Owning the Library

When my oldest was a toddler, we never went to the library.  Frankly, I didn’t really see the point: we own tons of board books and picture books that she was very happy to read over and over.  When she turned 2, though, I started getting it.  As much as I wanted to buy every single book we wanted to read, we just couldn’t afford it.  So we started exploring the library’s offerings and reading through all sorts of booklists that I’ve stumbled upon over the years.

Now that she is nearly 5, the tide has definitively turned and now we read more books from the library than ones we own.  Even though I love (LOVE!) owning books and will always be an advocate of doing so, I am oh so grateful for the library.  It expands our reading lives in such a rich way… and also provides a fun outing on ridiculously cold winter days.

However.  One of the big problems with library books is that after a few weeks, you have to take the books back.  If you’re a believer in the goodness and power of re-reading (as I am), this presents a problem because if you’re going to re-read a book you or your child has to remember to check it out again at some point in the future.  But when there are so many books yet to be discovered, sometimes it’s hard to reach for the known, beloved books instead of the shiny new one on the shelf, you know?

About a year ago I set out to at least partially solve this problem.  I wanted a way to remind us of our favorite books, a way to inspire us to check them out repeatedly, and a way to allow my kids to be part of that process.  Because my daughter wasn’t reading yet, I knew I had to do something other than simply print out a list of titles.  So instead, I spent a couple of naptimes finding book cover images to copy and paste into a word document.  Printed on cardstock at the closest copy shop and placed in plastic page protectors and voila:

Library Catalog

Our very own personalized, visual library catalog that makes us feel like library books are truly ours!  My daughter can browse through it anytime; it’s my job to place online holds on the books she requests so they’re ready for us to pick up in a few days.  (She places post-it notes on top of the ones she wants.)  We add new books to our list of favorites all the time, so every few months I create a new page to add to our binder.  This system has worked marvelously for us and now in every backpack-full of library books we nearly always have a handful of old favorites.  The more we re-read our favorites the more treasured they become and the more we want to keep checking them out, so I’m calling this project a definite success.

Library Catalog 2

The Colt and the King

Colt and KingThe Colt and the King
Marni McGee & John Winch
Holiday House, 2002

A few days ago a friend pointed out to me that the story of the triumphal procession is not included in either the Big Picture Story Bible or the Jesus Storybook Bible.  I was surprised when she told me – perhaps simply because Palm Sunday is this weekend and its proximity makes it feel particularly important – and left the conversation wondering what is out there in children’s literature that tells the story well.  Happily, I found one to share with you all just in time for the beginning of this year’s Holy Week!

Marni McGee (of The Noisy Farm fame) and illustrator John Winch have together created The Colt and the King, a creative retelling of the triumphal entry that is just right for preschoolers and early elementary kids.  It’s out of print, but my own library had it on its shelves and used copies seem affordable and easy to find.  The donkey is the narrator, and through the book’s pages he reminisces about the day he was drafted into the King’s service and carried him into Jerusalem alongside an exuberant crowd.  The text is clear yet gently poetic, the illustrations are captivating, and the author’s note that precedes the title page provides additional context and explanation.

Now, I have to admit that normally I’m not a fan of Bible retellings that focus on something other than what is the clear biblical theme.  Most frequently I see this in the form of telling the Christmas story from the perspective of the animals, though I can think of other examples as well.  It’s just not my cup of tea.  However… I really like this book.  For one thing, I love the way that McGee foreshadows both Good Friday and also the Second Coming as the story progresses.  Moreover, the colt’s encounter with Jesus is somehow entirely relatable, especially for a young child.  Jesus’ presence calms the animal as the Good Shepherd calms his sheep, and the colt is in turn pleased with the role he gets to play on that special day.  He feels anxious at what he senses is soon to come for Jesus (a feeling that I’m sure many young children share as the day we remember the crucifixion draws near).  And after the procession ends, the donkey longs for the day when he will once again see Jesus and be at home with him.  Each of these reflections strike me as particularly relevant for children and taken together they’re a wonderful way to begin Holy Week.

