I just read . . .

Check this page periodically to see what I have read recently, why, and what I thought about each book.  I’ll put the most recent books here at the top.


I’m moving my reviews over to goodreads. Search for Carole Sparks there if you want to continue following my reading life.


I Want to Live These Days with You by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. O. C. Dean Jr.

What are all the culture, all the beauty, and all the power of human beings before the eternal beauty and infinite power of God? Dust, a drop in the ocean, a leaf blown by the wind, a nothing…

We must really live in the godless world and may not make the attempt somehow to conceal, to transfigure its godlessness religiously. … We are liberated from false religious attachments and inhibitions.

This is a year-long book of daily readings/devotions, culled from Bonhoeffer’s published material and personal letters. There are so many beautiful thoughts I could quote…and then there were some days that just didn’t make any sense to me. Each month has a theme, which helps with consistency. If you want a sense of Bonhoeffer’s perspective on the world and faith, this is a great introduction. It meant far more to me because I had read Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy .

I Will! by Thom Rainer

There is something powerful, even miraculous, about believers united together to worship God.

I read this short, friendly book for a project at church. If you are “over” churchianity, as I am, it will help you recenter yourself as part of a community of believers. In particular, Rainer challenges the myth that church is a place where we go to be served. He uses several case studies and personal stories that keep the book from feeling like a list of obligations. Instead, the reader comes away feeling encouraged.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.

I have a pathetic tendency to…well, shall we say, unerringly choose the easier of two evils. Like a cow catching sight of the trough; I gallop without premeditation.

Truth, she thought. As terrible as death. But harder to find. I’m lucky.

This was my first experience with PKD’s writing. (I watched Blade Runner years ago, but that doesn’t count.) Just wow. Even the grammar and cadence contributes to the story! I just wish I hadn’t read it immediately after The Stranger. Two such thought-provoking books in a row was more than I’m accustomed to. (Probably means my brain is lazy.) Good science fiction has this knack for causing the reader to question reality, to ask if our society is improving as much as we want to believe. PKD achieves this with characters who question their own ambitions and an enigmatic author (one of the characters) who suggests something different. I just wish there was a sequel.

The Amazon series of the same name keeps PKD’s characters and premise (that the USA lost WWII), but everything else is different. I actually suggest you don’t read the book anywhere near the same time you watch the series. But do read it. You won’t get the same thing from the TV series.

The Stranger by Albert Camus, trans. by Matthew Ward

…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.

It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why. So did he.

This is one of those books I always thought I should read. It was probably on my AP English suggested reading list. It’s the first-person narrative of a French man who kills someone on behalf of a man he hardly knows. Camus illustrates a carelessness toward life, a sense that things will happen and none of it really matters (a great talking point, if you’re reading in a group or with your child). As a writer, he hones in on one sensory element, such as the heat of the midday sun, that draws the narrative forward. From a literary and cultural point of view, this is a fascinating short read. But it’s not a feel-good story, so don’t expect to be happy at the end.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. -Dumbledore to Harry

Having finished the original series, it seemed like the right time to read the sequel (even though it’s a stage script). I should first note that I haven’t read a script since high school. It’s a different sort of thing! Perhaps I would have loved the story more if it was a novel. In a script, you have little chance to hear the character’s unspoken thoughts or determine their motives. I don’t know; but somehow, both I and my daughter were disappointed. Maybe we wanted Harry and his friends to be something better, something stronger than government employees (even if Hermione is the Minister of Magic). Such sentiments might be our Americanness showing through. Do Brits feel the same way? Or maybe I was disappointed because HP was my Peter Pan–the boy who lived but who never grew up. Seeing him middle-aged, with a job and parenting issues…well, it just felt so pedestrian.

Although essentially a time travel story set in a father-son conflict, the exploration of disrupting time is the strongest aspect of this book. I can’t imagine how they show that on stage!

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

In advance of my youngest reading HP for the first time, I’ve been rereading them. (Hence, my silence on this page.) I don’t often reread books, but these felt fresh again (after twenty years!). Here are some of the best quotes, mostly from Dumbledore:

The trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them. -Dumbledore to Harry, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

It’s our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. -Dumbledore to Harry, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. -Sirius to Ron and Harry, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young. -Dumbledore to Harry, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right. -Hermione to Ron, quoting Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how such tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! -Dumbledore to Harry, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who…have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. -Dumbledore to Harry, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.

This Newbery winner is beautiful in its simplicity. Told in first-person narrative from the perspective of an ape, the sentences are straightforward, the paragraphs short. The story, however, is not a simplistic or elementary one: animals captured and held in captivity. At one climactic point, Ivan decides to call his “domain” what it really is—a cage. Applegate also manages to convey so much compassion, fear, and love despite the limitations of the narrator. With the exception of the animals talking to each other, this is a realistic novel based on true events. I would hesitate to hand this to sensitive young readers (the kind who, like me, cry when Charlotte dies in Charlotte’s Web), but otherwise I think people of all ages should read it.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

I remember that we read this one in high school, but I couldn’t remember anything about it, so when my teenager picked it up at the library, I thought it best to read it again myself first. Some call it the “great American novel,” but I find it more of a morality play in which one eventually pays for one’s sins…or someone else’s. There’s sad obsession and a good bit of soliloquy on  the state of affairs. At least the narrator is one who thinks about his life and tries to learn from his experiences. I think it reads differently when you’ve already passed the age of the main characters, but it’s still a good story, and suitable for teenagers. Some good discussion topics include partying, obsession, keeping promises/honesty, and the quality of friendships. Coincidentally, here’s a good article about Fitzgerald’s views on writing.

Hacker by Ted Dekker

Most humans were simply content with existing and entertaining themselves with diversions until they died—fooled into thinking they were really alive when all along they had only bought into clever marketing. Mindlessly following everyone else.

“Sweetheart, there’s a truth so large and beautiful and perfect that it holds everything together. It’s hard to see it now, but it’s true.”

There’s a fantastical realism to Dekker’s books, and this one is no different. His protagonist is a brilliant but misunderstood outsider who risks too much for the one she loves. But while the formula may be unoriginal, Dekker weaves it with suspense and science to create something fresh. In particular, I was intrigued by the approach to science as a gateway to understanding the spiritual realm. There’s a minor connection to some of his others works, but you don’t need to have read those to enjoy this one. I read it quickly, more as entertainment than a treatise on spirituality, and I’m passing it on to my teenagers this week, with no hesitation.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.

He had said, “I am a man,” and that meant…Kino would drive his strength against a mountain and plunge his strength again the sea. Juana, in her woman’s soul, knew that the mountain would stand while the man broke himself; that the sea would surge while the man drowned in it. And yet it was this thing that made him a man, half insane and half god, and Juana had need of a man.

