Tag: biography (page 2 of 3)

The Tinker’s Daughter | Wendy Lawton

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 don’t think 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)

Featured Author: CS Lewis

When I choose books to review on this blog, I find that there are some authors who have won my heart so thoroughly that I can’t decide which of their books to review first. These are the authors that I love for themselves, not for any single book, and whose name on the spine of an otherwise unknown volume is enough insurance for me to buy a copy without even peeking at the blurb on the back of the book. Introducing you to them is my way of saying, “Yes, we’ll get to the specific titles. But for now, just skip to the part where you read any book they have ever written.”

Today’s featured author is one who looms large in the recent history of Christian thought. He is one that you’ve doubtless encountered and may already love, but the thought that you may not have gone further into his work than The Chronicles of Narnia finally motivated me to put pen to paper and draft this post. Perhaps I’m reminding you of an old friend. Perhaps. But I hope that, for some of you, this post serves as a welcome introduction to a new author, one whose work will earn a well-dogeared place in your own library: CS Lewis.


To be perfectly honest, I labored through the first chapters of Mere Christianity when I first encountered it at 19. I made a few false starts before I pushed on through those introductory chapters and into the heart of the book, but once there I realized that I was in the hands of an author adept at explaining complex concepts, and I began to see that the very questions I wrestled with as a new Christian could not only be answered, but could be answered in a logical way. (I have read the whole book many times since.)

C.S. Lewis fought in one world war but lived through them both, and he was a writer that spoke specifically to his time. But his voice carries, and his answers to the big questions about God and Christianity still satisfy readers today, when we, like the British soldiers and civilians of his original audience, struggle to understand why we should bother with Christianity–or any religion–at all.

Yet while he reasoned clearly on complex issues, he was not above telling stories that still appeal to children as well as adults, Christians as well as non-Christians, bookworms and those who are only caught by a good, old-fashioned adventure. His works span every genre and range in level of difficulty from those written for children (The Chronicles of Narniato works for adults; they cover everything from the afterlife (The Great Divorce) to prayer (Letters to Malcolm) to the question of pain and suffering (The Problem of Pain), all from a layman’s perspective, but with a scholar’s depth and a pitch-perfect ear for language (and humor).

Mere Christianity | Little Book, Big Story

C.S. Lewis seemed always to have the perfect metaphor for the most abstract ideas, and that is, I suppose, why his illustrations turn up in sermon after sermon: if C.S. Lewis has written about the issue in question, then I doubt if anyone else has written about it better.

” . . . it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy has been offered to us. We are far too easily pleased, like an ignorant child who goes on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.” (The Weight of Glory)

Fiction for Children

– The Chronicles of Narniathese are the books that earned Lewis a place on this blog, after all.

Fiction for Adults

– The Space Trilogythese are all worth reading, but I bet you’ll be particularly taken with the second book, Perelandra.

The Science Fiction Trilogy | Little Book, Big Story

– The Screwtape Lettersletters from a senior devil to a junior devil, on how to tempt and enslave a man.

– The Great Divorcean exploration of the afterlife, in narrative form. Utterly unforgettable.

– Til We Have Facesa retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told by Psyche’s older sister. Unique and absorbing.

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

Nonfiction for Adults

– Mere Christianityan examination of what Christians believe and how they live in the light of those beliefs. A classic, and for good reason.

– The Weight of Glorya collection of talks and sermons given at various points in his career. One of my favorites, it contains a number of his best-known illustrations, and is a good introduction to his nonfiction.

– The Four LovesLewis writes about the four different types of love.

Why Should You Read C.S. Lewis? | Little Book, Big Story

– Surprised by JoyLewis’s “autobiography of faith,” in which he examines his own conversion from atheism to Christianity.

– Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayerone side of a correspondence about prayer.

– Reflections on the Psalmsa concise meditation on the psalms, from the perspective of Lewis as a layman. He answers some of the common issues in the Psalms (the vindictive violence, for example) in satisfying ways.

– Letters to Childrensweet and charming responses from Lewis to the children who wrote to him about his Narnia books. This book is lesser known, but it’s a treasure.

 

Featured Author: LM Montgomery

When I choose books to review on this blog, I find that there are some authors who have won my heart so thoroughly that I can’t decide which of their books to review first. These are the authors that I love for themselves, not for any single book, and whose name on the spine of an otherwise unknown volume is enough insurance for me to buy a copy without even peeking at the blurb on the back of the book. Introducing you to them is my way of saying, “Yes, we’ll get to the specific titles. But for now, just skip to the part where you read any book they have ever written.”

