The Bayeux Tapestry by Norman Denny If your kids took any interest in the Norman Conquest of 1066, this might be a great visual for them. It’s an old book, but the Berks County and Chester County library systems each have a copy. It shows the Tapestry (which is essentially a medieval comic strip) frame by frame with explanations of what’s happening. It is wordy, but you can read as much or as little as you want. Great if your child showed an interest in this portion of history and would like to see a “primary source.” Recommended for any age level, including high schoolers! I found it informative!
How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig This was a real treat. I read the first two chapters aloud with my seven year old and through the guided memorization tactics presented in the book, we both got 10 lines of Shakespeare memorized in one Saturday morning. (And yes, we still remember it.) If you or your child took any interest in our Shakespeare units – at any grade level – you will find this book a treasure.
Give Your Child the World by Jamie C. Martin I’m easily won over by books filled with suggestions of other books. This book does just that. The first few chapters emphasize the importance (and the practical how-to’s) of connecting your child to the globe. I found it inspiring. The bulk of the book sorts reading suggestions by continent and recommended grade level. Consider buying a used copy (easily found online for $10 or less) to reference as you work through your history/geography curriculum.
Natural History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth published by Smithsonian This fat, photo-filled resource been a great asset in our school room! From browsing examples of the various types of vertebrates to finding out if Redwall’s fox Selah or badger Constance would be larger in real life, we’ve pulled this tome off the shelf countless times already. Don’t be content to borrow this one from the library. You’ll be glad to have it in your permanent collection.
Down Down Down by Steve Jenkins If you’re looking for supplementary materials to go with your science curriculum, this is a great one for your section on sea creatures. Animals are sorted by how deep in the ocean they live. Illustrations are some sort of paper cut-out reminiscent of Eric Carle, but with much greater detail and liveliness. Very enjoyable. (Follow it up with the “Ocean Deep” episode from Planet Earth.)
Finding Winnie by Lindsey Mattick With illustrations by Sophie Blackall (one of our favorites), this book started out with points in its favor already. The story, based on the true background of the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh, is a sweet one for kids who love Pooh, but it’s perhaps even sweeter for grownups who have seen that “sometimes you have to let one story end so the next one can begin.” (cue the tears)
Love Is by Diane Adams Another tear-jerker for moms and dads, this rhyming book tells the tender story of a child’s care for a lost wild duckling. Its brevity is its greatest power. Simple but beautiful illustrations capture each sweet phase of the story.
Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler A Depression-era family (mom and eight kids; dad has died) sets up a home in a shack in the woods. Will they make ends meet? Will their empty life be filled? Based on a true story, this picture book is gorgeous and tells the sweet story of finding contentment in the smallest
The last thing you need is another Gift Guide or holiday bucket list. So here’s a short list of just a few favorite Christmas books. Each family finds their own favorites and maybe you are just dusting yours off from their hibernation in the attic all year. If you’re itching for a new one, though, one of these might be just right.
An Advent Option
Advent books set the pace for the pre-Christmas season and I’ve used a few different ones. If you’re familiar with Ann Voskamp’s style, and like it, you’ll probably enjoy The Greatest Gift. I love her insights into Christmas and the gospel and I found this book most rewarding in some of my darker advent seasons. If you don’t like this option, I do encourage you to pick up an advent book for yourself! Advent activities with the children or as a family build the anticipation together, but a personal quiet time advent study is rewarding in a different way.
A favorite for Tolkien fans
Tolkien fans, rejoice. This collection of letters were written by Tolkien when his own children were small. Each year they received a letter from “Father Christmas” filled with delightful stories of the goings-on at the North Pole. This is no Middle-Earth (sorry: no lembas bread or rings of power coming in your Christmas stocking) but the imaginative story-telling of Tolkien can brighten your December in a fresh way with this sweet collection of Letters from Father Christmas.
A charming family story from Scandinavia
We stumbled upon this gem last year. Christmas in Noisy Village is a sweet little tale about three adjacent farms in Sweden and the children who live there. The drawings are gorgeous and the story is heart-warming. If you fall in love with this like I did, snag a library copy of Springtime in Noisy Village when the weather warms up.
