This blog has always been light on two categories: books for boys, and books for teens. But now that we have a teenager in the house, one of those categories is about to start growing. Lydia recently turned thirteen, and while I was tempted to sort of gloss over it and think about it as, well, the next number after twelve, she wasn’t having that: every few days leading up to her birthday, she’d drift through the kitchen and sigh, “I can’t believe I’m almost a teenager!” About the fourth or fifth time, it hit me: my stars, she’s almost a teenager!
And now she is one. And apart from the looming sense that she may only live with us for five more years, I love it so far: the company in the front seat of the car, the insightful conversations, the sense that the world around her is just bigger and that she’s aware of it more. Deep conversations have already sprung from her expanding perspective on the world, and we talk about these issues the way we talk about most things at our house: through really great books.
That is where Karen Swallow Prior comes in. These editions of classic books are framed by an insightful introduction by Prior, meant to introduce a Christian audience to great works of fiction, and by a selection of questions for reflection and discussion. They contain the full text of the classic work, with insightful footnotes that help decode some of the older language.
I had the chance to try these out in a small book group recently—we read and discussed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (I’ll hold off on reading that one with my daughter for a while, though), and I was startled by how Prior’s introduction and questions gave our conversation a foundation and direction. While the whole group arrived having read the book but not sure we’d understood it at all, by the time we left we’d hit some deep points of reflection and reached some understanding of the story and the author’s main themes. It was magical.
This is a newer series, and I hope Karen Swallow Prior is working on more. I could see these being a gift for parents who want to read classics with their teens but who aren’t sure how to go about discussing them after. But already I’m struck by how much Prior’s guides add to my understanding of these classic stories—and I can’t wait to share them with my daughter.
Disclosure: I did receive a copy of Jane Eyre 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.
When reviewing our ultrasound results yesterday, my doctor asked, “Do we know yet if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“A fourth girl!” I said, beaming.
He smiled, thought for a moment, and asked, “Have you ever read The Penderwicks?”
A medical degree is important and everything, but what I really look for in a doctor is the willingness to discuss literature in the exam room.
I’ve compared our family before to the Marches and—best of all—the Ingalls, and now I can add the Penderwicks to the list (I do hope this daughter is just a little bit like Batty). One more, and we’ll be the Bennetts!
Sarah has changed her name vote from “Robin Hood” to “Maid Marian,” Lydia has already mentioned “Mary . . . or maybe Laura,” and Phoebe has taken to marching around with the ultrasound photo, chanting “Bebe! Bebe!” Mitch has been to the bank to see about expanding our wee little home, and I have cast on a handful of stitches for a lovely and feminine baby blanket.
When we read a good book to our children, we delegate: we enlist the help of gifted authors to demonstrate for them (and for us, too) what life is like in other places, other times, other bodies. This is what it looks like, a good book says, to ask for forgiveness even when the asking is hard, to love the unloved, to find joy in the common graces of life.
A good book takes us outside our own experience, outside a particular moment where Papa reads aloud to the rest of us, who were drawing a moment before but now sit—sniffling, pens suspended—as we listen to Prince Rilian’s farewell to his father. This is grief. This is joy.
This is, in a sense, one aspect of what the Bible does for us: it shows us what it looks like to fight against God, to persevere when we don’t want to, to look forward to the life yet to come. We study the movements of the Lord’s hand through each story and find comfort in the fact that his hand moves in our stories, too. We watch other lives lived out in its pages and recognize ourselves in them; that recognition then shapes the way we respond to trouble when it comes. This is where rebellion leads; this is redemption.
And so we fill the corners of our hearts with Scripture and the corners of our home with good books. We surround our daughters with characters that they can connect with, characters who are foolish and funny, warm and wise, prone to mischief or perhaps a little too perfect. We introduce them to Anne, Jo, Heidi, Lucy,and Laura, of course. And then we move on to Bobbie, Phyllis and Irene, Emily and Rose—heroines of the lesser-known works of great authors or of the books picked up on a whim that are, perhaps, unassuming on the outside but radiant within.
Here, for your pleasure, is a list of our favorites. These stories don’t appeal exclusively to girls, by the way. Quite a few of them feature male characters that share the spotlight with the female lead or simply steal it outright, but they’re boys (and men) of good quality that I want my girls to know and love. I suspect that those of you with sons might find that your boys scoot their Legos a little closer to the couch whenever you pull these books out to read with your daughter. (I’ve marked those books with an asterisk.)