I picked this up because it was on my daughter’s reading list. I had forgotten how Steinbeck ponders on the page, how he observes the characters like an almost-omniscient narrator, marking the details that make the reader feel his story must be true. His writing is simple, and becomes simpler as the situation becomes more complex. (That’s the genius of it, I think.) I can’t decide if he’s pedantic or prophetic. Don’t try to read this book in a hurry even though it’s only ninety pages; take your time and follow Steinbeck on his reflective journey. This one’s suitable for middle-grade and up, if they have the patience for it.

Somehow Form a Family by Tony Earley

Memory and imagination seem to me the same human property, known by different names. Clark Kent and Superman are, after all, the same muscular guy; the only difference between them lies in how they are packaged and perceived.

Weddings, of course, have less to do with being married than with the simple fact that it is best to begin the  most arduous journeys surrounded by friends and wearing nice clothes.

I read one of these narrative essays (creative non-fiction?) in another book and felt compelled to read more of Earley’s writing. He perceives the world with a refreshing realism, writing honestly about his childhood and recent life but with unselfishness. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on writing, religion, and language–some of which are explicit, such as “The Quare Gene” (my favorite by far) and “A Worn Path,” while some are implicit, these little nuggets gleaned from reading slowly. If you like Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic), and especially if you grew up in Appalachia with a television, you’ll like Earley. If you’re a writer, find this at your local library and stand there in the stacks long enough to read the introduction. You’ll be glad you did.

Selected Stories by Alice Munro

The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.

Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. … Wouldn’t we rather have a destiny to submit to, then, something that calms us, anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days?

I picked this book up to study the craft of writing short stories, having heard Alice Munro was one of the best. As a writer, it overwhelmed me. As a reader, I felt like I was peeking in someone’s window, glimpsing their private moments that would have been better left to them. This is what Munro does so well: tell the real stories of life (even though it’s fiction). She tends to leave things not-quite-said, so you have to wonder, have to flip the page hoping the next story picks up the same characters (sometimes it does). Other times the stories seem pointless in the way you share you own highly meaningful experiences with a couple of strangers, just to have them fall flat. I didn’t finish all the stories before the library book was due. For craft, this is an excellent model of the genre. For pleasure, it’s a glimpse of everyday life that insists on questioning the reader’s life.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

Cynth once told me that I looked better in profile, and I said that made me sound like I was a coin. But now it makes me wonder about my two sides, the arch impression I probably gave Pamela, the spare change of myself that no one yet had pocketed.

You don’t come into it, once someone else is reading. It stands apart from you. Don’t let your [writing] ability drag you down, don’t hang it round your neck like an albatross.

It was so many colours, the sea; mud and milk, slate and leaf, and bronze when the light caught the crest of a wave – and at times, where it was still settled beyond, where the bows had not carved through it, a purer blue.

“Window shopping” at the library, we came upon this new release. Oh, it’s like those shoes you bought on impulse that become your very favorites! The story arises across two time periods, with the relationship between the two revealed gradually. The writing is superb: imagery, flow, dialogue, character development…it’s all  beautiful. In particular, the use of color led me to believe the author was primarily an artist (until I read the dust jacket). On top of the intriguing plot, you’ll find commentary on writing, art, civil rights, prejudice, immigration, war, and what it means to be a family.

This is not a happy story. Writers and artists will find much with which to grapple in these pages. You’ll understand this book better if you know a bit about 20th-century art and Spanish history. Finally, there are a couple of intimate scenes and one particularly violent scene that limit it to mature readers.

Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin

We must be those who build on the rock-solid foundation of mind-engaging process, rather than on the shifting sands of “what this verse means to me” subjectivity.”

You and I are called to become participants in the process of creating and maintaining an orderly, beautiful place within our hearts where the Lord may dwell.

In this well-written, friendly book, Wilkin emits a clear call for thoughtful, methodical study of the Bible grounded in scholarship and patience. Basically, it’s hermeneutics without the seminary-sized words. The thing I question about this book is the title. Women are called to study the Word of God no differently from men, so really it should be People of the Word or something like that. It’s disappointing that men won’t read it even though they, too, need strong direction in their personal Bible study. (There are a few spots where she addresses gender-specific issues, but not many.) While her method isn’t the only acceptable way, if all Christ-followers followed Wilkin’s plan, we would have far less conflict and heresy in our churches.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

She handed Esperanza the bundle of crocheting. “Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of a mountain again.”

So many people had recommended this book. Now I see why. Ryan’s fictionalized account of her grandmother’s immigration from Mexico to the US couldn’t be more timely. She weaves the experiences of peasants and upper-class Mexicans into a coming-of-age story, full of sensory details and emotion. At the same time, she educates her readers about an overlooked element in American–not just US–history. A few difficult topics might impede the youngest readers: the death of a parent and long-term sickness of another, a house fire, the displacement of the main characters, worker strikes, working people’s poverty, deportation.

Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb

We weren’t shy; at least most of us would claim we aren’t. … It is just that we don’t need a lot of people around us all the time, and we tend to think that socializing is just as much hard work as chopping firewood.

They say that the Great Plague of London was started by a diseased rat, so maybe things that are of themselves no-account can destroy much more than their own worth.

Mrs. McCrumb came to town for a free lecture about writing and her books. (It was **fantastic**, by the way.) It seemed only right, then, to read her most recent novel. She is a consummate storyteller, layering the details like an oil painting, concentrating on first this bit, then that. I felt, however, that she spent too much time building the back story before the real conflict came into play, which caused the story to drag a little. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hours spent with Ellendor in small-town East Tennessee…perhaps because I hear myself in some of the lines.

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard

Fire, you handsome creature, shine. / Let the hearth where I confine / your hissing tongues that rise and fall / be the home that warms us all.

We picked this one up from our Newbery winners list. It’s a short book, with more illustrations than words. (It was a Caldecott Honor Book.) Well…we’re not educated regarding William Blake, so maybe that’s the problem, but most of the poems sound like the author was smoking something slightly illegal (in many states) when she wrote these! The vocabulary is simply, and most of the poems are short, so let’s call it fanciful, and a fun way to practice reading aloud.

The Gentle Art of Discipling Women by Dana Yeakley

The depth of our walk with Christ will affect the breadth of our ability to disciple another.

I’ve been working on this one for a long time. I would read a chapter and set it aside, then pick it back up later. Put it all together, and this is an excellent book to encourage the hesitant discipler. I’ve heard women say they felt they had nothing to offer in a discipling relationship, but Yeakley proves that every maturing believer can disciple another. The first half addresses one who feels called to disciple; the second half addresses how to walk through such a relationship. While I wouldn’t (and haven’t) done it just like Yeakley, she has given all of us a great place to start!

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

She must be loving it up in heaven, where I figure everybody must just let loose. That’s got to be one of the benefits of heaven–never having to act normal again.

What is it that makes a person want to stay here on this earth anyway, and go on suffering the most awful pain just for the sake of getting to stay?

Rylant’s 1993 Newbery Awarded book treats death as the antagonist in one thrown-together family’s struggle to accept the death of the mother. The writing is gentle and comforting, occasionally humorous, and very accessible. As a Christ-follower, I appreciated the assumption of the existence of both God and heaven. This short book reads quickly, but don’t think it’s for young children. The themes are mature, and the inclusion of some spiritual mysticism might confuse the younger set, although nothing comes of it. Perhaps best of all, this book gives the reader permission to grieve and to enjoy the new life that must be forged after such an intimate loss.