A wordless retelling of the whole Christmas season
Peter Spier is famous for his wordless (or nearly wordless) picture books filled with detailed images. This Christmas picture book is a treasure for children and parents alike. The mounting excitement as Christmas approaches is captured just as poignantly as the exhaustion of cleanup when the holiday season comes to a close. Make time to sit slowly with this one.
A book to singing along with
My kids and I love this edition of The Twelve Days of Christmas by Hilary Knight. Watch as Benjamin brings Bedelia her collection of gifts each day. Get glimpses inside her house as she turns pears into pear jam, makes ice cream with the milk from the maids a-milking, and sends out invitations via the turtle doves. Plus, watch a side-story unfold on each page as you watch the mischievous raccoon. Beautifully illustrated, this book may become a fast favorite.
A hefty novel for high schoolers or adults
The Paradise War by Stephen Lawhead is a looooong novel that was recommended to me years ago. I finally got around to it this summer and very much enjoyed it! It’s a little gory in parts (ancient Celtic battles), and there is some Druidic-style mysticism but it’s a great story that uses Truth to spin a fictional tale. Lovers of fantasy novels will most likely enjoy this first book in a trilogy. The author also has a series of books called The Pendragon Cycle which focuses on the life and times of King Arthur: possibly a great choice for our history time period this year.
A defense for moms and dads to prioritize reading
Lit! by Tony Reinke may give you a reason to put a few books of your own choosing on your next library request list. I was most helped by this book’s suggestion to write specific reading purposes. When I pick up a book, I should know why I’m choosing it. Is it to help my faith journey? To advance my own education? To connect with others? To enjoy a beautiful story? There are plenty of good reasons to read; Tony Reinke will give you a few and help you discern the most important reasons you pick up books. Reinke also explores why reading should matter to Christians, why the Word of God (and Christ the Word) should prompt us to value the slow work of reading a real book, rather than the rush work of skimming fleeting content on our phones or computers. I was greatly humbled and inspired by this book.
A favorite autumnal picture book
Fall Leaves by Loretta Holland plays on nouns and verbs with brief sentences, and longer descriptions if you choose to read them, on each page that introduce autumn. The illustrations are gorgeous photos of paper cut-outs. Highly recommend (and I promise I’ll return my library copy soon so you can check it out!).
A history-linked chapter book for elementary and middle school
A Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli was a very fun read-aloud for Henry (age 6) and me this fall. If you are looking for a somewhat short castle-time-period novel, look no further! While telling the story of a boy whose life has veered of its planned course as a result of the Plague, A Door in the Wall reminds us that life is full of obstacles (walls) in which are hidden unexpected ways to something new (doors).
A sampling of middle-grade fiction
This month I sampled a few popular YA novels with the goal of tasting what our culture is producing for young minds. I had mixed feelings, as you’ll see.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan tells the story of a wealthy Mexican teenager whose circumstances force her to escape across the border into California. I didn’t care for the “Rising” part of the story, in which Esperanza actually senses a mythical “floating” sensation. But the “rising” she experiences – getting over her pride, learning that the world will change and that growth is good – is a healthy lesson for the target age range.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown was a disappointment. The story (about a robot who is accidently left alone on an island of wild animals) had the potential to address the difference between human life and manmade “life,” but that distinction was sidestepped. Instead, the story gave the robot a heroic role (even a wise and sacrificial role) that assumed her personhood. Sure, fiction can always assign human traits to non-human characters, but I just didn’t love this story’s approach.
Divergent by Veronica Roth describes a world in which people are sorted by their vices – or by their virtues, depending on how you look at it. I cannot recommend this book for a variety of reasons, but if your teen has read it, I encourage you to discuss the central theme of separating society into Factions based on character. Would such a world be a better place? Or worse?
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt is a sweet ode to life. If you could stop aging right now, would you? What about when you were 17? Or when you’re 60? Is life better if it’s longer, or is part of life’s beauty the fact that it ends? These are good questions and this book addresses them tenderly. (I have not seen the movie so I have no opinion there.)
A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck follows a Chicago teenager as she is transplanted to live with her small-town Grandma during the latter years of the Depression. The story reminds us that people are not all they appear to be, that softness can be hidden under a tough exterior. It’s episodic, a series of vignettes linked together, rather than a story circling around a central plot line. But I realized that what I disliked about the book was the lack of any strong male characters. It’s a subtle girl-power book and while it’s important to teach our girls to be strong, it’s most beneficial to set that strength in the context of men who are also strong.
