So in the fall we caught Covid, and the day—the very day—that first test developed a second line, this package arrived. Now, any time a package arrives at our house and it’s nobody’s birthday and it’s not Christmas, the assumption is that the package is books. Ninety-nine percent of the time that assumption is correct, and this time was no exception.
In that package—on this day when fevers were climbing and sore throats were blooming and I was trying to get us the food we needed before I, too, succumbed—was The Enchanted Garden, a sweet, self-published parable from author Erin Greneaux. We began reading it that day over lunch and later, when I sick enough to sound like Tom Waits and wasn’t doing any extra-curricular talking, Sarah took over reading it at bedtime. You know how you can listen to some albums (say, Eight Arms to Hold You by Veruca Salt) and bam! you’re in your best friend’s car that summer between ninth and tenth grade, heading to the lake to swim? This story is like that: I picked it up for this review and I could smell rice pudding and hear Sarah’s voice reading to us while I tried not to fall asleep on the floor.
And the memory of all that is sweet to me.
Still, I hope your experience reading it isn’t colored by sickness—but if you do find yourself in need of a good sick-week read, I don’t think you could do better than The Enchanted Garden. Greneaux’s story follows two sisters who discover a hidden garden and, through their time working alongside the Gardener, learn some beautiful lessons about grace and forgiveness. It’s one of those rare chapter books that is perfect for beginners—heavily illustrated and shorter than average, but still a delight to read.
One of my favorite parts is that, in the back of the book, Greneaux invites readers to join an old-school fan club called The Gold Feather Gardeners. That sounds fun enough on its own, but when you join, which we did, you receive a gold feather necklace with a hand-written note telling girls that they are loved and that the necklace is a reminder to them that they are loved. This is brilliant and heart-warming, and some of my girls have worn their necklaces just about every day since receiving them.
So, for those with girls among you, just ready to graduate to chapter books (or perhaps older than that! We all enjoyed it): consider The Enchanted Garden. Sick day not required.
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.
At some point, I turned into a full-fledged history nerd. It started with that project my eldest daughter and I did a few years ago, researching the history of our home, but I never really stopped. For a while when people asked me what I’d do once all the girls were in school, I joked “Spend all my time at the museum photo archives.” And while that’s not exactly how it’s turned out—I’ve only made it there once since our youngest started kindergarten—I have definitely disappeared down a rabbit hole of weird, smelly library books and city directories from 1910.
I justify this in part because I’ve been writing some historical fiction, but I’m pretty sure I’d sit around watching YouTube videos about old buildings in our town whether I had a “project” to “research” or not. Because here is what keeps me coming back: the little stories, the nearly-forgotten ones, the stories that remind you that, one hundred years ago, people were still living one life at a time and didn’t know what was coming next. Beneath the oft-retold narratives of our town’s celebrated founders are smaller memoirs and newspaper articles about people who don’t have schools, roads, or mansions named after them—and those are my favorite stories. The ones about people quietly doing their work—raising children, opening businesses, teaching students, baking bread, hosting sewing circles, selling houses, all of it.
And so I was delighted to find, in Jasmine Holmes’s Carved in Ebony, stories about Black women often overlooked in the historical accounts. In choosing women to profile in this book, Holmes made a point of steering clear of familiar names and introducing readers to women on the fringes of the historical record. And in doing so, she creates a small but powerful volume featuring ten Black women who were faithful to God where he placed them and who reminded those around them—many of whom were arguing vehemently otherwise—that they, too, were created in God’s image. Holmes writes that she tells these stories
to combat the opposing narrative, yes, but [also] to point to the inherent dignity and worth of women, whom God created in his image and for his glory.
These are stories we may not think to look for and may not (I confess, this was my case) realize that we need. But Holmes’s writings are rooted in the Bible—thoroughly and soundly. She isn’t writing solely to inflame or provoke—not to tear down, but to build up. Not to belittle America or the Church, but to help them repair and grow. “What if,” she writes,
instead of putting Uncle Sam in a cape and Lady Liberty on a pedestal, we told the story of America as the story of God’s faithfulness—and not our own? What if we took a note from the people of Israel, and every time we stood on the precipice of a defining cultural moment, we reminded ourselves of God’s providential hand protecting us in spite of our waywardness?
Holmes’s passion for unearthing the names of women new to most readers is what drew me to her in the first place. But her message in this book extends far beyond that. As she tells these stories, she continually turns back to Scripture, weaving a multi-dimensional tapestry for readers that illuminates so much we might be missing in our conversations about race and our country’s history.
