Tag: history (page 1 of 3)

The Tinker’s Daughter | Wendy Lawton

First of all, my apologies for publishing nothing last week. We are preparing for a dramatic home remodel, and as I bend my attention toward packing and dismantling and readying ourselves to live a nomadic life for a few months, things have begun to fall through the cracks.

Last week’s post fell through the cracks.

But I’m back this week with a summer re-run! This post originally appeared in February 2015. I loved reading back through it and realizing that I have found so many more books that portray Christian characters beautifully and believably since writing this post’s lament. But I am always searching for more! Please, tell me if you know of any I might have missed.


Twice in one week, I found myself deep in conversations with friends about one question: Why is it so difficult to write about Christian characters?

The question surfaced after I narrowly resisted the urge to throw a certain children’s book across the room when the heroine—a Christian girl who held fast to her faith during adversity and yet to whom I remained thoroughly unsympathetic—”sobbed violently” one too many times. This offended both the reader and the editor in me, but also flummoxed the Christian in me, because shouldn’t a character’s relationship with the Lord form a compelling thread within a story? It’s something so beautiful, so rich. Shouldn’t authors be able to capture that well?

Some do. John Bunyan comes to mind, and so does C.S. Lewis. And Marilynne Robinson. But when the work is intended for children, somehow the Christian element emerges either in an understated theme or in allegory—both of which are fine—or else the Christian threads become so overt that they seem superimposed upon the story’s plot, lending the book an unwelcome awkwardness. A preachiness. And I wonder if anybody likes preachiness.

The Tinker's Daughter, or "Why is it so hard to find strong Christian characters in fiction?" | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a few children’s books that not only weave threads of Christian belief into a plot gracefully but also make them a key point of the story, and here they are:

Heidi. Treasures of the Snow. What Katy Did. That’s it. I have read a lot of children’s books and those are the only three that come to mind.

So, why is it so difficult to write believably Christian characters and to capture their walk with Christ in a way that is both genuine and appealing?

Here is my theory: Writing about something as intimate as a person’s relationship with an unseen God must fall into the same territory as writing about one’s own marriage without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. To succeed in communicating something so intimate about a subject to which you are so close, you must strike all the notes just right or the chord fails and turns from pure music to dissonance, and the reader finds herself (for example) tempted to chuck a book across a room in frustration, because the thing the writer attempted to do should have been beautiful but wasn’t.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

For a writer to capture something as personal as a character’s spiritual growth, they have to be willing to allow the character’s doubt onto the page at times, and to accept the fact that faith is complex—it is neither simple or moralistic. They have to be willing to step back from their own relationship with the Lord a little and observe how it works, and to lend their characters just enough of their own experience that the characters successfully cross that gap from stereotype to genuine, likeable person.

I say this as a reader, mind you. I haven’t even dared tackle this subject in my own writing. But I have seen novels make the ambitious attempt to scale the twin peaks of faith and fiction only to tumble into a crevasse somewhere between the two and land in my “used bookstore” pile. Which brings me back to that book that I did not finish.

That story should have been at least interesting, if not absorbing. But it wasn’t. And after I abandoned that particular ship, I found my desire for good, Christian literature hardening into a resolve to find good, Christian literature for our daughters, as well as for the kids at school. I took to roaming the e-aisles of Amazon, looking for potential gems.

The Tinker's Daughter, by Wendy Lawton | Little Book, Big Story

And that is how I found The Tinker’s Daughter. More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that I found Wendy Lawton, an author capable of writing a compelling story that neither cheapens her characters’ Christian faith nor makes them unpleasantly trite. The Tinker’s Daughter is a well-crafted, fictional account of Mary Bunyan, John Bunyan’s eldest daughter, during the time when her father was newly imprisoned for “unsanctioned” preaching. His faith throughout the story is abundant and beautiful to behold. Mary’s faith is that of a fledgling, taking off timidly by the end of the book.

Another point in Lawton’s favor: Mary is blind, and for an author who can make me feel and smell and listen to the world of a girl without sight, I have nothing but admiration.

