When we were homeschooling, I learned a trick for teaching my daughters math. If they were struggling to solve a problem, I would wait until I was tempted to answer for them . . . and then I would slowly count to three. My daughters usually solved the problems during that window, when I was fighting the urge to say, “Thirteen! It’s thirteen!”
As it turns out, this is great advice for raising teens (and almost-teens), too. When my daughters are tackling something new, I hold back as long as I can and fight that mom urge to just do it for them. It’s not easy. Sometimes I have to do deep breathing. But those extra three seconds are often just enough time for my daughters to do the thing themselves and emerge victorious, with that sense of confidence because they figured it out on their own.
So it is with Bible study. We still read the Bible together as a family, but I’ve also been trying to nurture in our older girls a desire to study Scripture on their own. These habits aren’t easy to build, but this is another place where I find I need to hand them good tools, set up their workspace for success, and then step back and pray silently over them as they do the actual work on their own.
And so, here are a few resources our family has found helpful in different stages as this particular plane makes its way down the runway. (Has it fully lifted off yet for anybody? No. But it’s pulling away from the airport!) I’ve ordered this list to start with resources for the youngest readers before moving on to resources for teens.
A Full-Text Kids’ Bible
Of course, a full-text Bible for kids is a great place to start. There are lots of options out there, and the best ones feature a few tools that help kids connect with the text and understand what they’re reading. Some of our favorites over the years have been the ESV Seek-And-Find Bible, the ESV Big Picture Bible, and—most recently—the CSB One Big Story Bible.
These Bibles hit that sweet spot between story Bible and the Bible itself. Each volume features a paraphrased version of a book of the Bible, perfect for readers who are comfortable with chapter books but not quite ready to navigate Leviticus alone.
This is a fabulous Bible study for kids that gives them a survey of the whole Bible, one short reading at a time. Our family did this together one year and found that it helped our daughters fit the individual stories of Scripture into the larger narrative of the whole Bible. Murray’s Meeting with Jesus is excellent too. (Read the full review.)
Draw Near is a sort of pre-made bullet journal, with cleverly illustrated habit trackers and study guides that help readers young and old make Scripture reading and prayer a daily part of their lives. (Read the full review.)
This trio of Bible studies takes teen girls through the gospel of Matthew, inviting them to answer thoughtful questions and take what they learn about Jesus to heart.
Teen Study Bibles
We haven’t dug into many of these yet, but I have long been a fan of the ESV Journaling Bible, which allows readers to process their reading with a pen in hand (this is how I do my best thinking). Our eldest daughter uses the NIV Bible for Teen Girls, which contains devotional readings on a wide range of topics (including sex, so give this one a pre-read). The ESV Student Study Bible is excellent too, and I’ve heard great things about the CSB Seven Arrows Bible.
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?
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.
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.
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 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 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!
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.
When it comes to allegories, people have Opinions. Some readers find them unbearably cheesy, which is, I guess, understandable: few things grate on the nerves like a story that’s too handholdy—the kind that tells us what we’re supposed to think about every element of the story. And allegories can certainly come across as handholdy. There’s no dodging it: every allegory mentioned in this post features characters whose names explicitly tell you what they’re meant to represent within the story.
But you know what? I love allegories. I love the way they take an abstract truth and, by portraying it as a character, bring it to life. Allegories give those truths structure and presence—they give them a body. And I love what allegories do in our hearts as our family reads them: they give us illustrations we can return to when faced with a difficult moment. “Remember when Little Pilgrim strayed from the path?” we might say. “This situation is kind of like that because . . .”
When reading Little Pilgrim’s Progress we’re reminded that our life is not a linear line but a journey, filled with moments of peril and conviction as well as rest and peace. When reading Hinds’ Feet on High Places, we remember that our Shepherd is just a call away and that he’ll come bounding down the mountainside to our help when we call. Of course the best stories can also have this effect, allegorical or not, but allegories excel at it: they give us something concrete to picture in those moments when our vision is clouded by grief or discouragement or doubt.
So, here are a few of our family’s favorites. There’s a little something on this list for all age levels, so I’ve organized it from the ones written for the littlest readers to the ones written for the biggest.
This adaptation takes the big truths of John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress and translates them into characters and images that are accessible for young readers. Joe Sutphin’s illustrations in this edition open them up further. (Read the full review.)
Tales of the Kingdom was written in the eighties (you can see it in the artwork), which makes this one feel the most like modern life. These books are full of delightful stories and a prince we all long to know better. (Read the full review.)
Hannah Hurnard’s tale of Much-Afraid and her journey to the High Places is one worth meditating upon and savoring. My older daughters love this one; I keep a copy by my bed so I can read a little each day. (Read the full review.)
The grand-daddy of allegories, Pilgrim’s Progress follows Christian as he journeys from the City of Destruction to the City of Light—and is waylaid, challenged, or fortified by those he meets along the way. This edition features updated language and some annotation that makes John Bunyan’s old-school language open up for modern readers. Another point in its favor? It’s so pretty!
I haven’t always gone to church. It wasn’t until middle school that I started going at all and not until late high school that I started attending regularly and with gusto. So I can only sympathize in a sort of theoretical way with my daughters as they slide down their seats and stage whisper, “Is the sermon almost doooone?” Their experience with the church is already different from mine, and I know there will be both joy and challenge that comes with that. So I love a good picture book that zooms us out from our weekly routine and reminds us that we’re a part of something bigger on Sunday mornings—something living and wild, complex and beautiful.
Church isn’t about the building—it’s the people. That’s the idea behind this book, which takes the childhood rhyme “This is the church, this is the steeple, open it up and see all the people” and deepens it, reminding us sweetly that the church isn’t just full of people—it is the people. God’s family.
This book also focuses on the people of God (rather than on the place where they meet) and celebrates the many different people that gather under the church roof. The Celebration Place portrays a multi-cultural church that points toward the day that all tribes and nations will worship the Lord together.
While the first two focus on the people of the church, God Made Me to Worship explores the rhythms of it. In that way, I suppose, this one isn’t just about the church but about worship: why is the church service structured the way it is? What do the different parts of the service mean? Because of that, this one won’t be directly applicable to all readers, as many church services flow differently from the one portrayed here. But still, it serves as an interesting introduction to the different way church can look.
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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