Category: Middle Grade (Ages 8-11) (page 1 of 16)

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.

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)

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)

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.

From the Good Mountain | James Rumford

As you know, we are embarking on our first year of full-time home school, and for me, that means lots and lots of reading. Reading about schedules and curriculum. Reading about God, and how big he is and how faithful. Reading about educational philosophies. And about people’s experiences with and opinions on educational philosophies.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

One of the philosophies I came across again and again was that of Charlotte Mason. I have always pulled in some elements from her work into our family life here and there, but I spent time this spring reading about her work more closely. And I was smitten all over again with the idea of “living books.” I’ve mentioned them previously on this blog, because that is, really, what I try to review: books by authors who aren’t writing to sell, but are genuinely passionate about their story or subject and able to write about it knowledgeably, truthfully, and well. I hope that every book on this blog qualifies for that definition.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

But I found today’s book when I was doing some heavy Charlotte Mason reading, and it struck me within the first few sentences that From the Good Mountain was just the sort of book Mason must have meant when she defined living books. This is a biography of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, written playfully in riddles and illustrated in a way that allows us to see what those first books looked like. James Rumford writes and illustrates this book, but he is also a bookbinder, so the entire process of binding books is laid out by someone who knows the work firsthand and clearly loves it.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

Rumford also includes, at the end, a note on the history of books both past and present. Through his words and images he contemplates the future of books and ebooks, but not in a gloomy “Alas! The end of paper is near” tone. He sounds almost excited about what the future holds, which reminded me that, though we love books, it is words that make up their life, and those words can exist in many forms.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

So, this book is a story about the making of Gutenberg’s printing press. But it is about much, much more, and the enthusiasm that bubbles out in asides about the books’ materials and beauty is what makes this book more than ink and paper. That enthusiasm is what makes it live, and what gives it a place on our family’s shelves. May it find room on your shelves, too.


From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World
James Rumford (2012)