Tag: middle grade (page 1 of 13)

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

Occasionally, I find myself suffering from what I call “brave princess fatigue,” a condition caused by reading book after book about princesses who are not in need of some sort of rescue—heaven forbid!—but are, rather, hardy warriors themselves. I weary of these stories not because I object to brave princesses (in truth, I quite like them when they’re written well). What I’m grumbling about here is the princess whose moment of growth comes when she realizes that she’d always had the strength she needed—surprise!—within her the whole time.

But The Two Princesses of Bamarre came well before our current Brave Princesses. Written in 2001 by Gail Carson Levine (of Ella Enchanted fame), this book offers a nuanced look at what is—and isn’t—true courage, as shown through the lives of princesses Meryl, who is bold and fearless and anything but a damsel in distress, and Addie, who is timid and shy and relies on her sister for protection. Meryl intends to set out on a quest to discover a cure for the Gray Death that (if you’ll pardon the pun) plagues the kingdom of Bamarre, but when Meryl herself falls sick with the Gray Death, Addie is left to figure out what to do.

Addie’s path forward isn’t a straight one. It rises and falls and is punctuated with obstacles that force her to confront her own fears and insecurities again and again. She doesn’t discover, in a lightbulb moment, that she’s had the strength she needed within herself all along—instead, it grows in her as she suffers and struggles to save her sister. She also receives unexpected help from those around her and, in her moments of utter weakness, from a mysterious, un-seeable stranger. Addie is refined through her quest to save her sister, becoming both courageous as well as vulnerable (because aren’t we all vulnerable when we love others?). And while things end beautifully, they do not end predictably.

Had this story been about Meryl, already strong and courageous, setting out to save a kingdom, I think it could have been yet another Brave Princess story. But because Levine dug deeper, she gave us a richer, more beautiful book about a princess who knows she isn’t brave and who battles her fear the whole way, showing us that sometimes courage isn’t about who rides out boldly but about who rides out in humility, aware of her weakness, on behalf of those she loves.


The Two Princesses of Bamarre
Gail Carson Levine (2001)

The Jesse Tree

Years ago, I wrote about our family’s Jesse Tree tradition. And then our girls grew older, and a few of our ornaments broke, and that one book felt a little tired after several straight years of readings. We decided it was time for a change, so we tried a different devotional each year; we sampled some Advent calendars and some reading cards. And we liked them all—the stickers, the paper ornaments, everything. They were fine.

But a few weeks ago, my eldest daughter (now fourteen) mentioned our Jesse Tree wistfully. “I liked that,” she said. And I felt resolved: our youngest is six—we haven’t done a Jesse Tree since she was a baby. So I ordered a new set of ornaments—a beautiful, lasting set that I could see the girls reminiscing over when we pull them out decades from now for the grandkids to play with. And I pulled out a book I’d bought, oh, years ago but never really used as a devotional.

My friends, the Jesse Tree is making a comeback. (At our house, at least.)

The Jesse Tree, by Geraldine McCaughrean | Little Book, Big Story

Geraldine McCaughean’s The Jesse Tree tells the story of Jesus’s birth from the very beginning—the garden. And it tells the story not through a series of Scripture readings—which, just to be clear, is a wonderful way to tell the story—but through a narrative. A young boy meets a cantankerous woodcarver and invites himself to watch the man at work. And as the woodcarver works, he finds himself telling, one day at time, the story of each element as he carves it. From the garden, to the desert, to the stable, he tells this delightfully pesky child the story of Jesus’s birth.

This is a warm, comfortable way to hear the story. It’s inviting and funny, and I can see it aging well as our girls (continue to) grow older.

The Jesse Tree, by Geraldine McCaughrean | Little Book, Big Story

Will we ever not do a Jesse Tree again? Who knows! I don’t. (God does.) But this feels like returning to our roots—like remembering what we’ve loved about Advent and gathering together around it. Remembering, I suppose, God’s faithfulness not just to His People, but to the six people here in our home and—Lord willing—the generations that will follow us.

