When I began this blog, one of the things that mattered most to me was consistency: I committed (seven years ago! Goodness gracious) to writing weekly posts, because the blogs I liked best were consistent, reliable. I knew I could check every Tuesday for a new post, and, by gum, every Tuesday there’d be a new post to read. I looked forward to those posts. I have occasionally varied my schedule here to account for new babies or homeschool schedules, but for the most part I’ve kept my Weekly Post Commitment.
But every now and then a writing deadline or family illness comes along and sinks my well-intentioned ship. So, to that handful of you that might look forward to my Friday morning posts the way I look forward to my favorite blogs’ updates and who noticed my absence over the past two weeks: my apologies! I hope to compensate you for the missed posts by talking about C. S. Lewis. I find that C. S. Lewis typically makes everything better.
Caroline McAlister (author of John Ronald’s Dragons) has written a lovely picture book biography of C. S. Lewis—but! Her book is not only about C. S. Lewis. Finding Narnia is the story of Lewis and his brother, Warnie, and the way that they, together, brought the books into being.
From the brothers’ childhood games and stories, to the years when they were apart, to the moment when Lewis found himself thinking again, “What if . . . ?”, McAlister shows the way the seed of Narnia was planted, took root, and eventually flowered. She shows the work behind it, the patience, the love. When I was a kid, books seemed like mystical things to me—I thought ideas were something you waited for, not something you tended. So I love the way that Finding Narnia refutes that and shows readers another, far more common, way of writing a story.
And then, of course, there are the illustrations. Jessica Lanan’s watercolors are striking—so much so that three of my daughters commented on how pretty they are. She shows the imagined worlds of the brothers alongside their physical world in a way that feels organic and just right. That is as it should be, for this is not a story of how Narnia, in a bolt of inspiration, found Jack and Warnie, but how they, as children and then as grown men, found Narnia.
So. Where did I go, exactly? I wish I could give you a flashy explanation for my sudden, unexplained absence—perhaps one involving time travel? Or the rescue of small, furry animals? But the truth is simpler and somewhat less impressive.
I was procrastinating on this post.
I love writing these posts—looking back on the past year, collecting my favorite titles, taking an opportunity to share books with you I wouldn’t usually cover on this blog. But some (don’t get me wrong, wonderful) changes hampered my usual stream-lined approach: we built a new window seat right where I usually photograph books (yay!), but that altered the lighting in that spot, which meant I had to recalibrate my photography set-up. My brother—who gets lots of props in this post—gave me a laptop (yay!), which meant I had to find my way around a new computer. Also, we all got sick.
Oddly, the form my procrastination took involved re-designing my entire website (no small feat, given the age and girth of this blog). That project was long overdue. (And I am still working out a few kinks on the mobile version!)
But I am sorry for keeping you waiting without explanation. That was, in the words of Captain Jas. Hook, “bad form.” I apologize. I do hope the blog’s newer, prettier look makes up for that somewhat.
There is one last thing I love about writing these annual book lists, though. Can you guess what it is? It’s you! Some of you share your favorite books of the year, either in the comments or by email, and I love hearing which books you loved. I make note of them. I often read them myself. They sometimes wind up on some future edition of “Best Books of My Year” (see the first book on this list).
So, thank you for your patience and for having excellent taste. I hope 2019 treated you well. May 2020 treat you better still.
Years ago, Christina—a reader in whose debt I shall forever remain—recommended this book to me. I picked it up mid-summer, when I was in the throes of planning for the homeschool-year-that-was-not-to-be and realized with a jolt that I’d gone months without reading anything I didn’t plan to teach. This book is now one of my very favorites.
One fateful day, I checked the mail and found this book waiting mysteriously on the porch. My brother had sent it, with the brilliant idea that we indulge our love of The Great British Bake Off and bake our way through the book together. Thus began a winter memorable for nights when our family ate tuna sandwiches for dinner and ornate three-layer cakes for dessert. (No one was sad about that.)
When I was neck-deep in research for that Christmas article, I rediscovered this study Bible. I had primarily used it for the footnotes before, but this time I dug into the additional articles at the front, back, and middle of the Bible, and wow. This is like Bible Infographics for Kids for adults.
