Sometimes, you need a short read-aloud, one you can pick up and read here and there—at the park, say, or on a trip. You can’t commit months of your family’s life to reading it, and you need to be able to put it down for a few days or even a few weeks. Or you just need a book you can finish quickly. What I’m saying is: there’s a time for reading all seven Narnia books aloud, and there’s a time for reading a collection of Father Brown stories.
For us, this is lunchtime on the weekends, when I like to read to my daughters something different—something short that we can pick up and put down during the week without losing our place. And so we’ve found a few short read-alouds worth sharing, gems that are fun to return to when we can return to them but that don’t shame us if we miss a few days here and there. Without further ado:
These adaptations of some of G.K. Chesterton’s best-known Father Brown stories are beautifully written and a delight to read aloud. My daughters loved the mystery of each one, as well as the clever illustrations, and they belly-laughed in all the right places.
James Witmer’s sweet stories of backyard life have long been a favorite around our lunch table. Beside the Pond follows his A Year in the Big Old Garden and centers on Ferdinand the smallest bullfrog in the world, who watches the happenings in and around his pond. These are delightful, lightly illustrated stories that will have kids looking under leaves and into puddles for new friends like Ferdinand.
Speaking of enchanting animals stories, this one is just about perfect. An anthology of Herriot’s tales of veterinary practice adapted for young readers and illustrated with gorgeous watercolors, this book tells a handful of stories about Herriot’s life as a country vet in the 1930s. Whatever the age of your readers, there’s something in this book for everyone to love. (Read the full review.)
As part of my “Hooray! We’re launching a book!” series—which celebrates the imminent release of Wild Things & Castles in the Sky—I’m pleased to invite you over to the Square Halo blog, where I got to share about some of my favorite Easter books for toddlers. Why toddlers? Because one of the chapters I wrote for Wild Things was all about toddler books. Maybe I took the assignment because my girls are all big now and I needed an excuse to break out the Sandra Boynton books again? It’s possible.
That’s exactly why I did it.
But please, join me over at Square Halo today. You’ll find that post right here. May you find some exuberant and indestructible Easter books that will bless a toddler near you!
A large percentage of the books on our family shelves are actually about books. They’re books within books, if you will, and they’re filled with wisdom on how to read with children, why to read with children, and—best of all—what to read with them. The closing chapters of these books are always my favorites: they’re full of fascinating book lists.
I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t love book lists. (My blog is, after all, essentially a nine-years-long book list.) And so I am pleased to introduce you to Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children. This is an anthology of essays, edited by Leslie Bustard, her daughter Carey Bustard, and myself. With over forty essays written by dozens of contributors, Wild Things covers a range of reading-related topics, from fairy tales to graphic novels, classics to contemporary works, board books to Shakespeare. It’s all in there—the how, the why, and the what. A few of the stellar contributors are:
The essayists write from a variety of backgrounds, and while their interests and tastes vary (assuring there’s something in this book for everyone) every essayist recommends books full of truth, beauty, and goodness. (I know, because we read a lot of them as I wrote my chapters and edited the rest. Our library basket overfloweth!)
The book will be published this spring by Square Halo Books (the official listing is here, and you can pre-order a copy there). In the meantime, I’ll be sharing some books here that our family found through this project that I think you’ll love—books the other Wild Things contributors introduced us to. The Square Halo blog is also running posts by the editors and contributors, and we’re sharing even more wonderful books over there. If your library basket also overfloweth, our work is done!
Pictured above: all books mentioned somewhere in Wild Things & Castles in the Sky. Every one of them is worth reading!
All the local year-end recaps are quick to remind us that 2021 brought our county record high temperatures and record lows. We weathered record rainfall, record flooding, and record Covid cases/hospitalizations/vaccinations/etc. But here in our house, we also played a record number of card games. We baked and consumed a record number of blueberry-almond muffins and vacuumed up a record number of salt-and-pepper puppy hairs. We now live with a record low number of cats (sigh). With four daughters in school, we washed a record number of uniforms, packed a record number of lunches, and hastily fashioned a record number of ponytails at 8:03 a.m.
The shape of our family’s reading life changed somewhat this year: with five fluent readers in the house (and one more piecing together letter blends), we read a record number of books—though not always the same books and not always (alas) together. I personally read a record number of books on local history and a record number of memoirs that seem, at first glance, like they should be boring but aren’t. I spent a record number of school-day mornings drinking black tea and reading in one coffee shop or another.
But, about those memoirs. This year I discovered a genre that grew on me quietly but that I now love fiercely: that of the “ordinary life” memoir. These are the books where the author captures the everyday details of his life in some specific place and time and makes me love that place and time as well. By some happy accident, I read several of these this year, from James Herriot to Gerald Durrell to a surprise discovery in the local history section of our library. Having discovered them, I want to read dozens more.
