Take a look at the books piled in every room of our house, and you’d be able to tell we read a lot. I wondered what a Week in Books would look like, if I catalogued it. I did just that over the past seven days. Here are the results! Some of these we read in their entirety; others were only sampled during the week. Some are recommended; others are just an honest look at what this family’s reading life looks like. (Note: I didn’t catalog what Dad read, just the readings of the kids and me, or things we read as a family.)
Pyramid by David Macauley
It took us about 40 minutes in just one sitting. The kids and I loved this fascinating telling of how an Egyptian pyramid is built. Highly recommended!
A Tangled Web by L. M. Montgomery
By the author of Anne of Green Gables, this charming book for grown-ups explores the ripple effects of life choices through the fictional account of a large extended family. Each family member has his or her own dreams and doubts, fears and fantasies. As they intersect, the results create a tangled web indeed. A sweet end of summer read for me.
Knight Owl by Christopher Denise
I’m not sure which of my kids read this, to be honest, but it was on the couch when it had been in the reading basket. Someone enjoyed this sweet story of a tiny owl who only wants to help keep his land safe.
Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page by Cynthia Rylant
Our kindergartner is making strong strides in reading and loves tackling small chapter books (this series is a favorite) with a bit of help.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
My current read-aloud with the kids. My second time reading it, their first hearing.
Story of the World: Volume One by Susan Wise Bauer
Our history text. We read chapter five this week.
“The Big White Book” (Natural History by Smithsonian)
We often summon “The Big White Book” when we read or hear about an animal, plant, or mineral that is foreign to us. With pictures and one-line descriptions of thousands of species, it’s a perfect resource. We consulted it this week regarding swallows, gentian flowers, and milkweeds.
Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis
After a long hiatus, we finally returned to this Narnia book, a family read-aloud that had been abruptly cut short sometime around May. Completing the final few chapters would have been more satisfying if we had read without such a long break, but it was nevertheless a rewarding read.
The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
I’m trying something new with my fourth-grader for this history novel. We both have a copy and are reading it independently, but keeping the same pace. Every few chapters, we have a little chat about it. It’s our own mini book club and so far it’s delightful.
Hints on Child Training by Henry Clay Trumbull
I started this book years ago. I pulled it off the shelf again this week and am hoping to finally read the whole thing. Trumbull keenly explains how to train your children toward what is good, without over-correcting or ignoring their own individuality. There are many lessons I need to learn in this book.
Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans
There are more prayers in here than I will ever need to pray. I have been lingering on just one of the prayers in the section “Help Me Begin the Day” for a few weeks, praying it every few days as I need its reminders again.
Shanghaied to China, Spy for the Night Riders, and Defeat of the Ghost Riders by Dave and Neta Jackson
The fourth-grader is picking away at all three of these stories of famous Christians during his reading times. Yes, he’s reading three at once. I guess he takes after me!
Three Little Kittens by Paul Galdone
A favorite. This was a bedtime story one night this week.
With Love, Edith by Edith Schaeffer
Speaking of missionary stories, I have been savoring this collection of Edith Schaeffer’s letters for years. Even just one page of this book displays enough faith to coast on for a few days. Edith, her husband, and their three (later, four) children followed God’s call to ministry in Switzerland. Her stories of the highs and lows and everyday middles of ministry life are a huge encouragement to me.
Mio, My Son by Astrid Lindgren
After finishing Caspian, we picked up this sweet fairy tale to start as our next read-aloud. We’ve gotten through a few chapters now. I read it to our now-fourth-grader a few years ago. He and I both loved it, so I hope the whole family enjoys it!
The Ology by Marty Machowski
Every couple days, I read one (very short!) section of this to the kids and we discuss it. This week, it was “God is Perfect.”
New City Catechism
My fourth grader has been memorizing these question and answer sets for a few years. He is on question sixteen. My kindergartner is just getting started. In the past week, she mastered questions one and two.
In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World by Virginia Hamilton and Creation: Read-Aloud Stories from Many Lands by Ann Pilling
I skimmed these two collections, hopeful that they would aid me in teaching my kids how unbelieving cultures have distorted the true story of God’s creation, yet retained a kernel of truth. While that aim could certainly be met in careful reading and discussion of these stories, I found too many of them to be distasteful and/or desperately off-base, and decided not to spend time unpacking them with my children. It could be an excellent study topic for older students.
The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry collected by Louis Untermeyer
We’re gearing up for our next Family Poetry Night, so I found one in this book to memorize myself and two short ones to help our 5-year-old memorize. I can’t tell you what they are; it’s a family rule to keep the poems a secret until Poetry Night.