I finally encountered Gene Stratton Porter, and I’m not sorry it happened. A Girl of the Limberlost has been on my radar for years, and though I realized too late that it’s the second book in a pair, I loved it profusely. (Freckles, the first book in the pair, is lovely, too.)
I fell for the show Pushing Daisies years and years ago, and ever since I have wanted to bake pies. That is, I have wanted to confidently bake pies, with crusts that don’t crack or turn soggy beneath the filling. I’ve wanted to be so pie savvy I could find as much comfort in whipping up a double-crust pie as I do in eating pie warm from the oven.
Kate Lebo’s book is granting me this superpower. Her recipes are consistently delicious, and she knows just which details an aspiring pie-maker needs to demystify the process. Pie School taught me that ginger + apple = revelation, and that pie crusts are best made by hand and with lard. The next pie on my “to bake” list? Pear and gruyere, a la Charlotte Charles.
I first heard this book mentioned on Aslan’s Library, but it wasn’t until James K. A. Smith referenced it in You Are What You Lovethat I finally ordered a copy. This book is a collection of prayers (drawn from Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, the works of Augustine, and more) meant to be prayed as “the daily offices” (more about that here). This volume has been an excellent companion through the chillier months of both last year and this year.
If you want to know Lewis’s thoughts on science fiction, you’ll find them in here. Or if you’re interested in his approach to writing for children, that’s in here, too. This was a lovely collection of essays to read throughout the summer, on front porches and such.
This book is the edited transcription of a series of talks Elisabeth Elliot gave on suffering, and reading it is like listening to her talk to you, personally, about some of the hardest things any of us will face. Her tone is tender and direct; her message is beautiful.
A few Christmases ago, my brother (still being awesome) gave Lydia and Sarah these books. I found them scattered around their room at various points after that but had no idea that Sarah was patiently, quietly, filling this one up for me until she surprised me with it. She must have known it would make me happy, but she couldn’t have known what a gift it was to me to get to see myself from her nine-year-old perspective for fifty short pages.
You can’t buy one of these filled out by your own kid, I know. But I had to include it on this list, because it most certainly was one of the best books I read this year.
These two have already appeared or will appear on the blog, but I wanted to include them again here because they were so beautifully significant to me. Is it too dramatic to call them “life-changing”? I kind of want to call them that.
Hannah Hurnard tells the story of young Much-Afraid and the Shepherd who calls her to climb to the High Places (think Pilgrim’s Progress, but gentler somehow). Oh, it’s beautiful, and this edition—with its gorgeous illustrations and back-of-the-book essays—does the story justice.
Good fantasy stories have always felt to me like feasts worth savoring. Those are the stories I reread every few years, the ones that make sense of our world by introducing me to worlds utterly different from ours. I was never able to pinpoint exactly why that should be, though, until I encountered this passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. . . . These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
There is something about the delightful aspects of other worlds that makes our own seem more miraculous. We live in a world made from words, and it is filled with lemon-yellow tanagers, intricate columbine, and bugs that, when nudged, roll into armored balls. Is that less amazing that a world where the housework is finished with a wand? On the days when we’re folding laundry by hand, not magic, it seems so. But the best stories remind us of those moments when we first saw snow fall from the sky, and it seemed that anything could happen.
I must point out, of course, that not all fantasy stories are good or beautiful. But there are so many that point toward the beauty of our world, toward the beauty of order (sometimes by contrasting it with chaos), in a way that makes young readers hungry for the good and beautiful. This list features many of my favorites—the stories I reread every few years and share eagerly with my daughters. I hope you find a few new favorites here, too.
What better place to start a list of adventures than with The Chronicles of Narnia? This series has children all over the world tapping at the back of closets, hoping—just hoping—to reach Narnia. C.S. Lewis was adept at writing in a half dozen different literary genres, but he shines when writing for children. (Read the full review.)
This series begins with the story of Peter Nimble, a boy blinded as a baby when ravens pecked out his eyes. It continues with the story of Sophie Quire, a bookmender mending books in a city that burns nonsense. But this is not dark, heavy reading. There is exuberance here, and light and bravery and courage! There’s an enchanted horse-cat-knight and a vanished kingdom and a professor named Cake. (Read the full review.)