Sarah and I have long had trouble finding children’s books for Holy Week and Easter that we are truly excited about, so I’m particularly pleased to be able to recommend this one to you.  The Colt and the King is a lovely book that makes the Palm Sunday story come alive and I hope that you’ll consider tracking it down to share with the young ones in your life.

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle

Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle
Sheila Miller
OMF International, 1983/2002

The most common forms of prayer that my children engage in are probably prayers of gratitude and meal blessings, and those don’t often lead to tough theological questions.  But as they grow and the more they ask God for specific requests, the more conversations we have about what that form of prayer is all about.  How we understand God’s ways when he doesn’t answer in the ways that we asked him to?  What if his timing is not our timing?  How do we continue to trust his love when we don’t see immediate evidence that he is listening to us when we talk to him?

The nuances of prayer are hard to communicate to young children, but I think that Sheila Miller has done an excellent job of doing just that in Ian and the Gigantic Leafy Obstacle.  It tells two intersecting tales: one of a missionary whose car is blocked by a huge fallen tree and one of a Thai man who loses an elephant.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a great story of how God sometimes answers a prayer immediately yet we have to wait to see the evidence of his answer.  It’s certainly not going to answer every question about intercession you child may throw at you.  But as one simple illustration of how God is at work behind the scenes and knows the best ways to answer our prayers, it’s a great success.

This short, small paperback is a true story (which makes it even better!) and published by OMF, a missionary agency.  Amazon carries used copies as well as new copies from third party vendors, but you can also find it at Sonlight or purchase it directly from OMF.  I loved sharing Ian’s story with my daughter during Lent because prayer is a traditional Lenten theme (and the one that we’re focusing on this year), but since prayer is woven into the fabric of our lives year round it’s a great choice for any season.

A Homemade Year

Homemade YearA Homemade Year
Jerusalem Jackson Greer
Paraclete Press, 2013

My spiritual life has been deeply affected by the Anglican practice of arranging church life around the various liturgical seasons of the year.  Liturgy began to feed my soul in college and has only become more important to me in the (more than) decade since graduation.  Now as a mother, I aim for my family’s home life to reflect what goes on at church.  I want my children to always sense that church feels like home and home feels like an extension of church.  It’s something that hasn’t magically come together all at once, but bit by bit and year by year I try to make steady progress toward that general goal.

You’ll understand, then, that when I caught wind of a new book on celebrating the church year with your family I was immediately interested.  A Homemade Year is a book that will appeal to both newbies and veterans to liturgical celebrations, so wherever you find yourself on that spectrum I happily commend it to you.  I loved that the book doesn’t contain long, intimidating lists of all of the ways you could be marking each special day or season.  (She says candidly in the preface, actually, that she doesn’t recommend doing every craft, recipe, and activity in the book unless you only require three hours of sleep per night.)  Unlike some of the other church year celebration guides that I own, this book is a peek into one woman’s family life and the simple, creative, personal ways that she has made the church year come alive in their home.  It’s less like Pinterest and more like a memoir of sorts, and for someone who can get intimidated by the sheer number of ideas out there, I appreciated that.  It’s a welcome reminder that celebrating the church calendar doesn’t mean we have to put every single great idea into place.  Just one or two recipes or activities is really all you need, and you alone get to choose which ones (from this book or from other sources) are going to mean the most to your family.  Hooray!

Aside from the well known staples of the church year (Christmas, Easter, etc), author Jerusalem Jackson Greer writes about a number of celebrations that I was almost entirely unfamiliar with.  Anyone out there regularly do something for St. Joseph’s Day?  Or Holy Cross Day?  Do you even know when they are?  I certainly didn’t.  But because of A Homemade Year I do have several new days that I’m adding to our family’s celebrations this coming year.  Here’s the passage that sold me on observing Candlemas, the day to remember when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple:

By the time February 2 rolls around, there is very little evidence of Christmas left at my house… Winter is still here, bleak and bare, long outlasting the holiday finery that it arrived in… Candlemas comes to me then, in those moments of wondering and cold toes.  It comes full of light and warmth, it comes with beeswax candles and cups of steaming hot cocoa, signaling like those blinking lights on the snow plows and school buses, reminding me that Christmas was not a dream.  Christ did come, and he is among us still.  

