Category: Middle Grade (Ages 8-11) (page 1 of 19)

The Mistmantle Movement Advances!

Remember The Mistmantle Chronicles? I was only slightly joking about starting a movement to get them reprinted. This week, I hope the news of their goodness, their loveliness, their urgent need to live on bookshelves worldwide spread a little further, because Story Warren let me revise and share my review of the series on their site.

You can read that review here.

But I’ve never started a movement before. What should we do next? Commission matching hats? Invent a handshake? Stage a flash mob? I welcome suggestions.

The Rwendigo Tales | J.A. Myhre

I love finding a book that seems impossible to describe. Reviewing it is a challenge—not a “cleaning the girls’ bedroom after we’ve all put it off for far too long” sort of challenge (I hate those; I did that yesterday), but the fun kind. The kind that requires one to have her wits about herself. Like baking elaborate cakes* or breaking boards with one’s bare hands, the challenge of reviewing impossible-to-peg books ends either in defeat or in a adrenaline- or sugar-fueled rush.

But best of all, finding one of these books means I’ve found an author who is either doing something new or doing something old in a new way. In the case of the Rwendigo Tales, author J.A. Myhre sets her magical-realism stories in Africa, where she and her husband serve as missionary doctors and raise their four children, and she infuses the whole thing with the gospel.

The Rwendigo Tales, by J. A. Myhre | Little Book, Big Story

These are beautiful books, and they are unlike anything I’ve read. Myhre writes complex scenes; she deals with hard topics, like rebel attacks, kidnapping, disease outbreaks, and death. Her characters are called upon to make some brutally hard choices, and they do not always choose well. But grace and forgiveness abound—in believable, costly ways.

The Rwendigo Tales, by J. A. Myhre | Little Book, Big Story

If I were, for simplicity’s sake, to try and compare these stories to other stories, I’d have to say that the Rwendigo tales are a bit like A Long Walk to Water, The Wingfeather Saga, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and Treasures of the Snow combined, with maybe a dash of Narnian animals thrown in. And as unlikely a combination as that sounds, it works. It works beautifully. The Rwendigo Tales now live on the Bookshelf of Honor, between The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wingfeather Saga. I can bestow no higher honor upon a book.


*A few months ago, my brother sent me a cookbook and challenged me to a baking duel. We are both devotees of The Great British Baking Show, so I accepted the oven mitt he slapped on the counter. We have since baked a dozen or more treats from that cookbook, texting back and forth as we do, or occasionally sharing a kitchen when he comes to visit.

This is a ridiculous amount of fun; I recommend it to any grown siblings who share a love of pastry, a quirky sense of humor, and bad British accents. Also, today is my birthday, so a footnote about cake seemed appropriate.


The Rwendigo Tales
J.A. Myhre (2015-2018)

Patricia St. John: The Story Behind the Stories | Irene Howat

I did not grow up knowing Jesus, but I have many friends who did. And I love to ask those friends what they enjoyed reading as a child. While I read Goosebumps, I wonder aloud, what did you read? Some shrug (they can’t remember), some say they read Goosebumps, too, but most read missionary biographies.

This surprised me. I definitely wasn’t into, say, presidential biographies as a kid. I dabbled in classics. I scarfed down The Babysitters’ Club. But what kid sits around and reads biographies for fun? This perplexed me—until I started reading missionary biographies. Then suddenly I understood.

Patricia St. John (biography), by Irene Howat | Little Book, Big Story

A well-written biography gives us a window into someone else’s life, with a perspective we don’t see when we live alongside a person. Through a biography, we see how that person’s childhood influenced their adult life and how their work transformed over decades. We get to look back from our vantage point in history and see how their life has altered the world or blessed others. We understand things they couldn’t have known while they lived. And if the subject of the biography is a Christian, missionary or otherwise, we get to see how God proved faithful to them again and again.

We get to see a life of faith lived out in a few hundred pages.

Irene Howat has written dozens of missionary biographies (I have reviewed some of her collections before), and I make a habit of adding one or two to my cart every time I need to bump a ThriftBooks order over $10. I love reading these, both because the subjects of the stories lived fascinating lives, but also because they show me what it looks like to serve God in every time, place, and circumstance.

Patricia St. John (biography), by Irene Howat | Little Book, Big Story

Patricia St. John: The Story Behind the Stories tells the story of the beloved author of Treasures of the Snow (one of my favorite stories*) and many other books. St. John served as a nurse, missionary, and caregiver, and wrote several books over the course of her lifetime. Her stories display the gospel so clearly and vividly in a way few books do, and her eye for detail (Howat describes her as “a noticing person”) makes her characters live. Reading about the life behind those beautiful stories was a delight.