An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts published by the US Dept of Agriculture
To be clear: I didn’t read this book. It’s more drawings than words anyway. But I did page through it, appreciating the skill and care of the artists from 1886 – 1942 who brought these fruits to life on the page. Though I doubt the publisher intended this result, I found myself impressed once again at the way God built his world of orderly categories and creation that is both beautiful and useful. I stumbled upon this tome when searching on the library web catalogue for books on Egyptian or Sumerian agricultural life. It looked intriguing, so I requested it. And that is the beauty of a good library system.
There you have it: the reading life of one family in just one week. What would your reading spread look like if you collected it over seven days?
For Your Kids
We all love our kids to read biographies of famous figures, especially famous Christians. J.R.R. Tolkien for Kids by Simonetta Carr is just such a book… but with a fun twist. In the book’s eight chapters, Carr tells the life story of this much-loved inventor of Middle-earth from his childhood through his retirement. But scattered amongst the narrative of his life and literary achievements are instructions for projects: a recipe for marmalade, directions for building a kite, a sample of a fictional map, a guide for inventing a new code, and many others. While the text of the biography may be slightly advanced for elementary reading, the projects are spot-on for kids in grades 3-ish through 6-ish. That makes this an ideal book for home educating families: enjoy the biography as a read-aloud, or let older kids read it solo, while the whole family can choose a few projects to try together.
Grammar. I love it. Maybe you do too, or maybe it’s among your fake-it-til-you-make-it subjects. Either way, this collection of grammar picture books from Ruth Heller is likely to be a treat. It will either make you grin with the way she plays with parts of speech, or open your eyes afresh to how our lovely language works. I especially like Many Luscious Lollipops, the one on adjectives, but they are all good.
The aptly titled Classic Myths to Read Aloud, collected by William Russell, makes myths bite-sized. A few years ago, I was astounded to learn how little of Greek and Roman mythology I actually knew. If you’re in a similar boat, knowing where to start can be daunting. Many great anthologies of mythology are available, and this is just one good one. Each story is preceded by a short summary along with a pronunciation guide for the names, and description of each character. The myths are short, and each one even tells you how long it takes to read aloud! It’s been a great mythology introduction for me and my kids!
If your tea comes in gauzy paper packets (like mine does), you may not even know what a tea plant looks like. I didn’t. You may also, occasionally, stumble over the realization that tea is not native to England, yet seems to issue forth from that motherland like the steaming of great boiling teapots. For all the Tea in China by Sarah Rose will set the record straight. It’s a fascinating look at the history of the tea trade, its link with the opium trade, the geopolitics of the nineteenth century, and the journey of a botanist-turned-spy into the interior of China on a quest to collect living tea specimens. It’s told in sparkling detail and laced carefully together with firsthand accounts. Recommended for any tea-drinker!
Have you read the first few chapters of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman? It’s not too late to join the community-wide read-along as we prepare for our Parent Book-Talk this fall! If you haven’t started yet (or even if you have!), here’s a shameless plug to add this book to your nightstand or coffee table or library hold list. Postman wrote his book in 1984, an ominous year if ever there was one. But though the reality of 1984 was nothing like George Orwell’s famous predictions, the predictions that Postman made in Amusing Ourselves to Death (now nearly forty years ago) have been uncannily accurate. He worried that the cultural conversation would shrink to its least common denominator, i.e. the media of the masses. Today, this is precisely what we see in a world dominated by the ultra-brief clip. He foresaw the shift from the preeminence of print, which is necessarily slower in all ways, to the preeminence of the screen, which capitalizes on a far shallower and quicker form of thinking. Possibly most intriguing of all, he briefly discusses the two dystopian pillars: 1984 and Brave New World, suggesting that “Orwell feared… those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” And isn’t the unnerving plight in which we now find ourselves? Amusing Ourselves to Death isn’t an easy read, but it’s a gripping one. Get a copy so you can catch up and join the conversation this October!
For Both You and Your Kids
Have you ever longed to enjoy a riverbank picnic? Sip campfire cocoa or make toast over a fire? Make paper dolls (and not the storebought kind) or magical chalk-drawing lands? I know you have. Turkish Delight and Treasure Hunts by Jane Brocket is the book for you (and for your kids). Collecting inspiration from classic children’s books like The Wind in the Willows, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Little Princess, A Wrinkle in Time, Heidi, The Borrowers, Betsy-Tacy, and many more, Jane Brocket (whose name sounds like it was lifted right out of one of those stories!) provides instructions for bringing the activities of our best-loved characters to life. Her introduction alone is splendid, exploring the reasons why some activities that make up children’s literature are not feasible for attempting in “real life.” Yet she yields to the magic of making a cake from scratch, decorating a hat with flowers, creating a tiny post office or secret spot, or even sitting up late to enjoy a dark and stormy night. This book is good enough to read even without scheduling the activities. But you’ll want to try them all.