Edited 12/7/22: It is worth noting, now that we’re a ways into this year’s reading, that there are some theologically sticky spots in this book—particularly around the stories of Noah and Mary. There’s nothing major, though, and even those spots made for good conversation around our table. I do still recommend this book, but I thought you’d appreciate a head’s up.


The Jesse Tree
Geraldine McCaughrean; Bee Willey (2003)

5 Lovely Collections of Prayers

I came to faith in a church that emphasized personal experience, where prayer was something instinctive—the more free-form, the better. And there’s something beautiful and true about that. But when I first encountered written prayers, I was struck by how quickly they transformed my own prayers by giving me words for those feelings I couldn’t name or that, when joy or grief submerged me, I couldn’t articulate.

As my daughters grow and we look for ways to help them deepen and mature in their own faith, I find myself reaching for written prayers—not because they teach us The Only Way to Pray, but because they connect us to the Christians who came before us, those who wrote their verses on papyrus or in ink dipped from a pot nearby. These old prayers remind us that the psalmists and writers of long ago wrestled with doubts and praised the Lord with emotions still recognizable to us.

But there are new prayers being written today, too—in a coffee shop, maybe, with a phone buzzing nearby, or on a park bench, as the writer looked out over the water. The means and the language differ, but the things the writers wrestled with rarely change. The conviction of sin; the delight of grace; the blank absence of doubt; the joy of deliverance—all are familiar to us, from the time King David penned his psalms to today.

I love how these collections of prayers set our aim a little higher than we might think to reach on to our own. They draw us out of our own particular worries (though God loves to hear about them, too) and remind us just who it is we’re talking to: the God of all things, the maker of the universe. The God who tends to needs both big and small.

And so, I love a good collection of prayers, whether old or new. Here are a few favorites we’ve gathered over the years that have blessed our family with words when we struggled to find our own and that have inspired us to praise the Lord from the heights as well as the depths.


The Valley of Vision, ed. by Arthur Bennett

This classic book of Puritan prayers was my first introduction to written prayers. These are beautiful, theologically rich prayers that model a deep, stirring, challenging faith, and they cover everything from confessing sin to praising the Lord to preparing for the Sabbath.


Every Moment Holy, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey

These books (both Volumes 1 and 2) encourage us to meet every trial and celebration by drawing near to God. Though they’re meant to be read corporately as liturgies, these work well as private prayers too. I love how specific these prayers are: some deal with small concerns and others (especially in Volume 2) deal with some of the deepest griefs we can face. (Read the full review.)


Into His Presence, by Tim Chester

Into His Presence reads like an updated, more accessible version of Valley of Vision, with prayers drawn from the Puritans and lightly edited so they read a little more like contemporary works. Each chapter deals with a different circumstance (“Prayers of Gratitude,” “Prayers for the Lost,” etc.) and reminds us that the Lord meets us in every season.


Sheltering Mercy, by Ryan Whitaker Smith & Dan Wilt

Sheltering Mercy is a collection of responsive poems written in the wake of Psalms 1-75. These read beautifully as prayers and show us that Scripture is something we can engage with: we can read it, pray it, and write poems by its light. (Read the full review.)


And one late addition, discovered after I photographed the other books. But I just couldn’t leave it off this list!

Jesus Listens: 365 Prayers for Kids, by Sarah Young

Our family is reading Jesus Listens right now and it’s an unexpected pleasure. This collection of prayers includes one for each day of the year, each accompanied by a few verses that connect the prayers to Scripture. The language in this book is so warm and inviting, it deserves (and shall receive!) a full review, but I couldn’t bear to pass over it here.

Wonderfully June

First of all: yeesh! Sorry I dropped off the map there for a few weeks! Covid finally caught up to our family, and while we all had fairly minor cases, it took a while to make its way through our household, and while it did several things (including blog posts) tumbled off the to-do list. But I’m back, I’m catching up on life, and I’m so glad to be here!


