“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.
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.
This was a year of learning. Good portions of it were given to reading curriculum samples, blog posts, and books about homeschooling. But I also learned to tend flowers, to keep a nature journal, and I took to writing fiction.
Here is what you should know about me and writing fiction: in college, I played it safe and studied poetry and creative nonfiction*. I am glad I did, because creative nonfiction is what I do these days, both for this blog and for Deeply Rooted. Nonfiction seemed civilized: one could draw on one’s own life, one’s own actual experiences. Fiction seemed too much like the Wild West to me: people went there and died of starvation, or in a bar fight. There was too little structure, I thought, too few rules. No civilized folk to protest, “But it didn’t happen like that!” No sheriff.
But my last quarter of college, I needed to pad my schedule with a few extra classes, so along with Martial Arts 101, I took a fiction writing class. It was wild and a little terrifying at times. But I loved it. The air was clear and invigorating, the grueling travel to a story’s end worth the work.
And then I graduated.
Fifteen years later, I am trying out fiction again. I thought, maybe there’s no sheriff, but there are certainly good, established neighbors around who can teach me a thing or two about survival. I met a few of them this year through some essays on writing, and I read some stunning novels, truly beautiful books. I am now at work drafting some of those mediocre stories you have to write before you get to (here’s hoping) the good ones.
What I am getting at here is: I read a lot of fiction this year and a lot of books about writing it. I read a lot about the other things I’m learning to do, too. And in doing so I found some incredible books, at least fifty-percent of which I’ll read again (at least once). What a year!
* I’m sure some could argue that there’s nothing particularly safe about either poetry or creative nonfiction, or that writing about your own life is infinitely more alarming that inventing lives to write about, but at nineteen, I preferred the known to the unknown. I knew my own life tolerably well, and I had written a lot of middling poetry and song lyrics. And so those genres seemed safest to me.
I started this book when Josie was small. I wanted a big novel, so I got a big novel, and I began to read. But—alas!—I grew painfully bored after a few chapters and, being sleep-deprived, found myself dozing off during passages that were probably important. I shelved Middlemarch with a sigh and thought, Not right now. But this summer I picked it up again, grew bored in the early chapters, dozed off during some important passages, and found myself wanting to quit around the same spot where I had dropped off before, but I pressed on, and I am so glad.
This book is beautiful, stunning, breathtaking—any number of adjectives apply to its slow development of character, perfect pacing, and fitting conclusion. A few chapters from the end I began to realize that Middlemarch would join the ranks of my favorite novels. By the end I wondered if it hadn’t topped the list.
I took Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl with me on vacation last summer and proceeded to underline and dog ear it heavily—every other passage, it seems, is brilliant and brightly written. Wilson’s thoughts on this world, the wildness of it, were just right for reading on a cabin’s front porch overlooking a lake.
We had a neighbor who kept the best-curated Little Free Library around. After a summer of supplying me with Wendell Berry, Flannery O’Connor and more (and I, in turn, kept it stocked P. G. Wodehouse, E. B. White and more), they moved and I mourned. Now it houses the usual department store crime novels and cast-off magazines (alas!).
But before they moved, I found this gem: I knew nothing about the author, only that it was about writing novels, and so I grabbed it. Margot Livesey looks at how writers learn from great writers by reading their stories; she discusses Shakespeare and Flaubert in glorious detail. This is one of my best free library finds to date.
Aimee Byrd’s vision of women in the church is a challenging and uncomfortably convicting one. She both points church leaders to Scripture passages that press us to revisit some of the habits we’ve settled into within the church, and she encourages women to be knowledgeable about Scripture and quick to spot false doctrine.
One of my favorite features of the book was a chapter in which Byrd quotes passages from well-known books marketed toward Christian women and trains readers to ask pointed questions of the text. I’m sure she’ll offend every reader at least once, but in a good way, a way that means she’s prodding at something that needs examination. It is worth noting, though, that she doesn’t do this just to rile people up: her arguments are firmly rooted in Scripture, and her concern is loving, if direct. This book gave me much to ponder.
I read and adored Goudge’s Eliot Family Trilogy last year, but this book was even better. Imagine an L. M. Montgomery novel set in the English countryside, with an protagonist not in the dawn of life but in its twilight, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s to love about The Scent of Water. I already look forward to rereading it.
In this graceful little book about humility, Hannah Anderson explores why it matters that we know our place as branches to Christ’s vine. She draws on stories from her community in rural Appalachia, and writes of plants and the rhythm of the garden in a way that reminds me of Lilias Trotter’s Parables from the Cross. I loved the way she framed the wisdom of this book within stories and linked it to the outside world.
When I realized that I wanted to teach the girls to keep nature journals, I also realized that I needed to keep one myself—the habit wouldn’t take if I didn’t. So I made myself a little bag of supplies, dug a tiny sketchbook out of my desk, and checked this book out from the library. In it, John Muir Laws explains the concepts behind keeping a nature journal, but he also discusses drawing and painting techniques, explores a number of different mediums, and quietly cracks jokes as he goes.
This quickly became a favorite book, not just because I was new to nature journaling and it was helpful, but because Laws describes certain concepts so clearly that my art skills leveled up more in the few months I spent with this book than they had in the previous ten years. He’s a master at explaining complex techniques in a few short sentences, and the step-by-step drawings throughout this book are worth their weight in gold.
Flannery O’Connor is adept at describing her own work and the work of a writer in a way that cuts to the heart of things. This won’t surprise you, if you’re familiar with her stories. She does cut right to the heart of things. But for a writer trying to write stories that aren’t entirely aimless or bland, O’Connor is a sharp-tongued, discerning, articulate teacher. I am still reading these essays and have been reading them slowly for months, but I feel confident ranking them here because I’ve yet to find one that didn’t send me to my notebook with some new thought to ponder.