Yes, yes, and yes.  Sign me up for Candlemas!

I have long loved the church year from Advent to Christ the King.  I love the rhythm it brings to my spiritual life, I love the aesthetics it offers to my home, I love systematically reliving the life of Jesus every year.  But even if you’re not similarly devoted to keeping the liturgical calendar alive in your home, I’m going to venture a guess that you’d still appreciate A Homemade Year.  Jerusalem neither grew up in a liturgical church nor worships in one now, and her meditations about each mentioned day/season are down to earth stories from her own life experience.  To me, that’s what makes this book so perfectly unique from the other Christian year celebration books I own.  Sure, there is less talk about theological underpinnings or historic traditions.  But when I read it I’m inspired to pay attention not just to liturgy but also to the unique story being woven together in my own home.  It makes me want to think on a more personal level about the ways my family can meaningfully engage in the passing of the Christian days and seasons together – and ultimately, that’s why it’s found a permanent spot on my bookshelf.

[Paraclete was kind enough to send me a review copy of A Homemade Life at my request.  I'm sorry that, because of our long blogging break, it's taken me this long to share my thoughts with you all!]

Slugs and Bugs CDs

Slugs and Bugs - Under WhereI’ve mentioned this before, but one of the ways that Sarah and I trying to branch out here at the ol’ blog is to include non-book resources in our library of reviews.  Up today are the fantastic Slugs & Bugs CDs!

What first drew me to Slugs & Bugs was Andrew Peterson, who co-created the first S&B album with Randall Goodgame.  I’ve been an Andrew Peterson fan for years (please tell me you know and love his Christmas album!) and I’d listen to anything by him.  We all know there is plenty of children’s music out there that we’d really rather not listen to, but I was absolutely sure that if Andrew Peterson was behind a CD for kids it would be worth trying out.  And… I was right!

Since the first Slugs and Bugs album, Randall Goodgame has taken the driver’s seat (though Andrew Peterson does make appearances in each recording) and now I can say that I’d listen to anything he writes or sings as well.  Randall has an incredible knack for songwriting for children and their parents.  His funny songs are hilarious.  His serious ones are tender and moving.  His God-centered ones are just right for little ones – he deals with all sorts of meaty topics but always in ways that communicate God’s love towards children.

Thematically there is an incredible variety of songwriting going on in these CDs and I adore that about them.  Over the course of an hour you hear an ode to Mexican food, a song about confessing wrongdoing, a moving lullaby, and a song about potty training.   The silly songs and the spiritual songs and the sleepytime songs are all right there together, comfortably side by side.  In other words, it’s just like life.  We can’t artificially divide ourselves into mind and spirit and body, and the Slugs & Bugs songs really reflects that.

Our very favorite way to listen to Slugs & Bugs is a playlist with a handful of songs from each album, but I personally think that the best album as a whole is Under Where? so if you’re new to Slugs & Bugs I’d recommend starting there.  All of the current CDs are available at Rabbit Room (do yourself a favor and poke around there for a few minutes) and the most recent two are at Amazon, too.  Happily, there’s a new one coming out this fall, but this one will be slightly different:  just like the wonderful Seeds Family Worship, all of the songs will be Scripture set to music!  You can check out the details on their Kickstarter page and see lots of song previews at the Slugs & Bugs blog.  We will be the first ones in the (virtual) line ready to buy it on release day!

S&B 3

He Is My Shepherd

Lord Is My Shepherd-001He Is My Shepherd
Helen & David Haidle
Multnomah, 1989

Of all the images of God in the Bible, surely the image of the Shepherd is one that resonates most deeply with children.  Last year, when my daughter and I participated in a family preschool program, we observed a Godly Play presentation each week.  All of the stories were captivating (our teacher was incredibly talented!) but the presentation of the Good Shepherd was one that stuck with us all year long.  In fact, I even purchased some felt and figurines so we could replicate the story at home.

Ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for a good children’s book that explores the imagery of God as Shepherd, and today I’m happy to add He Is My Shepherd to Aslan’s Library.  This book goes through Psalm 23 and offers insight and a short prayer for each beautiful, meaning-laden line.  Here is the portion on the valley of the shadow of death:

A dark valley is a scary place to be.  Sheep do not want to walk through shadowy pathways and deep ravines, but they learn to overcome fear when the shepherd is by their side.  They huddle close to him as he leads them through the valley.

Lord, you know everything that scares me.  You even know the things I’m afraid might happen to me.  I’m glad you’re with me no matter what happens.

The goodness and tenderness of God shines through the words and images of this book.  It’s a perfect choice for just about any scenario I can think of: a child in need of comfort, a child struggling with fear, a child who struggles with pursuing their own ways instead of Christ’s ways, a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep.  The message of this book, and of Psalm 23, reaches deep into the human heart.  Wherever we are, whatever we are facing, there is a Shepherd who is ready to give us the care and guidance that we need.

He Is My Shepherd is older than many of the books we’ve reviewed, and I’ll admit that its illustrations may not be as remarkable as those in, say, Love Is or He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.  Nonetheless, the warmth of the shepherd towards his sheep comes through quite clearly.  I found myself endeared to the sheep who are in such clear need of their master’s care.  At the end of the book we read that “they have learned that he is completely trustworthy,” and I daresay that as you turn the last page you’ll be refreshed in your own trust in our Lord, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.

Connecting

Hello, readers!  I keep meaning to mention this, but I (Haley) have been posting more regularly on our Facebook page lately and we’d love to connect with you there.  One of the things I’ve been doing there is highlighting book sales when I come across them.  Today, for instance, I just posted that the Kindle edition of the Jesus Storybook Bible is on sale for $1.99.  Yay!  We have a paper copy, of course, but I was happy to buy the Kindle edition as well because it will be so handy for when we’re away from home.  I’m not planning on amassing a huge Kindle library of children’s literature, but I am a fan of having a handful for when we’re traveling – or when we’re stuck in a waiting room.  (That’s actually the theme of an upcoming post I’ve been working on…)

Have a great weekend!  Hosanna!

Sights and Sounds of Easter

Easter 2013

As much as I usually enjoy observing Lent with my family, this year we’ve barely done anything to set aside the season as special.  Part of the issue is that both of my children’s birthdays are during Holy Week this year, which has left me feeling a little unmotivated towards all things Lenten.  How do you do Lent when you know that Holy Week will be filled with cakes and gifts?

Despite this, I am planning for some grand Easter celebrating!  A friend recently told me she’s noticed that liturgically-minded Christians seem to do better at planning for Advent and Lent than they do for Christmas and Easter, and I think she’s probably right.  (At least, I think we often talk more about Advent and Lent.  This might be simply because they are new observances to many of us.)  So as I think about Easter this year, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to maintain a spirit of celebration past 11am on Easter morning.  Sure, it would be impossible to keep up a party-like atmosphere in your home all day every day for the full 50 days of Easter, but I still think there’s a lot we can do to enrich our Resurrection feasting.

Last year I wrote a post about engaging the senses during Lent, and I use that same idea to organize my thoughts on Easter celebration.  I want my children to grow up knowing in their bones what it feels like to rejoice at Jesus’ resurrection.  I want the sights, sounds, and tastes in our home to be a signal that Easter truly is our greatest festival.  We Christians are Easter people, after all.  The empty tomb is the core of our faith, so let us use every creative fiber of our being as we plan for the great celebration!  Please chime in with your own ideas in the comments so we can all learn from one another.

{Disclaimer: Of course I’m not doing every single one of these things.  I’ll feel good if we hit one from each category!}

Things to See

  • Create an Easter garden with some pots, soil, stones, and stick crosses.
  • Hang up a “He Is Risen!” banner or a gold/white cross banner.
  • Print out and display this BCP quote: “Dying you destroyed our death, Rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory.”
  • As a table centerpiece, set out flowers, a cross, and a sign (even just handwriting on construction paper) saying “He is risen!”
  • Light candles all over your home.  I’m itching to try my hand at making soy candles, which I hope to do sometime during Eastertide.
  • Make or buy ribbon streamers your kids can use in worship at home or church.
  • Beautifully, naturally dyed eggs can be a discussion starter about new life.

