Tag: Older Children (page 1 of 13)

The Railway Children | E. Nesbit

This summer re-run first appeared on my blog in January 2014. It features one of my favorite books. I hope you enjoy it (and your summer break!), too.


Was there ever a better narrator than E. Nesbit? The way she banters with the reader in charming asides and includes her own voice as a part of the story makes reading her work an act of listening, as though a favorite aunt has drawn little you onto her lap as she tells you a story about some children that she once knew. Her voice is comfortable, familiar; she exists within the story in a delightful way.

C.S. Lewis also had a knack for establishing this intimacy between author and reader. I used to think that I recognized his voice in Nesbit’s work until I learned that she was one of his favorite authors as a child, and that really, I was hearing her voice in his work. This just made me love her more than ever, and I love her best of all in her book, The Railway Children.

The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit | Little Book, Big Story

After their father is mysteriously called away from home, Roberta, Peter and Phyllis leave their comfortable life in London and move to the countryside with their mother, where they are materially poor but find a wealth of excitement in the railway that cuts through the hills near their new home. Adventures of a noble sort ensue, all told in Nesbit’s endearing (but never, ever sappy) tone.

The small fry in our home are so smitten with The Railway Children that, for a time, they answered only to Roberta and Phyllis, and we found ourselves hosting an imaginary brother named Peter for months (we currently host an imaginary brother and sister named Curdie and Irene—from The Princess and the Goblinas well as a sister named Applesauce, and an imaginary cow named Charlotte. Our house is cozy, but never dull).

The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit | Little Book, Big Story

One closing note: you’ll notice that I never give age recommendations on my blog. The reasoning behind that is simple: all children are different, and the book one child cracks open at four, another child may not properly enjoy until eight. You know better than I do where your child falls on the spectrum, so I leave it up to you to decide if your child is ready for this book. Read it yourself and see. I’m quite certain that you will enjoy it.


The Railway Children
E. Nesbit (1906)

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)

Great Joy | Kate DiCamillo

Let’s appreciate, for a moment, the behind-the-scenes people who make books possible. Editors, art directors, publishers, agents—I don’t know exactly what you all do, but books like Great Joy make me glad that you do it.

The pages, cover, and binding combine to make a book that makes our family feel like we’re unwrapping something precious as I read, which I suppose we are, in a way, because the story is precious and the illustrations are warm and welcoming. But the gold leaf on the cover and the cloth binding and the very feel of the pages make the gift a thing that’s not just heard or observed but warmly felt. Somebody chose that paper and decided to ornament the cover just so—thank you, whoever you are.

Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo | Little Book, Big Story

Great Joy‘s quiet story doesn’t need bells and whistles—it would shine in a hand-drawn, xeroxed ‘zine, I’m sure, though it may not reach its intended audience that way—but the lovely quality of the book encouraged us to slow down and savor DiCamillo’s language and Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations.

Those illustrations are so gorgeous, by the way, that I’m tempted to heap adjectives on them willy-nilly. But I won’t burden you with that. Instead I’ll show you pictures:

Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo | Little Book, Big Story Great Joy, by Kate DiCamillo | Little Book, Big Story

Great Joy reaches my daughters at different levels: at eight, Lydia delights in the fact that Frances, the story’s protagonist, reads the same verses for the Christmas pageant that Lydia read for hers; Sarah, at six, asks the same questions Frances does about the organ-grinder; and Phoebe, at almost-three, delights in finding the monkey on every page (when she wants to read the book, she points at the shelf and shouts, “MONKEYS!” until someone hands her the book).

And I, as a mother, rejoice: this story is the sort of gift that I love to give my daughters, knowing that it points toward the one who is our greatest gift.


Great Joy
Kate DiCamillo, Bagram Ibatoulline (2010)

Redwall | Brian Jacques

Redwall. Now she knew why creatures talked of it with such reverence; it appeared to blend with the surrounding Mossflower country as a haven of rest and tranquility, in harmony with all nature, like some gentle giant of a mother, sheltering and protecting her children.

– Mariel of Redwall 

I encountered Redwall Abbey in my early twenties. I was wandering then, in need of a refuge, and I found one within the grounds of Redwall. Evil was clear-cut there, easy to see and to fight—unlike the sin that seeps and simmers in our adult lives. Reading about the peaceful creatures of Redwall battling the rat Cluny, and feasting on good things like woodland salad and maple cordial fortified me for my own battle.

A good story can do that.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

But when I handed my battered copy over to Lydia a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect her to love it. I even cautioned her that she may not love it yet, and that if she didn’t fall for it immediately she should withhold judgement and try again in a few years. Cluny is really scary, and I wasn’t sure she was ready to meet him.