Daughters of the Faith Series | Little Book, Big Story

I have read a handful of books in this series so far, and I must warn you that Lawton does not tackle easy material: Shadow of His Hand relates Anita Dittman’s experience in the concentration camps of Germany; Freedom’s Pen tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Africa as a young girl and endured the horror of the slave ships before being sold to a wealthy New England family.

Lawton handles this material well, including just enough detail for the reader to grasp how truly terrible these historical events were without making the stories too heavy to bear. She allows her characters to ask hard questions through it all, and includes answers that satisfy the reader without oversimplifying the truth. So, I like the fact that these books tackle content like the Holocaust and slavery. But I don’t recommend handing them over to your children without reading through them for yourself.

That said, some of them I did allow Lydia to read on her own (after reading them myself)—The Tinker’s Daughter was one of those. We’ll wait on Shadow of His Hand and Freedom’s Pen for now. I believe there are nine books in the series, so I have more to read, but for now I’m savoring each new volume and rejoicing in the existence of an author like Wendy Lawton. These books allow me to hope that there are other authors out there like her.

And it occurs to me that you might know about them: Do you know of any chapter books that center around characters whose Christian faith is a central part of the story? Please let me know in the comments!


The Tinker’s Daughter
Wendy Lawton (2002)

The Life of Martin Luther | Agostino Traini

We’ve been on a bit of a Luther binge here. Maybe it was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that kicked it off last year, or a comment in our community group that lead us to study some key figures of the Reformation. I can’t remember. It could have been, too, that I spent six months reading a book on Luther, marinating in his thoughts and theology. Or it could be the book I’m reading now that has, on the surface, nothing to do with him, but still spends a chapter discussing why many believe that Martin Luther was insane.

The Life of Martin Luther, by Agostino Traini (review) | Little Book, Big Story

At any rate, we have read and talked a lot about Martin Luther since last September, and I’m grateful for the perspective this has given us on the Protestant Church today, both because we know more than we did about it this time last year, and because I now want to know more. (It’s funny how reading often has that effect: by opening one door for you, it draws your attention to the unopened doors on either side of it.)

But of all the books we’ve read on Luther lately, this one is the most fun, and for one simple reason:

The Life of Martin Luther, by Agostino Traini (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Pop-ups.

Agostino Traini’s The Life of Martin Luther is a simple introduction to Luther, with a distilled storyline and three-dimensional illustrations. This is a very basic biography (you won’t find commentary on his less savory qualities here), but it strikes the main points clearly. This is the book you read with your little ones before they graduate to The Reformation ABCsthe one that gives a nice outline of his life. This is a book that, hopefully, sends you away wanting to know more about the man who called the church of Rome to reformation.

The Life of Martin Luther, by Agostino Traini (review) | Little Book, Big Story


Bonus list!

Just in case you want to start your own Martin Luther binge, here are the books we’ve enjoyed lately:

For grown-ups

The Reformation, by Stephen J. Nichols
Pages From Church History, by Stephen J. Nichols
Luther On the Christian Life, by Carl Trueman
The Holiness of Godby R.C. Sproul

for kids

The Reformation ABCsby Stephen J. Nichols
Church History ABCsby Stephen J. Nichols
Katie Luther: The Graphic Novel, by Susan K. Leigh
Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World, by Paul L. Maier


The Life of Martin Luther
Augustino Traini (2017)

The World Jesus Knew | Marc Olson

Years ago, a friend invited us to Passover seder, a cozy one hosted by friends of his. This was early in our marriage, before kids, and we squeezed into this small apartment with our friend and a half-dozen strangers. We passed plates and glasses of wine and lounged, ancient Israelite-style, around the table on cushions.

The couple hosting led us through the Haggadah, and while the Hebrew was a mystery to me, lovely and impenetrable, the symbolism of each dish on the seder plate wasn’t: one by one, the readings illuminated them, showed us both how they remembered the Exodus and how they anticipated the Messiah who would come and fulfill each prophecy. And, they explained, he had come. He had fulfilled them all.

