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

Gone-Away Lake | Elizabeth Enright

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gone-Away Lake
Elizabeth Enright (1957)

Exploring the Bible | David Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

Months later: it is still awesome.

Here is what Exploring the Bible is:

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

Here is how it works:

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

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

Here is how it works for us:

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

“What did God say to Abraham?”

“How does Moses describe God?”

“Where was the sacrifice to be placed?”

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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


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

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)

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)

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)

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)