Books for Interacting
Cavern of Clues and Museum of Mysteries, part of the Math Quest series by David Glover come highly recommended by an ALC nine year old. “This series engages readers with a fun story using math puzzles. To finish the book, you have to solve many math problems and have an adventure as the plot unfolds. You’ll want to read this again and again.” It’s true: our home has had these from the library more than once.
In The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base the reader must determine the identity of the birthday feast thief from clues hidden in the rhyming text and lush illustrations. Code-breaking and puzzle-solving come together in this interactive book. Best of all, the answers (assuming you buy a brand-new copy of the book) are sealed in the final pages until you slice open the sticker to reveal the pages. You must be quite sure of your intention to see the answer before sneaking a peek.
Books for Snuggling
If you, too, long for the good old days, The Little… Series by Judy Dunn is for you. Each book features a child who adopts a pet (The Little Puppy, The Little Lamb, The Little Rabbit, etc) and learns the challenges and joys of animal care. Each story is told through photographs, an illustration tactic that is works perfectly here even though it can sometimes feel artificial. I grew up with these books so they are extra nostalgic for me, but even if they are new to you, I expect you’ll find them charming.
The wistfulness for the bygone era of the 1830s is palpable in Rachel Field’s sweet novel, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, about Hitty, the mountain-ash wood doll. As Hitty adventures – at the hands of her various owners – across the globe and over a century of history, she watches the world change around her. Hitty witnesses life aboard a whaling ship, missionaries in the Far East, a Quaker household, the effects of the Civil War (on Northerners and Southerners), poverty and wealth, family life and old maids, the evolving methods of transportation, and a change in her own monetary value as she slowly becomes “an antique.” A darling story from 1929 for any girl who has loved a doll.
A Book for Savoring
They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Or write ‘em, if we’re talking about books. I don’t trust much new literature these days, but The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill is a stellar exception. This book is packed full: full of good characters, good lessons, good imagery, and great insights. From questions of virtue and vice to the power of simple things to the creative playfulness of time itself, this book plants themes like seeds, letting them take their sweet time to bud and flower. The parallels to Biblical truth are strong, and more keep rising to the surface the more I think about it. Highly recommended as a read-aloud for the whole family, or for independent reading for any middle school or even high school reader. (Bonus: it’s already been vetted by our 7th and 8th grade book club!)
A Game for Inhabiting
Board game players: lend your ears! Everdell has become a fast favorite in our home. Though our five-year old is still too young to play, the rest of us have played well over a dozen times since we received the game at Christmastime. Each player collects resources in order to build a personalized “village” of woodland critters and constructions, vying for the best elements to add from the “meadow” and deciding how to build a city that will yield the most end-of-game points. We’ve spent many a weekend afternoon in the realm of Everdell and I suspect other game-lovers will feel at home in Everdell too. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try one of the expansion packages!
We swim, in this information age, in an almost bottomless pool of potential learning. Podcasts, online lectures, streaming services, and instant media coverage of news items large and small can overload us. In fact, the greater the pool of knowledge, the smaller our own knowledge seems to be. The books in this issue of Endpapers may help you cut ties with this endless web of clickbait.
The first selection, a nonfiction book highly recommended for older teens and adults, will challenge your engagement with this rather new thing we call the internet. The second set of books is meant to convince you that bite-sized nonfiction aimed at children can sometimes be just the right amount for readers of any age. And the final book, an early reader for little ones, reminds us that simple is so good.
Nonfiction for Big-ish Kids (and Grown-ups)
You're reading this review on a screen, probably a very small one in your hand. And you probably don't want to read any further. You're itching to move on. Nicholas Carr unpacks why this is true for you and it's scary. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr has been out for thirteen years and it feels both prescient and timely. Carr argues that our internet-sourced ability to find tiny nuggets of information leads us away from the practice of deep reading. Worse, we actually become unable to do it. If you have the attention span to read this book (oh, the irony), your eyes will be opened. I cannot recommend this book enough to any internet user.
History for Middle-ish Grades
I have often learned the most about history from children’s books. If well illustrated, a picture book can make a slice of history memorable in a way that even the most engaging adult version often cannot. A few examples stand out in our recent reading at home.
Dazzle Ships by Chris Barton taught us about a unique war tactic of the First World War that was completely new to me. Painting sea vessels to camouflage with the ocean itself: sound like the stuff of cartoons? Nope. It was a valid sea-faring defense plan. This book led to a fun painting project for our homeschool that week.
The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal by Cheryl Harness provides impressive depth for a picture book. Maps and diagrams intersperse with regular illustrations to bring canal construction and the specific success of the Erie Canal to life on each page.