I had one of those moments, in my corner around the table, as I dipped parsley in salted water and touched it to my tongue, when the window was open and the tree outside stirred in the darkness and I thought, The Jewish people have observed this for centuries, remembering the Exodus. They have waited this long for the Messiah. And I thought, too, The Last Supper looked like this. As we broke bread and served wine, communion changed irrevocably for me as I realized that Jesus wasn’t instituting something new as he passed the cup to his disciples, but fulfilling something ancient—a promise made centuries before.

The World Jesus Knew, by Marc Olson | Little Book, Big Story

History became, in that moment, three-dimensional for me. I saw Jesus in this new context and understood that everything he did and said, the stories he told, carried particular meaning to the shepherds, priests, and prostitutes around him—meaning that is occasionally lost on me, given my unfamiliarity with sheep, mustard seeds, and the grape harvest. And yet: those words still carry enough fire to spark transformation in the heart of a new wife standing in a stairwell, watching friends open the door for the coming Elijah and rejoicing that he has already come.

This seems like a big lesson for kids to take in, but Marc Olson has written a book that takes some awfully long steps in that direction. The World Jesus Knew is a picture book filled with details about first century Jerusalem—what the Israelites and Romans wore, what they ate, how they interacted. A book like this could be dry or overwhelming, but this one isn’t: Jem Maybank’s illustrations arrange that information well, making it easy to follow and fun to explore, and Marc Olson describes these things with energy and wit.

The World Jesus Knew, by Marc Olson | Little Book, Big Story

I know I can’t fabricate those moments of realization for my kids, the ones that open history wide for them so they see that other people, other fascinating people, really lived in this world, though in very different ways than we do now. But I can do my best to give them opportunities to see it. Books like this help a great deal.


The World Jesus Knew
Marc Olson; Jem Maybank (2017)

Shooting at the Stars | John Hendrix

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.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

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.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

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.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

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.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story


Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914
John Hendrix (2014)

John Ronald’s Dragons | Caroline McAlister

Announcement!

The hyper-observant among you (I am decidedly not one of these, my husband will assure you) may have noticed that the “Bookshop” link is no longer available in the menu up there. Alas! Amazon no longer supports the store feature, so I had to retire it. The Book List is still there, though, so if you want a flyover view of my favorite titles, that’s the place to look.

That is all.


There are those who like to know the story behind their favorite stories, and there are those who don’t. Lydia is one of the latter. Biographies of her favorite authors, interviews or seminars—when offered, she turns them down with a polite “No, thank you.” She maintains that she likes the stories the way they are, without bothering with the shadows and scaffolds behind them.

But I am one of the former. I watched all of the extras on the Lord of the Rings DVDs. I read interviews with favorite authors, as well as prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and author’s notes. Those “in progress” videos my favorite illustrators post to Instagram are among my life’s simple pleasures.

John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister | Little Book, Big Story

And so books like John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, which tell the life of a beloved author in words and pictures, are just my cup of tea. But this one, with its well-told story and endearing illustrations, suited Lydia, too. McAlister follows JRR Tolkien from childhood until the creation of The Hobbit, using Tolkien’s lifelong love of dragons to shape a story that deals gently but honestly with childhood, loss, war, and love.

John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister | Little Book, Big Story

Eliza Wheeler’s illustrations, meanwhile, are beautiful. I know there’s a better adjective out there to describe them, something that conveys a sense of coziness, of light and dark, of delight, but I haven’t found it. Her surprising use of perspective and the way she works biographical and historical detail into each painting (and documents them in, yes, the Illustrator’s Note) adds another layer of meaning to the story, allowing us to read, in the margins, more about the inventive Tolkien and the major events of his life.

John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister | Little Book, Big Story

John Ronald’s Dragons gives us an enchanting look into the story behind one of our favorite stories, and it’s one I know our family will return to again and again. It also motivated me to look for the story behind that story, and in my sleuthing I found a fascinating post about Eliza Wheeler’s research trip to Oxford, as well as this trailer for John Ronald’s Dragons. I also found her on Instagram.


