Tag: history (page 1 of 3)

John Brown | John Hendrix

Today’s summer re-run originally appeared in 2016. But it’s an excellent book, worth sharing twice. I hope you enjoy it!


I knew two things about this book when I grabbed it off the library shelf:

  1. John Brown was a controversial guy whose legacy had something to do with a militia, maybe.
  2. No such controversy surrounds John Hendrix, whose book Miracle Man is one of my favorites, and whose hand-lettered “Hendrix” on this book’s spine compelled me to tuck it in my book bag.

I learned a lot more about both Johns when I got home. John Brown was controversial—I was right about that. As a white abolitionist living when the tide was turning, yet hadn’t fully turned, against slavery, John Brown took up arms and fought to bring slavery to an end. He loved the Lord and saw violence as a way to bring a great grief to an end. His raid on a federal armory in the town of Harper’s Ferry was distastrous and led to his capture and execution.

He is not an obvious hero.

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

But John Hendrix treats his story well, neither glorifying Brown’s call to violence, nor underplaying Brown’s passion and love for those enslaved. Here was a man who saw injustice and said not, “Somebody should do something about that,” but “Something must be done”—and then did something about it.

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

I try to keep my daughters’ shelves stocked with stories of heroes—people who trusted the Lord through difficult circumstances, yes, but also figures from history whose stories are worth telling and retelling. John Brown fits almost into both of those categories, but his story is not a clear success and that is, I think, one of its merits. We have to think about this story: Was he right to wage an actual war against slavery? Did he, in the end, accomplish what he set out to do? How was he changed by the events at Harper’s Ferry?

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, by John Hendrix | Little Book, Big Story

There is no setting this book down and thinking, Well, that was nice. John Hendrix’s words as well as his illustrations push the reader into deeper study, and his author’s note at the end of the book gives an interesting glimpse into what drew him to write about John Brown:

John was a devout believer in Christianity. He used the Bible’s words—that men are loved and valuable to God—as a holy plumb line. When he held this truth up against the crooked world, he knew things should be different. I was astonished to read about John’s belief that black people should not just be free but equal, which was an idea far outside mainstream abolitionism in the antebellum United States. His passion for freedom was undisputed. Frederick Douglass said of John Brown: ‘His zeal in the cause of my race was greater than mine. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.’

Those are powerful words about a man who, in the end, did just that: he loved and laid down his life for his neighbors.


John Brown: His Fight For Freedom
John Hendrix (2009)

Everyone a Child Should Know | Clare Heath-Whyte

The older my kids get, the more Christian biographies I try to squeeze into our bookshelves. Of course I pray that God surrounds our daughters with godly examples—believers who can walk alongside and encourage them, whose steadfastness through trials bolsters their own fledgling faith, and whose love of Scripture is infuses their lives. There is something beautiful about watching the body of the church tend to and cultivate its youngest members.

Everyone a Child Should Know, by Clare Heath-Whyte | Little Book, Big Story

But there is something powerful, too, about listening to the voices that carry from way back in history—voices that proclaimed God’s excellencies then and, through biographies, still speak to us now. Rachel Yankovic writes about it this way:

When I read about [God’s] tender love and care of His children, I learn more about Him. When I read how He used His children from all over the world for His purposes . . . then I see how our Father loves all His children with such attention and faithfulness. He provides for their every need, answers their prayers when they didn’t believe it was possible, introduces them to each other when they could not have found each other by any other means. When I rejoice in His love for them, I rejoice in His love for me. When I love those He loved, I learn more about who He is.

You Who?

I want to fill our shelves with these stories and fill our family language with the names of our spiritual ancestors. Everyone a Child Should Know is a beautiful introduction to this sort of story.

Everyone a Child Should Know, by Clare Heath-Whyte | Little Book, Big Story

Clare Heath-Whyte tells of fifty-two Christians from all across church history, some of their names familiar, some surprising. She touches on the main points of their story, sharing their lives in a way that connects with young readers and fits many stories into a short book. From Augustine to Corrie Ten Book; from Gladys Aylward to Rosa Parks; from Brother Lawrence to William Wilberforce—this is a little book spanning centuries and brimming with the love of God.

Everyone a Child Should Know, by Clare Heath-Whyte | Little Book, Big Story

(Everyone a Child Should Know is part of the series that also includes Everything a Child Should Know About God and What Every Child Should Know About Prayer. We have loved the whole series so far!)


Everyone a Child Should Know
Clare Heath-Whyte; Jenny Brake (2017)

God’s Timeline | Linda Finlayson

One of the bits of planning I struggled with most this school year was history: What will we study this year? (Modern history.) Which books will we read? (So many good ones.) How can I prepare for the hard conversations that will inevitably follow our readings on the World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I didn’t expect history planning to be emotionally draining—but oh, it was. Modern history isn’t a light read.

God's Timeline: A Big Book of Church History, by Linda Finlayson | Little Book, Big Story

But I found comfort both in zooming in and reading biographies of people who lived through those devastating wars and in zooming out to look at the whole scope of history and where those wars fit in context. Zooming in, because though the statistics are staggering, the perspective of one child in one city gives, in some way, a manageable picture of what it might have been like to live through a world war. And zooming out, because though there have been wars throughout history (and none like the world wars), the people who suffered through them have all been under God’s sovereign care. Not one of them lived or died without purpose.

I love zooming out.

God's Timeline: A Big Book of Church History, by Linda Finlayson | Little Book, Big Story

Linda Finlayson does exactly that with her book God’s Timeline. It is a survey of church history, laid out in a way that will make visual learners squeal with joy. From a fold-out timeline to biographical sketches of key figures to overviews of particular times in church history, Finlayson gives us a big picture view of God’s work through the history of the church.

God’s Timeline is the sort of book you could read for family devotions, in Sunday school, or in a solitary fashion under an apple tree. You could use it as a spine for history studies and tie it to lengthier biographies and such; you could use it (and I have) in your community group, to help explain to grownups when the Bible we know came to be. Or to refresh your memory about when the Great Awakening began.

God's Timeline: A Big Book of Church History, by Linda Finlayson | Little Book, Big Story

This is a versatile, beautiful book. It zooms out and takes in the whole of church history in one shot, and from that perspective reminds us that God has cared for his church throughout her whole history, even as he cares for her today.


God’s Timeline: A Big Book of Church History
Linda Finlayson (2018)

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)