Category: Middle Grade (Ages 8-11) (page 2 of 18)

The Railway Children | E. Nesbit

This summer re-run first appeared on my blog in January 2014. It features one of my favorite books. I hope you enjoy it (and your summer break!), too.


Was there ever a better narrator than E. Nesbit? The way she banters with the reader in charming asides and includes her own voice as a part of the story makes reading her work an act of listening, as though a favorite aunt has drawn little you onto her lap as she tells you a story about some children that she once knew. Her voice is comfortable, familiar; she exists within the story in a delightful way.

C.S. Lewis also had a knack for establishing this intimacy between author and reader. I used to think that I recognized his voice in Nesbit’s work until I learned that she was one of his favorite authors as a child, and that really, I was hearing her voice in his work. This just made me love her more than ever, and I love her best of all in her book, The Railway Children.

The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit | Little Book, Big Story

After their father is mysteriously called away from home, Roberta, Peter and Phyllis leave their comfortable life in London and move to the countryside with their mother, where they are materially poor but find a wealth of excitement in the railway that cuts through the hills near their new home. Adventures of a noble sort ensue, all told in Nesbit’s endearing (but never, ever sappy) tone.

The small fry in our home are so smitten with The Railway Children that, for a time, they answered only to Roberta and Phyllis, and we found ourselves hosting an imaginary brother named Peter for months (we currently host an imaginary brother and sister named Curdie and Irene—from The Princess and the Goblinas well as a sister named Applesauce, and an imaginary cow named Charlotte. Our house is cozy, but never dull).

The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit | Little Book, Big Story

One closing note: you’ll notice that I never give age recommendations on my blog. The reasoning behind that is simple: all children are different, and the book one child cracks open at four, another child may not properly enjoy until eight. You know better than I do where your child falls on the spectrum, so I leave it up to you to decide if your child is ready for this book. Read it yourself and see. I’m quite certain that you will enjoy it.


The Railway Children
E. Nesbit (1906)

The Tinker’s Daughter | Wendy Lawton

First of all, my apologies for publishing nothing last week. We are preparing for a dramatic home remodel, and as I bend my attention toward packing and dismantling and readying ourselves to live a nomadic life for a few months, things have begun to fall through the cracks.

Last week’s post fell through the cracks.

But I’m back this week with a summer re-run! This post originally appeared in February 2015. I loved reading back through it and realizing that I have found so many more books that portray Christian characters beautifully and believably since writing this post’s lament. But I am always searching for more! Please, tell me if you know of any I might have missed.


Twice in one week, I found myself deep in conversations with friends about one question: Why is it so difficult to write about Christian characters?

The question surfaced after I narrowly resisted the urge to throw a certain children’s book across the room when the heroine—a Christian girl who held fast to her faith during adversity and yet to whom I remained thoroughly unsympathetic—”sobbed violently” one too many times. This offended both the reader and the editor in me, but also flummoxed the Christian in me, because shouldn’t a character’s relationship with the Lord form a compelling thread within a story? It’s something so beautiful, so rich. Shouldn’t authors be able to capture that well?

Some do. John Bunyan comes to mind, and so does C.S. Lewis. And Marilynne Robinson. But when the work is intended for children, somehow the Christian element emerges either in an understated theme or in allegory—both of which are fine—or else the Christian threads become so overt that they seem superimposed upon the story’s plot, lending the book an unwelcome awkwardness. A preachiness. And I wonder if anybody likes preachiness.

The Tinker's Daughter, or "Why is it so hard to find strong Christian characters in fiction?" | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a few children’s books that not only weave threads of Christian belief into a plot gracefully but also make them a key point of the story, and here they are:

Heidi. Treasures of the Snow. What Katy Did. That’s it. I have read a lot of children’s books and those are the only three that come to mind.

So, why is it so difficult to write believably Christian characters and to capture their walk with Christ in a way that is both genuine and appealing?

