Category: Ages 11+ (page 1 of 13)

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

Occasionally, I find myself suffering from what I call “brave princess fatigue,” a condition caused by reading book after book about princesses who are not in need of some sort of rescue—heaven forbid!—but are, rather, hardy warriors themselves. I weary of these stories not because I object to brave princesses (in truth, I quite like them when they’re written well). What I’m grumbling about here is the princess whose moment of growth comes when she realizes that she’d always had the strength she needed—surprise!—within her the whole time.

But The Two Princesses of Bamarre came well before our current Brave Princesses. Written in 2001 by Gail Carson Levine (of Ella Enchanted fame), this book offers a nuanced look at what is—and isn’t—true courage, as shown through the lives of princesses Meryl, who is bold and fearless and anything but a damsel in distress, and Addie, who is timid and shy and relies on her sister for protection. Meryl intends to set out on a quest to discover a cure for the Gray Death that (if you’ll pardon the pun) plagues the kingdom of Bamarre, but when Meryl herself falls sick with the Gray Death, Addie is left to figure out what to do.

Addie’s path forward isn’t a straight one. It rises and falls and is punctuated with obstacles that force her to confront her own fears and insecurities again and again. She doesn’t discover, in a lightbulb moment, that she’s had the strength she needed within herself all along—instead, it grows in her as she suffers and struggles to save her sister. She also receives unexpected help from those around her and, in her moments of utter weakness, from a mysterious, un-seeable stranger. Addie is refined through her quest to save her sister, becoming both courageous as well as vulnerable (because aren’t we all vulnerable when we love others?). And while things end beautifully, they do not end predictably.

Had this story been about Meryl, already strong and courageous, setting out to save a kingdom, I think it could have been yet another Brave Princess story. But because Levine dug deeper, she gave us a richer, more beautiful book about a princess who knows she isn’t brave and who battles her fear the whole way, showing us that sometimes courage isn’t about who rides out boldly but about who rides out in humility, aware of her weakness, on behalf of those she loves.


The Two Princesses of Bamarre
Gail Carson Levine (2001)

The Sin Eater

This book, in addition to being written by the incomparable Gary Schmidt, contains three of the things I love most in a story: a very old house, some cloudy family history, and a cemetery. No—two cemeteries, one of which is hidden away and overgrown. Which is my favorite kind of cemetery.

So regardless of what my daughters think about the book, I’m here to tell you that I loved it. Gary Schmidt has a reputation for tackling Hard Topics, and this book is no exception: after losing his mother to cancer, Cole watches as his dad disappears into his grief like it’s an attic he can lock himself inside. But they’re living with Cole’s grandparents in the house where his mother grew up, and it is layered with family stories—joyful and sad—that provide a sort of counterweight to his father’s depression. And his grandparents fill it with laughter, good food, and meaningful work.

The tension between these two parts of Cole’s life—his father’s despair and his grandparents’ comfort—becomes a force at the heart of the story as the light strives to overcome the darkness. That tension propels the story forward. But in the community Cole finds in Albion, New Hampshire, Schmidt has created something that is substantive, memorable, real. The setting itself seems to support Cole as his grief over his mother’s death and his father’s absence ebbs and flows.

This is a moving book, a beautiful one. I’ve read many of Schmidt’s novels, and he’s a master at what he does. But something about this older title especially got to me. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

(And yes, my daughter loved it, too.)


The Sin Eater
Gary D. Schmidt (1996)


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A Place to Hang the Moon

This spring, I turned forty. My husband crossed that threshold a few years before I did, so I wasn’t particularly nervous about it. But here I am now, on the other side, with a sprinkle of gray hairs, a new ukulele, and some really great friends—the kind who whisk me away for an overnight “reading retreat,” wherein we eat meals foraged from my favorite books (Latvian stew from A Gentleman in Moscow! Eggs and scones from My Family and Other Animals!) and go to bed before ten. On this trip we packed mostly books, which we read on a beach on Lummi Island, the three of us alternately eating, talking, reading, and napping on a quilt spread beneath a pleasantly overcast April sky.

It was perfect. Just perfect.

Of course I packed my book bag before I packed anything else. When one of the primary goals of the trip is to read, you want to bring something good, you know? Something absorbing in a comfortable way, that you can put down when a good conversation begins and pick up when it ends without having the find your place again. I scoured my shelves for Books I’d Been Longing to Read But Hadn’t Yet and settled on these three: Deeper, by Dane Ortlund; Redeeming Vision, by Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt; and A Place to Hang the Moon, by Kate Albus.

A Place to Hang the Moon, by Kate Albus | Little Book, Big Story

A Place to Hang the Moon is a sweet story about three orphans who find themselves without a guardian but with a sizeable inheritance during WWII, when children were being evacuated from London. So, they embark on a dubious plan: to pose as evacuees, in the hopes that the family that takes them in might prove to be their adoptive family.

This is a story about hardship and loss and uncertainty, yes. But it is also a sweet story about sibling love and trust and libraries. It is a warm story set during difficult times, and I enjoyed every minute of it. And, at the risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say this: I love that the author went for a good, old-fashioned, all-the-ends-tied-up-neatly ending. Not all stories have to do that, but I like that this one did!

But what did my daughters think? No results yet—I’m saving it to read aloud with them once we’ve finished The Chronicles of Narnia. (But I’m confident they’ll love it too.)


A Place to Hang the Moon
Kate Albus (2022)

Carved in Ebony

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.

Carved in Ebony, by Jasmine L. Holmes | Little Book, Big Story

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: Lessons From the Black Women Who Shape Us
Jasmine L. Holmes (2021)


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.

Draw Near

One of the habits I took up during the pandemic was bullet journaling. This was a weird choice, given the fact that I had so little to put on my schedule at the time that my bullet journal was more of an art project than a planner, but the habit took root and grew. So I was delighted to come across Sophie Killingley’s Draw Near, which is sort of a pre-formatted bullet journal meant to help the reader form and deepen those daily habits of grace: Scripture-reading and prayer.

These habits can be hard to teach to kids. I admit: I’ve held back a little, because I’ve been afraid to make “time with God” another box to check in the morning. My natural bent is toward legalism, so I’ve worried that I’d inadvertently make these disciplines into burdens for my daughters. But when I look back at my own life, I see a clear trend: putting myself in a chair at the table with an open Bible morning after morning? Doing this when times are easy has made it possible for me to keep doing it when times are hard. After years of building this habit, a day that doesn’t begin with the Lord feels off to me, like I rushed out the door without socks.

Draw Near, by Sophie Killingley | Little Book, Big Story

So lately I’ve been looking for resources that will help my daughters build this habit, and I’m trusting the Lord to reach their hearts, whatever my missteps. Now, my daughters are all very different, and what works for one won’t work for all of them. But for my twelve-year-old, this book has been gold: “it makes this fun,” she said, meaning Bible study. She even uses Draw Near to take notes during sermons and to write down brief prayers for each day. (At least, that’s what I assume she’s doing over there with her colored pencils.)

Draw Near, by Sophie Killingley | Little Book, Big Story
Draw Near, by Sophie Killingley | Little Book, Big Story

I’m so grateful for resources like Draw Near that invite us to grow in these habits of grace, that help us cultivate the discipline of regular time with the Lord even as they remind us to wonder at what a gift it is, meeting with him day after day.


Draw Near: Your Creative Spiritual Journal
Sophie Killingley (2022)


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.