Today’s author is a new acquaintance (for me) and one whose presence in this post won’t exactly surprise you. My friends, I give you: L.M. Montgomery.


Montgomery - LMMy affection for L.M. Montgomery is quite personal: you see, her stories gave me back the key to my imagination in a season when I sorely needed it—after the birth of my third child, when the Great Juggling Act of life with a newborn had begun again and the Regular Juggling Act of life with two older children continued without pause. I read a dozen or so of her books then, in those midnight moments, while nursing Phoebe; in back rooms at family gatherings, while nursing Phoebe; during the girls’ nap time, while nursing Phoebe.

LM Montgomery’s characters reminded me that, though I am a woman who needs to chop an onion, nurse a baby and help a three year old find her shoe—all in the next fifteen minutes—I am also a woman can sit for a minute on the front steps and watch the stars come out (while the children put their pajamas on), or listen to the hushed voices of the bamboo outside our kitchen window (when the chirruping voices of our home’s smaller occupants are stilled for a moment). She reminded me to look up from the budget and out the window, where the setting sun ignites the clouds and turns the sky a gorgeous, golden rose. She reminded me to find the stories in those things, to wonder at the world around me.

Anne of Green Gables (series), by LM Montgomery | Little Book, Big Story

Yes, Montgomery can lay out a lush landscape. She can, in a few words, put her finger so precisely on the pulse of a character that the character springs, fully formed, into your mind’s eye. She can weave a story out of  the stuff of ordinary life but with the colors of those things heightened, until you see them not as ordinary but as unforgettable and enchanting. But she has a way of giving us back to ourselves, reminding us adult readers of those childlike qualities that we had—perhaps accidentally—forsworn as we entered adulthood, as we forgot the bigness of  the world inside a single flower and got caught up instead in the Things That Must Be Done Before Dinner. Her words are—to quote my friend, Angie, who kept me supplied me with Montgomery’s books during that first month after Phoebe’s birth—”life-giving.”

Montgomery wrote for serial publication, so, like any really prolific author, some of her works are markedly better than others. But any of them are worth dipping into, especially once you develop an unquenchable thirst for her language, lands and the inhabitants thereof. These are some of my favorites (in a particular order):

– Anne of Green Gables (yes, the entire series, including the extra volumes, Chronicles of Avonlea and Akin to Anne*)

Anne of Green Gables | Little Book, Big Story

– Emily of New Moon (I was slightly less smitten with the rest of the trilogy, but the other two books are worth reading)

Emily of New Moon, by LM Montgomery | Little Book, Big Story

A Tangled Web

– Magic for Marigold

Jane of Lantern Hill

The Blue Castle

Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat

*Akin to Anne is a collection of short stories about orphans who find, through unlikely means, their place among folks who love them—a common theme in Montgomery’s work. These stories are fun to read aloud with children who might be, as yet, too young to appreciate a full-length novel but who would, like Lydia, be enchanted by the characters, the scenery and, of course, the happy endings.


If you’re inspired to read more about LM Montgomery (and I hope you are), I highly recommend Jennifer Trafton’s piece “Smelling Flowers in the Dark” and Lanier Iveston’s four-part biography of LM Montgomery, both published on The Rabbit Room.

Peter’s First Easter | Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Last week, I voiced some rather strong opinions about Bible stories that put peripheral characters in starring roles, but after rereading Petook to my children and preparing to review today’s book, Peter’s First Easter, I realized that I stand rather firmly corrected.

You see, all three of my Easter 2014 reviews feature books that are fantastic examples of how well a simple shift in perspective can refresh a story: in Petook, we saw the event of the Crucifixion through the eyes of a rooster, who stood, in a way, for creation; in The Donkey Who Carried a King, we followed Davey, the donkey; and in Peter’s First Easter, we leave the farm animals behind and read about the last week of Jesus’s life through the first person account of Peter (as envisioned by the author).

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Let me tell you one thing up front: Peter’s First Easter is a deeply moving book. You (if you’re That Sort of Person—I am) will probably cry. You see, Wangerin puts the reader right in Peter’s shoes, describing his love for Jesus, as well as his shock at some of Jesus’s pronouncements—the ones we take for granted, as part of a well known story, but that must have sounded dissonant and strange the first time they were voiced.

