Today’s post originally appeared in the Christmas 2018 issue of Wildflowers Magazine.
If you could spend Christmas in any story, which would you choose?
Would you squeeze into the Weasleys’ living room or celebrate Narnia’s first Christmas after the thaw? Would you join the Ingalls around the woodstove in their little house on the prairie?
I would spend mine among the puffed sleeves and plum puddings of Anne of Green Gables, where the company dishes twinkle prettily in the candlelight. I would finally get to wear one of those glorious dresses with their full skirts and strands of buttons. And oh, to savor a slice of dark, spicy fruitcake with Anne Shirley herself!
But reading Christmas with Anne is the next best thing. Christmas With Anne is a collection of warm and welcoming short stories, featuring Anne Shirley as well as a cast of new characters: strangers stranded on a train, students stuck in a boarding house over Christmas, families separated by bitterness and comically reunited by chance.
Reading these stories is a little like celebrating Christmas over and over again. Each one tells of a different celebration in a different home, but each one also tells of some hurdle a character must overcome to better love those around her. L.M. Montgomery’s stories are a beautiful reminder that, though we can’t visit the world of our favorite stories, the Author of our story visited ours. Christmas With Anne illustrates beautifully what it looks like to love others the way he loves us.
You can purchase that (and any other) issue of WildflowersMagazineright here. And watch for the Christmas 2019 issue, which will make an entrance any day now!
Our kids keep getting bigger. It’s the weirdest thing. I remember the ladies who gazed at Lydia asleep in my arms and cooed, “Oh, it just goes by so fast!” I knew they weren’t talking about my child, who was all of two weeks old, but about their own children, whose babies played sax in the jazz band and goalie for the JV soccer team. And I thought, the way we do, that it would be different for me. I wouldn’t let the passage of time catch me by surprise. Time has only been marching forward since, well, time first began.
And yet. Lydia is almost as tall as I am and is occasionally, from a distance and by people who don’t know us well, mistaken for me. There are times when I hear her speaking in the living room and think, “Whoa! Is another adult here?” before I realize that it’s my daughter talking. Sarah just turned nine, which means that she’s halfwaytoeighteen, which means that I suddenly need to sit down.
And then there’s Phoebe, who just started kindergarten and is so okay with it. She told me over her snack, “Mom? Today a girl in my class cried ’cause she wanted her mom,” like it was this bizarre thing she’d never considered that someone might, you know, miss their mom on their third day of kindergarten*. And Josie, the baby who is not a baby anymore except sometimes I forget and just need to smell her hair.
It turns out that those old ladies knew their stuff—life really does go by quickly, even when you’re paying attention. But if I miss the things we’ve passed by, I also love the things happening now. One of my favorite aspects of having these new older kids (besides carrying a diaper-free purse and having enough people to make card games legitimately fun) is the level of conversation we get to have on a daily basis.
Many of these conversations stem from—wait for it—books, and lately, specifically, from biographies. Even though the girls are back in school, we still do one day of studying at home, and I’ve commandeered a good portion of that day for read-alouds. A good portion of that time, I’ve dedicated to reading biographies. So I am always keeping an eye out for good biographies, and Empowered is one of my favorite finds yet.
Empowered is an anthology of biographies—each one readable in a long sitting or two or three shorter ones—of Christian women from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. Catherine Parks shows how each woman’s story displays God’s glory and power, emphasizing that the things the women accomplished were not the product of mere grit, but of God’s strength made manifest through them. He is a God who equips us to do far more than we could do alone, and each of these stories demonstrates that.
The anthology format allows Parks to share that good news not just once, but eleven times through the lives of eleven very different women. Though we read about women from all over the world living at different points throughout history, Parks makes it clear who the story is really about: God’s hand in each woman’s life becomes the unifying thread that holds story to story.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Breezy Brookshire’s illustrations—they were the reason I purchased the book. Her beautiful pencil and ink drawings make each women seem like someone you’d like to know, someone who is glad to see you.
We read about Joni Erickson Tada first, and that led naturally to looking at her paintings and listening to one of her talks (because you can take the mom out the homeschool, but . . . ). And this led naturally to more of those fabulous big kid conversations: deep reflections from the eleven-year-old, questions about quadriplegia from the nine-year-old, and, from the five-year-old: “Mom? Why don’t skeletons have ears?” Josie had wandered off somewhere, probably looking for the cat.
* The novelty of new colored pencils and cozy reading rugs has worn off, and now Phoebe fully understands how someone might miss her mom while at school.
Catherine Parks has also written a companion book for boys, titled Strong. I own it but haven’t read it yet, though my hopes for it are high.
Today’s summer re-run originally appeared way back in February 2014, in the early days of this blog. But it is about one of my favorite series in all of literature, so it’s worth sharing again. (Also, these books are perfect for reading beneath a favorite tree. Just in case you were looking for books perfect for reading beneath a favorite tree . . . )
L.M. Montgomery’s books make me want to befriend some patch of land and explore it thoroughly until I know and have named every tree, every brook, every starry-eyed flower in its thickets. I want to wear clothes made from fabric with names that sound edible—chiffon, taffeta, voile—in colors like “dove gray,” “dusky rose” and “pale green.”