Fallingwater by Mark Harshman offers a light introduction to Frank Lloyd Wright and his architectural highlight found right here in Pennsylvania. This book doesn’t dwell heavily on Wright’s life (which is not a model of virtue), but discusses the architectural ingenuity of this landmark structure built in the 1930s. As an introduction to artistic architecture, it’s worthy of a read.
The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden is fiction but provides a glimpse into what life may have been like in the Netherlands during WWII. Three children use the frozen canals of Holland to find safety in the face of Nazi oppression. Sweet characters and charming illustrations make this long-ish picture book an enjoyable read-aloud for elementary kids, or a quick one-sitting read for middle schoolers.
Picture books can offer more than meets the eye, but for a deep dive, more is obviously required. After scratching the surface of Russian history over this past year, I became slightly obsessed with the topic and spotlighted that piece of history in my own reading. Here are a few books I found helpful.
The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming follows the collapse of Czar Nicholas’s power alongside the rising drama of WWI and the simultaneous crescendo of Russian cry for self-rule. Told in story form, with plenty of direct quotes from the historic figures, the book made for an engaging read, despite the inescapable heartbreak. Every element lent a new facet to the story, reminding readers that history does not happen in a vacuum.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin looked like a good possibility for my third-grader: a chapter book, but with illustrations. I found the themes a bit too heavy and decided not to pass it along to him, but I did appreciate it as an eye opening read about life in Communist Russia. Not gruesome, but dark. Worth reading for the historical context, perhaps along with your middle-grade child.
Reading for Small-ish Ones
The Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant is dear to our hearts as a family with a Henry of our own. But aside from that favoritism, these early reader books are still darling. Henry and his huge, slobbery dog Mudge are always learning new things in the best possible settings of love and fun. Henry and Mudge and the Long Weekend is a special favorite in our home, but grab any book in the series for your emerging reader and you won’t be disappointed.
Springtime YA Feature
The YA (young-adult) genre is notoriously murky waters for Christian parents.
First, there’s the spectrum of ages represented. Books considered “middle-grade” (some tagged J for junior and others YA for young adult in a library system) are aimed at kids from age 8 (third graders) to age 12 (seventh graders), a wide range of sensibilities. Which do you hand to your third grader? Which ones do you save for a few years later? And then, when a child’s reading ability soars past the material written for this age, what do you feed your reading-hungry child? The books he or she is now able to read often include mature themes not suitable for a 10 or 11 year old.
Compounding this, we face the unknowns of a book’s content. We know enough not to trust the suggested age ranges provided by a publisher. Yet, a voracious middle school reader may be hard-pressed to stick within the bounds of what you – the parent – have pre-read and approved.
Facing this hydra of a dilemma, what is a wise parent to do? Thankfully, resources abound which provide trustworthy book recommendations. But there is no substitute for your own thoughtful decision-making. If your child is reading – rather than engaging in screen activities – your family is already succeeding. As you encourage reading, though, never yield to the maxim “At least he’s reading.” Be a zealous gatekeeper of your child’s mind. If your child asks to read a book that a friend or neighbor suggests, pick it up yourself. Read one chapter. It won’t take you very long; I promise. Or, flip to the middle and read a few pages. (I did this at a bookstore recently with a popular graphic novel series. The page I opened to, at random, featured a character in the background of the scene singing “If you’re happy and you know it, poop your pants.” That’s all I needed to see.)
With this in mind, here are a few “middle grade” books that I recently found charming and safe.
I read Beauty by Robin McKinley three years ago, so I can’t believe it hasn’t been recommended here yet. It’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast written in 1978. For a kid who grew up on Disney’s take (and it’s a great take), this rendition lifted the story out of animation and into literature. This version of the fairy tale is told from Beauty’s first-person perspective and while there is no dancing candlestick or Mrs. Potts serenading in the ballroom, the charm is still rich. Additional side characters give the story depth while the story’s main arc remains familiar. I recommend this book quite heartily!
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau sets its characters in a place of total darkness. The only light sources are electric flood lights which are turned on for the day hours and turned off for nighttime. And lately, they’ve been flickering. Lina and her friend Doon, twelve-year-olds, take it upon themselves to find out if Ember’s survival is as precarious as it appears, and what can be done if it is. This is an entry-level “post-apocalyptic” tale, but without the violence that often accompanies more mature stories in the genre. It’s simple: Ember’s heroes are pure-hearted, villains are easily identified, and circumstances work out conveniently for our heroes. But it’s just right for kids reaching up for those first higher-level stories. (The sequel is also good!)
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones abounds with mistaken identities. From a pair of characters who swap appearances to a girl cursed to take the form of an old woman to a main character who can shapeshift at will, no one is what they seem. Yet like many fantasy stories, it’s not the plotline itself that the author intends to leave you with, but the bigger questions (along with their answers) that hover over the story. Will Sophie realize her own value? Will Howl learn how to care about others? The story is filled with whimsical fantasy details and the themes of faith, hope, and love.