Tales from Silver Lands by Charles J. Finger

The truth is that what the heart hungers for, the tongue talks of.

Wishes are no good and he who wishes, risks. For why? Whenever you wish, you leave out something that should not be left out, and so things go wrong.

Like several of the first decade of Newbery winners (The Trumpeter of KrakowThe Cat Who Went to Heaven), This book explores another culture. This time, it’s South America. Finger collected a series of folk tales, added a bit of personal context, and offered them at an older-child reading level. As we’ve come to expect from these older books, the style and vocabulary differ from modern writing with phrases such as, “then arose a confusion of talk.” The theme (perhaps unintentional on Finger’s part) is that youth and beauty conquer evil every time.  The heroes, with occasional secondary heroines, overcome giants, witches, and other supernatural creatures. Sometimes the descriptions are more graphic than I would care for a younger reader to absorb, so either wait until late elementary school or preview this one before you hand it to your child.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.

Bradbury’s classic novel is really more a string of related short stories. I read it for the art/mechanics of writing, but I came away more deeply touched than I expected. Bradbury really was a master of forecasting the natural result of society’s direction. He called…still calls, really…his readers to step back from life and consider the larger consequences of our small actions (or inactions). The best science fiction always does that: part prophecy, part entertainment. Older children will enjoy pointing to the technology that Bradbury didn’t anticipate, such as cell phones and internet.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Every man has a map in his heart of his own country and … the heart will never allow you to forget this map.

How sorry she felt for white people…who were always dashing around and worrying themselves over things that were going to happen anyway.

I always meant to read this book when we lived in Africa, but there was no library in our city. It is set in Botswana, an easy-going, peaceful, less-impoverished country in central southern Africa. When I saw it on a library display here in Tennessee last week, I finally picked it up. It reads like a set of short stories tied loosely together by a couple of plot lines. There are some small mysteries, some history, a simple romance, and a few chuckles–the best kind of read for when you just want to relax. If you haven’t been to southern Africa, a few things might not make sense, but if you’ve spent some time in that part of the world, treat this book like an old friend or a photo album and just sit down for a pleasant conversation. You can almost hear the narrator’s British-African accent.

There’s some realistic witchcraft (presented as evil, not like Harry Potter) and a clean-as-possible account of beating/rape which make this one better suited for teenagers and adults.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

“Ah, Crispin, if I have learned one thing it’s that he who knows a bit of everything, knows nothing. But he who knows a little bit well, knows much of all.”

Coming off A Song of Fire and Ice, I found myself reading yet another novel set in the Middle Ages. What was I thinking?

This was the Newbery winner in 2003. Avi gives us the story of an orphan who finds his true identity in the company of a large jester. While I was neither enraptured by the story nor endeared to the protagonist, Avi does two things well here: he reveals the thinking of a thirteen-year-old boy in the early part of the Middle Ages and he describes everyday living in those times. Pair it with The Midwife’s Apprentice for an even better picture of the time period. On the negative side, I found the style awkward–not that the protagonist narrates but that his “turn of phrase” makes the book read more like one from the 1920s.

Discussion topics after reading this book include individual identity and the role of religion/faith in everyday life. A high-functioning third-grader could understand and enjoy this book without any problems.

A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin

“He reminded me of my duty when all I could think of were my rights.” – A Storm of Swords (book 3)

“A reader lives a thousand live before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” – A Dance with Dragons (book 5)

“There is no shame in fear, unless you let it master you. We all taste terror in our time.” –A Dance with Dragons (book 5)

I read all five of these books just to see what the fuss was about. Wish I hadn’t spent that much time on them. One reviewer called Martin a “modern-day Tolkien.” No. There are some compelling characters and a complex, intriguing plot, but Martin needs a much stronger editor (too much telling, too much describing, too much gratuitous musing). There’s a reason trilogies work so well, and this series would have worked much better as such! Plus, he tends to kill off the best characters. Why? Feels like maybe he just gets bored with them. Finally, these books have some very explicit sex scenes and violent episodes, so not appropriate even for older teens.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

“Well,” Annemarie said slowly, “now I think that all of Denmark must be bodyguard for the Jews, as well.”

That’s all that brave means–not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do.

This Newbery Winner is a beautiful, simply-written story of one Danish girl’s experience during WWII. No surprise, since it was written by Lois Lowry, who also authored The Giver. But while The Giver reaches forward into science fiction (and is better suited for older children), Number the Stars reaches back into history. Lowry based it on true stories, which gives it an uncanny air of authenticity, much like The Diary of Anne Frank. Lowry proves that an author doesn’t need complex vocabulary or sentence structure to express complex situations. Use it as a read-aloud for your first and second graders or complement this exquisite book with Anne Frank and The Book Thief for a fuller picture of the time period from a girl’s point-of-view.

Sounder by William H. Armstrong

In Bible-story journeys, ain’t no journey hopeless. Everybody finds what they suppose to find.

We continued marking books off the Newbery list by reading this one aloud. One child didn’t want to read it because, according to her, it’s a dog book, and those are always sad. She was right. This one is actually misnamed though. It’s much more about a boy’s relationship with his father, while the dog is a secondary character whose life reflects the events of the novel. Set in a segregated South, readers experience life through the eyes of one impoverished African-American boy as he copes with his father’s imprisonment. Read this while studying segregation or the Civil Rights Movement.

Age of Opportunity by Paul David Tripp

Too often, what we call convictions are actually preferences. Real convictions are based on revealed truth (that is, Scripture). Preferences are based on personal desire. Convictions are constant; preferences change with desire. (pg. 131-132)

We want to know the heart of our teenager, to help him see his heart as it really is, and to be used of God to help produce a heart ruled by nothing else but God and his truth. (pg. 89)

As I contemplated the prospect of parenting a teenager, I knew I needed some guidance. In this book, Tripp gives just the right kind of guidance: a gentle turning of your face in the right direction, a system for clarifying your own parenting goals, an arm around your shoulders as one who’s been there. I’m now officially putting this one at the top of my recommended reading list for parents!

Regarding this book, I wrote an extensive review/interaction on my parenting blog. Read it *here*.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.

But of course we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.

I would have insisted that I read this book as a child, but now, I think not. It is so weird; surely, I would remember! Part Perelandra (C.S. Lewis), part The Giver (Lois Lowry), part The Matrix films, this book isn’t confusing, it’s just…far out. There are fantastical planets  and interplanetary travel, supernatural beings and well, a brain that sits on a dais and controls the world. Still, you’ll find some thought-provoking truths and excellent (if slightly dated) writing. Even in written description, some parts are too scary for young readers. Also, the vocabulary is rather advanced for a children’s book. If it were written today, I think this one would be Y.A.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

 The opposite of inspiration is…expiration?