She was ready to meet him. She came downstairs a few hours later, shining-eyed and wondering if there were more books in the series.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

Lydia was in luck: Redwall is one of twenty-two books (meaty, full-length, well-written books) about the Abbey and its inhabitants. The inhabitants change from book to book, as the stories generally take place at different points along a timeline.

Think Chronicles of Narnia or Star Wars: you grow to love one batch of characters in a book, and then pick up the next book to find a batch of brand new characters to love, with, perhaps, a few cameos from old favorites in the new story. The mischievous Dibbun of one book may be the elderly Abbot of the next book. It’s great fun.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

Lydia was so taken with these books that she’s begun working industriously around the house, doing chores and setting up lemonade stands in order to fund her growing collection of Redwall books. She has out-paced me in the series, so I’ve been taking recommendations from her on what to read next. She is the true Redwall authority in our home now, so I asked her to share her thoughts on the series with you. Here is why Lydia thinks your family will love these books:

I love these books! I can’t believe that the first time I read Redwall, I wasn’t sure I would like it. Girls will like it because there are beautiful girls who are very brave, too, and boys will like it because there are lots of battles. There are hilarious hungry hares, beautiful young maidens, old abbots and abbesses, brave young warriors (who are sometimes girls!), cute little Dibbuns, strong badger lords (and a badger lady), very bad vermin, big brave Skippers, odd-speaking moles, argumentative Guosim shrews and much more! Dive into the world between the covers of a Redwall book!

I think she summed up the series quite nicely! I can really only add a few grown-up thoughts to that.

On Villains

The evil in these books is shocking, and I think it’s meant to be.

The villains in these stories war amongst themselves, kill innocent creatures, and go to terrible ends to achieve their goals. They are brutal, but they are rarely funny and never glorified. When the story transitions from the villain’s stronghold, where he slays his friends out of vengeance, pride, or boredom, to the Abbey orchard, where strangers and friends feast together, the reader can’t help but love the lovelier scene.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

As my daughter and I have discussed these books, I’ve been struck by how well they help shape her affections. She has been quick to notice the way that the creatures of Redwall serve one another, while the villains serve only themselves, or to notice how the Redwall soldiers honor their fallen while their enemies simply leave their dead behind. And that contrast is, I think, the point: there is no moral ambiguity to this story, no anti-hero. The bad guys are very bad; the heroes aren’t perfect, but they are still very good.

Jacques was a child in England during WWII, and I wonder how his experiences shaped the portrayal of evil in these stories. If your child is a sensitive reader, I will give you two warnings: Be ready for graphic battle scenes and very bad bad guys, but don’t let those turn you away from the story. Jacques does a great job of making the stories feel safe, even when they’re at their scariest.

On Dialect

Jacques was fond of writing in dialect. In the case of the hares, who sound like characters from a P.G. Wodehouse novel, this is delightful. But in the case of the moles, who are meant to sound (I think) like operating drills, the dialogue can be a bit trickier to decipher. If you’re reading aloud, you might familiarize yourself with the dialogue before reading to your kids so you don’t get sucked into a whirlpool of zzzs and rrrs.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

On Feasts

The food. Oh, the food.

Jacques has said that his lavish descriptions of Redwall feasts sprung from his memory of rationing during the war, when he fantasized about the dishes in his mother’s cookbook. His descriptions of food are so mouth-watering that they have inspired a whole cookbook and have inspired us to throw our own Redwall feast. There are so many dishes in there that sound wonderful, even if I have no idea what they are: meadowcream trifle, buttercup cordial, mushroom and leek pasty with gravy. I want comfort food—and a lot of it—when I’m reading these books.

The Redwall Books, by Brian Jacques | Little Book, Big Story

Sarah, my photography assistant

In fact, that was the second caution I offered Lydia when I gave her the book: you might not like it yet, and it will probably make you hungry. I am so glad I was wrong about the first one, and so glad I was right about the second.


Redwall
Brian Jacques (1986-2011)

Ember Falls (Giveaway!) | SD Smith

Ember Falls landed on our porch in a box full of goodies from SD Smith’s Kickstarter campaign. Oh, I thought. Yay! Lydia will like this.

I admired the cover.

I flipped it open to read the dust jacket.

I came to twenty-four hours later, starry-eyed, having finished the book.

Ember Falls, by SD Smith | Little Book, Big Story

In Ember Falls, S.D. Smith continues the story of Heather and Picket, who are no longer the young, lost rabbits of The Green Ember’s opening pages. Picket is a well-trained warrior; Heather is . . . well. I’ll let you read that part for yourself. But that development was one of many that I met with a satisfied, “Oh, yes. Of course.”

