In California

Once upon a time, Sarah and I both lived in the same place. For the first year of this blog we were both in Minnesota, and oh, those were good times. She hosted our book club at her house, we enjoyed Easter dinner celebrations together, and we were always present for each other’s children’s birthday parties. Nearly four years ago, though, life took her to the California coast. She gets back to Minnesota on a fairly regular basis but (shame on me!) until this past weekend I’d never been to visit her in her new hometown.

Last week, though, I flew with my 8-month old and another dear friend for three blissful days of basking in the sun and friendship. I kept exclaiming (even on the crowded city bus, when I’m pretty sure Sarah thought I was being sarcastic – I was not), “This is so fun!” And it was. Here’s some proof:

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Pretty sure I’m going back as soon as I possibly can.

Podcast!

Read Aloud RevivalToday we’re over at the Read Aloud Revival podcast chatting with Sarah Mackenzie about reading with toddlers! Hop on over to hear what we sound like in real life, and if you’re not already familiar with that podcast you’re in for a real treat. Sarah has interviewed some great folks (Jim Weiss, Melissa Wiley, Sarah Clarkson…) about reading aloud with kids and I’ve loved listening to each episode.

If you’ve found us via the podcast, welcome! Our links at the top of the page are the best way to get to know us, so feel free to poke around a bit. We have over 100 reviews of theological kidlit in the archives as well as lots of “food for thought” posts. We mostly write about the dual importance of truth and beauty in books about God for children, but our second favorite topic is celebrating the church year at home. (Speaking of which, Lent starts soon and we have some great resources for that season here if you scroll down.) We’d love to have you join the ongoing conversation here, so please make yourselves at home.

On the podcast we didn’t talk much about reading distinctly theological books with toddlers, but if you’re curious about our favorites here’s a list to get you started.

One more thing! During the podcast I neglected to mention one of my favorite read aloud strategies for toddlers: tantrum intervention. We read aloud when everyone’s happy, of course, but I’ve also found that when I have a young child melting down, one of the best ways to encourage calming down is to simply pick up a book and start reading. If you ask if they want to read a book they’ll scream “Noooo!” but if you just do it… Magic.  :)

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In Praise of Audio Books

At my house, we are very big fans of children’s audio books. It started, I think, when my daughter was not even two. I took a stack of her favorite board books to my family’s house for Christmas and had each of my siblings and parents record themselves reading one. Her eyes would light up whenever she heard a beloved relative reading a beloved book – it was audio perfection!

Later, when she was closer to 2 1/2, I bought Blueberries for Sal on a whim at Audible. We had read the book many times by that point, so the words were already very familiar to her and she was able to listen and follow along.  After that success we started exploring the collection of book+cd packs at our library. In the beginning I would simply look for picture books that we had already read aloud at home (like those by Kevin Henkes, read by Laura Hamilton), because I found at her age that if the stories were familiar she could listen to them independently. As she got more and more hooked on audio books we branched out and found new favorites, such as All Pigs Are Beautiful and Dogger.

Fast forward a few years and audio books remain an important part of our family culture. They’re great for road trips, rest time, dinner prep, and sick days. And plain old regular days, too! Sometimes I get my daughter the audio version after we’ve particularly loved a chapter book read aloud so she can enjoy it again on her own, but other times she listens to a book without any intro.

I try to add to our owned collection from time to time (they make great gifts!) but we also make use of our library’s offerings. There are some great resources in this post  if you’re interested in figuring out how to find good deals.

Here are some of our favorites:

I’ve gotten more into audio listening in recent years, too.  Here are some books and podcasts that I enjoy:
I’d love to hear what your family’s favorite podcasts and audio books are, so if you have some I haven’t listed above please comment and share them!

Be Blest

Be BlestBe Blest
Mary Beth Owens
Simon & Schuster, 1999

There are several times during the year that naturally lend themselves to reflection on the past and wondering about the future: the start of a new school year, the beginning of Advent and a new church year, the turning of seasons, January 1st. As you may have gathered, a big part of moving through the church year for my family has to do with the books we read, and the same is true of the seasonal year. We have books that are read all year round, of course, but others only get pulled out at certain times. Today’s book is unique in that it’s a thoroughly seasonal book, yet it’s appropriate for sharing at any time, no matter what month or season we’re in.

I picked up Be Blest at that used book sale I mentioned back in October. I’d never heard of it before, but the illustrations were so striking that I was immediately drawn to it. Each of the twelve spreads features a short seasonal poem on the left surrounded by a circular illustration done in a matching seasonal theme. The righthand side of each spread is a full page illustration with a caption listing one of the months of the year. So, for instance, January’s spread shows various winter animals in a snowy landscape, while August’s depicts blackberries and foraging bears.

Owens’ work is beautiful, which makes this a book to move through slowly, noticing artistic details and thinking about the poems that whisper praises to the Creator. Each one starts with a word or phrase that is repeated for three months in a row. Be Blest is for winter, Sing Praise is for spring, Rejoice is for summer, and Give Thanks is for autumn. To whet your appetite, here’s the complete verse for January:

Be Blest / when wind and ice / shake seeds / from lifeless plants / and tattered weeds.