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald would probably be unlike anything a typical 2023 middle schooler has read before. The story is about a small boy in an impoverished London family and his encounters with North Wind, a magical lady who takes him flying at nighttime. It’s also filled with digressions and rabbit trails that seem to drag the story away from its main thoroughfare. Yet, as a friend who read the book said so poignantly, “The plot is not the point.” The story explores the nature of love, the mysteries of fear and bravery, and other spiritual truths. Any child educated in the classical tradition should be familiar with George MacDonald. He was a primary literary inspiration for C. S. Lewis. If your child reads North Wind, consider reading it with him or her and discussing along the way while George MacDonald wrote this child’s fairy tale.
The White Mountains by John Christopher is set in a futuristic dystopia. The main character, Will, about to face his “capping ceremony” is approached with an alternative option – and an alternative perspective on the “Tripods” who seem to reign in this updated version of planet earth. With his new path forward, the external risks are great and the internal risks are equally fierce. Selfishness and the petty irritations of friendship rise to the surface in a believable way making Will feel like a close-to-home hero. The book is not great literature, but for the voracious reader, hungry for a new world to explore, this story is compelling and though-provoking.
An opinion about a popular series: Having just exhorted you to sample your child’s reading selections before approving them, I offer this critique with the caveat that it’s simply my opinion. If you haven’t had a chance to form your own opinion, I warmly invite you to do so. But here is my take on the first book in the Percy Jackson series.
They say you can read “100-minus-your-age” pages to assess a book’s value. After 64 pages, I had no trouble making a call on Percy Jackson.
Our narrator and “hero,” young Percy, is an underdog, a troubled kid from a messy home who hasn’t managed to succeed yet anywhere in his young life. True, an underdog hero can be the best sort. But Percy’s attitude is calloused and sarcastic, everything with a tinge of smirking, disrespectful in his narration even as he paints himself as a kid who’s trying to be good and stay out of trouble. Rather than earning his readers’ affection, he demands it.
The potty humor, or just shy of it, sours the story even further. Chapter 3 is titled “Grover Unexpectedly Loses His Pants” and Chapter 6 is called “I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom.” And those are just chapter titles.
The plot in Percy Jackson is compelling. Were it done well, it could be a wonderful introduction to Greek mythological characters, an effective rags to riches story of a boy who thought he was a nobody coming to grips with his deep significance. Instead, it’s a weak imitation of a true hero story told in language meant to appeal to the masses. When there is so much good literature to read (and re-read!), books like this one can easily afford to be skipped.
As the home stretch of the school year comes into view, make sure to keep some fun reading material in your routine. Books of good pictures, fascinating slices of historical life, and hefty concepts made simple feature in this edition of Endpapers. Enjoy!
Books Made Mostly of Pictures
I’ve praised Peter Spier before and I’ll gladly do it again. Rain and Fast-Slow High-Low both promise many re-“reads” – quite a feat for a set of word-less picture books! Rain tells the visual story of a rainy day, from its sudden onslaught, to its splashy pleasures, to the glistening and drippy aftermath. Fast-Slow High-Low is an illustrated feast. Each page explores a pair of opposites with a collection of drawings. My four-year-old has enjoyed this book many days in a row and never tires of the details.
Mice feature frequently as fictional adventure heroes and this German collection by Torben Kulhmann is yet another mouse-hero tale. We enjoyed Lindburgh and Edison, each of which tells the story of a scientifically-minded mouse and his brave explorations. Beautiful illustrations (a non-negotiable for me) pair with short chapters to make for a picture book with a sense of maturity. The series also includes Armstrong and Einstein.
Sophie Blackall is a personal favorite illustrator. Her Finding Winnie and Hello Lighthouse aren’t even two of my kids’ favorite books; they’re just two of my own favorites. I was delighted to find that Blackall’s brand-new picture book, Farmhouse, did not disappoint. Based on research of a real farmhouse, the book imagines what the historical family who owned the home was like: their hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, ups, downs, and all the experiences in between. Reminding us that all of life sifts down through the generations in scraps and pieces, the story still honors the significance of those untold ordinary moments. It’s beautifully done. Highly recommended.
Journey by Aaron Becker tells a story without words. In drawings of simple elegance, a lonely afternoon gives way to a magical world, a valiant mission, and a new friend. This sweet word-less book (yes, another one!) is suitable for littles to enjoy alone, or perfect for families to explore together. If you love it, find the sequel, Quest!