Yes, the days of “summer break” are ticking away. But I hope that your reading hours will only be revving up as the school year gets into gear. If you need a few last-minute fun reads before school reading sets in, consider the options in this issue of Endpapers.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee. If you’ve driven to a beach in New Jersey this summer, you’ve most likely driven through the Pine Barrens. This book is a treasure chest of interesting knowledge about the piney center of the Garden State. You’ll notice all sorts of familiar names next time you drive on Route 70 or Route 72 through New Jersey.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. We don’t know how God populated the whole earth. The idea that Peruvians migrated to Polynesia was a brand-new theory in the 1930’s, and the expedition of the Kon-Tiki, a raft piloted by Norwegian explorers, set out to prove its plausibility. It’s a Pacific Ocean adventure story. Fascinating.
MAZE by Christopher Manson. It’s subtitled “the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle,” and I’ve got to admit that I haven’t figured it out yet. Wander through the castle (Choose Your Own Adventure style) and try to reach the final room. Beware of loops and dead ends!
A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller. You’ll never look at sheep the same way again. Or the much-loved Twenty-Third Psalm. A real-life shepherd, Keller (no relation to the Tim Keller of NYC’s Redeemer Church) unpacks each phrase in Psalm 23, showing in vivid detail how sheep-like we really are and how shepherd-like is God’s care for us. Buy a copy and read this once a year. It’s a precious little commentary.
2000 Leagues Under the Sea as told by Jim Weiss. You’ve probably heard of Jim Weiss, especially if you’ve listened to any of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of World books on audio cd. His voice is splendid and his retellings of classics are genius. I have mixed feelings about giving young children shortened or watered-down versions of classics (which I’m happy to discuss if you’re interested!), but in the case of Weiss’s audio books, I waive my concerns. My six-year-old loves these classic abridgements (this selection in particular) and I like that as a blossoming reader, he can follow along with the hard copy of Jim Weiss’s version while listening to the cd.
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long. Stunning illustrations with minimal but informative text: this is learning that’s so lovely it doesn’t feel like school. I also love A Seed is Sleepy, but was slightly less impressed with A Rock is Lively.
Emma. the new film directed by Autumn de Wilde. Pete and I loved this movie so much, we watched it again two nights later with our kids. I confess to being rather blasé about Jane Austen novels, but this film adaptation was gorgeous, stunningly-acted, and very funny. It’s rated PG, so do be aware of one brief rear nude shot of a man dressing.
If I Built a School by Chris van Dusen. In days like these, when schools are reinventing education and how to accomplish it, it seems fitting to start from scratch. You’ll probably like Jack’s idea for a school (although little does he know that homeschooling is actually the best). We love Chris van Dusen and are also big fans of If I Built a Car and If I Built a House.
Summer’s a great time to indulge in the type of books you might not be able to squeeze in during the busy school year. I’m highlighting a few books in this issue that do more than tell a story. I’ll call these participation books. For the most part, these are books for younger kids, but no middle or high schooler is too old to draw, play, and search.
For curious kids:
Puzzle Island by Paul Adshead. I’ve had this book since I was in fourth grade myself and I still find it fun. It’s a book you play along with, discovering pieces of various puzzles along the way, then cycling back and realizing additional clues were right under your nose all along. Upper elementary school is the perfect age bracket for enjoying this hands-on book.
A First Sudoku Book by Dover Publications. This is a great Sudoku book for children interested in math puzzles and patient enough to figure them out. It starts with 4x4 squares before advancing to the typical 9x9. It’s perfect for mathematically-minded kids.
For kids of all ages:
Draw 50 series by Lee J. Ames. We’ve gotten a few of these from the library and have been very impressed. The step by step approach is non-threatening and the wordless instructions simplify drawing. As a very obvious non-artistic person, even my own drawing has vastly improved by our family drawing nights. I heartily recommend a book like this and the involvement of the whole family in taking up drawing.