On barren branches / leaf buds bear  / the promise of  / another year.

The author’s note tells how the book’s inspiration was Saint Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun.” She also notes that she drew from other traditions and, indeed, I am sure that many outside of the Christian faith would find much to like about this book. However, just because there’s not Trinitarian theology clearly coming through on each page doesn’t mean that we Trinitiarians should steer clear of this lovely book. While you won’t find a complete Nicene Creed here there’s nothing in the text that I find contradictory to it. It is, truly, a wonderful book, and I hope that you’ll check it out – especially those of you who share a fondness for the turning of seasons and are attuned to how God’s faithfulness can be seen in nature.

Great Joy

Great JoyGreat Joy
Kate DiCamillo & Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, 2007

If you’re at all familiar with the world of children’s literature, you probably know some of Kate DiCamillo’s books. The Mercy Watson series is a favorite around here, both in book and audiobook formats, and I’m eager for the day when my daughter is ready to be introduced to The Tale of Despereaux. DiCamillo is a truly gifted storyteller, one who has been recognized by the Newbery folks on a number of occasions. (She’s also a local to the Twin Cities. I might daydream about running into her at my favorite independent children’s bookstore…)

Lucky for us, a handful of years ago DiCamillo joined the club of children’s authors who write Christmas books. And even luckier for us, it’s a really good one! To start with, Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations are perfect. Evocative, warm, and wintery, they make for a quintessential Christmas book. And as all great illustrations do, they help the reader enter into the story and make the author’s words live.

Great Joy is a sort of parable, as so many of DiCamillo’s books are, about how Christmas is really for everyone. In the Bible, the good news is shared first with the shepherds, the societal outcasts of their day. In Great Joy the news goes to someone in a similar circumstance, all because a little girl named Frances notices his presence in the world and desires to draw him in. In some ways there are some thematic parallels to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, though DiCamillo’s approach is more quiet, more meditative, less hilarious. Both books are wonderful additions to any Christmas home library, and I’m really enjoying sharing both of them with my kids this year.

Good King Wenceslas

Wenceslas jacket.inddGood King Wenceslas
John M. Neal & Tim Ladwig
Eerdmans, 2005

I’ve come a long way from being someone who used to dislike picture books that use song lyrics are their only text. I can’t even remember, exactly, what I found unappealing about them back then. Whatever it was, I’m glad to have seen the light because there are a number of excellent books in this subgenre. Earlier this week I wrote about one and today I’ve got another one to share: Good King Wenceslas, an old Christmas carol that’s been illustrated by Tim Ladwig.

Ladwig has illustrated quite a few theological picture books, but my favorite of his is Peter’s First Easter, that gem of gems that was one of the initial inspirations for creating Aslan’s Library. Ladwig’s art is always vibrant and warm, but I find his work in this book to be especially endearing. The carol requires a variety of settings to be pictured and I love seeing them all, from the castle to the nature scenes to the peasant’s cottage. The people are just as varied (page, peasant, servant, king) and all do their part to tell the true story of King Wenceslas’ journey through harsh winter weather to give aid to one of his subjects. It’s a great story, one that I’m eager to tell my children at this time of year that can too easily become too much just about receiving and not enough about showing compassion and care.

If you enjoy connecting books with the liturgical calendar as I do, Good King Wenceslas is an obvious choice for December 26, St. Stephen’s Day (which is also Boxing Day to the English among us).

I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three ShipsI Saw Three Ships
Elizabeth Goudge & Margot Tomes
David R. Godine, 1969

I have recently been introduced to the works of Elizabeth Goudge and suffice it to say that I have quickly become a loyal fan. My book group adored The Bird in the Tree this fall and if you have not yet read that masterful book, let me have the privilege of being the first to tell you to run out and get yourself a copy as soon as you can. Much to my delight, I discovered that Goudge wrote for children as well as adults, and when I saw earlier this month that one of them was Christmas themed I bought it on the spot.

I Saw Three Ships is a mere 60 pages long, but oh my, what a perfect tale to share with an older-elementary aged child at this time of year. (Stocking stuffer, perhaps?) In it we meet Polly, a young girl who lives in England with her two spinster aunts and whose spunk and determination keeps them on their toes. We meet the threesome just before Christmas, and in the opening pages Polly is trying to convince her aunts to leave the doors unlocked on Christmas Eve. She has always heard that if you do so, the three wise men might come in and visit. Being an adventuresome lass, she is eager for that to happen. Her aunts protest, saying that leaving the doors unlocked is simply not safe. And besides, that old tradition is just a legend. Here’s a snippet of conversations from page 10:

“The wise men might come,” said Polly. “Why not? Susan at the sweetshop told me that Christ Himself came to the West Country when He was a little boy.”

“That’s only a legend, dear,” said Dorcas.

“What’s a legend, Aunt?” asked Polly.

“A story whose truth cannot be proved,” said Dorcas.

“You can’t prove God,” said Polly.