When their father is unexpectedly (and mysteriously) called away from home, three children move to the English countryside with their mother. Adventures large and small ensue, all told in the charming style of E. Nesbit. This book is one of my very favorites. (Read the full review.)
An old fairy tale of the best sort, written by an author who came to my attention because C.S. Lewis gave him a hearty endorsement. This is, I think, the best of his books for children, and features the princess Irene and her unlikely friend, Curdie. There is also a magical great-great-great-great-grandmother and a whole passel of ornery goblins. (Read the full review.)
Circumstances change abruptly, both in life and in plot lines. What Katy Did demonstrates both aspects of this, and through the story of Katy Carr, shows how the road of suffering often leads to the most glorious destinations. (Read the full review.)
Here is a marriage of history and fiction. Wendy Lawton tells the story of Mary Bunyan, the sightless daughter of John Bunyan, as she navigates life during her father’s imprisonment. This is a beautifully told story and shows the progress of Mary’s fledgling faith alongside the robust, proven faith of her father. (Read the full review.)
There is a good deal of “bashing of crowns” and “striking one another with blows” in this book, it’s true. But this unlikely candidate merits a spot on this list for three reasons: 1) Maid Marian is no nameless damsel in distress here but a woman bold, courageous, and virtuous. 2) The men in this book know how to treat the ladies. 3) My daughters loved it. (Read the full review.)
You already know about Anne. Emily of New Moon is the slightly darker tale—a deep violet to Anne’s brassy red, twilight to Anne’s fresh morning—of Emily Starr, poetess, orphan, and bewitching lead lady. My affection for this book is deep, my friends. So deep. (Read the full review.)
Have you heard of this book? I hadn’t either until a friend recommended it at a wedding reception dinner. But Treasures of the Snow is a beauty worth seeking out: in it, you’ll find the gospel faithfully represented in a fictional setting, as a feud rises up between two families that needs the wisdom of a grandmother and the power of the gospel to resolve. (Read the full review.)
The author of Bridge to Terebithia tells an old-fashioned tale of an arrogant prince who cannot assume the kingship until he finds a wife who is “his equal.” (He thinks himself so wonderful that this must be all but impossible.) The King’s Equal is available as either a very short chapter book or a rather long picture book. In either format, it’s a joy to read. (Read the full review.)
Okay, so you probably have heard of this one. It isn’t as famous than its celebrated cousin, The Secret Garden, but if I’m perfectly honest, I liked it better. Sara Crewe—wealthy and petted, but gentle and kind—suffers a fall of fortunes and determines to be a true princess throughout her trial. Unlikely friendships, unexpected blessings, and a satisfying conclusion spring from this decision. (Read the full review.)
Sheltered and newly orphaned Rose meets her uncle and eight boy cousins for the first time, finds them bewilderingly active but ultimately endearing and goes on to forge the best sort of friendship with them. This book is funny, charming, and beautiful all at once, and sparkles with the same delight in story and language that fuels Alcott’s Little Women. (Read the full review.)
Phoebe was a few hours old when the nurse came by on her rounds and found me feeding the baby with a book propped up on my meal tray. She stopped and said, taken aback, “Are you . . . reading? While you nurse?” I don’t think she realized that Phoebe was our third baby—not right then, at least. And she couldn’t have known that our second child never learned the ASL sign for “milk” but instead took to bringing me a book when she was hungry.
So, maybe it was the nursing baby, or the school library, or the copious amounts of preparation I’ve put into learning to copy edit and teach art to kids this year, but I read a lot of books in 2014—so many, in fact, that for the first time ever I took to keeping a list of the ones I finished.
I read so-so books, and I read too-painful-to-finish books. I read books whose appeal I did not understand (Brideshead Revisited, this means you). But I also read books that took me outside myself—books that shook up my thoughts like so much confetti. I read books that weren’t satisfied with being read silently, but that compelled me to nudge my husband and say, “Listen to this.” Books that made me gasp aloud, or laugh belly laughs in an empty room.