This is my body. Take and eat.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

And what must Peter have felt after that third denial of Christ? Wangerin presents a beautiful and believable story that allows us to view the Crucifixion through the eyes of one who is painfully aware of his own brokenness and who fears that nothing will ever be strong enough to restore him—even as he watches the very event that will restore him.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

Despite Wangerin’s use of past tense, there is an urgency to both the language and the illustrations that brings the story near to us, the readers. Tim Ladwig respectfully avoids showing Jesus’s face and uses unusual perspectives—strong diagonal compositions, showing characters in profile or from above—to achieve a sense of inclusion: as the crowd thrust their fists in the air, screaming, “Crucify him!”, the people are depicted at such an angle that we seem to be standing among them with our own fists in the air. And he has a knack with facial expressions: the tears welling up in Peter’s eyes, his expression of wonder at Jesus’s words, the joy and laughter on the disciples’ faces as they meet Jesus, resurrected, for the first time—Ladwig captures them all perfectly.

Peter's First Easter | Little Book, Big Story

This is a lengthy picture book, divided into ten short chapters, so you can read it all at once or in stages—a chapter or two per day throughout Holy Week, perhaps. However you do it, though, don’t rush! This is a book to be savored, one to linger over and explore with little ones.


Peter’s First Easter
Walter Wangerin, Jr., Tim Ladwig (2000)

Featured Author: Madeleine L’Engle

In response to the question, “What is today?”, please select one of the following:

a) your birthday

b) Daylight Savings

c) the first anniversary of Little Book, Big Story

If you selected a), happy birthday! I owe you a cupcake. If you selected b), yikes. Rough week, then?

But if you selected c), well done! Let the lights flash and  the bells ring and the announcer crow, “We have a winner!”

For one whole year, I’ve been writing book reviews, and to celebrate, I thought I’d do something a little special and introduce a new category to the blog. (I know. Wild times.) Today, we move off the beaten path of weekly reviews and into the fresh green grass of featured authors.

You see, as I very thoughtfully choose books to review on this blog, I find that there are some authors who have won my heart so thoroughly that I can’t decide which of their books to review first. These are the authors that I love for themselves, not for any single book, and whose name on the spine of an otherwise unknown volume is enough insurance for me to buy a copy without even peeking at the blurb on the back of the book. Introducing you to them is my way of saying, “Yes, we’ll get to the specific titles. But for now, just go get one of their books and start reading.”

To kick things off, we can’t start with just anyone. We’ll begin with the one author who almost had a Rosenburg daughter named in her honor (yes, I love this author that much): Madeleine L’Engle.


L'Engle - PortraitI love our house. It is quirky and dated, with a bright yellow kitchen in which people congregate and a laundry room door that opens with a skeleton key. When we bought it, we talked about how well the house would suit us when we grew old and we have visions of planting fruit trees and watching them grow from saplings to established, consistent companions.

Despite my love for this place, though, there is another house in my heart—a farmhouse with drafty attic bedrooms and a vine-covered wraparound porch. That house has a bright yellow kitchen in which people congregate, but that kitchen looks out over a wooded hillside and perhaps a mountain peak or two. Old-fashioned lamps sit in the windows of that house and cast pools of light on the slumbering kitchen garden and fruit trees too old for us (or our grandparents) to have known them as saplings.

I have loved that house for years. The house and the lands around it seemed so settled in my imagination that it was with a start that I realized, upon rereading A Wrinkle in Time, that the house was basically the Murrays’ house, forever endeared to me by that opening scene, where Meg, her mother and Charles Wallace gather in the kitchen for a midnight cup of cocoa. As I read on in Madeleine L’Engle’s works, I realized that it was also partly Crosswicks, the old farmhouse in rural Connecticut that she and her family shared, which just goes to show how vividly L’Engle’s books are imprinted on my memory.

Though best known for A Wrinkle in Time and the four subsequent books about the Murray family, L’Engle has written over sixty books of nonfiction, poetry and fiction (for children and adults). I have read and reread over twenty of her books and, of those I have read, I have loved nearly every one.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle | Little Book, Big Story

Her fiction for children is bright and original, full of characters that you can’t help loving by the end of the book. She tries her hand at many things and usually succeeds: the Time quartet deals with everything from tesseracts to mitochondria, while Meet the Austins paints a beautiful picture of family life. Her essays are quiet and slow-moving, but unforgettable, with Walking on Water taking the cake as my favorite volume of L’Engle’s nonfiction. All four of The Crosswicks Journals follow close behind.

L’Engle is a Christian author, so her works delve into issues like love and Creation in a deep, lasting way. Theologically, I don’t agree with her point for point, but on the central stuff, she’s reliable, and I generally put her books down with the idea that I’ve arrived at a new understanding of how the world fits together. I also tend to play the piano more when I read Madeleine L’Engle (she could describe a sonata beautifully), and wish I understood higher mathematics (she was also incredibly smart).