As I’ve mulled over I Saw Three Ships during the past few days, I think that passage is at the crux of what Goudge is sharing with us through this story. We may not be able to prove God, it is true. But do you know what happens when we open ourselves up to childlike faith? Our eyes are opened. Opened to reality, opened to seeing people for who they really are, opened to joy. I’m not going to tell you much more about the plot because you’ll enjoy discovering it for yourself. This book is full of warmth and charm (and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned quirk) and wonderful for anyone age 8 and up.

Go Tell It On the Mountain

Go Tell ItGo Tell It on the Mountain
Debbie Trafton O’Neal & Fiona King
Augsburg Books, 2003

Most of the year Sarah and I have to do some serious sleuthing to find books that we feel good about reviewing here on the blog. That accounts for at least some of our irregular posting (the rest is due to those darling small people who keep us so busy). Come Christmastime, though, it’s almost hard to know where to start. There are so many great Christmas books out there! Nearly every children’s author and illustrator, it seems, has an urge to create a Christmas book even if they don’t normally write theologically. It may be harder to find really creative ones, but beautiful books that straightforwardly tell the nativity story are plentiful.

Ironically, because there are just so many good Christmas books out there I sometimes find it hard to choose new ones for our home library. How to choose?! I found Go Tell It on the Mountain while browsing on Amazon and, because it looked promising and there was a practically new copy for a penny plus shipping, I took a gamble and placed an order. I’m glad I did, because now that I’ve read it I know it’s one we’ll enjoy revisiting each year.

Fiona King has created illustrations reminiscent of woodcuttings and somehow they also bring to mind the artwork in one of my favorite Thanksgiving books, Over the River and Through the Wood. The pictures tell the familiar story of the nativity, but as we watch the events of Luke 2 unfold we see clearly that what has happened is worthy of being shouted from the rooftops. It’s not a sentimental tall tale, it’s Emmanuel! God with us! The lyrics of the familiar carol are fantastic food for thought at this time of year, reminding us that the birth of Christ is, at its core, good news that begs to be told. The author adds one verse of her own on the end that makes a bridge between the shepherds who first told the good news and our privilege today to continue to be bearers of that same news.

My kids already know the song so they enjoyed singing along with me as I read and at the end they gave the book that classic stamp of approval: “Read it again!” Go Tell It on the Mountain is out of print but happily, very reasonably priced used copies abound. I commend it to you as a book that I think you’ll enjoy sharing with the children in your life.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like… Advent!

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We’re well into the first week of Advent now, and the sights and sounds of this wonderful season have penetrated our house.  Here are some of the ways we’re marking Advent this year:

It’s tricky to figure out how to differentiate between Advent and Christmas because our culture generally skips directly to celebration without much preparation at all.  This year, though, I’m trying to take a few new steps in that direction.  We’re waiting to put up our tree until the third week of Advent (which is “joy” week) and the gingerbread house kit hiding in my closet will stay there until sometime during the 12 Days of Christmas.  I’ve not yet taken up the discipline of a full Advent fast, but I am trying to postpone many of our favorite celebratory activities and treats until after December 25.  My hope is that the 12 Days will seem more like a sustained celebration – and then we’ll get together with friends for a small Twelfth Night or Epiphany party to wrap it all up!

How are you entering into the preparatory season of Advent this year?

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Saint Nicholas

Saint NickSaint Nicholas: The Story of the Real Santa Claus
Mary Joslin & Helen Cann
Lion Children’s, 2003

I’ve been on the lookout for a good introduction to the historical figure of Saint Nicholas for a long time.  I’ve certainly not hunted down every single book on the topic, but I’ve read probably half a dozen.  Most of them have been well done and informative, actually, and I enjoy exploring a few every December.  However, some of the legends about Nicholas contain fairly grizzly details so I often found myself doing a fair bit of editing on the fly when I read them aloud.  Mary Joslin’s Saint Nicholas, though, is a great choice for my young children and is the book I’m reading to them this year to prepare for Nicholas’ feast day on December 6 (this Saturday!).

If you’re familiar with Nicholas’ life you know that he was a very generous man and also the bishop of Myra, a city in present day Turkey.  There are a variety of tales told about him, but the only one in Joslin’s book is the one of his generosity to an impoverished family with three daughters who were unable to marry because they lacked a dowry.  If you’re not familiar with it, this story involves Nicholas secretly tossing small pouches of coins into the family’s house (in most books they say he tossed it in the window, in Joslin’s case she says he threw them down the chimney).  The family joyfully receives the gift and with it the hope of a better future for the three girls.  Joslin’s retelling of this story is definitely a bit more rosy than others I’ve read, but in my case that’s exactly what I was looking for.  She connects the dots between Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus traditions more straightforwardly than some books do, so if you’re looking for more of a pure history this might not be the right option for you.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print and at this time of year prices for used Christmas books tend to spike.  If you don’t want to pay a premium but have some patience, I’d suggest marking your calendar to remind you to purchase this lovely book… in July.  In any case, join me this weekend in leaving chocolate coins in our children’s shoes and sharing a story about the legendary generosity of Saint Nicholas!