There is something undeniably appealing about biographies of other Christians. Our family read a bunch of books for history this year, but I couldn’t have predicted that the one our girls loved and asked for most would be a biography of George Mueller. Perhaps one day when they’re grown and someone asks them which books they loved most as a kid, their answers will surprise me.


*I love Treasures of the Snow so much that I reviewed it for the winter issue of Wildflowers magazine (available any minute in their online store!). Was the timing of this post some sort of publicity stunt to promote that issue? No, it was not. I read this biography last week and loved it so much I knew I needed to a) cram it into our history schedule, and b) share it with you ASAP. 

Wildflowers Magazine, Winter Issue | Little Book, Big Story

So here it is, beautifully but accidentally coordinated with the newest issue of Wildflowers. Both are worth reading immediately.


Patricia St. John: The Story Behind the Stories
Irene Howat (2008)

Sweep | Jonathan Auxier

And now, let’s discuss child labor laws and the plight of Victorian chimney sweeps.

Did you know that during the Victorian era children were the preferred “instruments” for cleaning chimneys because they were small and were considered—given the abundance of orphans on the streets—expendable? Or that they were “indentured” to masters who fed them little and worked them mercilessly? Or that they were not protected under law but often died of fire, hunger, exposure, or illness?

Sweep,. by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

This is not a world many authors would invite children into, but Jonathan Auxier opens the door to it through the character of Nan, a young girl serving under a harsh master, who is good at her work and has learned to shut herself off from her fellow sweeps. But one part of her, though she tries to seal it away, continues to seep out: memories or dreams of Before, when she traveled with the Sweep.

The Sweep had a way with stories, a magic about him that she still remembers, even after he abruptly leaves her alone, with nothing but a bit of char in her pocket that never seems to grow cool. But that char offers Nan much more than a bit of warmth—as a gift from Sweep, it comforts and protects her in an unexpected way.

Jonathan Auxier infuses Sweep with magic and hope through the character of Charlie and his friendship with Nan, and turns what could be a dismal, depressing subject into a glowing story of love and sacrifice.

Sweep,. by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

A note

If you’ve read Auxier’s other books, you know that his stories can be intense for some readers. (Wonderful, but intense.) I think this one sits somewhere between Peter Nimble and The Night Gardenerand the historical aspect of it (as in, much of this happened to real kids) could be upsetting for some. I encourage you to read it yourself before giving it to your kids, for their sake but also for yours: I think you’ll love it.


Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
Jonathan Auxier (2018)

A Child’s First Book About Marriage | Jani Ortlund

As a child, I found marriage confusing. I lived with each of my parents half of the time and saw them happily married to step-parents I loved. But my life had been revised by divorce, and I wondered, Why do people get married at all?

By sixteen, I vowed that, rather than risk a split, I’d skip marriage.

By twenty, I was a wife.

What changed? The Lord tenderly showed me that my life was not my own—not a thing I was meant to fumble with, trying this and that in the desperate hope that something might span the chasm at my feet.

Instead, he built a bridge himself and carried me across, and for once I saw the world as a place of beauty and order—a place where marriage wasn’t intended to make us happy (though it often does). No, marriage is a part of God’s old, old plan for us, born in the moment when God, three persons in one, looked at solitary Adam among the animals and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

Marriage was not our idea.

A Child's First Book of Marriage, by Jani Ortlund | Little Book, Big Story

Jani Ortlund picks up this thought and carries it through A Child’s First Book About Marriage. 

Ever since that first wedding, people have been getting married. Just like everything that comes from the heart of God, marriage is beautiful and good.

A Child's First Book of Marriage, by Jani Ortlund | Little Book, Big Story

Much of the book centers around this idea that God created marriage, and though it isn’t always easy, it is good and beautiful. She touches gently on topics like sex and attraction, and the beauty of friendship within marriage. She pares away the whorls of doctrine and says simply,

Marriage is about love, but it’s about more than love. Marriage is a vow, a sacred promise. When a man and a woman get married, they promise God that—no matter what—the man will stay with the woman and the woman with the man as long as they both live. A bride and groom make these promises because sometimes it is hard to love each other. Marriage vows help keep a couple together even when they don’t feel like loving each other.