Here is my theory: Writing about something as intimate as a person’s relationship with an unseen God must fall into the same territory as writing about one’s own marriage without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. To succeed in communicating something so intimate about a subject to which you are so close, you must strike all the notes just right or the chord fails and turns from pure music to dissonance, and the reader finds herself (for example) tempted to chuck a book across a room in frustration, because the thing the writer attempted to do should have been beautiful but wasn’t.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

For a writer to capture something as personal as a character’s spiritual growth, they have to be willing to allow the character’s doubt onto the page at times, and to accept the fact that faith is complex—it is neither simple or moralistic. They have to be willing to step back from their own relationship with the Lord a little and observe how it works, and to lend their characters just enough of their own experience that the characters successfully cross that gap from stereotype to genuine, likeable person.

I say this as a reader, mind you. I haven’t even dared tackle this subject in my own writing. But I have seen novels make the ambitious attempt to scale the twin peaks of faith and fiction only to tumble into a crevasse somewhere between the two and land in my “used bookstore” pile. Which brings me back to that book that I did not finish.

That story should have been at least interesting, if not absorbing. But it wasn’t. And after I abandoned that particular ship, I found my desire for good, Christian literature hardening into a resolve to find good, Christian literature for our daughters, as well as for the kids at school. I took to roaming the e-aisles of Amazon, looking for potential gems.

The Tinker's Daughter, by Wendy Lawton | Little Book, Big Story

And that is how I found The Tinker’s Daughter. More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that I found Wendy Lawton, an author capable of writing a compelling story that neither cheapens her characters’ Christian faith nor makes them unpleasantly trite. The Tinker’s Daughter is a well-crafted, fictional account of Mary Bunyan, John Bunyan’s eldest daughter, during the time when her father was newly imprisoned for “unsanctioned” preaching. His faith throughout the story is abundant and beautiful to behold. Mary’s faith is that of a fledgling, taking off timidly by the end of the book.

Another point in Lawton’s favor: Mary is blind, and for an author who can make me feel and smell and listen to the world of a girl without sight, I have nothing but admiration.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a handful of books in this series so far, and I must warn you that Lawton does not tackle easy material: Shadow of His Hand relates Anita Dittman’s experience in the concentration camps of Germany; Freedom’s Pen tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Africa as a young girl and endured the horror of the slave ships before being sold to a wealthy New England family.

Lawton handles this material well, including just enough detail for the reader to grasp how truly terrible these historical events were without making the stories too heavy to bear. She allows her characters to ask hard questions through it all, and includes answers that satisfy the reader without oversimplifying the truth. So, I like the fact that these books tackle content like the Holocaust and slavery. But I don’t recommend handing them over to your children without reading through them for yourself.

That said, some of them I did allow Lydia to read on her own (after reading them myself)—The Tinker’s Daughter was one of those. We’ll wait on Shadow of His Hand and Freedom’s Pen for now. I believe there are nine books in the series, so I have more to read, but for now I’m savoring each new volume and rejoicing in the existence of an author like Wendy Lawton. These books allow me to hope that there are other authors out there like her.

And it occurs to me that you might know about them: Do you know of any chapter books that center around characters whose Christian faith is a central part of the story? Please let me know in the comments!


The Tinker’s Daughter
Wendy Lawton (2002)

Wildflowers: A Creative Magazine for Girls (GIVEAWAY!)

My friend Maegan made a magazine. It is a work of art, the way I remember her home being: warm and full of noise and beauty and smelling like fresh biscuits and gravy (not the magazine, I guess, but the home). Or maybe it reminds me of her daughters’ room more than the whole house, because no one roars in this magazine or brandishes swords or leaps from a high structure just because. But there are clever stories and poems and drawings of birds, and plenty of talk about books.

This is a magazine by my friend Maegan. It is a magazine for girls. You will love it.

Wildflowers Magazine (GIVEAWAY!) | Little Book, Big Story

This first issue, the spring issue, is the one I’m talking about today, and I’m tempted to describe it in lists: lists of the excellent people who contributed to it, lists of the lovely and varied content you’ll find inside. I had the joy of reviewing a book I haven’t featured on the blog, and both Lydia and Sarah contributed reviews of their favorite books.