S.D. Smith has written a sequel that feels inevitable, as though the story developed itself. Nothing feels forced; nothing feels cheap. His characters work hard and suffer for their victories, and those victories are deeply satisfying.

Ember Falls, by SD Smith | Little Book, Big Story

S.D. Smith’s vision of hope in this series is potent, reaching beyond the pages of his books and into our lives as we read: as the characters fix their eyes on the Mended Wood, so we fix our eyes on a Better City. When my eyes stray from that City to the brokenness of this world, when I am tempted to believe that the brokenness is all there is or ever will be, then I am grateful for the faithful rabbits who remind me that we must go on fighting.

We must hope.

We must bear the flame.

Every book in this series is better than the last, which makes Ember Falls the best yet. And Ember Falls brought my eldest daughter into the fold: finally ready for the series, she read all three books in a week and now wears her “Bear the Flame” necklace proudly. (Even Sarah, who hasn’t read the series yet, adores her necklace. “It’s like Heather’s!” she tells everyone—even strangers at the grocery store. Then, confidentially, “Heather is a bunny.”)

Ember Falls, by SD Smith (necklace) | Little Book, Big Story

Now, ordinarily, I would hustle you off the Story Warren shop with a link and nudge and a “What are you waiting for? Go read it!” But this week, I have a treat for you: S.D. Smith has graciously offered to send a set of all three books to one of you, plus your choice of either a “Bear the Flame” necklace or a set of stickers*.

Ember Falls, by SD Smith (giveaway prizes) | Little Book, Big Story

The books are a great prize. Definitely. But my favorite part of opening a package from a beloved author was watching my kids make the connection that S.D. Smith is, you know, a human. A human who sends mail. And writes books.

They both immediately declared their intent to become authors and took up residence at the kitchen table with stacks of paper, pencils and erasers (and for writers, those erasers are super important). They may be writing fan fiction about their favorite series at this point, but that’s just a few degrees away from writing the next classic, right?

Enter the Giveaway

To enter, fill in as many options as you like in the widget below. The giveaway closes on Tuesday, Sept. 27 (I’m going to get it right this time, I really am). After that, a winner will be randomly selected and notified by email.

Game on!

*The actual stickers to show up in the winner’s mailbox may not look just like the ones pictured.

The Quiltmaker’s Gift | Jeff Brumbeau

One doesn’t go looking for beautiful children’s books in a mortgage lender’s office, but that is where I found this one. We were there to get approved for our first homeowner’s loan, and while we waited for our appointment, I scanned the heap of outdated financial magazines for a copy of People (alas! I cannot resist the pull of People). I found, instead, The Quiltmaker’s Gift.

The Quiltmaker's Gift, by Jeff Brumbeau | Little Book, Big Story

And so, as my husband second-guessed the wisdom of buying a home so old it once had an outhouse, I disappeared into a lovely fable about a quiltmaker who lived atop the blue misty mountains. She made quilts whose “blue seemed to come from the deepest parts of the ocean, the whites from the northernmost snows, the greens and purples from the abundant wildflowers, the reds, oranges, and pinks from the most wonderful sunsets.” She created her quilts not for profit or fame, but to give to the poor and homeless.

When the king demanded that she make a gift of one of her quilts to him, the quiltmaker told him that, to earn one of her quilts, he must give away everything he owned. “With each gift that you give,” she said,” I’ll sew in another piece. When at last all your things are gone, your quilt will be finished.”

The Quiltmaker's Gift, by Jeff Brumbeau | Little Book, Big Story

In The Quiltmaker’s Gift, I saw the story of the rich young ruler the way I wish it had turned out (and still hope, in time, that it did turn out). Gail de Marken’s illustrations are vibrant and detailed, with another story tucked into the quilt’s patterns that give hints as to what happens next. Her style and those details suit the story of the king’s struggle and transformation beautifully.

The Quiltmaker's Gift, by Jeff Brumbeau | Little Book, Big Story

Finding this book that day in the bank was timely. Finding it on the shelf at our library this summer was timely too, as I was in the mood for something lovely to read on a blanket in the backyard. Perhaps I’ll even pull out an old quilt for the occasion.


The Quiltmaker’s Gift
Jeff Brumbeau, Gail de Marken (2001)

10 Chapter Books to Read Aloud With Your Son

It will come as no surprise to you that I have a blind spot when it comes to writing book reviews. Have you guessed it?

Right.

I don’t have any sons.

I have no problem finding beautiful books for girls because I have four daughters, two of which are eager to snap up any book I bring home. But because I don’t have a son, it’s a little more difficult for me to find books to recommend here for boys.