A Child's First Book of Marriage, by Jani Ortlund | Little Book, Big Story

She knows that marriage doesn’t always look beautiful and good, and I appreciate the gentleness with which she discusses divorce and conflict within marriage. And the love with which she discusses differing views about marriage. She doesn’t pick up the harsh language that seems to characterize many of these discussions, but speaks kindly to readers, exhorting us to love those who see things differently than we do and to trust God’s plan even when we don’t understand it. And she doesn’t idolize marriage either, or treat it as anything greater than a good gift from our Creator. She explains,

A biblical marriage shows the world a tiny picture for all to see of the Big Romance—the one between Christ and His Church in love together. When you love Jesus, then you are a part of that Church and nothing and no one will ever be able to separate you from God’s love for you.

I bought this book on impulse because it was the only book I had ever seen for on marriage for children. But I love how balanced it is, how wise and clear Ortlund’s perspective is. I love Angelo Ruta’s watercolor illustrations, which show families in different configurations, from different backgrounds, and subtly use color and composition to deepen Ortlund’s text.

A Child's First Book of Marriage, by Jani Ortlund | Little Book, Big Story

I realize that much our own daughters’ understanding will come from watching us, their parents, live out our marriage before them. We will fumble our way through this, too, but God is here with us, giving us the grace we need to apologize, to forgive, to go on setting the other’s good before our own. But I am grateful to Jani Ortlund for writing a book that equips us to lift our daughters’ eyes above that one, living example, and see the big picture of marriage: what it is, what it isn’t, Who made it, and why.


A Child’s First Book About Marriage
Jani Ortlund; Angelo Ruta (2018)

The Mistmantle Chronicles | M.I. McAllister

Some might consider what I’m about to do cruel.

First, I’m going to rave about The Mistmantle Chronicles. I’m going to tell you that they are everything I look for in a book. They are:

a) a delight to read

b) beautifully written

c) shaped by a deep and rich Christian worldview

And then I’m going to tell you that they’re difficult to find. Not so difficult that you can’t find some of them, but elusive enough that you may search for months for a copy of the last book. You may scour eBay and ThriftBooks and every used bookstore in your area, just in case someone didn’t realize what they had and let it go. You may briefly contemplate spending $120 on Amazon for a paperback copy*. You may request that your library purchase a copy. You may even email the author directly with a plea for help.

You may search and search. And you still may not find it.

I haven’t.

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

I wondered if it was fair to introduce you to something so delightful and gripping and then announce that you might not be able finish the series. But I decided to introduce you anyway, because these books are among the best we’ve read, and also because I have this slim hope that maybe somebody someday will have the good sense to reprint them. And if we’re all out there requesting it at libraries and talking it up online and perhaps emailing the publisher, maybe that will help? Let’s start a Mistmantle Movement, people!

Here is the premise of the story: Urchin, an unusually pale squirrel, is discovered in the shallows off Mistmantle Island just after his birth. No one knows where he came from or what happened to his mother, but he was found on a night of riding stars, when portentous things are said to happen. The books follow Urchin as he grows and faces challenges of different sorts, but while they primarily center around him, McAllister also deftly weaves the stories of other animals, both good and evil, into Urchin’s story.

The Mistmantle Chronicles meld the gospel-rich worldview of (Scripture, of course, but also) The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wingfeather Saga with the warmth and coziness of RedwallM.I. McAllister’s characters are far from formulaic: they exhibit the unexpected quirks and details that make them inflate from two dimensions to three. They live; we believe in them. And though the challenges the characters face are deep and hard, they often resolve them by looking to the Heart (the God of their world) for strength and guidance.

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

These books do have some dark themes—the first book deals with the subject of “culling,” a sinister plot to kill any babies who are weak or deformed in any way—but McAllister handles these gracefully, and always with an eye on what is right and good. These are stories that will bend our affections toward the good and lovely, and they are worth searching out, however long our quest.

*Those of you who read ebooks won’t suffer this hardship: the digital version is available for $6.99. If our library can’t track a copy down for us, I may go that route out of desperation.


Update

Our local library tracked down a copy of the fifth Mistmantle book, Urchin and the Rage Tide, in a library across the state. And so we are at last reading it! And it does not disappoint. McAllister wraps up the series with one of the—oh, cruel again! I’m so sorry!—most lovely and suitable ends I’ve ever read. This is a book that makes you want to be braver and love others better. (It also makes you want to weep in the waiting room during ballet class.)

I want my own copy to keep.


The Mistmantle Chronicles
M.I. McAllister (2005-2012)

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)