My favorite children’s books from the past year have, of course, been appearing all along on this blog. But I thought I’d share some of my other finds with you, as a way of bidding farewell to 2014, bookworm-style.
I find myself wishing that I hadn’t read the Anne of Green Gables books yet, so I could read them again for the first time. Instead, I look longingly at the shelf that houses them and wonder, every few months, if it is still too soon to reread them. (Read my full review here.)
This book has, quite possibly, displaced Bird by Bird as my favorite book on writing. Zinsser says things like, “Few people realize how badly they write” and “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” but he says it in the sort of tone that makes you want to laugh at yourself, pick up a red pen, and start slashing passages from your essays without remorse. (Side note: I think all bloggers everywhere should read this book.)
Don’t let the sappy cover fool you: there is grit in this story, and politics. Elizabeth Gaskell is one of my new favorite authors, as she can turn a love story into something bigger than itself without manipulating her characters to suit her story’s needs (I went on at length about this on the Deeply Rooted blog).
In a rare turn of events, I saw the mini-series adaptation before I read this book and loved both of them in their own right. (Have you seen it? You should. You’ll never look at Thorin Oakenshield the same way again.)
In a college course on creative nonfiction, we dissected this book. We pulled apart sentences, turned verbs this way and that, and examined each well-placed comma. We studied Didion’s essays so thoroughly that by the end of the quarter I hated them and didn’t pick up this book for a full decade after graduation.
But at William Zinsser’s request (see above), I skimmed the opening paragraph of one essay and hardly glanced up until I had finished the book. Didion is a master of nonfiction, as it turns out. My professor wasn’t just making that up.
This skinny study of the book of Ruth was one of the few books of Christian nonfiction that I read this past year (how did that happen?). But it is by the author of one of my all-time favorite books, A Praying Life, and so I dove into it happily and was not disappointed: Miller’s writing is open, vulnerable and engaging, and the insights he offers into his own life with a severely autistic daughter give him a humbling perspective on the subject of loving those who may or may not love us back.
This book features one of my favorite jousting scenes ever. There’s not a lot of competition in that category, actually, but those of you who have read The Once and Future King are nodding to yourselves right now and chuckling, because you know which scene I’m talking about. Also, White’s interpretation of Merlyn is clearly the granddaddy of Albus Dumbledore (I am not making this up), so you have to love the story just for that.
Despite the clumsy title and the fact that this book looks like a college textbook (which it is), Alcorn is such a lively author that he makes passages on inheritance, insurance, and investment read well—so well that I found myself drawing this book out like I do with the best sort of fiction, not wanting it to end.
For a lady who was in the habit of doing battle with our budget every three months or so, this book was a blessing and it’s one I’ll revisit regularly. To say that it shaped the way I view money and possessions would be, perhaps, an understatement. To say that it shaped the way I view eternity would be closer to the truth.
This book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I got all kinds of nerdy about it. The authors move through the whole century decade by decade using color palettes to note each trend. It’s history, art, social commentary and more—all in one huge and beautiful book!
There are Bible teachers who crush the grandeur and grief of a story like Noah’s into a dry, tasteless pulp, and then there are teachers who see the grandeur and grief and go deeper, drawing another layer of significance from the overlooked details of the story—the meaning of a name, for example, or the measurements of a room. Jen Wilkin is one of the latter.
I know this because I have followed her for years, by podcast and by blog, so I was quick to pre-order her book and dive into it the minute that brown paper package hit my front porch. As it turns out, she is not only an engaging speaker but a skilled writer, and she makes a well-reasoned case for why we ladies should not be satisfied with knowing the Bible secondhand but should know it well ourselves. I hope that this is the first of many books for Jen Wilkin (though I’m not sure how patiently I can wait for the next one).
Perhaps including this book is a little premature, as I am still reading it—but just barely. I’m mere hours from finishing the book and am reading it with the endorsement of a number of friends and loved ones (my husband foremost among them) who love this book and know me and assure me that I will also love this book.
And besides, I am enjoying the process of reading this ginormous but wholly absorbing, emotionally wrenching, masterfully woven tale of revenge and redemption, so even if it all falls apart at the end, I think I would still include it on this list just because the experience of reading it was so delightful. But all signs point to “It doesn’t fall apart at the end.” (Update: it doesn’t fall apart at the end!)
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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