John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of JRR Tolkien
Caroline McAlister, Eliza Wheeler (2017)

From the Good Mountain | James Rumford

As you know, we are embarking on our first year of full-time home school, and for me, that means lots and lots of reading. Reading about schedules and curriculum. Reading about God, and how big he is and how faithful. Reading about educational philosophies. And about people’s experiences with and opinions on educational philosophies.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

One of the philosophies I came across again and again was that of Charlotte Mason. I have always pulled in some elements from her work into our family life here and there, but I spent time this spring reading about her work more closely. And I was smitten all over again with the idea of “living books.” I’ve mentioned them previously on this blog, because that is, really, what I try to review: books by authors who aren’t writing to sell, but are genuinely passionate about their story or subject and able to write about it knowledgeably, truthfully, and well. I hope that every book on this blog qualifies for that definition.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

But I found today’s book when I was doing some heavy Charlotte Mason reading, and it struck me within the first few sentences that From the Good Mountain was just the sort of book Mason must have meant when she defined living books. This is a biography of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, written playfully in riddles and illustrated in a way that allows us to see what those first books looked like. James Rumford writes and illustrates this book, but he is also a bookbinder, so the entire process of binding books is laid out by someone who knows the work firsthand and clearly loves it.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

Rumford also includes, at the end, a note on the history of books both past and present. Through his words and images he contemplates the future of books and ebooks, but not in a gloomy “Alas! The end of paper is near” tone. He sounds almost excited about what the future holds, which reminded me that, though we love books, it is words that make up their life, and those words can exist in many forms.

From the Good Mountain, by James Rumford | Little Book, Big Story

So, this book is a story about the making of Gutenberg’s printing press. But it is about much, much more, and the enthusiasm that bubbles out in asides about the books’ materials and beauty is what makes this book more than ink and paper. That enthusiasm is what makes it live, and what gives it a place on our family’s shelves. May it find room on your shelves, too.


From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World
James Rumford (2012)

Reformation ABCs | Stephen J. Nichols

Thank you all so much for your encouraging words after my last post! You all are good people, and it was such a joy to hear from you. And I know I said that I was going to post every other week, but when I sat down to my calendar this morning and started scheduling posts two weeks apart, I hated it. I’ll stick to my word for a while, but I may not last long publishing at half speed—we’ll see. But here, today, is a new post about a new favorite book:


One of the books that inspired me to start this blog was Stephen J. Nichols’ Church History ABCs. From the illustrations to the topic to the fun Nichols clearly has with language, I had to share it with friends, family, the school, and our whole church body. A book blog seemed the best and most expedient way to do that. So I started one.

But now Nichols and illustrator Ned Bustard have a new book out. And it’s even—gasp!—better than the first one.

Reformation ABCs, by Stephen J. Nichols | Little Book, Big Story

While Church History ABCs highlights figures from various points of church history, Reformation ABCs focuses on figures within a single time period. That narrowed focus makes this book a little easier to pair with history curriculum or Reformation Day celebrations, but by viewing stories through a smaller historical window, it also yields a host of fascinating biographies on people whose lives overlapped either in friendship or influence (or both).

Reformation ABCs, by Stephen J. Nichols | Little Book, Big Story

The book itself has a smaller format than Church History ABCs, and because these books are written for the late elementary crowd, I like that. These are picture books for kids who might think they’re too old for picture books (as if there is such a thing!), and I think the smaller format on this book allows it to sneak in there, right between the picture books and the chapter books. Ned Bustards illustrations are still striking and I love them; Stephen Nichols’ language is still quirky and engaging, and I love that.

Reformation ABCs, by Stephen J. Nichols | Little Book, Big Story

In short, Reformation ABCs took a bunch of things I loved about Church History ABCs, added some other stuff to it that I also love, and made a beautiful new book that I couldn’t wait to share with you.


Reformation ABCs
Stephen J. Nichols, Ned Bustard (2017)