Du Maurier’s eerie novel about a young wife haunted by her husband’s deceased first wife is perfect from start to finish. Du Maurier’s eye for detail brings a scene to life with the mention of one fallen moth, one forgotten corkscrew. And the twists and turns of the plot! Egad! This book, too, has joined my list of frequently revisited favorites. (I wasn’t able to photograph this one because I promptly pressed it upon a friend.)
This book is the reason we skipped squash this summer and planted row upon row of flowers. Benzakein runs Floret Farm, a small flower farm not far from where we live, where she grows and arranges gorgeous blooms. In this book, she gives tips on planting, tending, and harvesting her favorites, as well as some ideas for arranging the harvested flowers. Cut Flower Garden was a glorious spring read.
When I spend time with my favorite moms, we ask a lot of questions of each other. Mine tend to focus around housekeeping, a subject that has perplexed me well into adulthood: “But when do you clean? Why are your floors so shiny?”
Very few people ask me for tips about housework, which is probably wise. They do, however, ask me a lot about reading: what am I reading, what should they read, and, most often, when do I read. My answer to that last one is simple: whenever I can. I read in the pick-up line, the bathtub, in bed, while nursing, while waiting for the pasta to cook (this may answer the housekeeping questions, actually). I read during naptime and in those rare moments when everyone is playing contentedly outside and no one is looking at me or needing me for anything. I am always armed with a book, even if it’s just a pocket-sized book of poetry.
This year was a year of reading everywhere. Many of these books were finished in bits and pieces in unlikely places, because that is what life is like with two school-aged children, one toddler, and a baby: bits and pieces. I read nonfiction, deep and rich, and started keeping a commonplace book for the first time. I read a lot of great kids’ books, too, and many of my favorites from this year have already appeared on the blog.
But here are ten books that I haven’t shared yet, ten that I thought you, dear parents, might like for yourselves:
I’m hard pressed to know what to call The Supper of the Lamb: part cookbook (with recipes), part meditation on the beauty of creation, part opinionated treatise on cooking techniques, part endearing glimpse into the life of an Episcopalian priest in the 1960s, this book made me laugh aloud, spring for new wooden spoons, and stare with wonder at an ordinary onion.
This book on homeschooling, by the beloved host of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast, plunges beneath the technical details of how to do it and into the depths of why we do it. Her heart for connection with her kids is contagious, and I love her big-picture perspective on education and where we, as moms and educators, place our priorities. This is a short book, but it’s a rich one, and it’s worth reading whether you’ve been homeschooling for years or are just starting to wonder if it might be for you. (I loaned this one out, so alas! I could not photograph it for you.)
This is the second book in The Eliot Family Trilogy, and all three of the books are worth reading. But in Caught Up in a Story, Sarah Clarkson singles out this book for her recommendation, and I can see why: by telling the story of a post-WWII family who buys and restores an old pilgrim inn, Elizabeth Goudge paints a beautiful picture of what a home is and how a good one transforms us.
(Also: resist the urge to judge this book by its cover. That’s a strong urge, I know. But fight it! The book is lovely inside.)
Confession: I am still reading this one. But when Lott opened his book on writing with the Apostle’s Creed, anchoring his view of art in the solid ground of theology, he endeared himself to me immediately. His tone throughout the book is warm and wonderful, as he explores who artists are within our culture and as created beings. He quotes Francis Schaeffer at length, while calling him, “that old Hobbit-like fellow in the knickers and sporting the funky little white beard” and shares stories from his life that made me giggle and read them aloud to Mitch. I’m reading this one slowly on purpose, and I can already tell that it’s joined the canon of Books I Re-Read Every Few Years.
By reminding us of God’s ultimate plan for our salvation and of the grand story he’s woven throughout Scripture, Gloria Furman argues that no woman is just a mom. We are all called to work that has eternal significance, even though it seems tethered (rather tightly, at times) to the quotidian work of wiping noses, settling disputes, and fishing Duplos out of the baby’s crib again.
The story of LiliasTrotter, a woman who followed God’s call to Algeria though it meant laying down her work as an artist to serve as a missionary, is one that’s dear to my heart. Though God calls many of us to surrender our gifts to him so he can cultivate and use them in his own way, that surrender is completely contrary to our culture’s cries to “Dream Big” and forge our own success. I found it encouraging to read about God’s faithfulness in Lilias’s life, and to see how her surrender gave God room to use her gifts in ways she couldn’t have foreseen. (I have written about Lilias Trotter here on the blog before. Twice.)
We re-watched all the seasons of Sherlock this year, and that drove me back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Some of these I had read already; some I encountered for the first time. All of them are masterful pieces of fiction, perfect for reading with tea, under fleecey blankets, while the wind rattles the bare branches outside.
This book, by mother and daughter team Sally and Sarah Clarkson, reminds us why traditions and little bits of beauty in the home matter so much to our souls. Every chapter takes readers through one month of the year, touching on seasons and holidays and providing a library’s worth of ways we can show love to those in our home. Some are practical, some are lavish, but none are required: this books gives us a feast to pick and choose from without burdening us with guilt over what we cannot do. This book reads like an updated version of Edith Schaeffer’s The Hidden Art of Homemaking (one of my favorites).
Anything by Elisabeth Elliot is, of course, deep and beautiful and dripping wisdom. I picked this up in the later stages of Advent and decided that I should probably read it every December: as a collection of excerpts from Elliot’s newsletters, this reads almost like a devotional, almost like an anthology of brief essays, and exactly like a precursor to blog posts.
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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