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

Food for Thought

As bloggers we alternate between book reviews of theological literature for kids and what we call food-for-thought posts, which is our format for thinking well about and discussing the intersection of faith, books, and children.  We touch on everything from celebrating the church year to spiritual formation to reading with children in general.  Below is an index of some of our favorite posts!

Aside from the topic of theological books for kids, we love to write about celebrating the church year at home.  Below are links to posts in that ongoing series.

Advent – Christmas – Epiphany

Lent – Easter – Pentecost

Ordinary Time

On the Road Again…

I grew up listening to Willie Nelson: in my dad’s truck, on family road trips, in the background because my parents dug 70s and 80s country music. When I heard him on an old Prairie Home Companion rerun yesterday, it was with a heavy hit of nostalgia. For some people my age, it’s Family Ties (oh, Alex P. Keaton) or Full House (oh, Uncle Jesse)  that takes them straight back to childhood. For me, it’s The Highwaymen. Thanks, Mom & Dad.

So it’s fitting, of course, that every summer I spend a lot of my time humming “On the Road Again” under my breath as I pack, unpack, do laundry, fold, pack, unpack, do more laundry, repack again, and so on until mid-August. We have the extraordinary blessing of parents who are young and energetic enough to want lots of time with us and our kids (mostly our kids, really) AND who live in perfect places for the fogged-in San Francisco family to seasonally relocate. So far we’ve been in St Louis (family reunion), Florida (my parents), Dallas (a wedding), with our next stop at the lake in Western Minnesota —  with sun, food, and grandparents all the way through.

I hope you can understand, then, why reviews might be few and far between this summer. I have several chapter books I’m working through with the seven year old, but this takes time. In the meantime, may I share some of what we’re reading and eating? Just for fun, of course? Because I hope that many of you are on vacation, or heading that way, as well!

Reading Aloud with the 7-year-old

The Story of the World; the Middle Ages, Susan Wise Bauer
Favorite Medieval Tales, Mary Pope Osborne
Monks and Mystics: Chronicles of the Medieval Church, Mindy & Brandon Withnow
Famous Men of the Middle Ages, Rob Shearer

We just finished Voyage of the Dawn Treader and are planning to start Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this weekend. One of those parenting moments I’ve been looking forward to for seven years: hooray!

Reading Aloud with the 4-year-old

The Jamie and Angus Stories, Anne Fine & Penny Dale (thank you, Haley!)
We Are Best Friends, Aliki
Why: The Best Ever Question and Answer Book about Nature, Science, and the World Around You, Catherine Ripley
Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever! Richard Scarry
The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook, Shirley Hughes

His best friend moved away at the beginning of the summer, hence the Aliki pick. We’ve also been doing lots of Jamie & Angus, and one Alfie story in particular (“Bonting”) because he too has a beloved stuffed friend: Saggy Baggy, the elephant who accompanies us everywhere. If we lose Saggy Baggy, please pray for us!

With his best friend and the one and only Saggy Baggy

With his best friend and the one and only Saggy Baggy

My Sumer Reading

Potsdam Station, David Downing
(plus the whole series of John Russell thrillers. A British-American journalist with a German girlfriend and German son trying to navigate the various intelligence services at work during the Second World War? Yes, please!)

Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Non-Scientists, Fred A. Wolf
Because daily reality is much more complicated than I ever imagined, and I want to (at least slightly) grasp why.

Stones from the River, Ursula Helgi
My mother-in-law gave me this book, and I’ve been waiting to start it until I could give it proper, sustained attention. And that attention has been repaid. I haven’t finished yet, but so far it’s a fascinating story about an outsider (a young woman marked by dwarfism) inhabiting a very specific space in time and seeing how history makes everyone an outsider in one way or another — to our families, our countries, our belief systems, or basic civility itself. It’s the sort of book I wish I were reading with a larger book group, because there is so much conversation to be had!

Books and Culture, because I am always behind on issues and always hungry to catch up. The best of their content is reserved for subscribers (and may I encourage you, vigorously, to subscribe?), but two essays I’ve particularly enjoyed are available on their site. Let’s just say my ever-burgeoning “to-read” list keeps growing:

Redefining Religious Fiction, D.G. Myers
The Rood and the Torc,  John Wilson

And the Food:

Between family reunions, time at my parents’ house, and a weekend in Napa with friends, we have eaten well this summer. A few of the best things so far:

Grilled Herb Shrimp
Red Curry Chicken Kebabs with Yogurt Sauce
Pie. All kinds of pie.
Especially this pie:
BBQ Pork Steaks (with LOTS of information for those who aren’t from St Louis)
Israeli Couscous Salad with Cherry Tomatoes

I hope your summer is full of delicious food and wonderful books, whether you’re traveling or happily ensconced in your own backyard. What are you eating and reading during these long and wonderful days?