He says a million things without saying a word. … I have never heard a more eloquent silence.

When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside–walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job.

I had seen a lot of buzz about this book recently, then my teenage daughter picked it up at the library. When she finished it, she said, “You should read this one, Mom.” That’s enough for me. Oh yes; it’s not only I who should read this. Every parent of a teenager should read it! Rarely have I felt so strongly about a book. The fact that it’s sarcastic, engaging, and beautifully written makes it easy to read…and hard to put down. Halse simultaneously captures the attitude of a fourteen-year-old and the pain of an abuse victim. Just read it. Then sit down with your teenagers (boys or girls) and talk about it as honestly as you possibly can.

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly

And Joseph, listening with eyes shining and heart throbbing, realized more at that moment than ever before how dear to him was his native land and all the customs that had been bequeathed by brave men and women who had made it great forever among all nations.

Set in medieval Poland, this Newbery Award Winner follows one young man through a tumultuous year in which his bravery and loyalty are honed. Mr. Kelly clearly loved Poland, so much so that his fiction is really more a story of the city than of the boy. Long, descriptive explanations entwine with (interrupt?) the plot. I enjoyed this book because I was an exchange student in Krakow, so I know many of the places he described. But it’s a slow read with lots of difficult vocabulary and sentence structure–probably the product of its age (pub. 1928). Technically, this one is definitely for the older children, even YA, but also thematically: it deals with alchemy and greed on the negative side, honor and oath-keeping on the positive.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The business of having a name was harder than it seemed. A name was of little use if no one would call you by it.

Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean you know nothing.

This Newbery Winner is an excellent introduction for the Middle Ages–especially for a girl reader. While informative, it’s also a journey of discovering one’s identity despite circumstances and challenges (which is probably why it won the Newbery). Cushman creates an endearing character in Alyce, who chooses her own name. Short and descriptive, preteen girls will especially enjoy this book.

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

“You know,” said Mom, “whenever I watch the waves, I always feel that no matter how bad things seem, life will still go on.” That was how I felt, too, only I wouldn’t have known how to say it, so I just said, “yeah.” Then we drove home.

Maybe he was just somebody whose mother packed bad lunches–jelly sandwiches on that white bread that tastes like Kleenex.

We picked this up at the library as a short read-aloud that was also a Newbery Winner. Well, it doesn’t function well as a read-aloud because it’s organized as letters and diary entries. There are some funny lines (such as the one above), but this is a serious book about a child of divorce as he processes through it. Parts were difficult to read, parts were sad. If, for some reason, you need to talk about divorce with your child, this book will give him or her vocabulary for the surrounding emotions. It’s also a story of every child’s disillusionment–that time when you realize your father isn’t perfect or indestructible. While a younger reader could manage the grammar and vocabulary, I wouldn’t recommend it for anything below fourth grade because of the content and imagery.

Wings of Fire: Escaping Peril by Tui T. Sutherland

In the end, it didn’t matter what other dragons thought of her; what mattered was learning to accept the dragon she was and then making herself the dragon she wanted to be–the long, hard, real way.

This is our family bowl-of-popcorn book series. We ALL read them, and this is number eight in the series. Don’t be put off by the fact that the main characters are dragons; you will completely forget that in the first two pages. The husband and I don’t read them just because the kids are. Sutherland always weaves a good story, with enough mysticism to be intriguing and enough truth to be referenced. Often, examples from this fantasy series surface in our family conversations because we have a common foundation of knowledge here. I know an advanced 2nd-grader and a grandmother who have enjoyed these books, which some people can read in a day.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

The country is suffering growing pains, just like some boys around here. Now, are you going to lie abed on such a morning as this? Or are you going to get up and help the world change?

A sudden wind came up, and Manjiro felt it blow right through him. He looked up at the hills of the town, ablaze with their momentary burst of autumn color. The most beautiful things of this earth are the most fleeting, he knew. This knowledge was no comfort now.

My 10-year-old had been urging me to read this for, like, a year. He promised it was one of the best books he’d ever read! I should listen to him more. Preus fictionalizes the true story of a Japanese boy who comes to America in the early-1800s, providing lots of historical facts and culture (always a bonus).  The book naturally falls into episodes as the protagonist experiences one adventure after another, making it easier for inexperienced readers. Such readers will also benefit from a relatively simple vocabulary along with a glossary. What makes this book exceptional, however, is its gentle but honest portrayal of two exceedingly different cultures…through the eyes of the boy who brought them together. TCKs (third-culture kids) in particular will value this one.


Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Crazy people who are judged to be harmless are allowed an enormous amount of freedom ordinary people are denied.

I served the tea with a smile sunk in concrete pilings.

They say you can’t really understand American literature without knowing the Bible, and this book is an excellent example of that connection. It’s the classic story of Jacob and Esau…except it’s not. The most-favored-child status only exists in the mind of the daughter who feels shunned. The prejudice is of her own making. So the story is at once familiar and fresh while the setting and the female main characters propel it further into uniqueness (without restricting it to a female audience). Ms. Paterson also creates some excellent imagery for teenage emotions that might help a teenage reader grasp his or her internal experiences. Whether you are reading to study the craft of writing, to seek change for yourself, or simply to enjoy a good story, this Newbery Award-winning book is an excellent choice.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Introverts…prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.

You get to a certain point in your life when you become comfortable with who you are even if it doesn’t match societal norms. Then someone comes along and tells you why you act the way you do and that such a personality is good. Quiet did that for me. While Cain validates all of us introverts in the US, this book would also be beneficial for friends/family of introverts and extroverts in general who want to understand those around them. In particular, there’s an excellent chapter on parenting cross-vert-ally (I made up that word) which I will probably reference frequently in later blog posts. Cain’s friendly, anecdotal style asks questions, then goes to research and interviews with experts to answer the questions. If you like Malcolm Gladwell’s books, you will like this.

Daniel Boone by James Daugherty

On the appointed day … Mr. Henderson from an imposing platform read the most elegant speech the old forests had ever heard. It was the grandfather of all the elegant speechifying that was to be made in Kentucky.

Being a curiosity annoyed [Boone] and he grew more and more uncomfortable in the raw new undergrowth of humanity sprouting up so rankly on the old hunting- and battlegrounds that were full of memories.

We picked up this 1940 Newbery Winner because one of my children was studying the Colonial period in social studies. Thankfully, we read it aloud, but even then it was difficult to comprehend (as you can see in the quotes above). The author writes in a flowery, figurative style that feels more like an archaic eulogy than a biography. What’s more, his racist attitude toward Native Americans requires frequent explanation. I would not recommend this book for any child, regardless of reading level.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell.

Revolution, Mr. Frazer thought, is no opium. Revolution is a catharsis; an ecstasy which can only be prolonged by tyranny.

“Let’s not talk about how I am,” Nick said. “It’s a subject I know too much about to want to think about it any more.”