Things to Hear

  • Set out a basket of bells that your children can ring.
  • Put on the Hallelujah Chorus first thing on Easter morning and again frequently throughout Eastertide.
  • Create a celebratory Easter playlist to play for all 50 days.
  • Teach your kids the traditional proclamation, “The Lord is risen!” and its reply, “He is risen indeed!”
  • Read the end of a Gospel and then Acts together for family devotions.
  • Memorize an Easter-themed hymn or worshipful portion of Scripture together.
  • Choose books to read aloud that have redemptive themes or tell the lives of faithful believers.  And don’t forget my favorite Easter book!

Things to Taste

  • If you attend an Easter Vigil and have fasted during Lent, bring some small pieces of chocolate to slip to your children right as the Resurrection is announced. (Many thanks to Molly R. for this idea and the following one.)
  • Similarly, have some champagne, fancy cheese, and crackers on hand when you get home from the Vigil – you’ll be too excited to sleep anyway!
  • Serve sparkling juice every morning for Easter week.
  • Enjoy hot cross buns for breakfast at least once during the 50 days.
  • Have a potluck feast with friends sometime during Eastertide.
  • Use the fancy china!  Even at breakfast!
  • If you’ve given up sweets during Lent, be sure to make everyone’s favorite dessert in the weeks following Easter.  We haven’t fasted this year, but I am going to make some chocolate dipped homemade marshmallows during Easter, which is something I’ve long wanted to do.
  • Candy is great fun, but remember that there are ways to celebrate besides overloading on sugar.  Here’s a great list of things to put in Easter eggs in addition to candy.

Living in Light of the Cross

  • Invite neighbors who live alone to share a meal with you.
  • Consider buying only fair trade chocolate to place in Easter baskets.  Natural Candy Store has the chocolate eggs I’m going to order and a variety of other kinds as well.
  • Encourage the spiritual growth of each person in your family in fresh ways: send your spouse on a retreat, give your child a new devotional, or buy a new CD (try Resurrection Letters Volume II, To Be Like Jesus, or one of the Seeds albums).
  • Find a local ministry to support with time, money, or prayer.
  • Write letters of gratitude to the people who introduced you to Jesus or who have spiritually mentored you or your children.

The Atmosphere of Books

CM and Atmosphere

For close to a year I’ve been meeting monthly with a group of moms to talk about Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas.  I don’t know why I haven’t written more about it here, because after each discussion my mind is overflowing with things to talk about!  The group has been so helpful as my family heads towards homeschooling, but lately I’ve also been mulling over how Charlotte’s ideas apply to the Aslan’s Library project.  That is, what would she have to say about theological literature for children?  I’ve written a little about that topic in the past, but I’d like to get into a regular habit of doing so now that she’s on my mind nearly all the time.

Charlotte Mason had a lot to say about beauty and about truth, the two main factors that Sarah and I take into consideration when we’re reviewing books for the blog.  She wanted children to be exposed to and surrounded by things that are truly beautiful.  Instead of plastering our classrooms and homes with visual twaddle, she would have us fill them with literature and art that capture the best of what the world has to offer.  She also wanted children to engage with ideas – the meaty, substantive ideas that are behind those great books and works of art.  In fact, education for her was all about helping children build relationships with knowledge and learning to feed their minds on true ideas.

In her books, Charlotte prescribes three “instruments” that educators should use.  The first is what she calls atmosphere, and as I was recently reading in Towards a Philosophy of Education I was struck by how widely this particular concept could be applied.  At first blush, atmosphere sounds like it’s all about ambiance, the intangibles of home or school environments.  I think it’s actually much more than that, as indicated by the following excerpts from chapter 6:

No artificial element should be introduced, no sprinkling with rose-water, softening with cushions.  Children must face life as it is… We may not keep them in glass cases; if we do, they develop in succulence and softness and will not become plants of renown… Teaching may be so watered down and sweetened, teachers may be so suave and condescending, as to bring about a condition of intellectual feebleness and moral softness.