It is hard to know what the big issues will be facing our children when they’re grown, but I’m struck again and again by this truth: the way to understand the things we’re facing now is often to look behind us—at history and at the Bible. Jasmine Holmes does both these things faithfully here, and readers will be richer for it.
Carved in Ebony has been released in two editions: the regular one for teens and adults, and the young reader’s edition for middle school students. I’ve been quoting and writing about the regular edition so far, but the young reader’s edition covers much of the same material, though it’s been simplified (Holmes’s personal stories, for example, have been removed) and formatted a little differently so it’s accessible to middle-grade kids. Both editions are wonderfully illuminating, though, and I recommend both heartily.
I suppose every family picks up its own lingo, usually after an adorable toddler misspeaks and her invented word becomes enshrined in the family vernacular. Thus, when something is crooked in our house—a sock, say, or a ponytail—we call it “fonky.” Or when something is of the ordinary, tried-and-true variety, we don’t call it “regular”—we say it’s “reggly.” And so forth. These are the words our daughters will most likely take with them into adulthood, not realizing until they call something “fonky” in public that nobody else’s family says it quite that way.
But it’s funny to think that we’re learning language all the time—not just language, as in The English Language, but all those subtle forms of it. There’s Mom Language, for example, and its various dialects, each particular to the season of motherhood you’re in. These days, I’m pretty fluent in Writing Language, which means that, if you don’t stop me, I could really talk your ear off about the way Stoker employs dramatic irony in Dracula or about Semicolons, The Uses Thereof. When my husband talks Coding with another computer programmer, I definitely need a translator.
And there’s no denying it: the church has its own language, too. Sometimes it’s heavy with “thee’s” and “thou’s” or perhaps with talk about the heart—”the Lord put it on my heart,” or “guard your heart,” or “check your heart on that one.” I remember coming into the church at seventeen and putting some serious work into decoding these phrases, which seemed to fly most thickly during prayer time.
Have you noticed that? We seem to slip into our stiffest, most stilted language when we’re praying. Not all of us, all the time, of course. But I sure feel that temptation, and I know I’m not the only one.
And that is where Jesus Listens gets it right. This is a devotional for kids, written in first person, that helps guide children into a rich prayer life. In Jesus Listens, Sarah Young somehow strikes a balanced tone: these prayers feel like they’re offered to both to the God of the Universe, who made all things, and to our Heavenly Father, who loves to hear from us right where we are. Neither too casual nor too formal, these prayers are written in the language of childhood—open, honest, and direct. Each one draws heavily from Scripture and closes with a handful of verses for readers to explore.
This book is written as a devotional for kids to use during their own reading, but it also works when read aloud as a family. However you use it, Jesus Listens serves as a beautiful template for prayer. And every time I read one at the lunch table with my daughters I want to sigh happily and say, “That is so good.” I find that it’s teaching me a new language as well, one that encourages me to drop the Official Prayer Language and simply come before God as his child.
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.
Firstly: you may have noticed the blog looking spiffier, perhaps? For some reason, the week after Christmas consistently inspires me to give this site a makeover. It always seems so fun at first, like a project I’ll start and finish between rounds of Nertz with my girls, but then I end up deep in the weeds, reformatting the titles for every single post I’ve written over the past almost-decade, and I invariably think to myself, around page 67 of 96, I’ve made a huge mistake.
But when I’m done, I’m always glad I did it: with every redesign of this site, I try to make it tidier, easier for you to use, and (of course) prettier. This time, I’ve actually resurrected and updated an old design—one whose simplicity and clean white margins made it one of my favorites. If you find any broken links or if there was something from the previous design you miss, please let me know! You are ultimately the reason I tinker with this site at all—I want it to be a pleasure to comb through as you look for good books. So please do reach out in the comments or via email and let me if there’s anything I can do to make it so.
And now . . . today’s book! A beauty!
When I finally picked up Mitali Perkins’s lauded Steeped in Stories, I was delighted to find that six of the seven children’s books she lists as her favorites were my favorites, too. But best of all, the seventh—Emily of Deep Valley—was a book so brand new to me that I’d never even heard of it. I’d read the first few Betsy-Tacy books when my girls were very small, but apart from that, I knew nothing about Maud Hart Lovelace’s work. And I’d certainly never read Emily of Deep Valley.
That, my friends, has been remedied—and swiftly!
