come to regard announcements like this one with an immediate rush of joy (a return ticket to a beloved world!) followed by apprehension (But what if it’s like Clariel?).

But when ND Wilson announced The Door Before, a prequel to his 100 Cupboards trilogy, the apprehension didn’t flood over me, but only lapped quietly at my toes. If anyone could do it, I thought, ND Wilson could.

And he did. He did it right.

The Door Before, by ND Wilson | Little Book, Big Story

The Door Before introduces us to new aspects of Wilson’s ever-expanding world, and masterfully links  (so I hear) this series to his Ashtown Burials series. Because I haven’t yet read that other series (I have been saving it, so I’ll never not have an ND Wilson series to look forward to), I can’t comment much on how delightful that is, except in theory. But I can tell you that the story of The Door Before is a powerful force, and I was swept into it immediately.

The Door Before answers old questions and raises new ones, and makes the world(s) of 100 Cupboards seem both bigger and more well-ordered than before. Old characters appear throughout this book, and I wanted to cheer when I met them, the way we do when an old friend saunters onscreen during a new Star Wars movie. But I couldn’t, because Mitch hasn’t read the book yet. I cheered inwardly, ate some chocolate, and kept reading.

The 100 Cupboards series, by ND Wilson | Little Book, Big Story

Every book I read by ND Wilson cements his place at the top of my list of favorite authors—the way he views our world and his created world, the way he gives his characters room to move and make gut-wrenching decisions, enables him to craft stories that are intense and sometimes gruesome but always strangely beautiful, too.

 The Door Before is a welcome addition to the 100 Cupboards collection—one I can’t wait to reread alongside the original trilogy and the Ashtown Burials series in a giant ND Wilson binge.


The Door Before
ND Wilson (2017)


also

My dear friend Jennifer Harris interviewed me on her blog Every Morning, New Mercies! You can read the interview here  and learn more about why I started this blog, how I know I’ve found a book worth reviewing, and when I fell in love with classics. But you should stick around and read her posts, too! “The Hospitality of Frog and Toad” is one of my favorites, as is her piece (featured in “The Warren & the World”) about Charlotte’s WebAnd her post on the myth of balance is just lovely.

At Night | Jonathan Bean

First, Two (and a half) Things:

1) We started school last week, and while I know that, eventually, the books will stop smelling new–the pens will run down; enthusiasm will wane–I took an informal poll on Friday, and the results are in: we love homeschooling. Thank you all for your encouragement during this summer of planning (that is, guessing) and research! You are a lovely lot, and it’s a privilege to write for you.

Back to School 2017 | Little Book, Big Story

Back to School (Pre-K, 2nd & 4th Grade)

That leads me to my second thing:

1.5) Though we are now officially homeschooling our daughters, it has always been important to me that this blog appeal to parents, regardless of how we all educate or raise our kids. My goal is to not turn this, even accidentally, into a blog about homeschooling.

I will continue to flavor my reviews with glimpses into our family’s life together, because it has always been an important part of my plan to let you get to know me, at least a little, so that you can decide whether or not you trust my reviews or feel you need to take them with a grain of salt. These peeks will probably now include an occasional mention of our educational endeavors at home, because that is what we are doing. But it is not what I think you should be doing. Please remember that. And please know that as I write, I am thinking of you, however you educate your kids, and my hope is–as it always has been–to introduce you to titles that your family will love, whether you read them after a full day of traditional schooling, as a part of your school day at home, or something in between those two.

Back to School 2017 | Little Book, Big Story

(Why Josie was not in the photo)

In short, this is not a homeschooling blog now. It is a blog about books, for parents who love Jesus and who long for their children to love him, too. It is also a blog with some big news:

2) I tried writing every other week, and while it won me some time to read curriculum, I found that I really, really missed writing here. I actually wrote less overall (and, without my own weekly deadlines, spent more time aimlessly roaming the internet), and that was sad. But I love this blog, I love writing about books, and sharing only one book every other week just didn’t satisfy. So I’m back. I shall henceforth see you every week! Huzzah!


At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story

We love the books of Jonathan Bean. We first learned about them when we read, at Sarah MacKenzie‘s urgent recommendation, This is My Home, This is My School. We loved that book. We studied the illustrations and searched for every hidden detail.

Then my Sarah noticed, on the back of the book, that Jonathan Bean had published several other books. “Mom!” she said. “I want to read them!”

At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story

How could I say no to that? I reserved them all at the library and they trickled into our library basket, a few at at time. We loved Big Snow and Building Our House. But my favorite by far was this humble book, At Night.

Set in the city, At Night follows one small girl who cannot sleep. The text is brief and poetic; the illustrations beautiful. If you only know Bean’s other books, this one comes as a surprise: the illustrations are not quite as energetic as some of his others, and that’s perfect for a story about a sticky summer’s night.

At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story

Though this book is set in the city rather than the countryside featured in Building Our House and This is My Home, This is My School, it still points beautifully to the world beyond the city. And it contains one of the sweetest examples of . . . well, I don’t want to tell you, because the quiet surprise of it is part of what makes this book so lovely. But At Night is a book worth reading during these last weeks of summer, just before the evenings cool down.

At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story


At Night
Jonathan Bean (2007)