As my daughter grows I find myself, with increasing frequency, coming up against the question of what kind of books I want to read with her.  With babies it’s so easy: there aren’t many inappropriate board books out there!  But as we move up, age-wise, in the world of children’s literature, at times I find myself tempted to shelter her more than I should.  As we read through piles of library books each week, there are some that I find myself disliking because they aren’t written well or artfully illustrated, but others I find challenging simply because they introduce ideas that I would rather not explore quite yet.

Many times, of course, that feeling of hesitancy is to be trusted.  There are things like developmental appropriateness to be considered.  We obviously need to be sensitive to our children’s particular fears and sensitivities.  We must keep in mind that books and ideas have real consequences.  And yet…  I think that Charlotte Mason would say that we don’t do our children any favors by giving them books – particularly theological books - that are dripping with syrup.  God’s world is full of intensely hard things and intensely incredible things – to everything there is a season.  What’s more, this reality doesn’t just exist somewhere beyond our front doors, because every human being is both made in God’s image and fallen.  If we think our kids don’t know that already, we’re probably kidding ourselves.

Now, just because we’re committed to telling our children the truth about God and the world doesn’t mean that we need to tell our preschoolers all about whatever the latest horrific news story is this week.  Neither do we need to feel compelled to explain to them that, for some, the problem of evil is a stumbling block to faith in a loving God.  We can tell our children the truth without giving them all of the scary details or confusing them needlessly.  But you know what?  Even though I want my children to pay attention to the books we read, I don’t need to cringe when a book character says something that I really hope my daughter never says or to verbally edit when we come across an uncomfortable theological concept.  There’s no need to avoid reading them books that portray God and the world just as they are.  As Charlotte Mason implores us, let’s allow our children to live in the actual atmosphere of the world instead of trying to conjure up a rose-colored alternate reality for them to inhabit.

To Be Like Jesus

To Be Like Jesus

One of my Easter traditions is placing a new Christian CD in my children’s Easter basket.  Last year I took a gamble and bought To Be Like Jesus, which was a gamble simply because I’d never listened to it – I’d never even heard anyone talk about it, as far as I can recall.  It’s been listened to a lot this past year and in the process has become one of our family’s very favorite albums.  In fact, when Sarah and I decided that we were going to expand our blogging horizons to include music reviews, I knew right away that it was one of the first ones I would write about.

The music of To Be Like Jesus is upbeat and catchy (in a good way!) and my daughter loves that the songs are sung by children as well as grown-ups.  The really outstanding feature of this album, though, is its lyrics.  The fruit of the Spirit is the overall theme of the CD and after the title song there’s a track devoted to each of the fruits, plus two others sandwiched in the middle.  The folks at Sovereign Grace have done an outstanding job of not turning the work of the Spirit into moralistic rules we must try very hard to obey.  Rather, in each of the songs there is acknowledgement that the fruit of the Spirit “grow in those who trust in you,” that we love God because he first loved us, that sin makes us want to go our own ways, and that intimacy with Christ is what will make us more like him.  This is no try-hard, be-a-good-person Christianity; it’s the real, grace-filled, true gospel deal.

I love to turn on To Be Like Jesus and see my almost 1-year-old start bopping around and hear my almost 4-year-old sing the fantastic lyrics… but to be honest, the reason I love this CD so much is for another reason entirely.  See, when we get up in the morning and it I can tell it’s going to be “one of those days” or when we’ve been cross with one another all afternoon, playing this album helps us turn it around.  Quite honestly, my soul sighs with relief about two lines into the first track as I remember what it is, exactly, that I’m trying to do with my life in the hard moment in which I find myself.  Just as much as my children, I need the reminder to look to Christ as my example and to rely on the Spirit as I pursue godliness, and this CD really has been very helpful to our whole family as we seek to know Jesus and find our life in him.  Of course, it also helps that the music makes you want to dance around the living room – it’s so joyful!

To sum up: this is most definitely one CD that is worth buying and I highly recommend it for Easter listening.  The mp3 album at Amazon is the cheapest way to purchase it at present, but if you prefer to have an actual CD the prices at the Sovereign Grace store are better.