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The Best Books I Read in 2016

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.
Of all the books I read in 2016, I liked these 10 the best | Little Book, Big Story

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:

The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon

The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon | Little Book, Big Story

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.

Teaching From Rest, by Sarah Mackenzie

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.)

Pilgrim’s Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge

Pilgrim's Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge | Little Book, Big Story

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.)

Letters & Life, by Bret Lott

Letters and Life, by Bret Lott | Little Book, Big Story

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.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien | Little Book, Big Story

Speaking of hobbits and books I re-read every few years, I re-read these books this year. Good news! They’re still amazing.

Missional Motherhood, by Gloria Furman

Missional Motherhood, by Gloria Furman | Little Book, Big Story

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.

This is another gospel-saturated book from Furman, worth reading and re-reading and heavily underlining. (If you want to know more about Gloria Furman, you can read my interview with her here.)

A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness

A Passion for the Impossible, by Miriam Huffman Rockness | Little Book, Big Story

The story of Lilias Trotter, 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.)

A Whole Lot of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures, The Memoirs) | Little Book, Big Story

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.

The Life-Giving Home, by Sarah and Sally Clarkson

The Life-Giving Home, by Sally and Sarah Clarkson | Little Book, Big Story

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).

Keep a Quiet Heart, by Elisabeth Elliot

Keep a Quiet Heart, by Elisabeth Elliot | Little Book, Big Story

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.


What About you? What beautiful books did you discover this year?

5 Great Books About Art

My kitchen counter is currently submerged beneath a rising tide of art supplies. This means only one thing in our home: a new school year approaches! While I wrest the counter free from the clutches of colored pens and puck tempera, I’ll leave you with this post: an old one, but one of my very favorites. Though I’ve found several noteworthy art books since this post appeared in November 2014, the books on this list remain my trusty sidekicks in the art room. May your first weeks of the school year be colorful (but only in the best way)!


I am a writer. An artist. A musician. A singer of ridiculous songs. Drinker of tea. Dedicated fan of Foyle’s War. I am not—or had always maintained that I was not—a teacher. But then God said, “Ha!” And now I’m a teacher.

I mentioned before that my daughter attends a small university model, Classical school and that I am the makeshift librarian there. But as of this year, I am also the art teacher, a plot twist that I have enjoyed quite a lot and that now means that not only are there books on every available surface of our house but also pans of watercolors, oil pastel trays, and paintings laid flat to dry on our counters and tables and floors.

5 Great Books About Making Art | Little Book, Big Story

I test a lot of lesson plans (translation: I paint a lot!), but I also read a lot of picture books about art, because I’m finding that books are a great way to introduce an art lesson (or anything else, really) to a group of kids. And I’m finding that there are some really excellent books about art out there. In a departure from our usual fare (we seem to be making quite a few of those lately, which must mean that I’ve reviewed most of my very favorite books and am now looking elsewhere for inspiration), I have decided to share a list of my five favorite finds from the art section of our school’s small library:

1. MIX IT UP!, BY HERVE TULLET

Mix it Up! | Little Book, Big Story

How do you teach color theory to kids when they don’t have paint on hand to mix for themselves? Tullet gives us the next best thing: a book that the kids can interact with.

Mix it Up! | Little Book, Big Story

I read this book to all three of my classes, grades pre-K through 4, walking up and down the desks so that each student got a turn to press, smear, and shake the book, and I just loved watching how differently the students responded to it. One thing was universal: they adored it. One kindergartener looked at me wonderingly and said, “That book is really magic.” (I let her take it home for the weekend.)

2. LINES THAT WIGGLE, BY CANDACE WHITMAN

Lines That Wiggle | Little Book, Big Story

This playful book introduces children to the many, many ways we use lines both in art and everyday life. I just can’t get enough of the illustrations. The colors! The creativity! The wiggly lines!

Lines That Wiggle | Little Book, Big Story

I haven’t read this one to the students yet (or to my own children, one of whom is a student after all), but I am definitely looking forward to sharing it with them.

3. PANTONE COLORS

Pantone Colors | Little Book, Big Story

I didn’t immediately see the appeal of this book: at first glance, it looks like a slightly-larger-than-normal board book about colors with no discernible story line at all. But the magic of Pantone Colors is in the color squares: they have lovely names like “Orangutan Orange” or “Mitten Purple” and practically beg you to sit with your kids and study them.

Pantone Colors | Little Book, Big Story

We like to name our favorite color on each page, or guess each other’s favorite color, or choose our favorite color name (mine? “Wet Sidewalk Gray,” followed closely by “Grandma Gray.” Also, “Teapot Blue”). I originally bought a copy of this book for the school, but then . . . we kept it. So I had to buy a different one for the school.