We pulled into a parking space at the library but didn’t turn off the car because we were listening to a news story about Hemingway. It was one of those “driveway moments.” My daughter hadn’t even heard of him (She’s 12.), so I thought this set of short stories would be a good introduction. Glad I read it first! There’s some adult material in there; nothing raunchy, but not what I want my 12-year-old to read. The stories (of varying lengths) deal with real life’s real problems in Hemingway’s characteristically terse style. For me, it served as a reminder of what a short story is supposed to be and what good writing can do.

Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark

The new day waited breathless and beautiful for Cusi to walk through it from its blue dawning until its purple dusk.

The old man was laughing softly. “Of course you knew, but you had to find out that you knew.”

This is one of those older Newbery winners that has a different style to the writing. Some of the awkward phrasing make me think perhaps Ms. Clark’s first language isn’t English. If you can wade through the stylistic differences, however, you will find some nice imagery and a lot of history/culture to be learned here regarding the Inca, which is the best reason to read this search-for-identity story. Because of repetition in the telling and simple sentence structure, I think this would make a good read-aloud.

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

But the thing that had held her, the dream that had drawn her on, was the Hero’s Crown. It had nothing to do with her own blood and birthright as her mother’s daughter, nothing of personal vengeance; it was the idea of bringing the Crown back to her City, of presenting it to Arlbeth and Tor.

Maybe I’ve become a snob since I started learning about writing, but this book wore me out! The passive verbs, the superfluous descriptions and the awkwardly-turned sentences made the reading laborious. (I don’t care about variations in the servants’ uniforms.) The over-done themes and lazy plot resolutions made it disappointing. (A dog walks up with the eponymous crown.) Nothing against Ms. McKinley, but this is not up to the usual standards of the Newbery Medal winners. I felt like I was reading the first novel of someone who, having read Lord of the Rings, thought she would give it a try, then found a too-kind editor or a relative in publishing. In her defense, I suppose the literary world was different thirty years ago…and I learned a new word: asperity.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there–like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.

There’s no one line in this book that demonstrates, “This is why it’s such a good book.” Instead, Paterson creates this atmosphere of complete innocent love that pulls the reader into its grasp. She identifies so well with the main character that the reader (at least this reader) hurts with him and yes, even cries. This book gives voice to grief–a child’s voice which we can all understand, and for that, it deserves its Newbery Medal.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

For the life of him, he couldn’t figure why these East Enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black.

Grayson said, “Pitcher.” This word, unlike the others, was not worn at all, but fresh and robust. It startled Maniac.  It declared: I am not what you see.

Strangely, this book about a boy who runs and runs prompted me to slow down. Jeffrey (a.k.a. Maniac) perceives the town more authentically than those who have lived there forever, prompting the thoughtful reader to ask “why” of customs/habits in his own town. It’s a classic tall tale, full of slight exaggerations that could possibly be true, though not all in one person. And it’s a search for home: where is home? what does it mean to be home? who decides home for someone else? what happens when home is ripped away?  All in all, a thoughtfully written book (and a Newbery Medal winner) offering great opportunities to discuss racism, homelessness, respect for elders, hospitality/generosity, and rivalry.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DeCamillo

Poetry.  He liked the word–its smallness, its density, the way it rose up at the end as if it had wings.  Poetry.

The  shadows of the elm and the maple in the backyard entered the kitchen and flung themselves in purple lines across the floor.

Having read Despereaux, I was already a big fan of DeCamillo, and this book cemented my feelings!  Even though this book is for children, she takes time to create beautifully crafted sentences, the kind that I stop to re-read three or four times before I can continue.  This is a humorous, fantastical story–half comic book, half grammar lesson–that somehow conveys a gentle love to the reader.  It’s populated by extreme personalities that sometimes don’t even make sense.  Little kids probably feel that way about life, actually.  At times, the grammar geek in me giggled (There’s a brief rant about exclamation points!); at other times, the little girl in me wanted to cry right there alongside Flora on the horsehair sofa.  Sometimes we assume that we know a person’s feelings, and as this book demonstrates, it takes a crisis to show us the truth.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I’m not going to argue with you,” she retorted.  “But there’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way.  If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate.”

This is actually a fantastical short story now printed as a book.  My copy had some freaky illustrations in it.  There’s some social criticism about how we deal with those who are different (see quote above), but the primary theme is that we can’t help how we’re born and, to some extent, the things that happen to us.  It’s clean, so safe for students and, like most short stories, raises more questions than answers.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Basketball Rule #5:  When you stop playing your game you’ve already lost.

I can’t / remember the last time I smiled.  Happy is / a huge river right now and I’ve forgotten / how to swim.

We read this most recent Newbery Medal winner aloud, taking turns depending on whose mouth was full of dinner.  There were arguments over who would read the next poem!  What is it that makes poetry (even free verse) significantly more powerful than prose?  So many Newbery winners are coming-of-age stories that involve the death of a relative or friend, but this one is unique:  the poetry, the modern realism of it, the unspoken declaration that 7th-grade boys can be strong and weak, focused and distracted, straightforward and eloquent all at the same time.  This is a young man’s book that crosses sterotyped lines you didn’t know still existed in your mind.  Everyone who reads it will learn something.

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska

The earth of Andalusia . . . is part of the people who live not only on it, but with it, form part of it, seem to merge with it, to share with it their poverty and their joys, their struggles and their good luck.

Be what you are, and if you don’t yet know what you are, wait until you do.  Don’t let anyone make that decision for you.”

A boy with a destiny he didn’t choose searches to define himself without forfeiting the honor of his dead father and his community.  This is a book about honor and shame, tradition and pain, about popular concepts of bravery pitted against genuine courage.  The reader will learn much about Spanish culture–especially that surrounding bullfighting.  (There’s a glossary.)  The rhythm in the prose make it feel like storytelling.  As a Newbery Medal winner, Wojciechowska has given us a good read for boys and girls.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

“If people expect you to be brave, sometimes you pretend that you are, even when you are frightened down to your very bones.”

“Although there might be axe murderers and kidnappers in the world, most people seem a lot like us: sometimes afraid and sometimes brave, sometimes cruel and sometimes kind.”

In this Newbery Medal winner, Mrs. Creech draws the reader gently into the main character’s catharsis.  I found myself reading slowly, even closing the book because I felt the need to move through the story at the same pace as the events themselves.  Then, at the climax, I cried just like the thirteen-year-old narrator!  This is an honest and moving story of healing that, at the very least, creates empathy for those who have lost a parent.  Not for younger readers who might be unable to deal with the unreasonable but realistic fears of one primary character.

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

“And I slept, dreaming a perfect dream.  The fields had turned to a sea that gleamed like sun on glass.  And Sarah was happy.”

This is a quick read from the Newbery Medal list: a simple, sweet story that reveals much about frontier life in America.  A middle-grade girl narrates the story of her family “falling in love” with her father’s mail-order bride.  The imagery is rich–especially the author’s use of color–which adds interest for advanced readers, but younger readers will find the plot and vocabulary very accessible.

