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!
We are weeks into a stay-at-home order here in Washington—I don’t even know how many weeks. Six? A lot. We are a lot of weeks in.
And while there are days when we feel desperate for the friends, family, and church community living outside our walls, and days when the news weighs so heavily on me that it’s almost physically painful, there are also ways in which we’ve settled into new routines. We have celebrated everything from Easter to May the Fourth (and four family birthdays) since the order took effect, and it hasn’t been horrible. Some of us have taken up crochet; some have formed an alliance with watercolor pencils. We have gardened a lot. And we finally—after months of squeezing it in around ballet lessons and youth group and home group and evenings out—finished Farmer Boy.
Reading aloud has become one of the sweet spots in our days again. We did not forsake it when the girls started school again—oh, no. But we did not have time to read as much as we had read before, and that was one of the things I missed most. These weeks of enclosure have been softened by lots of little excursions into stories and the discussions that have sprung from them.
I thought it would be fun, then, to compile a short list of great family read-alouds for this particular season—books that will appeal to a wide variety of ages, that you’ll want to sit down to night after night, that will make your world feel a little bigger and broader right now.
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.
The way I used to feel about the new dELiA*s catalog: that’s how Lydia feels about the catalog from Lamplighter Books. Before it hits the kitchen counter, she whisks it away, and when I find it next, there are stars in the margins by the titles she most wants to read.
And thus, she deserves credit for discovering today’s series. After her starring and dog-earing spree, she spent the better part of her savings on the Tales of the Kingdom trilogy. The day it arrived was the first day I found a box of books on the porch that wasn’t addressed to me. Calling her down to check the mail felt like the passing of some torch.
In the catalog blurb, Lamplighter Books compares Tales of the Kingdom, favorably, to Pilgrim’s Progress and The Chronicles of Narnia—an ambitious comparison, certainly, but not unwarranted. This series has the allegorical feel of both classics, and a similar knack for inviting deep truths in the side door while you’re distracted by a wonderful story. I do not think I will summarize the plot for you, because I enjoyed diving into this series equipped only with the Lamplighter blurb and Lydia’s endorsement. But know that this is a delightful set of stories, and I can’t stop thinking about them.
The Tales of the Kingdom books are pricey, but they’re worth it. They’re a little dated, but in this era of ’80s nostalgia, that’s pardonable. These are stories that I savored when I read them alone and that now hold all four of my daughters rapt at the table after school when we read them together. And I am so grateful to Lydia for introducing me to them.
I encourage you to purchase these through Lamplighter Books rather than Amazon, because Lamplighter is a company worth supporting! But used copies do crop up on ThriftBooks from time to time, so you might be able to save some money by purchasing through ThriftBooks.
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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