4. BEAUTIFUL OOPS!, BY BARNEY SALTZBERG

Beautiful Oops! | Little Book, Big Story

This book is a tremendous gift for kids who struggle with perfectionism in drawing, as it explores mistakes and the various opportunities they provide. It’s a charming book, full of pop-ups, overlays, and clever three dimensional pages, like this one:

Beautiful Oops! | Little Book, Big Story

Beautiful Oops! encourages us to view mistakes as unexpected opportunities, and that is sage advice (delivered in a creative package).

5. SACHIKO UMOTO’S ILLUSTRATION SCHOOL SERIES

Illustration School | Little Book, Big Story

These books are great for slightly older kids (or adults, for that matter. I originally bought these for myself). Sachiko Umoto’s illustrations are fun to duplicate, and she walks readers through each one step by step. One thing I specifically appreciate about this series is that even though she draws stylized illustrations of people, plants, and animals, she pays special attention to the anatomy of the object under study: she doesn’t teach readers how to draw flower, but how to draw a poppy, or a hyacinth, or a daffodil.
Illustration School | Little Book, Big Story

Likewise, she not only teaches how to draw a person or a dog, but demonstrates the underlying skeleton, so we readers can see how the figure should move and why the limbs are placed the way they are. Her lessons are simple, but thorough.

BONUS

Here is my favorite series to work from while creating lesson plans for art class:

20 WAYS TO DRAW A CAT (OR A TREE, Tulip, MUSTACHE, AND MORE)

20 Ways to Draw a . . . | Little Book, Big Story

The 20 Ways to Draw  . . . series is fun because it doesn’t actually tell you how to draw a shark, but instead gives you a double-page spread of twenty different sharks, shown from various angles and drawn in various styles, to use as inspiration for drawing your own shark (or jellyfish or pine cone or fern).

20 Ways to Draw a . . . | Little Book, Big Story

I pull from these books when looking for a clear, simple way to draw, say, an apple, and my girls love to flip through them and request lessons on how to draw a specific picture. (On a related note, I have drawn a lot of cats since we got that book.)

LASTLY

If you would like more artsy inspiration, you can follow me on Pinterest. My feed is chock full of art for (and by) kids!

10 Great Books for Preschoolers

Your baby is not such a baby anymore. She’s speaking in clear sentences (though the syntax is often an endearing mess); she’s stopped eating books or throwing them off your shelves, but will instead sit still for stories longer than that of Pajama Time! What then? If you’re looking to bulk up that part of your library dedicated to good reads for the over two set, here are a few of my favorite books for preschoolers:

10 Great Books to Read With Your Preschooler | Little Book, Big Story

1. The Story of Creationby Norman Messenger

The Creation Story | Little Book, Big Story

The detailed (and animal heavy) illustrations are fun to study with small zoologists, and the story is a great one for those little readers to learn. (Read the full review.)

2. The Maggie B., by Irene Haas

The Maggie B. | Little Book, Big Story

I want there to be more books like this in the world. (Read the full review.)

3. Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne

While there are families who prefer to save this book until the children are older, we’re a family of re-readers who wanted to get an early start on the wit and rollicking prose of A.A. Milne. Our girls enjoyed this book at four and again at six, and will no doubt get a little more out of it every time we re-read it as a family. (Read the full review.)

4. The Jesus Storybook Bibleby Sally Lloyd-Jones

The Jesus Storybook Bible | Little Book, Big Story

For a while there, we dropped this one out of the rotation. I brought it back as a lunch-time read and, forgetting how moving this book is, found myself weeping awkwardly into my quesadilla while my children waited patiently for me to regain my composure and turn the page. Lloyd-Jones’s powerful rendering of the gospel in simple (but not shallow) language makes this the best of the children’s Bibles. (Read the full review.)

5. The Golden Featherby David and JJ Heller

The Golden Feather | David and JJ Heller

The story is sweet; the illustrations, lovely. The hidden bunnies on each page take Dave and JJ Heller’s first picture book up the level of “Perennial Favorite.”  (Read the full review.)

6. We Are in a Book!, by Mo Willems

We Are in a Book! | Little Book, Big Story

How to describe this book? I can’t do it. But your little reader will love it (you will, too). (Read the full review.)

7. Let the Whole Earth Sing Praiseby Tomie dePaola

Tomie dePaola illustrates a beautiful hymn of praise in watercolors. Sized for little hands and short attention spans, it’s just right for reading over and over and over and over . . . (Read the full review.)

8. How to Be a Baby, by Me, the Big Sisterby Sally Lloyd-Jones

How to Be a Baby (By Me, the Big Sister) | Little Book, Big Story

What is the life of a baby like? You’ll know by the end of this book.  (Read the full review.)