For Star Wars fans:
Where’s the Wookie? A Look and Find Book. This book is a treat for Star Wars fans. Each page is jam-packed with characters and action, and while your task is to find Chewie on each page, you’re also bound to find lots of other familiar faces. I’ve seen lots of Seek and Find books for kids that are painfully easy. This one is an appropriate challenge. (Note: There are two other books in this series that are also fun, but neither one is as good as the original.)
Honorable Mention (a non-book!):
Atlantis Escape by SmartGames. This hands-on 3D one-player game has captivated the Mountz family. For each challenge, you are assigned a location on the board for your starting tower, then two or more additional pieces which you must use to “escape” from the island city. Following certain rules, your game pieces can only fit one way per challenge to correctly free you from the maze. We highly recommend this game, and we look forward to adding more games from this company to our collection!
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. Classical home educators likely know Dorothy Sayers for her nonfiction, perhaps her essay The Lost Tools of Learning. I’m ashamed to admit that until a year or so ago, I didn’t know of Sayers at all, much less the fact that she was a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction alike. I have since fallen in love with her Peter Wimsey detective novels. Not sure if you like mysteries? I didn’t think I did either. You can try to identify the villain, or just enjoy the ride and be surprised at the end. Either way, Sayers’ writing is masterful and well worth your reading hours.
Home schooling families likely have sagging shelves filled with books. Or at least a few neat bookcases lined with necessary titles. But a room full of books doesn’t ensure a house full of readers. Maybe it’s the rest of life’s distractions, or just not knowing where to start, but “getting into” reading can be a challenge. With the absence of our libraries right now, we’re at an even greater disadvantage. As summer opens up ahead of us, with perhaps more time on our hands than usual, what are your reading goals?
As No. 1 in my (probably irregularly-spaced) newsletter, I’d like to highlight a few books for your families to consider over the summer. If you can get your hands on them, these are a few gems.
Summer favorites for young readers:
Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey. Though he’s more famous for Make Way for Ducklings, Robert McCloskey also won a Caldecott for this lesser-known picture book. It’s a slow-moving story of summer life on the islands of Maine. It also has the unusual distinction of being written in second-person. Take a few days to read this one slowly.
Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall. Bring the tissue box, not for your child, but for you. This one gets me teary-eyed every single time, even though I know what’s coming. Lighthouse life, family life, hellos and goodbyes.
Kermit the Hermit by Bill Peet. My six year old picked this as a favorite summer-themed book. It’s about a selfish crab and what kindness does to a crunchy old heart. It also rhymes.
Imaginative picks for growing readers:
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson. I just started the Wingfeather Saga this spring after seeing how many of my middle schoolers were reading it. It’s written to appeal to middle schoolers (i.e. the humor might not be to my style), but I was impressed with the storytelling. I also hope it will be a stepping stone for readers toward the more advanced fantasy of Lewis and Tolkien.
Dinotopia by James Gurney. Don’t let your skilled readers turn up their noses at this because it’s a picture book. Dinotopia is a richly developed mythical fantasy that happens to be accompanied by stunning paintings on every page. I adore this book. (Note: Evolution is assumed in this story, so this is a good one to read with your kids for a chance to talk about how God as creator can apply to a fictional story that plants dinosaurs in the nineteenth century.)
Nonfiction for parents:
Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo. If you vacation at the beach, skip this one. If you’re landlocked (and you don’t mind a real-life horror tale), this is a tremendously interesting story about the real shark attacks that inspired Jaws.
Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson. If you’re a reader, you’ll gobble up all of Sarah’s defenses of why reading (all genres!) matters, and you’ll drool over her extensive book lists. If you’re not much of a reader yet, she will convince you to pick up a book – almost any book – and dive into the worlds tucked between the pages.
Seven Women by Eric Metaxas. A short treatment of seven women of faith from diverse backgrounds and time periods. I appreciated the brevity: a much smaller commitment than a full-fledged biography on one person. Be inspired and maybe even choose one woman to read more deeply about.
Novels for high schoolers and adults:
The Space Trilogy by C. S. Lewis. Don’t be put off if you’re not into Star Trek. The fact that two of the three books in this series take place on other planets is secondary to the unmatched storytelling and truthtelling of Lewis. Fantasy, yes. But deeply rooted in sound theology too.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. I can’t tell you much without ruining it. It’s sweet and painful and thrilling and beautiful. It’s one of the best modern-day novels I know. Just go ahead and buy a copy.