And that is, perhaps, the theme of this year: ordinary life, in a particular time and place. While the storm blew and blustered outside, I’m grateful that we were able to go on making dinner, constructing Lego houses, playing Nertz, and staying up late to drink tea and talk teen struggles. May it be so in the new year.
(As always, the best children’s books we read this year have appeared or will appear on this blog over the coming months, even though my “best of” list always feels incomplete without them here. The books listed here are the ones I don’t have room to share elsewhere on this blog, but that I still hope you’ll enjoy.)
A gorgeous meditation on the heart of Christ, so lovely I read it not just once but once-and-a-half. Using passages from Scripture and from Puritan writers, Ortlund explores the “heart of Christ,” a desire for us that is tender and welcoming. I know: this book is really popular this year. You’ve probably read it or heard it recommended so many times that you, contrarian that you are, don’t want to read it at all. But this book outpaces the hype. It really is that good.
After years of reading and rereading James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, I finally hopped over to his memoirs, and—what a treasury for adults! Herriot’s books chronicle his life as an English country vet in the 1930s. They are funny, warm, emotional, honest, and from time to time they demand to be read aloud. I can’t bring myself to finish the series, so I read a volume only every few months and linger over it as long as I can.
A collection of essays that works from the garden outward, toward spiritual truths about who God is and the world he’s made. Turning of Days is illustrated by the author’s husband, so it reads like a natural journal filled with entries that connect theology to everyday things like trellising tomatoes and preparing the peach tree for frost.
When eleven-year-old Durrell moved, with his mother and three older siblings, from England to the Greek island of Corfu, his interest in the natural world bloomed even as his sharp eye missed nothing of his family’s eccentricity. I’ll admit upfront that the humor in these memoirs may not always be to every reader’s taste—but I loved it. Durrell’s vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Corfu, and his ability to communicate so much of his family’s character and personality through a few short words, made closing this book feel less like finishing a story that it did like leaving a place I’d come to love.
First of all, I must make a disclosure: I served as copy editor for these books. One might see that as a professional bias—perhaps. But I think it’s a testament to their goodness, because I read all three of these books at least twice (but some portions much more than that), and even now, I still love them. Margie Haack’s memoirs begin in rural (very rural) Minnesota and take her from childhood to marriage to an empty nest. At every stage, she invites us to see how the gospel informs her life—even the painful, humbling portions of her life that still haven’t resolved cleanly. One of the things Haack does best is write from a place of vulnerability and humility, as though she knows she doesn’t have the answers, but she continually points readers toward the One who does. The second book, No Place, is out now; the other two should be along soon.
In his winsome way, Tim Keller invites skeptics and believers both into a discussion of why Christianity still matters today, when it seems we have access to all the answers and the means to satisfy every appetite without help from God. Like every other Tim Keller book I’ve read (and loved), this one is hospitable, well-reasoned, and thought-provoking.
I’ve been making my way through this one gradually, a few paragraphs at a time. A Kempis’s meditation on the Christian life reads like a prayer book at times, like a spiritual journal at others, and occasionally like a dialogue between the narrator and God. It’s a beautiful book, and one to meditate on.
Written by the daughter of a doctor in the Puget Sound area, Underpinning chronicles the childhood of Caroline Reed from 1908-1925. When I picked it up in the local history section of our library, I hoped I’d find a few details about our city at that time, but what I found instead was a delightful narrator with a knack for weaving together both the history of our region and her own childlike observations of it. And because she spent much of her childhood in my very own neighborhood, her descriptions brought to life, for me, places I spent hours when I was a child and where I spend hours with my daughters now. This book is thoroughly, woefully, completely out of print, but reading it brought me so much delight I couldn’t resist listing it here.
You know what didn’t break any records this year? The amount of time I spent painting. Now that everyone (but me) is done with daily naps, I haven’t had the quiet space or table room necessary to finish detailed, multi-layer paintings. But Josie Lewis’s clean, brilliant, geometrical paintings are wildly inspiring, and her projects are simple and meditative: perfect for tackling while, for example, my daughters Rollerblade around the dining table. And they have a magnetic effect: once I sit down to work on one, I’m inevitably joined by a curious daughter armed with her own set of watercolors.
What about you? What are the best books you read last year?
Ah, 2020. I suspect that if we included my online reading in this year’s discussion of what I read and how I liked it, we’d find that I spent far more time reading the news than I’d comfortably admit.
And so, well, we won’t.
Let us consider, instead, one of the many ways in which books surpass digital media: you’ll find no clickbait in a physical book, nowhere for you to go that doesn’t require some effort on your part; no third party is compensated for every page you turn. It’s just you and the book and (one hopes) a blanket, cat, and cup of tea.