Books Made Mostly of Fascinating Information
The story of American immigration is often handled from the western edge of the Atlantic, the Ellis Island edge. Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti looks at immigration, at least the Irish immigration, from the other side. From the first arrival of the potato blight through the ill-devised aid efforts and the fallout among the Irish people, the book explores mid-nineteenth century Ireland without sparing the gritty details. The book is middle grade nonfiction, an eye-opening read. Highly recommended for middle or high school.
Bud & Me by Alta Abernathy is the unbelievable true story of two brothers who crisscrossed the nation alone several times on horseback, motorcycle, and car – all before either of them turned 12 years old. It’s pretty impressive. I won’t say more. You’ll have to read it for yourself. Our family did the audiobook, which was a fun way to experience the story.
Books Made of Fascinating Information Told through Pictures
Difficult concepts made simple. Millions, Billions, and Trillions and Prices! Prices! Prices! by David Adler and Edward Miller put the ideas of huge numbers and price inflation into words – and pictures – that children can begin to grasp. We spent time with both of these books and they led to good discussion. The author/illustrator team also publish others, mostly math and number-related. Perfect for upper elementary grades.
Chestnuts roasting by an open fire.
Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And in your lap, a book of prose.
If this is your vision for Christmas break, read on!
Old Stories for New Readers
If Christmas is evoked for you by old-fashioned Christmas cityscapes and church pageants, Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo will strike a chord. Gentle-spirited Frances notices a homeless street performer as the cold of December inches toward Christmas. Her mother is far more focused on Frances’s costume for the upcoming pageant. Will the girl find a way to share the good news of great joy with the humble stranger?
Eugene Field’s Wynken, Blynken and Nod might not be a Christmas poem, but it contains the essence of Christmas coziness. Publishers like to make a quick buck on classic poems, especially squeezed into anthologies, so you may find ten versions or more at your local library. The poem alone is lovely, but this edition with illustrations by Johanna Westerman is certainly the best picture version. For a bedtime story during the winter months, this one would be delightful.
The immortalized Christmas Truce of 1914 is captured in Shooting at the Stars by John Hendrix. Presented in the form of a letter home from the front, the book features richly colored illustrations that capture this unlikely Christmas Eve celebration. The story is told with tenderness and joy, while hinting at the harsh reality into which this fairy-tale event is nestled.
New Stories for Any Readers
A Very Mercy Christmas by the author/illustrator team of Kate DiCamillo and Chris Van Dusen is the latest in my favorite pig-themed series. Ever wary of new spins on Christmas, I was grateful to see that this hot-off-the-press book sticks to the classic traditions of Christmas-lovers (plus, of course, toast). Admittedly, it’s not a profound story, but if Mercy Watson and her human friends are friends of yours, you’ll enjoy this Christmas book.
Winterhouse by Ben Guterson similarly impressed me with its wholesomeness. While the gospel message is not present, the story is set at Christmastime and delivers a black-and-white view of good versus evil. Magic, puzzles and codes, dark strangers, a huge library, and one innocent eleven-year-old girl (yes, she’s an orphan) collide in a lavish mansion hotel on Lake Luna over the Christmas holidays. The story seems designed for fans of Harry Potter and The Mysterious Benedict Society, but a variety of classic children’s literature is name-dropped throughout the book. I was truly delighted by this story. Suggested for middle grade and high school.
True Stories for Imaginative Readers
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin tells the biography of Wilson Bentley, the first person to record snowflakes in photographs. The story, along with the woodcut illustrations, won this book a Caldecott Medal in 1999. It’s a good one to stash away for the first big snowfall.
Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard might not be technically “factual,” but it’s True in deeper ways. This book was recommended by one of my students and the very next week I stumbled upon this lovely illustrated version at my used bookstore. It’s an allegory and not a veiled one. Much-Afraid begins her journey with the Chief Shepherd in order to escape the Valley where she dwells with her fellow Fearings. Her trip takes her through desert, shores of loneliness, mist, and forests of danger, among other perils, and by her side are always her two gentle guides. (To name them would give too much away, so I won’t.) Consider making time for this book as a family.
Looking for more Christmas ideas? Try the Endpapers issues from 2021 and 2020.
It’s October. Don’t worry: no Halloween theme here. But I am suggesting a few reads for the bold among you, so please read descriptions before ordering any books.
After doing a deep(ish) dive on the Brooklyn Bridge in our homeschool room this month, I have a few books to suggest on architecture. The next selections are offered with hearty approval, a few for small readers and one for parents. The final set of books in this issue are valuable and appropriate, but only in the right reading context. The two selections geared toward kids are great, but should have parental oversight, and the other book selection is for the well-prepared high-school or adult reader.
I hope your reading hours are cozy this month!
For the Architecturally Curious
Who Built That? Bridges by Didier Cornille is a visually sparse but engaging collection of sketches that show how bridges through the eras have been constructed. Fascinating and accessible for young readers who love seeing how thing work. Also fun – it’s oriented to be opened bottom to top instead of right to left.
