I am a black belt in Taekwondo. By “am,” I mean “was,” as in “I earned my black belt in eighth grade.” And by “black belt,” I mean “zero degree black belt,” which is the lowest possible black belt a person can earn. But I like to toss that sentence—”I am a black belt in Taekwondo”—into conversations with boys of the ten-and-under set, just to see what happens.
I don’t have a lot of currency with boys, after all. As a mother of three daughters, I can throw a mean tea party, tell stories about sweet, talking animals and no bad guys, and please everyone in my house just by putting on a nice dress. I am not adept at talking about football, playing ninjas, or understanding the appeal of wrestling. But I do know how to hold a nunchuck properly and I can still do a pretty decent side kick, so I like to think I’m not a complete dead zone where the boys are concerned.
Likewise, I’m not that great at finding good books for boys to review on this blog, simply because there isn’t much of a demand for them at our house. When I do find a book that I think boys might like I get really excited—and then I second guess myself. I start asking friends if their sons read the book and if so, did they like it? Do boys even like that sort of thing?
But I didn’t even have to ask about this one. I read 100 Cupboards in about two days, got more than a little creeped out, loved it, and knew I’d found a winning book that didn’t center around an unlikely heroine in Victorian dress, a book that would doubtless appeal to boys, their sisters, and their parents.
The premise of 100 Cupboards is straightforward and awesome: while staying with his aunt and uncle after his parents’ mysterious disappearance, Henry discovers a bunch of cupboards hidden beneath the plaster of his bedroom wall, each one leading to a different place including (but not limited to) Endor, Byzanthamum, and Arizona. Adventure ensues.
This is the first of three books, and though I have not read the other two, I am definitely looking forward to reading them. The worlds that N. D. Wilson uncovers are enthralling—I can’t wait to see what else he has hidden away in those cupboards. A word of warning, though: parts of this book are unsettling to say the least, so this may be a bit much for younger kids (or for squeamish older kids). I’d compare the creepiness factor to that of Coraline, if that helps.
But it is an awful lot of fun to read.
This is the rare trilogy that gets better with each book! I finished the third book yesterday, and actually yipped—my husband will vouch for this—”Woo hoo!” at the story’s climax. I may revise my post to reflect this at some point, but for now, know that I recommend not only One Hundred Cupboards but also its sequels, Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King.
Phoebe was a few hours old when the nurse came by on her rounds and found me feeding the baby with a book propped up on my meal tray. She stopped and said, taken aback, “Are you . . . reading? While you nurse?” I don’t think she realized that Phoebe was our third baby—not right then, at least. And she couldn’t have known that our second child never learned the ASL sign for “milk” but instead took to bringing me a book when she was hungry.
So, maybe it was the nursing baby, or the school library, or the copious amounts of preparation I’ve put into learning to copy edit and teach art to kids this year, but I read a lot of books in 2014—so many, in fact, that for the first time ever I took to keeping a list of the ones I finished.
I read so-so books, and I read too-painful-to-finish books. I read books whose appeal I did not understand (Brideshead Revisited, this means you). But I also read books that took me outside myself—books that shook up my thoughts like so much confetti. I read books that weren’t satisfied with being read silently, but that compelled me to nudge my husband and say, “Listen to this.” Books that made me gasp aloud, or laugh belly laughs in an empty room.
My favorite children’s books from the past year have, of course, been appearing all along on this blog. But I thought I’d share some of my other finds with you, as a way of bidding farewell to 2014, bookworm-style.
I find myself wishing that I hadn’t read the Anne of Green Gables books yet, so I could read them again for the first time. Instead, I look longingly at the shelf that houses them and wonder, every few months, if it is still too soon to reread them. (Read my full review here.)
This book has, quite possibly, displaced Bird by Bird as my favorite book on writing. Zinsser says things like, “Few people realize how badly they write” and “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” but he says it in the sort of tone that makes you want to laugh at yourself, pick up a red pen, and start slashing passages from your essays without remorse. (Side note: I think all bloggers everywhere should read this book.)