“Earth’s crammed with heaven…”

A few nights ago, my seven year old walked out (about 45 minutes after she was supposed to be asleep) and asked me, “Hey Mom, who’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”

I blow lots of things about parenting. I am not an expert. I actually internally winced the other evening when an acquaintance who is expecting her first turned to me and said, “I’ll be asking you for advice!” (My very best pregnancy advice: eat lots of donuts. Because you are MAKING A PERSON, and if that’s not a blank slate for apple fritters, then the universe does not make sense to me.) But here was a softball. When your daughter stays up past her bedtime in order to listen to Jim Weiss’ Treasury of Wisdom, and then rouses herself enough to come ask about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, do not send her back to bed. A little free advice: it’s why you read this blog, right?

Anyway: of course I wanted to know why she was asking.

“Oh,” she replied. “In the beginning of the story about Michelangelo and Raphael, there’s a quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She said” (child screws up her face and thinks), “that ‘earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Is that from a poem? Was she a poet?”

Well, yes, sweetheart, she was. And so of course we had to look her up, and the poem this passage was from, and copy it onto the laundry room door. And then it was back to bed, with Jim Weiss taking her the rest of the way to sleep. (Non-theological plug: if you haven’t already discovered his CDs, please stop reading and go buy a few. Thanks. He’s the most fantastic storyteller, and 100% responsible for this post, as well as the 4-year-old’s current obsession with King Arthur. Plus about 55% of the imaginative play at our house.)

Since then, I’ve been gazing at that passage every day. And thinking: what if I really believed that?


I mean really: I walk past hundreds of bushes every day. I never take off my shoes. (I live in San Francisco: this is a risky proposition.) But I’ve also been doing some reading in modern physics lately, and if quantum physics is going to make any sense at all to this creature of the humanities, I have to believe that God is acting constantly in every single imperceptible motion of the tiniest particles of existence. Every briefest perception of light, every whisker on my cat’s face is afire with God, let alone bushes and stars. The world around us is more wonderful and fraught than is safe to believe.

To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I’m unable to move through my days in the constant awareness of this truth. I’m not sure I would make it through the grocery aisles or swim lessons trying to keep the radical awareness of God’s pervasive action in the forefront of my thoughts. It takes a greater saint, I think: my finite, broken self gets tired contemplating it.  But I want to. I think about the material repetition of my days — waking up, making breakfast, cleaning up & making beds, getting everyone dressed and out the door, making lunches and snacks and dinners, getting everyone to bed — and the thought that God is afire, at work, illuminating and sanctifying those moments, electrifies me. What would my daily life, my daily interactions with my kids and husband, look like if I really believed that every earthly, mundane moment was crammed with heaven? I think I would relax. I just might give thanks more. I would certainly be less anxious. Because if every moment is crammed with heaven, there’s more there than I can control — and my efforts honestly aren’t so crucial. I can’t imagine better news.

Shoebox Sam

Shoebox Sam
Mary Brigid Barrett & Frank Morrison
Zonderkidz, 2011

Let’s get to straight to the point: I love this book.  Really, really love it.  It has everything that Sarah and I look for in great theological children’s literature and is easily in my top 10 favorite books that we’ve reviewed here on the blog.

Shoebox Sam is the story of a shoe repair man and the people who frequent his shop.  He’s good at what he does, so he has plenty of well-to-do people hire him to fix their shoes.  But he also has plenty of down-and-out patrons as well.  Sam treats them all with dignity; he joyfully serves each of his customers, with honest compassion and without judgment, in whatever way he or she needs.  His joy and his servant-mindedness both rub off on Delia and Jesse, the  two children who spend their Saturdays helping in his shop.

One of the things I love most about Sam is how his job is much more than just a way to earn money.  He earns a living repairing shoes, sure, but it’s also a major way that he lives out the principles he has based his life upon: joy, mercy, generosity, excellent workmanship, and hospitality (to name a few).  There is a powerful theology of work on display in the pages of this book.

Theological language, per se, is absent from the book, but in Sam’s life we see a clear reflection of Christ and the radical values of His Kingdom.  Sam shows no partiality, welcomes children, displays the fruit of the Spirit, does not store up treasures on earth, and humbly serves those in need.  He is, in short, an excellent role model for anyone who seeks to follow Jesus.

