“A few months into quarantine, I started keeping a list. This is nothing new—I keep dozens of lists. Hundreds! But this particular list didn’t contain a single task or idea. I wasn’t planning for or brainstorming about anything, but simply making a note each time I noticed something our family gained because of the quarantine.
Things we already did but could now do more often? Didn’t count. Things we’d have done anyway, but now did differently? Disqualified. This list was only for things we’d never done before and had discovered only because we were home together all the time, because of the way quarantine stretched us and challenged us and made us rely on the Lord and one another differently. For example: jigsaw puzzles. . .”
This week, Story Warren shared my review of Home in the Woods, a delightful picture book by Eliza Wheeler (John Ronald’s Dragons), and I heartily urge you to check it out—the book, that is, if not the review.
Cassie Logan’s family owns their land. Their neighbors are mostly sharecroppers caught in the web of their landlord’s rules, fees, and whims, but Cassie’s family owns four hundred acres of good farmland. They go without a lot of things in order to pay taxes on that land, but the land and all it affords them is worth it; it is theirs.
From the first pages, reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is like watching a storm build—at times, the tension crackles and pulls. Early on, a band of white men attack a black family, burning three black men so badly one of them dies. Cassie hears about it in bits and pieces through neighborhood gossip until her mother takes her to visit one of the survivors—an old man wrecked by his wounds. The white men face no punishment, though everyone knows who did it. That violence looms over the story like a thunderhead.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry follows Cassie’s family through the rest of that year, as Cassie’s awareness of the way things stand in her community grows. Mildred Taylor shows the complexity of life in a specific place at a specific time, drawing on her own father’s stories to give her book shape and weight. She does not paint in thick, bold strokes here but with skill and precision. She shows violent, arrogant white characters as well as kind ones, foolish black characters as well as strong, humble ones. Taylor does not tie the story up in a neat bow, either, as though the issues in it could be resolved in two hundred pages. She doesn’t explain it all for us, but gives us, the readers, room to do a lot of thinking.
And, if I’m honest, a lot of crying. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry contains a powerful instance of grace, one that made me cry in a most undignified manner on my front porch, in full view of the neighbors. We have not done away with violence or injustice, Taylor seems to say. But we have not quenched grace, either.
And now, let’s discuss child labor laws and the plight of Victorian chimney sweeps.
Did you know that during the Victorian era children were the preferred “instruments” for cleaning chimneys because they were small and were considered—given the abundance of orphans on the streets—expendable? Or that they were “indentured” to masters who fed them little and worked them mercilessly? Or that they were not protected under law but often died of fire, hunger, exposure, or illness?
This is not a world many authors would invite children into, but Jonathan Auxier opens the door to it through the character of Nan, a young girl serving under a harsh master, who is good at her work and has learned to shut herself off from her fellow sweeps. But one part of her, though she tries to seal it away, continues to seep out: memories or dreams of Before, when she traveled with the Sweep.
The Sweep had a way with stories, a magic about him that she still remembers, even after he abruptly leaves her alone, with nothing but a bit of char in her pocket that never seems to grow cool. But that char offers Nan much more than a bit of warmth—as a gift from Sweep, it comforts and protects her in an unexpected way.
Jonathan Auxier infuses Sweep with magic and hope through the character of Charlie and his friendship with Nan, and turns what could be a dismal, depressing subject into a glowing story of love and sacrifice.
If you’ve read Auxier’s other books, you know that his stories can be intense for some readers. (Wonderful, but intense.) I think this one sits somewhere between Peter Nimble and The Night Gardener, and the historical aspect of it (as in, much of this happened to real kids) could be upsetting for some. I encourage you to read it yourself before giving it to your kids, for their sake but also for yours: I think you’ll love it.
Over the years, I have written about some beautiful Nativity stories. But as I drew up my list of books to review this Advent, I noticed an unlikely thread: only one of them takes place in a manger. The rest are stories set at Christmas time (though one of them isn’t even that), in threadbare apartments and in trenches.
This is the one set in the trenches.
In Shooting at the Stars, John Hendrix tells the story of the Christmas Truce of World War I. Have you heard this story? It’s a famous one and one I have loved for years. On Christmas Day, 1914, a group British and German soldiers reached an impromptu truce and spent Christmas Day giving one another gifts, singing together, taking photos, and laying to rest the dead spread over the no man’s land between the trenches. In the book’s afterword, Hendrix explains that, though we’d like to think this truce brought both sides closer to the end of the war, it actually happened fairly early in the war and its significance was unappreciated by military leaders. In fact, they took deliberate measures to avoid its happening again the next Christmas.
But even so, Hendrix presents this story as a glimpse of hope, a moment when peace stalled a world war and brought opposing sides together, if only for a few hours. I love, too, the way this story puts faces to the enemy and makes them human: “Fritz,” the German army, becomes a band of young men as hungry and muddy and afraid as the British, and for one evening both British and German soldiers are allowed to see one another not as targets but as men with names and histories.
Hendrix’s illustrations are, as always, rich in detail, and each detail seems deliberately chosen to add some surprising depth to the story. In the corner of one spread, a German soldier and a British one lift the body of a fallen British solider into a newly dug grave. In another, the soldiers play football with a biscuit tin, British boots running alongside German ones, but the field they play on is studded with broken tree trunks, the ground an ashy gray. Hendrix uses every opportunity to tell his story—including the foreword (on what the war was and how it got started) and afterword—and he does it beautifully.
Advent may not seem like the time to introduce your children to trench warfare, I know, but Shooting at the Stars awakens that hunger for peace and restoration that is at the heart of our Advent waiting. We read of the misery of life in the trenches, and we long for the day death and brutality will be done away with for good. We see those illustrations of a barren battlefield and long for a time when the earth itself will be renewed by the coming of our King.
It’s serious work, choosing a book for vacation. I overthink it every time. A book cannot be too absorbing (see: family reunion, 2005—that year Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, and I read in the midst of a beauteous landscape, ignoring family and nature alike). And it cannot be so meaty that I don’t want to pull it out in those moments when the coffee is hot and the cabin’s front porch calls.
A book for vacation needs to be just right—every paragraph satisfying, so that even ten minutes in its company sends me back into a cabin full of children feeling recharged—and I have elevated the choosing of a vacation book to an art form (or an obsession, depending on your view). But this time, the artistry (or obsession) was solved for me when a package from the Rabbit Room arrived on our porch the day before we left for a weekend on San Juan Island. In it I found the slender new edition of Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s story, The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog.
I’ve mentioned McKelvey before on this blog, albeit indirectly. In my review of Wingfeather Tales, his was the “novella so devastating.” I have been waiting ever since to get a copy of this story, hoping it might be as lovely as that novella.
I read The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog in full during a single naptime, in a log cabin overlooking a lake. And it was lovely, a book so sweet and true that it’s hard to describe because I am afraid that if I pull pieces of it apart to show you, I might damage the well-woven fabric of the book . I will say this: the new edition from Rabbit Room Press is illustrated by Zach Franzen, of The Green Ember, so it is beautiful in both word and image. And it is worth reading immediately—especially if you have a vacation coming up.
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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