So, apart from the news, what did I read in 2020? Comfortable books. Beautiful books. Books that gave me pause, that made me laugh, that reminded me that people have lived through difficult things before, and that there always comes, at some point, a denouement—a wrapping up of things left undone, an answering of the last few questions.
I reread several favorites this year, from Sherlock Holmes to P. G. Wodehouse, and refreshed myself with L. M. Montgomery’s short stories and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. A friend of mine called this kind of reading “escape reading,” which is apt, but it felt to me less like leaving than like settling in—like the literary equivalent of tea, hearty stew, and crusty bread. And so I call it comfort reading.
But 2020 wasn’t all rereading: I also discovered several new novels so lovely that I know they’ll become my comfort reading of the future. Of course, beautiful novels can’t erase the grief and bewilderment of this year, but they did much to remind me that the sun is still up there above the seething clouds and that God is still good, whatever the case count.
I closed last year’s “Best Books” post with the words “I hope 2019 treated you well. May 2020 treat you better still,” but I don’t think I’ll send you forth with those words again. Maybe a better greeting to the new year would be the words our pastor says each Sunday after the Scripture reading:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Let’s carry that truth with us into 2021: The word of our God will stand forever.
I read Virgil Wander twice in a row and couldn’t bring myself to put in back on the shelf for weeks after I finished. Virgil is a delightful narrator, and Leif Enger’s use of language dazzles—it is hard to look away from certain words, they’re just so perfectly placed.
I heard this book mentioned last spring on BiblioFiles as the perfect book for quarantine. I promptly bought it and, by the time I’d reached end of the first page, I heartily agreed: A Gentleman in Moscow is the story of a young Russian gentlemen sentenced to lifetime house arrest during the Bolshevik Revolution. But he lives in a high-end hotel, so this hotel and its inhabitants become his whole world. This book is quiet, beautiful, and utterly charming.
It occurs to me now that these first three books were all BiblioFiles recommendations—but there you have it. The Center for Lit folks haven’t steered me wrong yet. This book is pretty self-explanatory: Foster, a professor, teaches the rest of us the good habits of a thorough reader. I hate to sound dramatic, but I am not exaggerating a bit when I tell you that this book completely changed the way I read.
A friend recommended this magical little book, and it got me through many a dark day this year. Written by Francois Fenelon over four hundred years ago, these readings are short and to the point—perfect for grabbing off the shelf at 5:00 on a day gone wrong and reminding oneself what’s what.
Had I read this before? Absolutely. Did I enjoy it even more the second time through? I sure did. I happened to be mid-Bleak House when our school and church shut down in March, and in a moment like that, I was so grateful for Dickens. This book may showcase some of his less popular qualities, but for all that, I think it might be my favorite: it includes one of the first murder mysteries of English literature, one of the most intriguing characters in the Dickensian canon (Lady Dedlock), and, of course, spontaneous combustion. It also begins with the best opening paragraph I think I have ever read.
This slender book is all about caregiving, in its various forms during our different seasons of life. Andi Ashworth writes from her own experience as a mother and caregiver to aging parents and to the many guests that pass through her family’s home, but she writes about it in ways that feel practical and applicable to a variety of situations. There is a bit of Edith Schaeffer in this book, if you know what I mean. I am so glad I got to read this book this year, when caring for my family felt like caring for their suddenly huge needs through small, tender ways—listening when they needed me to. Keeping them supplied with pie. And so on.
Despite the title, I keep this little volume by my bed and read from it most evenings before I go to sleep. Spurgeon’s warmth and tenderness, his candor and his sense of humor all make this a beautiful book to read in installments—it is one I never want to finish!
I wouldn’t fairly represent my reading life in 2020 if I didn’t include Weeknight Baking, because it’s the cookbook I baked almost all the way through between May and December. I read it cover to cover and baked every single cake mentioned in here, plus most of the cookies (some of them several times); this pie crust is my new standard recipe. Michelle Lopez tackles classic recipes and breaks them down into steps so you can make them over the course of multiple nights after work—an approach that works excellently for those us without demanding jobs but with a house full of kids.
A Sense of Wonder is out of print (alas!), but it is a beautiful collection of essays that I savored slowly this year. I have only read a few of Paterson’s novels, but I love her perspective on writing for children, how seriously she takes it and how much she respects her readers. I’ll return to this one, for sure.
This book just barely made the cut, as I finished it on December 30. But say what you like about 2020—and we all have a lot to say about it—at least it brought us a new novel from Marilynne Robinson. This one is just as lovely as the others, so if you haven’t read any of them, take this away from today’s post: go forth and read Gilead, the first in this series. It is probably my favorite novel, and perhaps the only other one, besides Virgil Wander, that I’ve read twice in a row.
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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