It is not a coincidence that one of J. K. Rowling’s favorite books landed on our shelves and became one of our favorites, too. In it, Maria Merryweather finds herself in the wonderful (and mysterious) valley surrounding Moonacre Manor. Adventure of the loveliest sort ensues. (Read the full review.)
This classic is the granddaddy of the fantasy genre. Bilbo Baggins—not merely “a” hobbit, but The Hobbit, the first hobbit—steps out his front door without a handkerchief and finds the world of Middle Earth far bigger than he expected. (Read the full review.)
Henry York discovers ninety-nine cupboards of varying sizes and shapes hidden under the plaster of his bedroom wall. Each door leads to a different place, including (but not limited to) Endor, Byzanthamum, Arizona. The first book in this trilogy is fun (and delightfully creepy); the second and third books are unforgettable. (Read the full review.)
Quirky and charming, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic introduces us to Persimmony Smudge, the perfectly named heroine of Trafton’s adventure. When she learns that her island is in danger, she sets out to warn the other islanders, but they don’t believe her. (Can you blame them?) This is wonderful read-aloud for all ages. (Read the full review.)
Sarah is currently at work on an “about me” book: you know, “I was born,” “I started school,” and so on. It may not surprise you to learn that “Lydia discovers Redwall” is one of the milestones she saw fit to include, as well as “I finished the Redwall series.” That’s a snapshot of our family’s affection for these books. (Read the full review.)
In a few short pages, Heather and Picket (both young bunnies) lose everything and find themselves adrift in a wood corrupted by war. Where will they go next? What will become of them? S.D. Smith tells a story that reads like a modern novel, but is, at its heart, an old-fashioned tale of honor, courage, and hope. There are five books in the series now (not pictured: The Last Archer and Ember Rising), but I’m behind on my reviews! Egad! (Read the full review.)
Grace Lin’s trilogy is a mixed media collage: fantasy, fairy tale, and historical fiction all overlap to create story infused with the colors, flavors, and textures of Lin’s Chinese and Taiiwanese heritage. These books are beautiful from the first page of the first book to the last page of the last one. (Read the full review.)
I have reread A Wrinkle in Time every few years since I was in college, and there is a good reason for that. It’s a beautiful book, and the three subsequent books don’t disappoint. (The remaining four books do disappoint a bit, though. Alas.) (Read the full review.)
Jonathan Rogers retells the story of King David, but in a swampy, fantastic setting, and he gets it just right. (It’s worth reading this trilogy just to meet Feechies.) These books also make a great introduction to fantasy for kids who are a bit sensitive, because they aren’t as intense as many other fantasy stories can be. And they are excellent. (Read the full review.)
If The Hobbit is one of the grand-daddies of the fantasy genre, then Harry Potter is the father of the genre as we know it today. J. K. Rowling’s series displays beautifully the contrast between a character who cultivates a mighty gift for good and one who exploits his gift for his own ends. And it does make one hungry for trifle. (Read the full review.)
Anne Ursu retells the story of the Snow Queen here, but in an inventive way. Her world is a dreamy, almost-creepy fairy-tale land that merges with the recognizable world in surprising ways. She also deals quietly with issues of divorce and cross-cultural adoption in this book. How one book manages to be all those things, I don’t know, but this one does and it’s beautiful. (Read the full review.)
When a friend asked for advice about raising daughters (he and his wife were expecting their first), all I came up with was, “Expect to find baby dolls in strange places. And there will be glitter all over your house, but you won’t know where it came from.” In retrospect, I’d like to add: “People will buy you princess things—so many princess things. Even when they know that you don’t want princess things in your house.”
Also, I’d probably say something about daughters being a gift from the Lord, and it being such a joy to raise them. And so on.
I’ve written before about our family’s approach to princesses, and have meant, for a good long time, to revisit that topic with a list of the books that our girls have fallen in love with—books that do a little, at least, to combat the pull of the Disney franchise by portraying princesses and queens in a courageous, wise, and truly beautiful (not weirdly-animated beautiful) light.