To sum up, I love everything about this book.  The story is authentic and provocatively thoughtful.  It’s very well written.  The illustrations are full of life.  In my humble opinion, it’s one that is definitely worth owning, so keep it in mind when you’re buying your next birthday present or filling Easter baskets.  It’s at the top of my own books-to-buy list!

Voices of Christmas

Voices of Christmas
Nikki Grimes & Eric Velasquez
Zonderkidz, 2009

Sarah and I have been reviewing theological kidlit for nearly 1 1/2 years now, and we’ve gotten to the point where we have to search a bit harder to find new titles to share with you all.  That is, except for during this time of year!  But while there may be no shortage of children’s Christmas books, it can be tricky to uncover the truly excellent ones. Voices of Christmas is, in my opinion, one worth owning.

There are only a handful of authors who have more than one book we’ve reviewed, and included in that list is today’s author, Nikki Grimes.  I love the way she writes: her words are carefully chosen, truthful, and artful.  As we pointed out in our reviews of When Daddy Prays and At Jerusalem’s Gate, she captures reality beautifully without sugar-coating or sentimentalizing it.  Her contribution to Christmas kidlit is no different.

Voices of Christmas is unique among Christmas books in several ways.  First, it’s more of a series of connected episodes than a seamless narrative.  Every spread features a different character from the early chapters of Matthew and Luke speaking in first person about the events that are transpiring.  A corresponding line from Scripture runs across the top of the page.  The first person perspective is one of my favorite things about the book, actually, because of the way it draws me in and invites me to wonder what it really would have been like to be someone who was there when Christ was born.

This book is also unique in that it includes more characters than the typical Nativity retelling.  The central characters are there, of course, but so are Gabriel, Elizabeth and Zechariah, a neighbor, the innkeeper, Anna, Simeon, and Herod.  Including more characters in the book somehow makes it seem more real than a book that just zooms in on the manger scene and then backs away just as quickly.  Matthew and Luke’s accounts give us more context than that, and I appreciate Grimes’ decision to do the same.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Eric Velasquez’s outstanding illustrations.  His paintings of the biblical characters allow the complexities of their emotions come through and make them seem real (as they are).

If your family is looking for a unique Advent devotional this year, Voices of Christmas might be just the book to consider.  There are 15 episodes, so if you read one every 2-3 days starting the first Sunday of Advent you’d finish right in time for Christmas.  It’s not technically a devotional, but I think it would shine if used in that way.

The Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah
Peter Spier
Doubleday, 1985

I love the book of Jonah. I love how richly Christological it is. I love how funny it is. I love Jonah’s grouchy honesty; and I love God’s gracious, hard humor in dealing with him. It’s such an odd book, in so many ways – God is dead set on showing mercy to the Ninevites, drowning in their wickedness; God’s prophet is dead set on letting them justly perish; and it ends with the Gentile sinners repenting while the Hebrew prophet smolders under God’s rebuke. Oh yeah, and there’s a giant fish.

At last, I’ve found a children’s retelling of this story that faithfully captures those elements. Yes, the fish is there, prominently displayed on the cover (with a resigned-looking Jonah ready to be swallowed), but Peter Spier’s lovely Book of Jonah doesn’t pander to children by making it the center of the story. This edition is, quite simply, about the mercy of God and an unwilling messenger. It tells the Biblical story in its fullness, odd though it is.

If you’re familiar with any of Peter Spier’s other work (we love Noah’s Ark and People at our house), you’ll recognize his wonderfully detailed illustrations. There is much here to capture little eyes and draw them in. The text is an adapted translation of the 17th-century Dutch Statenbijbel (Mr. Spier is Dutch), and mirrors the starkness of the original Biblical account. There is no easy resolution, no unseemly happy ending when the fish coughs up Jonah: his anger over Nineveh’s repentance, his withered vine, and his pleas with God to end his life because God has mercy on Nineveh are all there.

The Book of Jonah has been a great starting point for some simple conversations with my four-year-old (as in, “So, Mommy, why did Jonah run away?”); although it’s a picture book, I think it would be appropriate for sharing with kids up through age 10 or so.

This book is going to have a regular place in our Lenten reading rotation, largely because it poses the issue of God’s mercy so starkly. While we are spending 40 days repenting of our own sin, are there ways in which we are like Jonah and don’t wish to extend grace to others? Are we as honest with God as Jonah is? How are Jesus’ three days in the grave like (and unlike!) Jonah’s time in the fish? (We’ll be doing this Jonah project during Holy Week, as well!) It’s such a lovely illustration of how far God’s grace extends, and how hard (when we’re being honest) it can be to accept it, or wish it for others.