The Cat who went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

“It may be that there is a fierceness in love, and love in fierceness.”

This is an interesting addition to the Newbery Medal books (1931).  It describes a Buddhist artist’s creation of a religious painting as he is influenced by a kitten.  We read it aloud, which worked well because there’s a repetitiveness to it that almost feels like poetry.  Also, reading aloud gave us a chance to discuss the stories about Buddha as they were told.  It’s fairly short and very straightforward; even a younger child could understand it.  Having read so many of the Newbery books now, we often ask ourselves why a certain book won.  With this one, we think it must be for the simple but elegant language and the child-friendly portrayal of Buddhism.

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

“You said you trusted me,” declared the prince.  “But I can see you didn’t mean it.”  . . .  “I meant it–up to a point.”

Reminiscent of The Prince and the Pauper, this simply-told tale demonstrates that people can–and often do–change, even the brattiest prince you ever met.  It’s a quick read with clear morals and humorous secondary characters that lighten what could be a scary story of running away and getting kidnapped.  I would recommend this Newbery Medal winner for younger readers who can manage chapter books.  It would also make a good read-aloud if the reader enjoys using different voices.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

This Newbery Medal winner is a fun romp in the field of mysteries.  The reader plays along, collecting clues from various characters, resulting in a less-than-surprising ending.  Rather elementary in writing style, subject matter, and plot (plus an all-too-tidy epilogue in which every character has led a full and successful life), it would provide a good introductory mystery for an intermediate reader.

God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew

“Time and place are our own limitations, Andy; we mustn’t impose them upon God.”

“Every morning of every trip I consciously placed myself in God’s hands and tried, in so far as possible, not to take a step outside His will.”

“Persecution is an enemy the Church has met and mastered many times.  Indifference could prove to be a far more dangerous foe.”

We have been reading this book aloud for months, taking breaks for other books, but we always came back to it.  As I’ve said before, we must put the example of “all-in” believers in front of our children, and Brother Andrew helped me do that so well.  We didn’t expect to laugh so much, but most significantly, I heard one child saying to the other, “Remember when Brother Andrew . . .?”  This well-written book encourages and challenges on every page.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

“Things could change, Gabe,” Jonas went on.  “Things could be different.  I don’t know how, but there must be some way for things to be different.  There could be colors.”

Disturbingly banal.  That’s the description that came to my mind as I read this Newberry Medal winner (now a movie that I haven’t seen).  Simple words and simple sentences belie the depth and maturity needed to understand a world where utopian ideals have resulted in the most insidious dystopia–one in which the characters are not aware of their loss.  I can’t get this book out of head!  Put it on the shelf beside Farenheit 451.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.  The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

I confess that I feel into the hype surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s new book this month, and so I reread this classic.  The timing couldn’t have been better, with the recent massacre of African Americans in Charleston.  There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about a book that helps define our culture.  If you haven’t read it, or if you don’t remember it, read it now.

 The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

“At first the wind had been a tight fist, shoving us on, but now it was an open hand pushing us before it at such a rousing clip I felt my own arms had become wings as we flew across the water.”

“But as the blows fell, I became myself again.  That self had gone through such transformations, I could not claim to be altogether familiar with it.”

Fox’s Newbery Medal-winning novel describes the slave trade of 1840 through the eyes of a conscripted white child.  It’s a difficult and violent story (like the first half-hour of Amistad), told with compassion and insight.  Read it for the history, but don’t miss the beautiful metaphors along the way.

What is more, Fox spares a few chapters for “the rest of the story,” allowing her protagonist to grow up and, while permanently damaged, redeem his horrible experience.  There’s much here worth discussing.

Ruby Redfort:  Catch your Death by Lauren Child

“You gotta know the rules and then you gotta forget the rules, you know?”

This one was just for fun.  Child is a British author, most well-known for Clarice Bean and Charlie and Lola.  This series appeals to middle grade/early YA.  The story involves codes, which get your brain working (good for summer), and it’s a safe, quick read.

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

“Many friendships are born and maintained for purely geographical reasons.”

“Gazing and listening are all right for church, but they sure kill a lot of conversations.”

“How can you know what is missing if you’ve never met it? You must know of something’s existence before you can notice its absence.”

Mrs. Konigsburg captured the blunt and honest evaluations of life that can only come from children.  The rest of us (with the exception of E.L.K.) have lost our view into this world because we have complicated it for ourselves. This book was a delight to read–and not just because I have an exceptional sixth grader.  The characters introduce each other so that the reader gets to know them as fellow children.  The plot primarily centers around a two-hour period with flashbacks, which somehow exactly fits the story.  The imagery is exquisite.  Of all the Newberry Award books we’ve read, I put this one at the top of the list alongside The Tale of Despereaux.

The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds

“The darkness seemed to come down like the black cover of a closing book to hide them.”

The reading level on this Newberry Medal winner is lower than anything else I’ve read from the list.  It’s a simple story of one little boy’s courage on a very difficult day.  With lots of pictures and large print, it feels more like a short story than a novel.  This would be a good read-aloud for elementary-age students, especially those studying Colonial America.  Such students could be challenged to discuss darkness (like in the quote) as a recurring or thematic element.

Lincoln:  A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

“He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.  Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.” -Abraham Lincoln

This is another of the Newberry Medal books.  It was a refreshing deviation from the typical medal winner.  Using lots of quotes, Freedman traces Lincoln’s life in simple terms with memorable imagery–in words.  The pictures and other actual images are an added bonus.  I learned several new things about Lincoln’s life, including the fact that he was the first president to have a beard!

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

“We couldn’t understand them because of their southern accents.  They talked like their mouths were full of rubber bands!”

“I wondered if anyone else in history had ever been as sad as I was at that moment.  As soon as I wondered that, I knew the answer was yes.  The answer was that millions of people had been that sad.”

Simply written, like a child would tell a story, Kadohata’s Newberry Medal book chronicles the life of a Japanese-American family in the 1950s or 60s.  There are some touching insights into their personal struggles for equality, but the book is really a coming-of-age story (like so many of the Newberry Medalists).  In that sense, there’s nothing exceptional about it.  (Sorry.)  It reads quickly but a few topics render it more of a tween or teen book rather than a children’s book.  It might best be used to discuss discrimination with a group of young people.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Sometimes you just need to relax and read something that entertains.  Since I’ve read every book that Mr. Grisham has published (except the Theodore Boone series), I needed to catch up.  The story is good; think Suits meets Justified if it were television.  There’s a clear agenda or message regarding strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains.  Being from those mountains, perhaps it affected me more than it might affect someone else.  I read this one is a couple of days.

The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

This book took a long time to read, and I failed to mark any quotes.  On our Newberry Awards list (from 1923!), the style and pacing are dated along with the worldview–especially regarding the way we consider less developed cultures.  And of course, there’s a significant fantastical element in the fact that “the good Doctor” learns animal languages and communicates with animals extensively.  Still, it’s a fun read and very clean, if you have the patience to work through it.  By the way, it is NOTHING like the Eddie Murphy movies of the same name.