Wildflowers Magazine (GIVEAWAY!) | Little Book, Big Story

But maybe I should tell you more about what (and why) Wildflowers is. Wildflowers is a quarterly magazine centered around truth, beauty, and goodness, written for girls aged 8-12ish (but I bet you’ll snuggle up with it sometime, and your little ones will want a turn admiring the little chicks and coloring pages). The articles range from biography to short story, with everything from poetry to hand-painted stationary to DIY projects sprinkled in between. (Future issues will have even more content, including nature projects and how-to lessons.) The illustrations are lovely and the layout so fun! And the price is oh-so-reasonable!

Wildflowers Magazine (GIVEAWAY!) | Little Book, Big Story

But one of you won’t have to worry about that price at all, because I get to give you a copy of the spring issue of Wildflowers for free (oh, joy!). You can all enter to win that one below, and you can head over here to pre-order a copy of summer issue.


Wildflowers Magazine (GIVEAWAY!) | Little Book, Big Story

Enter to win a free copy of wildflowers!

To enter, fill in as many options as you like in the widget below. The giveaway closes on Friday, June 29. After that, the winner will be randomly selected and notified by email. Good luck!

Dangerous Journey | Oliver Hunkin

I love it when I’m wrong about books.

Years ago, a friend showed me this one and I considered how excellent a children’s rendition of A Pilgrim’s Progress would be. I read a few sample pages and loved the tone of the story. But the illustrations—they were so intense. So many pointy teeth and warty giants! Egad. I thought that maybe some day my daughters might appreciate it—maybe. But at that point, we were still having nightmares about VeggieTales, so that day seemed a long way off.

Dangerous Journey, by Oliver Hunkin | Little Book, Big Story

But this year, some wise educator included Dangerous Journey in our history curriculum, so we gave it a read, even though I was still pretty sure at least one of the girls was way too small for it and another would listen to the story while giving every bodily clue that she hated it.

But I was wrong: Dangerous Journey became our favorite read aloud, the one that got applause when the girls saw it in the stack. “It’s Dangerous Journey day!” became something they said with the same enthusiasm they show for the ice cream truck in the summer. (Note: I am not exaggerating for effect.)

Dangerous Journey, by Oliver Hunkin | Little Book, Big Story

I’m so glad I was wrong about that, because reacquainting the girls with the story of Pilgrim’s Progress (we read Little Pilgrim’s Progress a few years ago) gave us a beautiful shared analogy for the Christian life that we’ve come back to often since our Dangerous Journey days ended. When someone descends into the depth of a terrible mood, I can draw them back gently with, “Remember when Christian left the path? Do you remember where he ended?” Or we can spur each other on in good works by remembering the Celestial City. Through Dangerous Journey, Pilgrim’s Progress has become part of our family’s shared language.

Dangerous Journey, by Oliver Hunkin | Little Book, Big Story


a quick comparison

For a moment, though, let’s consider what makes this version different from Little Pilgrim’s Progress. Dangerous Journey is told in picture book format (Little Pilgrim’s Progress is a chapter book), but even so, it’s language is a little more advanced. In it, Christian is an adult (he is a child in Little Pilgrim’s Progress, a perspective that obviously has its own benefits). Dangerous Journey’s illustrations are dark and a bit dated, but something about them really did connect with my girls (Little Pilgrim’s Progress is minimally illustrated), and I think the visuals helped them understand better what was happening in the story.

Both books are excellent, and both have found deserving spaces on our shelves, though they each approach the story of Christian’s journey to the Celestial City differently. And neither gave our girls nightmares. That’s a definite plus.


Thank you all!

Thank you so much to all of you who entered the Slugs & Bugs giveaway, and congrats to Emily and Jen, our winners! Since I can’t send you all home with an album, I’ll do the next best thing and play you out with a song. Here is the video for the song “The Ten Commandments.” Enjoy!


Dangerous Journey
Oliver Hunkin (1985)

The Secret Keepers | Trenton Lee Stewart

This book made me nervous. I was three-quarters of the way in before I felt it—this niggling sense that maybe the main character was maybe about to make some terrible choices. Whether he does or not I won’t tell you, but I will point to the fact that I am reviewing it here. The Secret Keepers is worth reading—I will tell you that.

