Category: Young Adult (Ages 11+) (page 1 of 8)

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)

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.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard | Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes won me over quietly—I almost didn’t see it happening. Jonathan Auxier’s story of an orphaned thief who eyes were (eep!) pecked out by ravens has a wit and charm and enough unexpected quirks to make it unlike any other books I’ve read. I liked it. I passed it on to Lydia, who loved it. But for some reason (maybe it was the thieving? Or the crows?), I didn’t immediately review it for this blog.

But then I read Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

There was nothing subtle about the way this book won me over: affection for it roared over me like a semi truck, overtaking me so abruptly that, at one point, I thumped the cover at Mitch while I read and announced, “Oh my word, I love this book!” before diving back into the story. It was the sort of book I adored so much, so immediately, that I kept my fingers metaphorically crossed for the rest of the book in the hope that the ending wouldn’t fizzle.

It didn’t.

This book is glorious from start to finish.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

Sophie Quire is a sequel to Peter Nimble, in that it happens after Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, Peter Nimble is in it, and it was written by the same author. But it might be more accurate to call it a companion book, I don’t know, because the main character here is Sophie Quire, a young bookmender in the city of Bustleburgh, which is currently banishing nonsense in all its forms. When she meets a certain blind thief and takes on an unlikely commission, everything in Sophie’s life changes.

Jonathan Auxier’s writing is as exhilarating in this book as it is in The Night Gardener and Peter Nimble. His characters are bizarre and loveable, and through their adventures, Auxier explores (among other things) the importance of stories and nonsense. Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard is a beautiful book, one that has a deeper layer of truth underneath the story, waiting for those willing to look for it.

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story


Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
Jonathan Auxier (2012)

Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard
Jonathan Auxier (2017)

John Brown | John Hendrix

I knew two things about this book when I grabbed it off the library shelf:

  1. John Brown was a controversial guy whose legacy had something to do with a militia, maybe.
  2. No such controversy surrounds John Hendrix, whose book Miracle Man is one of my favorites, and whose hand-lettered “Hendrix” on this book’s spine compelled me to tuck it in my book bag.

I learned a lot more about both Johns when I got home. John Brown was controversial—I was right about that. As a white man living when the tide was turning, yet hadn’t fully turned, against slavery, John Brown took up arms and fought to bring slavery to an end. He loved the Lord and saw violence as a way to bring a great grief to an end. His raid on a federal armory in the town of Harper’s Ferry was distastrous and led to his capture and execution.

He is not an obvious hero.

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

But John Hendrix treats his story well, neither glorifying Brown’s call to violence, nor underplaying Brown’s passion and love for those enslaved. Here was a man who saw injustice and said not, “Somebody should do something about that,” but “Something must be done”—and then did something about it.

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

I try to keep my daughters’ shelves stocked with stories of heroes—people who trusted the Lord through difficult circumstances, yes, but also figures from history whose stories are worth telling and retelling. John Brown fits almost into both of those categories, but his story is not a clear success and that is, I think, one of its merits. We have to think about this story: Was he right to wage an actual war against slavery? Did he, in the end, accomplish what he set out to do? How was he changed by the events at Harper’s Ferry?

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

There is no setting this book down and thinking, Well, that was nice. John Hendrix’s words as well as his illustrations push the reader into deeper study, and his author’s note at the end of the book gives an interesting glimpse into what drew him to write about John Brown:

John was a devout believer in Christianity. He used the Bible’s words—that men are loved and valuable to God—as a holy plumb line. When he held this truth up against the crooked world, he knew things should be different. I was astonished to read about John’s belief that black people should not just be free but equal, which was an idea far outside mainstream abolitionism in the antebellum United States. His passion for freedom was undisputed. Frederick Douglass said of John Brown: ‘His zeal in the cause of my race was greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.’

Those are powerful words about a man who, in the end, did just that: he loved and laid down his for his neighbors. And John Hendrix tells that story well, both in his words and illustrations.


John Brown: His Fight For Freedom
John Hendrix (2009)

The Night Gardener | Jonathan Auxier

There was a time when I did not love scary stories. By “scary stories,” I mean the books I stumbled into in my youth—some of them age-appropriate fluff and some truly terrifying, books that were well beyond me both in content and complexity. Some of them haunt me still, and not in a pleasant “Oh, that gave me chills!” kind of way.

So, I did not love scary stories. And I applied the term “scary stories” not only to books written to send readers to bed with flashlights and cold sweats, but also to books with ruthless and unsettling villains, books that had scary parts in them.

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

But then three things happened:

  1. I read ND Wilson’s 100 Cupboards trilogy and discovered a kind of scary that was also redemptive and, really, quite fun.
  2. My eldest daughter turned eight and woke up one day a much less sensitive reader. Books that might have upset her six months earlier she read without a hint of squeamishness. Indeed, she even seemed to enjoy them. A new vista of reading expanded before us!
  3. I came across ND Wilson’s article for The Atlantic on why he writes scary stories for children. In that article, ND Wilson writes:

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help.

And just like that, my mind changed.

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

It was this new attitude that gave me room to try The Night Gardener, a book I may not have bothered with pre-“ND Wilson on scary stories.” But I bothered with it and I’m so glad, because The Night Gardener totally creeped me out, but it also gave me a new appreciation for what a scary story can be.

The Night Gardener follows Molly and Kip, two Irish children who are separated from their parents while crossing the sea to England. When they take a position serving the Windsor family at an eerie manor in the sourwoods, they find themselves in the thick of a mystery. A haunting, don’t-read-this-before-bed mystery.

It’s clear that Jonathan Auxier set out to write a scary story, and I love the way he approached it: Molly and Kip are wonderful, warm-hearted heroes, who are stretched and challenged throughout the story and who grow in some gratifying ways as they face the terrors of the Windsor estate. I love, too, the way Auxier explores what happens when we try to take by force the things we were never meant to have, and his quiet commentary on the difference between stories and lies.

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier | Little Book, Big Story

This was a book I wanted to stay up late with but didn’t, because I wanted to sleep and sleep is a rare, fleeting thing here, and so I did not read it before bed. But I did spend an entire naptime on the couch with it, reading, eating chocolate, and refusing to feel guilty about using a pile of unfolded laundry as a backrest. That is a sign of good book.

Also

Have you heard Jonathan Auxier on the Read-Aloud Revival podcast? You really should. I had read none of his books when I listened. I have since read and loved all three (stay tuned for reviews of the other two). This episode definitely made my list of favorites—maybe even top five. It’s a good one.


The Night Gardener
Jonathan Auxier (2015)