One of the delights of having all daughters is that it’s starkly clear to me how different they all are. We don’t have to account for gender differences; the ways our daughters differ from one another have a little to do with birth order and everything else to do with who they are. And from the time they were babies, we could see it: their demeanor before they could eat solid food is still somehow a part of them today. The one who was a quiet, thoughtful baby? She is still so today, though those qualities have deepened and matured. The one who was an observer, always watching the world around her with one eyebrow raised? That girl misses nothing now—she sees and makes sense of things in a way that’s uniquely her own. The daughter born with a sense of comedic timing, and the one who, from her birth onward, has done things her own way and followed none of her sisters’ footsteps? They’re quite the duo now, let me tell you. (We call them our Bluey and Bingo.)

Wonderfully June, by Sarah Murdock | Little Book, Big Story

There is something wonderful about this, about looking at the four of them and knowing that they are who God made them to be—and that he made them all very differently.

But of course these differences can be hard: some of our daughters fit in with others more readily or have a more immediate sense of what they like to do, while others struggle a bit to find their footing—much like June, in Wonderfully June. This sweet book tells the story of a girl growing up in a large family; her siblings have big personalities and clear giftings. June is shy and quiet and loves to write, but she’s hesitant to share the things she’s working on—she loves and trusts her family, but her writing is deeply personal. Sharing it feels vulnerable.

Wonderfully June, by Sarah Murdock | Little Book, Big Story

But when she makes a new friend, he draws her out and encourages her to let her light shine. This is a story told from a Christian perspective, and I love the portrait of family life it portrays—June struggles to find her place, but she loves her family and knows that they love her. She isn’t rocked by the same questions of identity and value that sometimes surface in some stories like this one. She knows she belongs, even if she isn’t quite sure yet where she fits.

This is the kind of book that makes the quiet kids feel seen, and that gives words to some of those struggles that can feel hard to name. And because it’s told from June’s perspective, we get to see her thoughts and worries in a way that will make more than one reader (and at least one of my daughters) say, “Yes, me too!”


Wonderfully June
Sarah Murdock; Andre Ceolin (2022)


Disclosure: I did receive a copy of this book for review, but I was not obligated to review it 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 Elk King

When I was studying creative writing in college, there was this sort of pall over the subject of publication. “It probably won’t happen to you,” our professors cautioned. If you’re lucky, they said, you may land a story or two in a literary journal—probably a small journal, don’t get your hopes up. They pushed us to write well, and then to write better than that, but when I graduated I still felt a little vague on what was supposed to happen after we’d polished a story until there was no grit to rub off. Should we frame it? Fold it into a paper airplane and hope our aim carried it toward an interested reader?

But now, nearly twenty years later, we live in a world full of online publications, small presses, rogue print magazines, and self-publishing—all of which combine with mainstream publishers to give authors a spectrum of ways to share their stories with readers. I love this. I love that I get to have anything to do with any of it.*

Because this means that authors like Jenn Discher get to tell their stories the way they want to. In the case of The Elk King, Discher’s first book in her Tales of Animalia series, this is an excellent thing. The Elk King follows the story of Prince Draven and his family, as they live through an uncertain time: rumors of treachery and of a mysterious illness affecting the Elk surface, and it begins to seem possible that Draven may inherit the throne earlier than he’d like.

The Elk King, by Jenn Discher | Little Book, Big Story

Discher has published this book with a lot of thoughtfulness and care, which gives the book a hand-crafted, carefully-tended feel to it that I love. And her land of Animalia is a gorgeous place, filled with beautiful landscapes and an assortment of talking animals, each with their own distinctive culture (her footnotes on some of these cultural details are delightful!). Jessica Linn Evans’s illustrations suit the mood of the story so well and help bring the characters to life.

For readers who already love Redwall, The Green Ember, or The Mistmantle Chronicles, reading The Elk King will feel like traveling to a beloved but wholly new place, full of characters well worth your affection. And because this book is the first in a promising series, you can read it with the hope that there is more of Animalia to explore and more to discover about Draven and company.


The Elk King
Jenn Discher (2022)


* In this case, I got to serve as copy editor for The Elk King, which I maintain makes me an extra-qualified reviewer. If I can read a book through three times and come away loving it better, that’s a sure sign it’s a book worth reading and re-reading!