Tag: fiction (page 1 of 10)

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)

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.

At Night | Jonathan Bean

First, Two (and a half) Things:

1) We started school last week, and while I know that, eventually, the books will stop smelling new–the pens will run down; enthusiasm will wane–I took an informal poll on Friday, and the results are in: we love homeschooling. Thank you all for your encouragement during this summer of planning (that is, guessing) and research! You are a lovely lot, and it’s a privilege to write for you.

Back to School 2017 | Little Book, Big Story

Back to School (Pre-K, 2nd & 4th Grade)

That leads me to my second thing:

1.5) Though we are now officially homeschooling our daughters, it has always been important to me that this blog appeal to parents, regardless of how we all educate or raise our kids. My goal is to not turn this, even accidentally, into a blog about homeschooling.

I will continue to flavor my reviews with glimpses into our family’s life together, because it has always been an important part of my plan to let you get to know me, at least a little, so that you can decide whether or not you trust my reviews or feel you need to take them with a grain of salt. These peeks will probably now include an occasional mention of our educational endeavors at home, because that is what we are doing. But it is not what I think you should be doing. Please remember that. And please know that as I write, I am thinking of you, however you educate your kids, and my hope is–as it always has been–to introduce you to titles that your family will love, whether you read them after a full day of traditional schooling, as a part of your school day at home, or something in between those two.

Back to School 2017 | Little Book, Big Story

(Why Josie was not in the photo)

In short, this is not a homeschooling blog now. It is a blog about books, for parents who love Jesus and who long for their children to love him, too. It is also a blog with some big news:

2) I tried writing every other week, and while it won me some time to read curriculum, I found that I really, really missed writing here. I actually wrote less overall (and, without my own weekly deadlines, spent more time aimlessly roaming the internet), and that was sad. But I love this blog, I love writing about books, and sharing only one book every other week just didn’t satisfy. So I’m back. I shall henceforth see you every week! Huzzah!


At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story

We love the books of Jonathan Bean. We first learned about them when we read, at Sarah MacKenzie‘s urgent recommendation, This is My Home, This is My School. We loved that book. We studied the illustrations and searched for every hidden detail.

Then my Sarah noticed, on the back of the book, that Jonathan Bean had published several other books. “Mom!” she said. “I want to read them!”

At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story

How could I say no to that? I reserved them all at the library and they trickled into our library basket, a few at at time. We loved Big Snow and Building Our House. But my favorite by far was this humble book, At Night.

Set in the city, At Night follows one small girl who cannot sleep. The text is brief and poetic; the illustrations beautiful. If you only know Bean’s other books, this one comes as a surprise: the illustrations are not quite as energetic as some of his others, and that’s perfect for a story about a sticky summer’s night.

At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story

Though this book is set in the city rather than the countryside featured in Building Our House and This is My Home, This is My School, it still points beautifully to the world beyond the city. And it contains one of the sweetest examples of . . . well, I don’t want to tell you, because the quiet surprise of it is part of what makes this book so lovely. But At Night is a book worth reading during these last weeks of summer, just before the evenings cool down.

At Night, by Jonathan Bean | Little Book, Big Story


At Night
Jonathan Bean (2007)

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy) | Grace Lin

Lydia marched downstairs, her copy of Cricket open to the page titled “Cricket Readers Recommend.”

“I want to do this,” she said, holding it out for me to read. And lo! “Cricket Readers Recommend” is a page dedicated to kid-written book reviews. My daughter was telling me she wanted to write and submit a book review for general consumption.

My cheeks pinked; my eyes watered. I sniffled (just a little). “Of course,” I said, assuming she’d write about one of her well-worn Redwall novels.

But: “I want to write about my new favorite book,” she said, and the smile she gave me was full not of courageous mousemaids, but of undersea avenues lit by pearls, of magistrates turned to tigers, of sorrow sealed into a stone. “When the Sea Turned to Silver. You’d like it, Mom—it’s beautiful.”

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy), by Grace Lin | Little Book, Big Story

She was right. I started it later that day, and it was beautiful.

When the Sea Turns to Silver is the third in a trilogy of books by Grace Lin—the only one I hadn’t yet read. The other two (Starry River of the Sky and Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon) had been sitting on my list of books to review for over a year, suffering the same fate as The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic: I loved them. I wanted to share them with you. But how could I possibly describe those books?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy), by Grace Lin | Little Book, Big Story

Grace Lin creates, in this trilogy, a mixed media collage: fantasy, fairy tale, and historical fiction all overlap to create a new sort of story set in a world infused with the colors, flavors, and textures of Lin’s Chinese and Taiiwanese heritage. Even the illustrations (also done by Lin) and the book design have an ever-changing aspect that suits each story.