Perhaps it’s too simplistic to refer to Maud Hart Lovelace as a “Minnesotan L.M. Montgomery,” but that’s the most concise way I can think of to send all you Anne of Green Gables fans out in search of this book immediately. I’ll start there: if you love L.M. Montgomery’s books, look up Maud Hart Lovelace post haste!
She’s best known for her Betsy-Tacy books, but what I didn’t realize is that the Betsy-Tacy series, much like Montgomery’s Anne series, follows its characters into adulthood. Emily of Deep Valley is the stand-alone story of Emily Webster, a girl just graduating high school a few years after Betsy and Tacy. She feels on the outside of her friends, who are all heading off to college while Emily stays home to care for her grandfather.
This is a story rich in themes of sacrifice and love, one that challenges readers to stop looking over the fence at the next green field and start cultivating the soil they’re standing in. Emily keenly feels the boundaries placed about her, and yet she learns to flourish there—ultimately getting to know and care for a community of Syrian refugees that many in her town have overlooked.
Emily of Deep Valley is a sweet story, yes, but its roots go deep: Lovelace asks meaningful questions about race and relationships (Emily’s first love interest is most emphatically Not a Keeper) and true friendship. And it’s one that will send readers—in our house, at least—into the rest of Lovelace’s books, eager to read them all.
This year our family turned a curious corner, one I can describe with a single scene. We were fresh back from the library with two bags of books, which the girls promptly upended before taking one each to the couch or to that green velvet wingback rocker that is essentially a deep, furry nest. And I walked into the living room, feeling charitable, with a few minutes to spare before I had to start making dinner, and asked the two younger girls, “Do you want me to read you a book?”
They didn’t even glance up from what they were reading—both chapter books, I noticed suddenly.
“No,” my third grader said.
“We can read them now,” my first grader said. “It’s okay.”
I had mixed feelings about this, obviously. I was delighted (Oh! Okay, I’ll just go read my book then) with a hefty sigh on the side—I wasn’t quite ready to be demoted to Understudy Reader. I know our days reading picture books together are not gone forever—my first grader does still need help reading, and my third grader will still ask me to read her a picture book from time to time. But the leaves are turning on this season for sure.
My own reading life, on the other hand, was oddly personal this year—until I made this list, I hadn’t realized how many of these books were written by people I know or about places I love. Or they were lifelong favorites, deeply entwined with nearly every season of my life. It’s as though I spent the year connecting with the world through good books—even as “connecting with my family through good books” began to look different. Namely, like me curled up next to the girls on the couch, each of us with a cup of tea and a book in hand.
I think I’m going to like this next season, too.
As always, choosing what makes this list (and what doesn’t) is tough. I read plenty of wonderful books this year that have or will make an appearance on this blog. But I love using this space to share books that I wouldn’t typically review. And I especially love hearing your favorite books from the year as well! Please feel free to chime in and share yours—I hope you discovered lots of delightful books this year too.
Truthfully, this book might fit better on a list of “Best Books I’ve Read Ever” or “Books I’ve Read So Many Times I’ve Lost Count.” And thus, it deserves a slightly longer introduction. So, let me tell you how I first met Sabriel: I was maybe seventeen and home sick one day when my mom handed me this book and then (as I recall) left for work. I spent the day there on the couch with my saltines, my ginger ale, and that paperback copy of Sabriel—which I tore through in a few hours before turning back to page 1 and beginning again.
I had always read hungrily anything that crossed my path, but I hadn’t encountered any stories like Sabriel—this book opened a door for me into this other world that was so absorbing, so compelling, so real. Garth Nix is a vivid, sensory-rich writer, and he’s at his best in Sabriel.
But why, you wonder, am I only mentioning this book now, nearly ten years after this blog’s beginning? Well, Sabriel is pretty dark. It has a lot to do, for example, with necromancy. And so, while good is clearly good in this story and evil is clearly a corruption of good, Sabriel may not be to everyone’s taste. But good gravy, I love it! So much. And if you’re not troubled by a few reanimated corpses, I think you’ll love it too.
Note: If you do pick up this book, you’ll notice that there are a half-dozen or so other books in the series. Should you read them all? Well, if you love Sabriel and can’t get enough of the Old Kingdom, yes! At least read the first three and maybe also Across the Wall and Goldenhand. But know that some are definitely better than others and I don’t necessarily recommend them all with the same fervor with which I recommend Sabriel.