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

“There might be a life after death: a Heaven: a Hell.  The thought glowed in her mind for a second like a spark that has fallen on shavings, and then a second later, like those shavings, her whole mind was in a blaze–or with just enough left outside the blaze to utter some kind of protest.”

For most of this book, I was too busy absorbing the story to pay attention to lines I wanted to quote here.  This final book in Lewis’ science fiction trilogy is set on earth, post WWII.  It’s a completely different kind of story–more like A Clockwork Orange when the other two books were first-generation Star Trek–both science fiction, but so very, very different.  Still fascinating however, it raises questions about how much our decisions and behavior are influenced by “the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).  Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for pushing me to think more deeply about culture, circumstances, and spiritual life, but now I’m exhausted.

The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes

So they turned toward the hills, which were blue and purple in the setting sun–a shepherd, did he but know it, lives in halls more splendid than a king’s–and set forth upon their journey . . .

But life, alas, is no pattern drawn to scale.  The many interweaving threads are caught up in strange tangles, and over them, darkly and inscrutably, Atropos presides.

There’s a good story with interesting characters within the pages of this book, but the thing that makes it delightful is the author’s first-person comments.  It seems that, with the exception of The Tale of Despereaux, authors don’t do that as often as they used to.  This action-heavy book won the Newberry Medal in 1924, so several aspects of it are dated.  Lots of people die–some of them violently–making this not a book for the weak-stomached reader.  I would recommend it for children over ten years old.

Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

But each moment my opinion about sanity changed.  Had it ever been more than a convention–a comfortable set of blinkers, an agreed mode of wishful thinking, which excluded from our view the full strangeness and malevolence of the universe we are compelled to inhabit? The whole distinction between things accidental and things designed, like the distinction between fact and myth, was purely terrestrial.  The pattern is so large that within the little frame of earthly experience there appear pieces of it between which we can see no connection, . . . but step outside that frame and the distinction drops down into the void, fluttering useless wings.

Second in Lewis’ science fiction series, this is the most difficult book that I can recall having ever read.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis breaks things down into understandable chunks, but here, his mind wanders into depths of knowledge in which I cannot even tread water.  Even though I didn’t make the effort to understand every point, I gained a profound understanding of the struggle between good and evil that besets every human mind.  The philosophical/theological wonderings of his main character reflect the brilliance and wisdom of their author.  Bring on number three . . . but after my brain recovers!

The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller

Only out of the fear of the Lord Jesus will we be liberated to serve one another. Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself.

We hold Tim Keller in high regard in this house–especially for Prodigal God–so when he and his wife wrote a book about marriage, we were eager to read it.  So glad we did!  This is one of the best books on marriage that I’ve ever held in my hands.  Their premise (expounded beautifully) is that I can allow my spouse and my marriage to be agents of spiritual growth in my own life as well as a model of God for those around us.  There’s a lot more to it than that, actually, including an excellent treatment of headship and submission.  Also, Kathy Keller has quickly become one of my favorite women!  Just gotta find a way to New York so I can sit down with her . . .

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

One really good advantage about being dirt-poor is that you can’t afford to go to the doctor and get bad news. It’s like when you read a book and you know that the words are important, but the images blossoming in your imagination are even more important because it’s your mind that allows the words to come to life. I felt as if I were trapped inside that house, as if I couldn’t escape the broiling walls–as if my life and the life of that house were burning down together.  I stood there for a minute because that cruel moment had captured me in its tight fist . . ..”

Gantos has a way with words (which is why I included three quotes).  The story is simple yet just quirky enough to be believable–a summer-time coming-of-age story worth telling.  If you don’t read it for the interesting plot, read it for the exceptional craftsmanship.  Oh, and it’s the Newberry Award winner from 2012.

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Instead, the lifelong self-control of social man, the virtues which are half hypocrisy or the hypocrisy which is half a virtue, came back to him and soon . . . I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.

This is not an easy book to read.  Only 158 pages, but I spent well over a week in it.  Not that the story is difficult, but the writing is complex–moreso than Chronicles of Narnia.  I feel like my brain just had a good work-out and my soul a challenging game of strategy.  Where a simple man would cry, “Why can’t we all just get along?”, Lewis creates a weirdly wacky “alien” world into which an everyman falls and is forced by circumstance to challenge his most basic assumptions.  The contrasts with our own culture are clear, challenging the reader as well.  This one is worth the effort!

A Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor

No man is a failure who has friends. Any way you can offer a fellow being a new prospect is a kindness.

I thought this would be a fun, out-loud Christmas read for the family because Keillor is such a storyteller.  It was fun (and bizarre), but we quit the out-loud family part because certain sections were inappropriate and it just didn’t sound as good as it read–LONG words and undefined dialogue.  The message, with which I don’t actually agree, is that we must learn to accept Christmas for what it is in our culture and family.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

So we had an LOTR-themed holiday (2014).  No, we didn’t decorate with swords or orcs’ ears or elven silver.  We read Tolkien and played an LOTR video game.  (We were supposed to watch the movies as well, but someone–not me–didn’t finish reading the trilogy yet!) These books (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) are not the quick reads to which most of us have grown accustomed.  We read many microwave books:  a quick, forgettable fix that meets our need for diversion.  These are slow cooker books that nourish your whole self like homemade beef stew on a frigid winter day.  The names of people and places, of which there are many, are difficult.  Sometimes the stories get cumbersome.  It takes effort just to read them with understanding, and there are many partially buried lessons that require a bit of digging to unearth.  But it’s worth it.  This is what fantasy fiction is supposed to be:  a mad-house mirror that somehow reveals truth more clearly than the mirrors on our bathroom walls.

“The Red Inn” by Honoré de Balzac

Few men have the courage to invoke an evil, even when just or necessary, and men are silent or forgive a wrong from hatred of uproar or fear of some tragic ending.

In The Music Man, Marian (the Librarian) is accused of recommending Balzac to the teenage girls.  We just wanted to see what the fuss was all about.  According to my extensive five-minutes of research at Amazon.com, this is Balzac’s most well-known short story.  It’s an interesting read which raises more questions than answers–great for discussion!  There’s some blood and the potential for violence in one scene, but it’s certainly safe for teen and pre-teen girls, no matter what the “pick-a-little talk-a-little” ladies say.

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

We grabbed this one at the library a couple of weeks ago.  Nothing against Ms. Estes, but I think there must have been only a few children’s books published in 1951.  It is slow and simplistic with flashback-style digressions that don’t contribute to plot movement, and the illustrations are crude.  At times, the reader gets the impression that a child actually wrote and illustrated this book. . . but perhaps that was the original appeal.   I can’t recommend this one unless, like us, you are trying to read all the Newberry medal books.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.

So my daughter and I just wanted to see if this book was as good as the hype surrounding it.  It is.  On one level, it’s the simple story of a boy going to school for the first time, but there’s also complexity as characters develop and the story takes unexpected turns.  There is success and failure, hope and disappointment, trust and betrayal.  This book is worth far more than the time it takes to read it.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by e.l. konigsburg

Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time.  They don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.

Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.

So I’m still on my Newberry Medal books kick.  I thought I had read this one as a youngster, but I didn’t remember it at all.  Like The Tale of Despereaux, the author speaks directly to the reader, which I find incredibly engaging.  She also delivers the story in a very honest tone, striking that place in the reader’s heart where you (or I) always long for growth.  There’s no preachy, don’t-run-away-from-home lecture at the end, which was a delightful surprise as well.

Joyful Noise:  Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman

We enjoyed reading a poem or two from this collection (the 1989 Newberry Medal winner) aloud after dinner each night. “Book Lice” was our favorite . . . maybe because it reminded the kids of me and their father:  “We’re book lice attached despite contrasting pasts.”  The rhymes are fun and simple, but when the two voices read different words simultaneously, it can get confusing.

Onion John by Joseph Krumgold

The 1960 Newberry Medal winner, this is another coming-of-age story about a boy and his unusual adult friend.  It reminded me of that time when you come to understand (without being told) that there is no Santa Claus.  A couple of factual errors made enjoying this book more difficult for me.  For example, they poured concrete foundations and immediately began to build on top of them.  Impossible.  I’m hoping Krumgold’s other Newberry winner, . . . And Now Miguel, is better.

Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

It’s funny how ideas are, in a lot of ways they’re just like seeds.  Both of them start real, real small and . . . woop, zoop, sloop . . . before you can say Jack Robinson they’ve gone and grown a lot bigger than you ever thought they could.

This slice-of-life book is everything that it’s like this, cat isn’t.  A coming of age book about a boy, but this one has a distinctive beginning and end . . . and a whole lot of depression-era history thrown in.  There’s one difficult scene of child-on-child bullying/violence near the beginning that almost caused me to close the book, but it becomes very relevant and suggests a pattern of earlier abuse that strongly informs the story.  I could read this Newberry Medal book again right now.

Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

Determination, however, can take the place of patience, if earnestly applied.

Another Newberry Winner, this one from 1934.  This is a biography of Louisa May Alcott.  It’s a bit condescending in tone, but I think that was the style of the time.  Still, a very interesting read if you enjoyed Little Women.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.

We read this one aloud–fun!  The children were very engaged:  laughing, acting out parts, yelling at Tom.  A few times, we stopped to re-read a section just because it was so funny.  We followed it with the short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog just because we were enjoying Twain so much. Yes, there are some politically incorrect words and situations.  That’s part of the reason I wanted to read this book to them, and I read every word just like it was written.  When we came to such scenes, we stopped and talked about what was happening, giving me a chance to explain how our culture has changed and why we don’t say certain things any more.  Also, regarding words, this book has some serious vocabulary–a great foil for our dumb-it-down present-day culture!

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.

It’s like DiCamillo sat down and wrote a hug.  I’ve never before felt this way while reading a book.  It’s easy to see why it won the Newberry Award.

Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper

You don’t waste your life by where you work, but how and why.  (pg. 132) Jesus calls us to be aliens and exiles in the world.  Not by taking us out of the world, but by changing, at the root, how we view the world and how we do our work in it. (150)

I read this a couple of years ago, but a friend just returned it, so I was flipping through, looking at my markings, which leads me now to share a couple of the most significant quotes.  This book changed my life.  For real.

It’s like this, cat by Emily Neville

If your father died, I suppose you could face up to it eventually, but having him just fade out on you, not care what you did–that’d be worse.

Another Newberry Medal book, so of course, it’s very well-written.  Published in the ’60s (and thus, a bit dated, though that fact doesn’t hinder the story-telling), it is a coming-of-age story, a ‘slice of life’ without a clear beginning or end.  Having read it, I feel like one of those brain scientists who slice out a thin cross-section of some animal’s brain to study.  Except this time, it’s someone’s life.  There are some poignant parts, the most significant being that which I quoted above, and some good discussion topics:  boys/girls, changing friendships, father-son relationships, wealth.

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

“‘Daniel,’ [Jesus] said.  ‘I would have you follow me.’ “‘Master!’  A great burst of hope almost swept him to his knees.  ‘I will fight for you to the end!’ “Jesus smiled at him gently.  ‘My loyal friend,’ he said, ‘I would ask something much harder than that.  Would you love for me to the end?'” (pg. 225)

This was on our list of Newberry Medal books, and we chose it somewhat randomly.  What a deep yet delightful find!

Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf

“God left creation with deep untapped potential for cultivation that people were to unlock through their labor” (pg. 36). “Since we already have in Christ the things other people work for–salvation, self-worth, a good conscience, and peace–now we may work simply to love God and our neighbors.  It is a sacrifice of joy, a limitation that offers freedom” (73). “An idol is a good thing turned into an ultimate thing” (137).

I read this book because I respect Keller (Prodigal God, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness) and because God is walking me down this path of a holistic approach to life in which sacred/secular lines disappear.  This is clearly Keller and Alsdorf’s point.  The book gets rather long, however.  There are MANY supplemental points which give the text an academic tone that I haven’t seen in Keller’s other works.

I’m No Angel by Kylie Bisutti

“He doesn’t exist to serve me; I exist to serve Him.  . . .  When our lives are centered on living wholly for the Lord, the decisions we make will reflect that centeredness” (98).

This book is well-organized with a strong tone of authenticity.  I felt like I had sat down with a new friend and said, “Tell me your story.”  It’s a quick read–less than 24 hours for me.  I read it primarily because I have an 11-year-old girl, so discussions of appearance, modesty, and beauty are commonplace in our home.  Also, the idols of American culture have been bombarding me since we returned to the States, and I was looking for a clear, Christ-like voice in the middle of it all.  Thanks, Kylie. There are a couple of mature scenes, so I’m praying about whether or not my daughter should read it right away.  I haven’t done the devotions in the back.

Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt

“I might have caught a mild case of delusions of literary grandeur.”

We read this because we like Across Five Aprils so much, but this is the book for which Hunt won a Newberry Medal.  The story is good, with some challenging topics (like self-determination when you are a teenager), but in my opinion, it just doesn’t compare to Across Five Aprils.

I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino

“Art should be Truth; and Truth unadorned, unsentimentalized, is Beauty.” “The world is too full of foolish words that had best never been spoken.”

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

“Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?” “Every beauty of art or nature made him thankful as well as happy, and . . . the pleasure to be had in listening to fine music, as in looking at the stars in the sky, or at a beautiful landscape or picture, was a benefit for which we might thank Heaven as sincerely as for any other worldly blessing.”

Right Here, Right Now by Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford

“Integrated, incarnational spirituality also means that the gospel seeps into the nooks and crannies of our lives.” “‘The Jewish approach to Scripture is that we don’t read the Bible but rather that it reads us!’  . . .  Mere exposure to [the Word] does not change us into agents of the kingdom.” “More study does not always lead to deeper obedience.”

2 thoughts on “I just read . . .

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