Trenton Lee Stewart, author of The Mysterious Benedict Society, tackles tricky questions. His characters face conflicts that feel real and terrifying, and they face choices that are not black or white: Do you cheat if it will help you defeat the villain? Or do you refuse to cheat knowing that if you do, your mission will probably fail? That sort of thing.

Those choices could take the story down a murky path, where the end justifies the means and all is well. But in Stewart’s books, they don’t. The characters wrestle with these decisions; they are conflicted before, during, and after they make their choice, and still wonder sometimes if they made the right call.

The Secret Keepers, by Trenton Lee Stewart | Little Book, Big Story

At no point does Stewart gloss over these questions as though it’s necessary to toss one’s moral compass out the window in order to save the day. Good is good, and evil is evil. But he is willing to admit that sometimes in life, the two are hard to tell apart. Or, at least, evil works pretty hard to look like good, and it can be quite convincing. As his characters work through these questions, striving to pick the good out of the gray, they grow, and it is this undercurrent of character growth that really draws me into his stories. And it’s the feeling that a character could lean either way that makes me nervous.

But, okay, here’s what else you should know about this story: Reuben Penderly lives in New Umbra, a city ruled by the shadowy leader The Smoke. One day, he finds something unusual, something that grants him unexpected power and drives this otherwise solitary boy into unlikely friendships and enmity. That’s all very vague, I know. I wish I could be more specific than that. But the story’s hairpin turns are so fascinating that I don’t want to make them feel any less perilous by revealing what lies around the corner.

The Secret Keepers, by Trenton Lee Stewart | Little Book, Big Story

I will say, though, that this one is probably best for older readers, or as a read-aloud with a side of discussion. In our case, Lydia read it first, I read it second, we both enjoyed it immensely, and afterward we discussed it. Or you could just read it on your own. It’s worth it.


The Slugs & Bugs Giveaway is still open!

Sing the Bible, Vol. 3, by Randall Goodgame and Slugs & Bugs | Little Book, Big Story

You can still enter to win a copy of the new Slugs & Bugs album, Sing the Bible Vol. 3—huzzah! This post has all the details.


The Secret Keepers
Trenton Lee Stewart (2017)

Slugs and Bugs Giveaway

Last week, I raved about the new Slugs & Bugs album, Sing the Bible, Vol. 3. This week, I get to give two copies of it to two of you! What do you need to do to win one of these beauties? I’m so glad you asked.

Sing the Bible, Vol. 3, by Randall Goodgame and Slugs & Bugs | Little Book, Big Story

ENTER THE GIVEAWAY

To enter, fill in as many options as you like in the widget below. The giveaway closes on Tuesday, May 29. After that, two winners will be randomly selected and notified by email.

Game on!

The Little White Horse | Elizabeth Goudge

“I absolutely adored The Little White Horse.” —J.K. Rowling

That sentence alone persuaded me to purchase The Little White Horse, a book I knew nothing else about by an author I’d never heard of. If this story fed the imagination of young J.K. Rowling, I wanted to save our family a seat at the feast.

I have read The Little White Horse at least four times—more times than I have read many other excellent books—and yet, I’ve never reviewed it for this blog. Perhaps I put it off because the story is so difficult to describe. Or because I wanted to do things like hold it to my chest and smile dreamily at clouds rather than attempt to pinpoint its magic, its mystery, its loveliness. Like The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic and The Wingfeather Saga, this book left me brimming with joy and fumbling with words: “You have to read it; you’ll love it” was all I could think to say.

The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge | Little Book, Big Story

But Story Warren gave me an opportunity to review The Little White Horse, and I leapt at it. It took a few days of dreamy re-reading and a few weeks of fumbling with words, but I finally finished, and the post is up on the Story Warren site today. I hope you enjoy it, but better still, I hope you read The Little White Horse. You have to. You’ll love it.

Read the review here.


The Little White Horse
Elizabeth Goudge (1946)