9. Does God Know How to Tie Shoes?by Nancy Carlstrom

Does God Know How to Tie Shoes? | Little Book, Big Story

A young girl asks questions about God, but not catechism-style, “Who are the three persons of God?”-type questions. No, she wants to know if God has to clean his room and if he gets letters. Her parents answer her well and inspire me to step up my game. (Read the full review.)

10. Or, you could write your own stories

On Writing for Your Children | Little Book, Big Story

Sound like a crazy idea? It isn’t. (Read more.)

 Bonus List

Here are our favorite Christmas books to read with our preschooler:

1. The Stable Where Jesus Was Bornby Rhonda Growler Greene

The Stable Where Jesus Was Born | Little Book, Big Story

A gorgeous rhymed poem paired with rich yet cozy illustrations tell the story of Christ’s birth with beauty and grace. Also, there are kittens. (Read the full review.)

2. The Friendly Beastsby Tomie dePaola

The Friendly Beasts | Little Book, Big Story

This lovely book tells the story of Jesus’ birth through the lyrics of an old Christmas carol, and rounds it out with his own distinct illustrations. Tomie dePaola fans, you’ll love this one. (Read the full review.)

 

Beautiful Books for Advent

I like to get an early start on reviewing Christmas books around here, because I figure that at least some of you are, like me, whatever we call the opposite of a procrastinator. We were the ones who read through most of the course material weeks before our college professor presented it in class (but only in courses that we were excited about). If we have anything resembling a deadline in our near future, it’s a safe bet that we started working on the item due weeks, if not months, beforehand. And we start thinking about Christmas some time in late summer.

So it’s nice to know which books we’d like to add to the family library well before the need for them arises. Here, for you opposite-of-procrastinators, is a list of our family’s favorite books for Advent (and yes, this post was written three weeks before publication):

Beautiful Books for Advent | Little Book, Big Story

1. The Stable Where Jesus Was Born, by Rhonda Growler Greene

The Stable Where Jesus Was Born | Little Book, Big Story

A gorgeous rhymed poem paired with rich yet cozy illustrations tell the story of Christ’s birth with beauty and grace. Also, there are kittens. A great book for toddlers and preschoolers. (Read the full review.)

2. The Advent Jesse Treeby Dean Meador

If you’d like to try celebrating Advent with a Jesse Tree this year, I highly recommend this little book. It’s filled with daily family devotions that will take you from Genesis to Revelation during the month of December, and it will help you lay a great biblical foundation for your kids as they prepare for Christmas. (Read the full review.)

3. The Friendly Beasts, by Tomie dePaola

The Friendly Beasts | Little Book, Big Story

Tomie dePaola’s charming rendition of an old Christmas carol will appeal to readers big and little (but especially little). (Read the full review.)

4. Song of the Stars, by Sally Lloyd-Jones

Song of the Stars | Little Book, Big Story

Lloyd-Jones, author of the much-beloved, Jesus Storybook Bible, tells a beautiful story of the whole world preparing for the coming birth of Christ. She branches out from the usual fare of camels and barnyard animals and includes wild horses, whales and bears in the litany of wildlife preparing to worship the Lord—but she doesn’t stop there. This book is great for toddlers, preschoolers, and early school-aged kids. (Read the full review.)

5. Saint Nicholas, by Julie Stiegemeyer

Saint Nicholas | Little Book, Big Story

Whether you’d like to add a biographical note to family’s celebration of Santa or prefer not to celebrate Santa at all but want to share a bit of history with your kids, this book is a great resource for you. (Read the full review.)

6. Who is Coming to Our House?, by Joseph Slate

Who is Coming to Our House? | Little Book, Big Story

The animals in the manger prepare for special guests in a story that is simple and sweet and, for some reason, moves me to tears every time we read it. This one is perfectly suited to the smallest of readers.

7. An Early American Christmas, by Tomie dePaola

An Early American Christmas | Little Book, Big Story

Tomie dePaola tells the story of an immigrant family who brings their Christmas celebration with them to America. He tells us this Little House-style, and includes details about how they prepared each piece of their celebration—candles, sweets, ornaments, and more—that proved positively enchanting to our pioneer-loving daughters. Those details don’t overwhelm the point of the story, though, and the book closes on a gorgeous note. (Read the full review.)

8. One Wintry Night, by Ruth Bell Graham

As a new believer, I was seventeen, wore combat boots to church, and approached the Bible as I would any other book: I opened it, flipped past the table of contents, and started to read. I treated the Bible as a single story, at times confusing and downright unlikable, because I didn't know any better. . . (from Little Book, Big Story)

Ruth Bell Graham tells the Christmas story by placing it in its context: this is a full-size, beautifully illustrated book, but it’s told in chapters, so she can start the story at the very beginning and see it through to the Resurrection. This is a great book to read as a family during Advent. (Read the full review.)