Oh, to eat preserves from quilted jelly jars and don hats festooned with silk flowers and curling ostrich feathers! (I also want to clean, because I harbor a strong suspicion that Marilla Cuthbert and Mrs. Rachel Lynde would not approve of my standards of housekeeping.)
Montgomery’s writing transports me so completely to the Prince Edward Island of yesteryear that it is with a jolt that I come to at the close of the chapter to find myself camped out on the couch with a sleeping baby on my chest and a mean crick in my neck (a scene no less lovely, by the way—just slightly less romantic).
You have read Anne of Green Gables, of course. I had—twice—and had also acted in the play (some of you may recall that I married Gilbert Blythe), so I was more than familiar with Anne’s story. But in these early days of new motherhood, I decided to read on in the series and, in doing so, discovered a story of rare beauty.
Anne is an endlessly endearing, perfectly imperfect heroine, settled into a story of lush scenery and unforgettable characters. To walk with a character through childhood and into adulthood, to watch her friendships and marriage grow and change, is a delight. Montgomery’s ability to present Anne in the various stages of life without slackening the pace or vibrancy of the story, allowing the reader to watch Anne grow in wisdom as she becomes a mother, confronts loss and watches her own children mature without slackening, shows just how masterful an author she is.
There is something singular about seeing a life spun out in story like that. I can’t help but hope that, in heaven, we’ll see our own lives in a similar way: we’ll step back from it a bit so we can see God’s delicate foreshadowing in our own stories and, knowing the end of things, we’ll see, in those moments when life seemed “a vale of tears,” the first glint of the glorious light up ahead.
When Noah finds a strange pet curled up in a hat at a garage sale, she finds her first pet. Cappy comes home with her through a loop hole in her parents’ “no pet” policy, but quickly becomes larger (and odder) than Noah or her parents anticipated. What guinea pig likes to swim? What dog eats vegetables?
What is Cappy?
This is the question at the heart of Carolyn Leiloglou’s sweet first novel, a skinny book kickstarting a series for new readers. Now is when I should mention that Carolyn is a friend of mine—a wonderful friend and fellow book blogger who is a wealth of writing advice, encouragement, and fabulous book reviews. It’s rare to find a friend who shares your weird hobby (in this case, reading and reviewing kids’ books), but if anything puts two people with the same weird hobby in the same room, it’s the internet.
Yay, the internet.
But I digress. Carolyn’s first book introduces Noah and Cappy and, after some endearing adventures, brings Noah to the point of making a Very Hard Decision. This is the part of the book I loved the best, because it was an ending that felt just right, as though it really couldn’t have ended any other way, and that is the best sort of ending.
I am—affection for the author aside—excited to see what Noah does next. And I am—affection for the author back at center stage—excited to encourage and support an author whose work is worth supporting.
Disclosure: I did receive copy of this book 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.
It has been a while since I reviewed a classic children’s chapter book. And that’s not because I don’t love them—I do. Profusely. But keeping two voracious readers supplied with quality books means I have to pick and choose what I pre-read for them, and I have my methods of pre-reading triage: if a classic book turns up on a trustworthy reading list, I’m pretty comfortable handing it over to the girls without pre-reading it myself, especially if I’m already familiar with the author’s work.
But a new book, no matter which list it turns up on, generally gets a pre-read, because there are lots of things in those new books that need discussing. (There are, of course, lots of things in those old books that need discussing, too, but those tend to be discussions we already have regularly. The topics in new books sometimes catch me off guard. Which is a whole other post, I suppose.)
That all is a preface to this post, which is for a classic book that I pre-read and adored.
The Good Master is set in Hungary and tells the story of Jancsi and his wild cousin Kate, whose father sends her from the city to live with Jancsi’s family. Kate is untamed, wild with a sort of energy that wears me out as I read, but Jancsi’s father slowly, patiently gentles her.
Kate Seredy (Kate the author, not the cousin) shows the progression of their relationship, from unstable to steady and flourishing, abounding with trust, and it is that progression that made me love The Good Master. But she also depicts life in a small, pre-war Hungarian village so beautifully, perhaps because she herself was born in Hungary before immigrating to the United States.
(Additional interesting facts: Kate Seredy wrote her books in English, her second language. She also illustrated them herself, so there’s a depth and richness to her work that is hard to place but might have something to do with that.)
The sequel to The Good Master,The Singing Tree, follows Jancsi’s family and village through WWI. I loved sharing this one with Lydia, because while everything else we read about the World Wars was told from the Allied perspective, The Singing Tree shared the perspective of one small village caught up on the Axis side of this global conflict.
If The Good Master depicts ordinary hospitality—as Jancsi’s family invites Kate into both the blessings and boundaries of their home—The Singing Tree depicts hospitality under duress. Jancsi’s family expands in a beautiful way throughout the course of a terrible war.
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.
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.
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, andTreasures of the Snowcombined, 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 Narniaand 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.
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.
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: 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.
So here it is, beautifully but accidentally coordinated with the newest issue of Wildflowers. Both are worth reading immediately.