But Lydia’s review sums the book up nicely (and I think her last few sentences apply perfectly to the whole trilogy):

Pinmei, a shy little girl, has always lived on the Endless Mountain with her grandmother, Amah. But when the emperor takes Amah, Pinmei and her best friend Yishan go on a quest to save her. The story is a mixture of fantasy and reality with stories that come true and characters that were thought not to be real. The twists and turns are mysterious and secretive. You should really read it!

We have read many (perhaps most?) of Grace Lin’s books, and we’ve yet to meet one we didn’t love. But this trilogy is our favorite. I can’t wait to share it with my younger daughters and, with Lydia’s nudging, I couldn’t wait any longer to share it with you.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Trilogy), by Grace Lin | Little Book, Big Story


Starry River of the Sky (2014)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2011)
When the Sea Turns to Silver (2016)
Grace Lin

Featured Author: Sally Lloyd-Jones

It’s been over two years since I shared a featured author with you, I know. But today is the day: I’m bringing the series back!


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.”

Featured Author: Sally Lloyd-Jones | Little Book, Big Story

Today’s author is a contemporary one, and one you’re familiar with if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Sally Lloyd-Jones.


One of the first picture books that I acquired as a parent, one of the first ones that showed me how beautiful Bible stories for children can be, was The Jesus Storybook Bible. We lived in an old corner store then—a meat market actually—that had been converted into an odd, stucco, square-shaped home, perfect for our family of three. The back quarter of the house had cork-lined walls left over from its days as a meat locker, and the front had windows that started near my knees and reached nearly to the top of the very tall room. I loved those windows. I loved sitting in front of them in the spring, watching the neighborhood dogs saunter past, and the cherry trees outside trumpet the season’s change. I loved sitting in front of them, with eighteen-month-old Lydia on my lap, and reading to her from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

The Jesus Storybook Bible | Little Book, Big Story

Sally Lloyd-Jones writes not simply for children but to them. Her books makes me feel, as a parent, like I am sitting in on a conversation she’s having directly with my child. I love and laugh with and am shaped by her words as well, but my involvement feels like an added bonus: her words speak right to my children with a warmth and understanding that reminds me at times of E. Nesbit’s writing.

Since that first copy of The Jesus Storybook Bible, we’ve made it a practice to purchase a new copy for each of our daughters around their second or third birthday (Phoebe just got hers). We do this mostly because we want each daughter to have her own childhood copy to carry with her into adulthood, but also because that’s usually about when the spine on our current copy begins to give way.

Sally Lloyd-Jones | Little Book, Big Story

But The Jesus Storybook Bible is not the only book Lloyd-Jones has written, and it’s certainly not the only one I’ve reviewed here on Little Book, Big Story. Here are a few of our favorite books by Sally Lloyd-Jones:

Picture Books

Baby Wren and the Great Gift (Illus. Jen Corace)

Baby Wren and the Great Gift, by Sally Lloyd-Jones | Little Book, Big Story

– How to Be a Baby, by Me the Big Sister (Illus. Sue Heap)

– How to Get a Job, by Me the Boss (Illus. Sue Heap)

– How to Get Married, by Me the Bride (Illus. Sue Heap)

– Skip to the Loo (Illus. Anita Jeram)

Skip to the Loo, My Darling!, by Sally Lloyd-Jones | Little Book, Big Story

– Just Because You’re Mine (Illus. Frank Endersby)

– Found (Illus. Jago)

Found, by Sally Lloyd-Jones | Little Book, Big Story

– Bunny’s First Spring (Illus. David MacPhail)

– Baby’s Hug-a-Bible (Illus. Claudine Gevry)

– Lift-the-Flap Bible (Illus. Tracey Moroney)

Not Quite Picture Books

The Jesus Storybook Bible (Illus. Jago)

– Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing (Illus. Jago)

Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing | Little Book, Big Story

Christmas Books

– Song of the Stars (Illus. Allison Jay)

Song of the Stars, by Sally-Lloyd Jones | Little Book, Big Story

– Little One, We Knew You’d Come (Illus. Jackie Morris)


Also, if you want to know more about Sally Lloyd-Jones, or just want to be enchanted by her vision for life and writing, I highly recommend listening to her interview with Sarah MacKenzie on the Read-Aloud Revival

The ladies of Aslan’s Library interviewed her a while back, and that one’s lovely, too (Part 1 | Part 2).

Featured Author: Sally Lloyd-Jones | Little Book, Big Story

And (how neat is this?) here is a video interview with Lloyd-Jones from Haven Today, celebrating the tenth anniversary of The Jesus Storybook Bible. Tell me: do you recognize any of the photos featured in it?

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)