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?
When our first child was a baby, I did not have to look hard to find parenting advice. Strangers offered it unsolicited; moms at church were eager to share their hard-won wisdom. And the books were everywhere: whether I was learning how to introduce my daughter to solids or troubleshooting potty training, I never struggled to find a manual meant to walk me through it.
But as my daughters have grown older, the topical resources have grown thin. I’ve found books on homeschooling: sure. But books on raising teenagers? Not quite. Most of the Christian books I’ve found about adolescence onward have to do with body-related topics, like puberty or purity. I’ve found few willing to offer us a grace-filled, big-picture view of how to faithfully parent our daughters through these last years together at home.
Maybe, my husband and I speculated, everyone’s eager to write about those early years because they seem fairly cut-and-dried compared to these later years. When our daughters were little, parenting felt like planting seeds in neat rows. Weeds cropped up in the garden, sure, and slugs ate a handful of seedlings the minute they emerged—but those remaining sprouts of faith and obedience were full of possibility. We planted and plucked up new weeds and anticipated the harvest.
Now that our daughters are older, tending the garden takes more deliberate labor. It is enjoyable work—if we follow the garden metaphor, it is work I gladly volunteer for summer after summer—but it is demanding: we hunt for pests, trellis vines, and stand beneath the midsummer sun, watering each bed by hand. Many times, we give into the temptation to sit on the porch with a book rather than work in the garden. Now that the growing season is in full swing, the tender weedlings we missed last week now tower over our crops, their roots so gnarled and knotted that removing them takes work of almost surgical precision.*
As we move from one phase of parenting to another, we’re finding that we need skills we hadn’t needed before, that parenting takes less “training” and more talking (and a lot more listening). And that our daughters differ so wildly from one another that a book whose guidance helped one would almost certainly be useless for the next.
So I notice that I rely less on parenting books now than I do on prayer.
Kathleen Nielson clearly gets this. Her Prayers of a Parent series consists of four volumes aimed at four different stages of a parent’s career: young children, teens, young adults, and adult children. These are slender books filled with prayers for specific topics or issues our children may face or that we may be called on to shepherd them through. Her prayers are beautifully written, poetic even, and each one is anchored in Scripture and accompanied by a short reading. And each volume deals with issues specific to each season of parenting, an approach I find heartening, because it acknowledges what I’ve long suspected: parenting doesn’t really end, it just changes.
I have wondered sometimes if the reason it’s hard to find books on parenting older children is that this stage seems to rest so heavily on relationship: our relationship with our children, their relationship with God, and our relationship with him as well. And so I think Kathleen Nielson is onto something here. Any approach we take to raising older children has to begin with a deep and trusting relationship with our Father. That is where all parenting starts, but as our children grow, we feel that more acutely. We may tend the garden, but he is, ultimately, the one who causes the growth. He is the one who causes our children to flourish. Nielson’s prayers remind me of that each morning, as they lift my eyes from my own concerns for my kids and focus my vision again on the one who loves us all.
* I’ve noticed that anything I write that I find at all clever was inevitably flavored by something else I read long ago. In this case, I was well into my gardening metaphor and feeling pretty great about it when I remembered that Kelly Keller had written a beautiful piece that already ran along these lines. I heartily recommend it: “Parenting is Gardening,” on The Gospel Coalition.
I park the van at the top of Section C, and my daughter and I get out into the rain. The spongy ground slopes away from us to the road below, speckled with headstones that are, in turn, speckled with lichen. Already my daughter bends over one, wipes the drizzling rain off its surface, and reads a name aloud.
About this cemetery hangs a pleasant sense of disorder. Stones shaped like benches, pillars, or pensive children kneel in the grass, half-sunken where the ground beneath them has settled; moss laps at their edges. Certain monuments here are notorious, like the massive stone angel who has, with her attendant urban legends, nearly eclipsed the family she was meant to memorialize. Broken stones lean in pieces against cottonwood trees whose burly roots slowly shoulder the soil away.
Unlike another local cemetery, which styles itself as a “memorial park” and offers natural burial as well as farewell tributes, death is still a presence here, not an unpleasant thought to be sponged away with rebranding. I feel comfortable saying “tombstone” here, or “grave.” As in, “Look at this grave!”—which I call to my daughter when I find one carved to resemble a scroll draped over a log and slicked with real moisture, real moss. She is at my side in a moment and together we puzzle out the inscription.
It is beautiful, but it is not his.
Since I was a kid, our local cemetery has been one of my favorite places—eerie and beautiful, sodden with history and urban legends. I used to walk through it on my way to college; the girls and I go often to explore; I gravitate toward the cemetery when I want to be alone. It was the first place we met my mom for a walk during quarantine, and it was there, one snowy evening twenty years ago, that Mitch and I confessed that we had, you know, feelings for each other.
This essay took over two years (off and on) to write, partly because it took me about that long to figure out what I was trying to say, and partly because I just had so much fun researching it. I learned about churchyard lichens, and about a spree of vandalism in our cemetery years ago. I spooked myself—pretty thoroughly and deliciously—researching the origins of those urban legends I grew up hearing. I know now about “grave wax” (don’t google it!) and about how long it takes a human body to decompose—in short, I learned far more about death and our cemetery than I actually needed to put into the essay, and yet I think every bit of that knowledge (except maybe the bit about grave wax) helped the story get where it was going.
And where it was going is here. (Thank you for reading!)
Note: The cemetery featured in the photo at the top of this post is actually not our local cemetery, but my other favorite cemetery: Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts. I would have shown you our beloved local haunt (pun intended!) but . . . I ran into issues with the photo quality. I hope you’ll forgive the substitution.
Yesterday morning, our youngest came out of her bedroom looking equal parts thrilled and apprehensive, and announced, “I think I have a loose tooth!”
I felt the tooth. It was so. Now, she’s been sporting a gap-toothed smile for nearly a year already, on account of knocking one of her front teeth loose on a bike handlebar last summer, but this was new. This was a Milestone for all of us.
My youngest child is losing her baby teeth.
And so it seemed apt that Risen Motherhood shared my article “Two Truths & a Lie About Motherhood After the Little Years” this week. What comes next? When her children don’t exactly need her all the time, what’s a mom to do?
I’ve heard moms talk about this moment—this “all the kids finally out of diapers” moment—like it’s a finish line, as though we ran hard and the race is over. High fives all around! I’ve heard rumors about getting my life back, about resuming paused hobbies, about reconnecting with my true self, the one who apparently spent the last decade buried beneath maternity tops and nursing pillows. But I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. I wonder if my true self was not the one showing through in those years of sleep deprivation.
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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