Some of these leading ladies aren’t technically princesses, but you’ll find queens in the mix and ladies and little girls who display beautifully what true princess-ness means. Here are some unusual books about princesses.
Every good book list ought to open with these books, I think. And any list of books about strong leading ladies who are loving, empathetic and brave ought to open with Lucy Pevensie. (Read the full review.)
This book is old and wonderful: the story of Princess Irene, the miner Curdie, and Irene’s great-great-grandmother gives a great illustration of what it looks like to be a princess during the good times and the bad, in safety and in danger. (Read the full review.)
When a cantankerous fairy bestows not the gift of grace, beauty or charm on the infant princess Amethyst, but instead gives her the gift of ordinariness, the story of Princess Amy, thoroughly ordinary in every way, begins. This book takes a good look at what makes us truly beautiful and how to recognize those that appreciate those qualities. (Read the full review.)
What better picture of royal courage can we pull from Scripture than that of Esther? Though married to King Artaxerxes against her will, Queen Esther serves the Lord where she is placed and through her obedience, saves his people. She’s beautiful, faithful, and brave! (Read the full review.)
This sweet picture book follows the conversation between a father and a daughter as she imagines what it would be like if he was a king and she was a princess. Her father ties her vision gently back to Scripture and encourages his daughter to cultivate the qualities that Scripture emphasizes. (Read the full review.)
Though not a literal princess, Sara Crewe lives like one: pampered by her beloved papa and treated as royalty by the headmistress of her boarding school, she enjoys life’s luxuries—until a plot twist takes them all (every last one) away. But she determines to go on living like a princess in all the right ways all the same. (Read the full review.)
Jennie Bishop’s fable about a princess who is given a gift at birth meant only for the man she marries gives a lovely picture for young girls of marriage and purity—even answering gently, at one point, the question, “What if he isn’t out there for me?” This is a book that I appreciate for the way it helps shape our daughters’ views on marriage and sexuality while telling a story about a royal family who knows what to truly value.
Okay, Maid Marian isn’t technically a princess, but she does rub elbows with royalty, wear lovely gowns (sometimes, at least), and marry her true love at the (almost) end of the story. But she’s also fearless and loyal, willing to stand her ground against injustice and to fight for good alongside her fiance. There are many retellings of Robin Hood’s adventures, but Maid Marian’s character in this one makes it my favorite. (Read the full review.)
Katherine Paterson, author of The Bridge to Terebithia and many, many other books, puts a beautiful twist on those stories that marry off princesses as prizes for killing dragons and so on. When the king dies, he leaves his kingdom to his proud and quite unlikeable son on the stipulation that he finds a wife that is truly his equal. The search for such a woman leads to lovely and unexpected results—and no one is more surprised by them than the prince. (Read the full review.)
Nap time settles over our house. Those small enough to sleep, sleep. Those too big for naps go into their separate rooms armed with books—many books. I briefly consider washing the dishes from lunch or checking my email, but a breeze sweeps in the screen door and it smells like—oh, like the summers of childhood or something, so I step outside to explore it for a moment.
I come to my senses two hours later in a cushioned porch chair, sunburned and blinking. Somehow, I’m holding North! or Be Eaten.
Today, I have the privilege of introducing you (perhaps you’ve met?) to Mother Daughter Book Reviews, a site that abounds with reviews of children’s literature. I’m serving as a guest poster today and my subject is perfectly summer worthy:
Some of these adventure stories are classic; some are recent releases. Many will (hopefully) be new to you! May you spend your summer investigating wardrobes, cupboards, and tollbooths. May you pick up a magic coin, a bandolier of bells, a bow, or a ring linked to enchanted thread. May you steer clear of Voldemort and the toothy cows of Skree.
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!
AFFILIATE LINKS. This blog has 'em. If you purchase anything through an Amazon or Bookshop link from this site, I receive a small percentage of that purchase amount (at no added cost to you). Thank you for supporting Little Book, Big Story!
BOOKS FOR REVIEW. Though I have, in the past, accepted unsolicited books to review, I am no longer able to do so. My apologies!
PERMISSIONS. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are my own work. Please ask before using them elsewhere (I'll probably say yes).