Draw 50: Buildings and Other Structures is one in a collection by Lee J. Ames. Our family has loved many in this series, and this one is certainly more advanced. For artists interested in buildings, though, it’s an exciting set of structures to practice drawing.
Brooklyn Bridge by Lynn Curlee is a perfect balance between a picture book and a research reference. More thorough than Secret Engineer or Twenty-One Elephants, other picture books about the Brooklyn Bridge that we read, but nowhere near the scale of McCullough’s 600+ page The Great Bridge, this hearty storybook with pictures taught our family a lot about the history and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in just a few sittings.
Recommended Without Reservation
I’ve heard about the Brambly Hedge series by Jill Barklem for years, but finally checked it out this past month. If you’re a hold-out like me, I recommend starting with The Secret Staircase. Drawings that will keep you staring pair with a sweet and non-threatening mystery tale. This book is like a cozy blanket and a mug of tea.
The Boy Who Loved Maps by Kari Allen is a rare gem: a brand-new book that’s perfectly pure without agenda or nods to cultural trends. It’s nothing but a sweet story of friendship between two children, laced together with the imagery of maps, something most kids love. I was impressed to find this pure little story. Check it out from your library so that your librarian knows how much we appreciate this sort of literature!
You’ve probably heard of Sally Clarkson. Most homeschooling moms have. The Life-Giving Home was my first dive into her repertoire. She’s a wealth of ideas and information and I was encouraged by reading this book. I admit that I find the sum total of her home-education lifestyle to be a bit pie-in-the-sky, but I loved reading through this book and marking the ideas I want to try out or come back to later. This is worth any homeschool mom’s time.
Recommendations… but with caveats
Fiery Night by Sally M. Walker is vivid. The Great Chicago Fire is evoked powerfully through the book’s skillful illustrations by Kayla Harren. A mini story of a boy and his pet goat (a story that is actually true!) frames the massive catastrophe in a smaller scale for young readers and listeners. It’s an impressive book and one that would pair well with a short fire safety unit. (National Fire Prevention Week is coming up on October 9th.) I suggest looking through this before sharing with sensitive eyes.
From up on Poppy Hill is a movie produced by Studio Ghibli. We watched it, but not with our children, and found it wonderfully endearing. It’s a coming of age story, and does include light romance (not sexualized in any way) so it isn’t quite suited for smaller kids, despite its animation. It’s not just a love story though. It’s about family and grief and responsibility and determination to fight for what’s right. If you think you don’t like anime, this might be the film to change your mind. Try it out as a date night movie for mom and dad first.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro grabbed me on page one and didn’t let me go until I closed the back cover. The setting is futuristic, the imagined end result of a STEM-obsessed culture. Though most of the characters are humans, it’s the artificial intelligence Klara (who functions as narrator) who possesses the most faith, sacrificial love, and understanding. Ishiguro seems to be calling us to hold tightly to faith, love, and hope ourselves before computerized solutions to life's problems snuff them out. Suggested for adults and mature high schoolers.
A note on last issue’s recommendation
In August, I recommended the Little Britches series to you. I have a confession to make: when I sent that issue, I had not yet read the title book in that series. I had read – and greatly enjoyed – Mary Emma and Company and The Home Ranch, but only after publishing Issue XII did I start reading Little Britches with my children… and realized how much verbal editing it needed as a read-aloud. The rough cowboy language is mild, but not negligible. It crops up every few chapters. I trimmed out the offending words as I read to my own children, but I was glad I had not handed it off to my eight-year-old to read alone. Oh, and the ending isn’t exactly happy. We had some teary eyes here when it was over.
The series is standard fare for any homeschooling reading list and I still feel confident offering it, but I would have given some warnings if I’d pre-read it. If you’ve read it, or are reading it, you might love this podcast series which has several episodes on Little Britches.
Summer is winding down, with the exception of the heat which seems to be gearing up. A few delightful stories have come my way recently and I’m excited to share this edition of Endpapers. This whole set of books is ideal for late summer reading, so pick one to fill in those poolside hours in this last month of summertime.
Sweet stories for young readers and listeners
Christina Katerina and the Box by Patricia Lee Gauch (with illustrations by Doris Burn) is an adorable throwback story to times when a single large box could provide weeks of playtime. Friendship, creativity, and resilience are modeled well in this sweet picture story. Text is brief and rhythmic, just right for young listeners. Warning: it just may encourage you to order something big enough on Amazon Prime to merit a jumbo cardboard box.