Don’t let the sappy cover fool you: there is grit in this story, and politics. Elizabeth Gaskell is one of my new favorite authors, as she can turn a love story into something bigger than itself without manipulating her characters to suit her story’s needs (I went on at length about this on the Deeply Rooted blog).
In a rare turn of events, I saw the mini-series adaptation before I read this book and loved both of them in their own right. (Have you seen it? You should. You’ll never look at Thorin Oakenshield the same way again.)
In a college course on creative nonfiction, we dissected this book. We pulled apart sentences, turned verbs this way and that, and examined each well-placed comma. We studied Didion’s essays so thoroughly that by the end of the quarter I hated them and didn’t pick up this book for a full decade after graduation.
But at William Zinsser’s request (see above), I skimmed the opening paragraph of one essay and hardly glanced up until I had finished the book. Didion is a master of nonfiction, as it turns out. My professor wasn’t just making that up.
This skinny study of the book of Ruth was one of the few books of Christian nonfiction that I read this past year (how did that happen?). But it is by the author of one of my all-time favorite books, A Praying Life, and so I dove into it happily and was not disappointed: Miller’s writing is open, vulnerable and engaging, and the insights he offers into his own life with a severely autistic daughter give him a humbling perspective on the subject of loving those who may or may not love us back.
This book features one of my favorite jousting scenes ever. There’s not a lot of competition in that category, actually, but those of you who have read The Once and Future King are nodding to yourselves right now and chuckling, because you know which scene I’m talking about. Also, White’s interpretation of Merlyn is clearly the granddaddy of Albus Dumbledore (I am not making this up), so you have to love the story just for that.
Despite the clumsy title and the fact that this book looks like a college textbook (which it is), Alcorn is such a lively author that he makes passages on inheritance, insurance, and investment read well—so well that I found myself drawing this book out like I do with the best sort of fiction, not wanting it to end.
For a lady who was in the habit of doing battle with our budget every three months or so, this book was a blessing and it’s one I’ll revisit regularly. To say that it shaped the way I view money and possessions would be, perhaps, an understatement. To say that it shaped the way I view eternity would be closer to the truth.
This book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I got all kinds of nerdy about it. The authors move through the whole century decade by decade using color palettes to note each trend. It’s history, art, social commentary and more—all in one huge and beautiful book!
There are Bible teachers who crush the grandeur and grief of a story like Noah’s into a dry, tasteless pulp, and then there are teachers who see the grandeur and grief and go deeper, drawing another layer of significance from the overlooked details of the story—the meaning of a name, for example, or the measurements of a room. Jen Wilkin is one of the latter.
I know this because I have followed her for years, by podcast and by blog, so I was quick to pre-order her book and dive into it the minute that brown paper package hit my front porch. As it turns out, she is not only an engaging speaker but a skilled writer, and she makes a well-reasoned case for why we ladies should not be satisfied with knowing the Bible secondhand but should know it well ourselves. I hope that this is the first of many books for Jen Wilkin (though I’m not sure how patiently I can wait for the next one).
Perhaps including this book is a little premature, as I am still reading it—but just barely. I’m mere hours from finishing the book and am reading it with the endorsement of a number of friends and loved ones (my husband foremost among them) who love this book and know me and assure me that I will also love this book.
And besides, I am enjoying the process of reading this ginormous but wholly absorbing, emotionally wrenching, masterfully woven tale of revenge and redemption, so even if it all falls apart at the end, I think I would still include it on this list just because the experience of reading it was so delightful. But all signs point to “It doesn’t fall apart at the end.” (Update: it doesn’t fall apart at the end!)
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
AFFILIATE LINKS. This blog has 'em. If you purchase anything through an Amazon or Bookshop link from this site, I receive a small percentage of that purchase amount (at no added cost to you). Thank you for supporting Little Book, Big Story!
BOOKS FOR REVIEW. Though I have, in the past, accepted unsolicited books to review, I am no longer able to do so. My apologies!
PERMISSIONS. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are my own work. Please ask before using them elsewhere (I'll probably say yes).