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle | Little Book, Big Story

I cannot attest to the goodness of every single Madeleine L’Engle book out there—and I’m honestly not that sold on her fiction for adults—but I will leave you with a list of my favorite works for children and grown-ups.

Children

– A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, A Wind in the DoorA Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters

– The Austin Family Chronicles, with particular emphasis on Meet the Austins and A Ring of Endless Light, but with the possible exception of The Young Unicorns (I wasn’t crazy about that one, either, and I don’t think you’d miss much if you skipped it)

The Austins | Little Book, Big Story

Adults

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, by Madeleine L'Engle | Little Book, Big Story

– The Crosswicks Journals (A Circle of Quiet, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, The Irrational Season, and A Two-Part Invention)

Saint Patrick | Jonathan Rogers

I found my copy of Saint Patrick  in the vast and vaguely arranged “Religion” section of my favorite used bookstore, and based upon the cover, size and topic of the book, I expected a snappy, action-packed narrative—the man was captured by pirates, after all. What I found instead was a drier, somewhat academic story, with details on the relationship between Ireland, England and the Roman Empire. There were pirates, but not of the swash-buckling sort. High seas, but not a whole lot of adventure upon them.

So why, you ask, do I recommend a book that I just described with words like “dry” and “academic”? For that, I refer you to Charlotte Mason:

It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts. We may not be able to recall this or that circumstance, but “the imagination is warmed” . . . The present becomes enriched with the wealth of all that has gone before.

– quoted in When Children Love to Learn, ed. Elaine Cooper

Saint Patrick | Little Book, Big Story

Reading biographies to our children is a great way to color this “pageant of history,” and biographies like Saint Patrick, though not dressed up for quick consumption, contain the depth and detail that make a figure’s story breathe. This book is only half biography, with the last half of  the book dedicated to Saint Patrick’s own writing. That was a treat: I found it quite enjoyable to read his works with the memory of his biography fresh in my mind.

Saint Patrick | Little Book, Big Story

Some of you have kids who will love reading Patrick’s story straight from the pages of this chapter book, while others have children who might benefit more if you read it for yourself and then livened it up by telling the story aloud. Either way, the faithfulness of God runs right through the middle of Patrick’s life, and his obedience sowed seeds that bore a bounty of fruit over the course of generations. His is a story worth remembering, and I’m thankful that a series like “Christian Encounters” puts the biographies of figures like John Bunyan, Jane Austen and Isaac Newton upon our family’s shelves.


Saint Patrick
Jonathan Rogers (2010)

Saint Valentine | Robert Sabuda

It is still winter, right? I thought it was, but my two eldest daughters are playing outside as I write, one of them in naught but a fairy dress.

We were supposed to start our home school lessons an hour ago, but they’ve been out there since breakfast, bounding around the front yard chattering like happy, fluttery birds. At present, they’re sitting side by side under the one tree in our yard—a great, overgrown Christmas tree—holding sticks in front of their knees like fishing rods, heads together, deep in confidence.

Add to that the fact that Phoebe has been sound asleep in her crib for the last hour and you have all the necessary ingredients for an important decision: school can wait.

I’ll let them continue doing whatever it is they’re harmoniously doing and instead of reading Saint Valentine to them, I’ll share it with you. In my inaugural blog post, I sang the praises of the unsung holidays, the ones that we celebrate in sheer fun but whose origins we have collectively almost forgotten. I wrote about Saint Patrick’s Day then, but Valentine’s Day also fits the bill. For those of you dissatisfied with stale candy and heart-shaped doilies, who find yourselves hungry for a bit of history with your holiday—this book is for you!

Saint Valentine | Little Book, Big Story

Robert Sabuda’s telling of the life of Saint Valentine is tender and compelling. It gives children a glimpse of life as a Christian under persecution without overwhelming the sensitive souls (of which I have—and am—one), while telling the beautiful story of Saint Valentine and a little blind girl who came to him for healing.

I’ll warn you: this story doesn’t end happily, but it ends with hope, the sort of stinging hope that makes your throat feel funny. And Sabuda’s illustrations are breathtaking in their complexity: each illustration is a mosaic of (what I’m guessing is) paper, but with such simple tools he conveys rich emotion and movement.

Now, I’ve timed this post perfectly! The little fairy just traipsed in, pink in the cheeks and breathless with cold. That means it’s time to herd my little troop onto the couch and start reading.


Saint Valentine
Robert Sabuda (1999)