I do, however, have a number of friends with sons who let their families serve as a sort of test audience for me. Did you like it? I ask their sons after they finish a book, resisting the urge to take notes as they answer. Then here, I say, and hand them another book. Try this one.

Ten Chapter Books To Read Aloud To Your Son | Little Book, Big Story

Of course, I’m learning that boys’ tastes vary as widely as girls’ do: one family of all boys adored The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic; one wanted nothing to do with it (there was a girl on the cover). One family loved the entire Little House series; another could stomach only Farmer Boy.

But because I’ve already done a few book lists for the girls, I wanted to compile a list for those of you with sons who are wondering what to read next. I left off some of the classics that you’ve seen again and again on book lists for boys—Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, The Jungle Books and such—and the classics that we all love already—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit. You already know about those ones.

The books on this list have received rave reviews from my test readers (ages 2-11) and will, I hope, be new to some of you. Of course, these books don’t appeal exclusively to boys: I’ve read or intend to read all of these to my daughters at some point. But they’re heavy on adventure, light on pretty dresses and a whole lot of fun to read aloud.

And if you read them to your boys, well—I would love to hear what your boys think about them. (I may even take notes.)

THE WINGFEATHER SAGA, by Andrew Peterson

My new favorite series: The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson | Little Book, Big Story

Andrew Peterson (yes, that Andrew Peterson) has written one of the finest examples of Christian fiction out there. Period. (Read the full review.)

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, by Robin Lancelyn Green

The Adventures of Robin Hood | Little Book, Big Story

A classic tale of chivalry, complete with archery contests, weddings at arrow-point, and plenty of bashing of crowns. There are many versions of Robin Hood’s adventures out there, but Green’s telling is my favorite (mostly because Maid Marian is awesome in this one). (Read the full review.)

THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, by George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald | Little Book, Big Story

If your sons are put off by the first half of this title, remind them gently of the second half: yes, this is a story about a princess. But it is also a story about goblins. And about a brave boy named Curdie, who wields his pickax to great effect. I’ve recommended this to at least three families of all boys and it’s gotten glowing reviews all around. (Read the full review.)

100 CUPBOARDS, by ND Wilson

100 Cupboards Trilogy | Little Book, Big Story

ND Wilson’s delightfully creepy trilogy about Henry York and the wall full of cupboards he discovers in his attic bedroom is full of adventure and powerful imagery. And good news: if your kids like this series, then they’ve just tapped the rich vein of Wilson’s books. He has plenty of other really excellent books out there. (Read the full review.)

HALF MAGIC, by Edward Eager

Half Magic, by Edward Eager | Little Book, Big Story

Four siblings discover a magic charm that grants wishes but only grants half wishes. This story had us laughing, sometimes uncontrollably and often unattractively, from start to finish. The rest of the series is equally funny. (Read the full review.)

THE GREEN EMBER, by SD Smith

The Green Ember, by SD Smith | Little Book, Big Story

SD Smith’s first novel is about Heather and Picket, two rabbits cut loose from everything familiar and sent on an adventure. It’s pretty intense in the opening scenes, but tells a story of such beauty and hope that I simply cannot wait for the sequel‘s release. (Read the full review.)

See also: THE BLACK STAR OF KINGSTON, by SD Smith

 

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, by E. Nesbit

The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit | Little Book, Big Story

When their father is unexpectedly called away, Roberta, Peter and Phyllis move from London to the English countryside with their mother where they find adventure, daring rescues and quiet, sunny days. It may not sound like much, but this is one of my very favorite children’s books, for boys and girls alike. (Read the full review.)

LITTLE BRITCHES, by Ralph Moody

[Currently loaned out to a friend’s son and unavailable for a photo shoot. But good news: it’s getting great reviews!]

The author chronicles his youth working on his family’s ranch. A fun, lively story full of the sort of adventures that made me a little relieved that I have a house full of (so far) mild-mannered girls.

THE WILDERKING TRILOGYby Jonathan Rogers

The Wilderking Trilogy, by Jonathan Rogers | Little Book, Big Story

Rogers retells the story of King David’s early years, complete with guilded gators, crumbling canyons, and feechiefolk (did I mention that this is a fictionalized retelling?). (Read the full review.)

LITTLE PILGRIM’S PROGRESSby Helen L. Taylor

Little Pilgrim's Progress, by Helen L. Taylor | Little Book, Big Story

Like Pilgrim’s Progress, but about children. That might sound horribly cheesy to you (it did to me), but trust me: it’s not. Taylor’s retelling of Christian and Christiana’s adventures reminds kids that they don’t ride on their parents’ shoulders to the Celestial City, but are lovingly led there by their King. (Read the full review.)


Add to the List! Which books did I miss?