We Were Tired of Living in a House by Liesel Moak Skorpen is made perfect by its illustrations. Doris Burn, illustrator of Christina Katerina and the Box, brings this beautiful story to life with her pen and ink drawings. A story of sibling affection and adventure, We Were Tired of Living in a House re-imagines every child’s game of “orphans.” Like Christina Katerina, the story is rhythmic and predictable, but in the way that makes you smile with each page turn. I adore this book. [Be careful to find the 1969 printing. The book has been reprinted with new – and very disappointing – illustrations. It is the vintage drawings that complete this book.]
The Milly-Molly-Mandy series by Joyce Lankester Brisley follows a little girl through the mildest of trials and struggles. In classic moral fable pattern, Milly-Molly-Mandy faces a decision in each story. When she chooses rightly, which she always does, she is pleasantly rewarded. The stories may be painfully simple, but they are just right for little listeners. With a repeating cast of characters in a tiny village setting, coziness abounds and children will feel at home as they travel from adventure to adventure.
Saving the Countryside by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Ilaria Urbinati does what great picture book biographies do: it reminds you that there’s always more to a story than what you thought you knew. While sweetly uncovering the details of Beatrix Potter’s life that led to her famous stories and drawings, Saving the Countryside also uncovers a delightful surprise about this author’s commitment to the countryside of England. I won’t spoil it for you.
Delightful reads for middle-grade
A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus is a rare (very rare!) gem: it’s a book published in 2021 without any nod to current cultural agenda. The tenderly crafted story follows three siblings as they’re evacuated from WWII-era London and placed in the countryside. Sweetly referencing over a dozen pieces of classic literature for children, the book is a dream for literature lovers. I cannot fault this book in any way. Put it on your next library pickup list.
Little Britches, along with the rest of the series, by Ralph Moody tell the long, slow story of a family (long and slow in the good ways). Ralph and his family move across the country (more than once), struggle together, succeed together, and prove that sticking together is the heart of family. I actually read a different book in the series (Mary Emma and Company) most recently, and can heartily recommend that installment. Every mom will be inspired by Mary Emma. Pick any book in this series; you will not be disappointed.
Cultural insight for moms and dads
Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier is a must-read for any Christian parent today. Written by a secular journalist who noticed a distressing sudden swell in adolescent girls suddenly claiming “gender dysphoria” and determining to identify as “transgender,” Irreversible Damage explores the causes (and heart-breaking effects) of this craze. Richly researched and filled with anecdotal interviews, the book fearlessly uncovers the shift in what female adolescence looks like today (hint: it’s no longer painting fingernails while playing M.A.S.H. and listening to mix-tapes) and the cultural tidal wave that has resituated parents as “toxic” and internet celebs as professionals. I plan to read this book again and I highly recommend it to anyone raising a child.
Got summer reading goals? Whether you’re competing for a big prize in the library reading program, or getting a head start on next year’s reading list, books will probably stack up between beach towels and tubes of sunscreen over the next three months. If you’re stumped for what to add to your next library pickup list, check out this month’s edition for some fresh ideas.
A Garden Story for High Schoolers and Adults
Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell is a short fictional memoir of a gardener at a posh estate in England. The meandering reflections on life are sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant. Though it lacks a distinct plot, the book contains wise gems like surprise blooms on a garden peony bush. A slow and restful read, I highly recommend it for summer afternoons.
Picture Books for Littler Ones
Dahlia by Barbara McClintock tells a sweet childhood tale of playtime and expectations. The adorable story is paired with stunning illustrations (McClintock is one of my favorite illustrators). It’s already being reread at our house and will be a delight to any child who has deeply loved a toy.
Read The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes with the fruits of the spirit in mind. Can we make the gardens of our hearts thrive on our own? Or do they seem to helplessly deteriorate? Isn’t it true that we also need the help of Someone else to make the gardens of our lives bloom and bear fruit? I love this story for its illustrations and happy ending, and also for the spiritual undercurrent.
Thumbelina is one of my favorite fairy tales and I long searched for a picture book version that I liked. Many have been published, but the one retold by Amy Ehrlich and illustrated by Susan Jeffers seems to be the best. A beautiful story for any age and any season.
Long-Form Picture Books for the Whole Family
Make time for a summer geography unit with Paddle-to-the Sea by Holling C. Holling. Taking place at the turn of the century, the tale follows a fictional wooden toy canoe on its journey through all five Great Lakes and out to the Atlantic. Each page is packed with things to learn. Though this is a picture book, the content is suitable for students into upper middle school. (I realized this was in a prior issue of Endpapers! Oops!)
Dangerous Journey, a retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress by Oliver Hunkin and Alan Parry, would make an excellent addition to your summer family reading time. With epic drawings and text that maintains the archaic feel of the original, this book makes the classic Christian allegory accessible for the very young while still being rich enough for the adult reader.
curated by Brittany Mountz
English major and unsuspecting English educator at ALC