**A note: you might find this title just a bit tricky to track down. A few sellers were offering it on Amazon, used and new; I found it on the shelf of my local branch in the San Francisco library. One option is to order it from the folks at Hearts and Minds Books: they can track down just about anything that’s in print. And they’re a fabulous store. You should support them.

Why You Should Buy Books

I’m a firm believer that every family budget should have an allotment, no matter how small, for buying books. As wonderful as public libraries are, there’s still no substitute for placing a new book in a child’s hands and saying, “Here you go; this is yours.” But still: libraries are free! Books cost money! Why should you spend on something that’s so easily available? If, unlike me, you need permission or a good reason to head to the local bookshop or over to Amazon, then here you go:

Why You Should Buy Books: Ten Definitive and Convincing Reasons

  1. Buying new books supports authors. Authors then write more excellent literature, rather than waiting tables. Everyone wins!
  2. A home full of books is good for children. It’s good for them academically, but even more importantly, it’s good for their character. They learn to see themselves as part of a great conversation among a whole world of people who own, read, and live with books.
  3. You can read on your own timetable and not worry about library fines. Maybe you’re better at this than I am, but I could probably buy a shelf or two of books with what I’ve paid to the Hennepin County library system. They should name a wing after me.
  4. When you own books, you can read them again and again (and again). (This is an argument for only owning the best books, and making sure the rest have a due date.)
  5. When you own a book, you can share it with your friends and family. They now have no excuse for not reading that fabulous book you’ve been raving about!
  6. You can read beyond what your library has to offer. This is especially important with theological kids lit, where many libraries have limited offerings or only circulate the most popular titles.
  7. You can contribute old books to charity once you’re sure you don’t want them anymore. Some good candidates: a local women’s shelter, a crisis pregnancy center, a children’s hospital, or Project Night Night.
  8. Or, alternately, if you need to keep funding that book-buying habit, you can sell your books to a local used bookshop or an online seller like Powell’s Books. These stores will usually give you a better deal if you’ll accept store credit, so it’s like trading in something old for something new. (This is also a discreet way of disposing of, um, less-than-well-chosen gifts.)
  9. When a child lives side-by-side with the same books (her own, and her parents’) day after day, they become in some intangible way her companions. This gives you some measure of control over her friends after all!
  10. Lastly, when books are the focal point of your living space, rather than a television or computer, it says something important to children about the culture of your home — this is a place where words and stories matter, where it is worth giving our time and attention to the best that human creativity has to offer, and where we are interested in discovering what is real rather than being diverted by what is entertaining.



My childhood reading habits were shaped by weekly visits to the public library, mail order book club selections, and my parents’ generosity in buying books every time we set foot in a bookstore.  One of my earliest memories is following along to a homemade audio recording of New Blue Shoes that my mother made for me.

Food and families have always been some of my favorite things to read about.  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was beloved from the first time I picked it up, and Bread and Jam for Frances still makes me hungry every time I pull it off the shelf.  I still think that a good cookbook makes some of the best reading.  During the middle grade years I made friends with Betsy and Mandy and adored stories about large families like those in All-of-a-Kind Family.  I read and loved everything by Lois Lowry.

While I did read some wonderful literature during my four years at Wheaton, it was primarily after graduation that my library card was once again put to good use.  When I went to grad school two years later I read daily on the bus and enjoyed everything from Pride and Prejudice to the entire Harry Potter series.

I started my own collection of kidlit right after getting my first job out of college (i.e. as soon as I had a few bucks to spend).  I gathered books like Brambley HedgeBetsy-Tacy, and The Tale of Desperaux, first devouring them myself and then stashing them away to share with my own children someday.  When my daughter arrived in the spring of 2009, wonderful board books like Jamberry and I Kissed the Baby filled our house.  My sons joined us in 2012 and 2014, and now our home is brimming over with picture books, chapter books, and children’s audio books in addition to lively little people.  We’re homeschoolers, so we’ve got all sorts of living books a la Charlotte Mason floating around, and there’s an ever-rotating collection of favorites from our library on our bookshelves as well.

My own reading habits are shaped primarily by my beloved book club – with whom I spend one glorious evening a month – and by love of memoirs and my interests in education, parenting, and theology.  My literary comfort foods are books like Sense and Sensibility, Middlemarch, My Sisters the Saints, A Homemade Life, and works by C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Goudge.  In my spare time (ha!) I enjoy photography, baking, podcasts, weaving the seasons of the church year into family traditions, having tea with friends, and watching British dramas with my half-British husband.  And, of course, researching the very best books in the world of children’s literature.