Tag: middle grade (page 1 of 3)

Gone-Away Lake | Elizabeth Enright

Every year it’s hard to narrow my list of “best books” down from fifty to ten, but this year was exceptionally hard. I wanted to tell you about Jewel, another novel I’ll reread years from now; I wanted to at least mention The Stars, by HA Rey; A Charlotte Mason Companion nearly made the cut. But no book came closer to being the eleventh title on my list of ten than this one. Only the realization that I could justify writing an entire post about it saved us all from a rapidly expanding list (because if I added an eleventh, why not a twelfth? Why not a twentieth? Who’s to stop me—but me?).

Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright | Little Book, Big Story

And so, here is a book that rightly belongs among the best books I read last year. I found Gone-Away Lake on one of the Ambleside Online lists (more on those lists here); I reserved it from the library. When we picked it up, I skimmed the blurb on the back of the book, was immediately fascinated by the story’s premise—two kids find a ghost town among the marshes behind their house? Rad!—and asked Lydia to give me a turn with it when she finished.

She read it in an afternoon and assured me that I would love it, too, as she handed it over. She was right.

Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright | Little Book, Big Story

Gone-Away Lake follows the story of Portia and her cousin Julian, who discover a ghost town, complete with two people who know the town’s story. As I read this book I realized that the only thing better than mysterious, abandoned houses is mysterious, abandoned houses—and the stories behind them. Gone-Away  Lake is warm and friendly and fun to read, and—oh joy!—it has a sequel that is equally lovely.


Gone-Away Lake
Elizabeth Enright (1957)

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)

God’s Very Good Idea | Trillia Newbell

Timely.

That word, like the phrase tour de force, adorns books jackets with a fearsome regularity. Critics toss it at this novel or that anthology with such zeal that any potency it once had has been diluted by overuse.

But I will still use it here.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Because God’s Very Good Idea is a timely book; it is the right book written at the right time. When questions of race and immigration, refugees and citizenship are on the tip of our collective tongue, when they burst forth at the dinner table, on the radio, and in picture books, it is good to see the subject addressed by a Christian author who invites us to view it through the lens of Scripture.

Many books now work to promote equality, inclusion, and diversity, but few of them take the conversation back far enough to remind us that those ideas originate with the gospel, with the Son of God who died for the sake of people from all nations, to unite us in one body:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

Trillia Newbell takes the story back even further, opening the book with the beautiful sentence:

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

In the beginning—in fact, before the beginning—God had a very good idea.

The book itself is beautifully written—Newbell explains some big and heartbreaking concepts in language that is direct but never insultingly simple—and illustrated with all the delight I’ve learned to expect from Catalina Echeverri.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

Newbell takes this concept of “God’s very good idea” beyond skin color in a beautiful way: rather than focusing solely on outward appearance, she introduces our varying gifts, interests, and abilities as other ways God put his “good idea” into action. Meanwhile, Echeverri displays, through her joyful, vibrant illustrations, a beautiful picture of people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds laughing, praying, feasting together, and serving and comforting one another. It is a gorgeous book, both in its message and in the hope the illustrations convey.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story

I loved reading a book that says so perfectly what so many books point toward but fall short of saying: we should love one another, even (or especially) those who differ from us, not because it is The Right Thing to Do or because we wouldn’t like being excluded because we were different, but because it was God’s idea to create such a wide array of people in the first place, and he made all of them made in his image. His idea was a very good one that is heading toward a definite, awesome conclusion:

This is God’s very good idea: lots of different people enjoying loving him and loving each other.

God MADE it.
People RUINED it.
He RESCUED it.
He will FINISH it.

God's Very Good Idea, by Trillia Newbell (review) | Little Book, Big Story


God’s Very Good Idea
Trillia Newbell, Catalina Echeverri (2017)


Teeny tiny disclosure: I did receive a copy of this for review, but I was not obligated to review this book or compensated for my review in any way. I share this book with you because I love it, not because I was paid to do so.

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)

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)

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