Last spring it seemed I couldn’t turn around without encountering a glowing review of this book, so when my mother-in-law gave it to me for my birthday, I dropped everything and read it. And wow: Russ Ramsey looks at a different artist in each chapter, drawing out powerful theological connections from their art and biographies. I learned things I didn’t know I didn’t know from this book, and I loved reading it.
I live in the same town as Luci Shaw—and in the neighborhood where it’s rumored she attends church. So it’s embarrassing that it’s taken me so long to read a full volume of her poetry. But! The Green Earth was worth the wait. Shaw’s poems are luminous, full of detail about the natural world as well as insights about the One who made it. I can tell already that her books shall henceforth be in regular rotation around here.
Alan Noble diagnoses one of the root ailments plaguing us as a culture and as people: we think we belong to ourselves, but we do not. This book cuts through the messages we’re surrounded with daily and reminds us that we are not actually responsible for crafting our own identities or becoming “the best version” of ourselves. Instead, we are to rest in the knowledge that we are created beings, loved and atoned for, and to do good works as an overflow of that love. This book is reassuring and invigorating, sobering and refreshing.
Written as a series of letters from a father to his young adult daughter, Letters from the Mountain focuses largely on writing and the creative life of a Christian. But it’s also full of wisdom from a father whose children are nearly grown. This is a truly beautiful book—one to read and savor.
In fifty brief chapters, Nate Walker works through different ways the cross of Jesus applies to our life here on earth. He has a gift for seeing both sides of a thing at once and articulating both beautifully, and as he does he illuminates for us, fifty persuasive times, Jesus’s many-faceted love. This is a short book that I read as a devotional, but it could also serve as a great introduction to the gospel for new believers. (It is also worth noting that Nate is my pastor, so: bias confirmed. But even accounting for that, this book is brilliant.)
Here is a family tradition that has only recently lifted of the ground: at thirteen, I take each of the girls somewhere they want to go; at eighteen, my husband will take them somewhere else they’d like to go. So, when our eldest daughter turned thirteen last year, she cast her vote for Orchard House—the home of Louisa May Alcott, author of one of our all-time favorite novels. That summer, the two of us flew from one corner of the country to another and spent five days exploring Concord, Massachusetts.
Our family has a lot of people in it, all living off a single income, so we don’t get to do things like this often. And it was glorious. All that time with my daughter—just us!—tromping around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and drifting reverently through the Alcotts’ home? Those days were five of the best days I’ve had, ever.
So! Imagine my delight when I discovered that Melissa Zaldivar’s new memoir features Louisa’s story as well as stories from Zaldivar’s time as a tour guide at Orchard House. She braids these two strands together with a third: the loss of one of her closest friends and the grief she’s been walking through since. This slender book is a beauty, one that feels as though it truly cost the author something valuable—walking back through her grief couldn’t have been easy. But I’m grateful she shared it with us as generously as Louisa did her own grief over losing a sister.
George Saunders took a full course on writing fiction and turned it into a book—one I loved from beginning to end. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain looks at seven short stories (all written by celebrated Russian authors)—how they work and which lessons writers might glean from them. And he does this all in a way that is hilarious and approachable and illuminating, all at once. I’ll be rereading this one for sure.
Well! I guess this is a year for dark fiction. First reanimated corpses and now . . . Un-Dead reanimated corpses! But. Have you read Dracula? I had, but after reading an essay on it in Ordinary Saints(more on that another time!), I broke out my copy and gave it a re-read. And holy moly, it’s still amazing.
This year, I’m teaching a creative writing class at my eldest daughter’s (small) high school, and one of the books we’re discussing is To Kill a Mockingbird. So I pulled out my copy (acquired when I myself was in high school) and reread it and was struck anew by how moving, troubling, and gorgeously-written this book is.
Also: I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this year as well, and reading these two almost consecutively (accidentally) was incredibly powerful. And so heart-breaking.
Every so often my brother buys us matching cookbooks, and we cook our way through them together. This summer he gave me That Sounds So Good, which is delightful on its own but a whole lot more fun when you set the pre-cooking mood with a glass of wine and one of Carla Lalli Music’s recipe videos. This lady is incredibly knowledgeable, adept at all manner of kitchen skillz, and a whole lot of fun to watch at work in her kitchen. In fact, she’s become such a part of our family’s dinner process that “Is this a Carla recipe?” is the highest praise my daughters can offer.
What about you? Which treasures did you discover (or rediscover) this year?
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!
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