Category Archives: children’s literature

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

Although I didn’t love this book, I did love the discussion Ende’s now-classic 1979 novel engendered in our mother-daughter book club. The layered symbolism, moral dilemmas, and sometimes puzzling plot provide much to ponder, question, and debate. Given that The Neverending Story, translated from German into English in 1983, originated in the land of philosophers and fairytales, its success on these points isn’t too surprising.

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I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Our mother-daughter book club recently elected to read this Newberry Award-winning 1965 historical novel. The reluctance registered by my fifteen-year-old, whose tastes incline heavily toward fantasy, was overridden by academically minded moms. But she soon found it much more interesting than she anticipated.

The 17th-century Spanish setting was, she said, so different as to seem almost another world. As the title suggests, the book is the fictional memoir of Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), an African slave inherited by Spanish court painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). The narrative devotes brief attention to Pareja’s early life, about which little is known. It then follows his journey into the household of Velazquez, who is soon summoned by King Philip IV of Spain to set up a studio in the palace.

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Winter Reading Roundup, Part II: Mystery and Middle Grade in WWII Britain

Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death, by Jill Paton Walsh (and Dorothy Sayers)

Though I’m not a Sayers expert, it seems to me Jill Paton Walsh carries off these post-Sayers Wimsey-Vane mysteries admirably. Sayers, it seems, lost interest in Thrones, Dominations after penning a partial manuscript and some notes. In 1986 the publisher approached Walsh with the manuscript, and she agreed to complete it. (Who wouldn’t?) The result is the first full-length work to pick up with Peter and Harriett’s married life in London. It follows Busman’s Honeymoon, set in Harriett’s hometown of Hertfordshire.

During WWII Sayers published some letters by members of the Wimsey family that provided the public with a glimpse of the Wimseys’ wartime life. These letters provided the inspiration as well as the opening chapters of A Presumption of Death. Harriett, her two children, her nephews, and a niece are back in Hertfordshire. Peter is on the continent doing (what else?) top-secret intelligence work. When a murder takes place during a village air raid, Harriett, of course, agrees to help with the investigation.

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D, by Michel Faber

The hidden-picture nature of this engaging middle-grade novel accounts for some portion of its appeal: Can you spot the echoes of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Lewis Carroll, and J.K. Rowling? (Not to mention a host of others with whom I’m likely unacquainted. Literary influences cited by the author alerted me to The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, which I plan to investigate soon.)

D’s protagonist, Dhikhilo, is the adopted daughter of a British couple who make limited appearances in the narrative. The fact that Dhikhilo is born in Somaliland and the presence of immigrants and travelers in her seaside town introduce a diversity theme that carries over into the fantasy realm of Liminus.

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Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri

I can’t remember the last time a book hijacked my day. Middle school, maybe? That was quite some time ago. Once, shortly after we were married, my husband came home from work and we started reading The Last Battle together aloud. We didn’t stop until we’d finished it. But that was only one evening.

Nayeri’s memoir exerted its magnetism on me through multiple channels–my personal interest in Nayeri’s home country of Iran; the myths and legends he seeds throughout the narrative; and the meandering nature of the storytelling, enticing the reader on, if for no other reason than to find out, “Where is he going with this?”

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The Mother Daughter Book Club series, by Heather Vogel Frederick

Since my daughter and I and our book club just finished Heather Vogel Frederick’s Home for the Holidays, it seemed like a good time to review this series that we have been enjoying for more than four years now.

I stumbled across Much Ado about Anne (book two in the series) while looking up L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books at the library. We quickly fell in love with Frederick’s highly relatable characters and situations and their Concord, Massachusetts, setting. Not unlike the Harry Potter series, the books begin with the main characters in sixth grade, covering one year per book (with a couple of exceptions) and seeing them through high school. Since my daughter was a fourth grader at the time, we took a couple of breaks to let her catch up with age of the book characters.

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Fairy stories of George MacDonald

The intuitive outcome of my February 2020 reading was a resolution to make George MacDonald a literary staple of future winters. A logical accounting of what makes his fairy stories particularly suitable for the season, however, has proved more elusive.

MacDonald’s fairy tales are by no means escapist. Some, like “The Wise Woman,” are unscrupulously didactic. Nor does it do them justice merely to call them “hopeful,” in contrast to much contemporary literature I have run across of late. Continue reading

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Pandemic Reading: Free Literature Online

If you’re like me, all that “down time” you anticipated when quarantine began has quickly filled up with house and yard projects and cooking the sort of meals one doesn’t have time to prepare when running kids around to activities. But in case you–and your kids–are looking for books online, Audible is offering a selection of free audiobooks in multiple languages for elementary kids, tweens, and teens, as well as a limited selection of classics: https://stories.audible.com/discovery. Some of the tween and teen books have adult appeal as well, like Jane Eyre and several titles by C.S. Lewis.

In addition, Revelation Media released an animated “Pilgrim’s Progress” last year that is worth watching. It is available free for streaming until April 30: https://www.revelationmedia.com/watchpilgrims/CTWP1/. I recommend it for upper elementary/middle schoolers and up.

I’m reading Pride and Prejudice with my thirteen-year-old, and all three of us are reading True Grit as a family. Here’s something to contemplate while wrapping my saplings in deer-proof fencing: What do Elizabeth Bennet and Mattie Ross have in common?

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The Large Rock and the Little Yew, by Gregory Ahlijian

This remarkable picture book inspires both through its message and through its very existence. Retired arborist Gregory Ahlijian has been volunteering at the Jasper Mountain facility for abused children for several years. The students he has encountered there (ages 6 to 13) inspired him to write this picture book about overcoming adversity. Ahlijian financed the printing, the editing, and the remarkable artwork by Janna Roselund and is now donating the full retail price to Jasper Mountain.

The Large Rock and the Little Yew tells the story of a yew seed that falls into a deep crack in a large boulder. When the seed begins to sprout, the boulder continually insists that it will never survive in the outside world. In the end, the yew overcomes the odds and grows into a large tree with roots that surround the boulder. An actual tree in England served as a model for the story; a photo appears at the end of the book.

Ahlijian draws on his professional knowledge of trees in crafting what is really an extended parable. He also infuses it with the values he works to impart to the young people he mentors at Jasper Mountain: respect, confidence, thankfulness, courage, determination, kindness, generosity. The Large Rock demonstrates that hardships are not just obstacles to be overcome; they provide opportunities to grow and develop strength. The Epilogue points out that were it not for the rock, the yew tree would be just another tree in the forest, rather than an awe-inspiring testimony to the power of nature.

On April 28 from 3 to 5 p.m., The Book Nest (inside Indulge! at 1461 Main St., Springfield, OR) will host a reading and signing with Ahlijian. In addition, we will raffle off an original painting by Springfield artist D. Brent Burkett, the proceeds of which will also benefit Jasper Mountain. More information about Ahlijian’s book is available on his site: http://www.littleyewtree.com/.

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Psalms for kids

Call me ignorant, but I wouldn’t have turned to France in search of contemporary Christian literature for kids. Nevertheless, I recently discovered two great books of Psalms rendered for children that both have roots in France.

Sing a New Song (Eerdmans, 1997) is a collection of single lines from the psalms, paraphrased, combined, and illustrated by Bijou Le Tord. The book reads like a single psalm, even though the phrases have been selected from various psalms and recombined. Le Tord was born and raised on the French Riviera; she now lives in Sag Harbor New York.

Psalms for Young Children (Eerdmans 2008) is a translation of Les Psaumes pour les tout-petits (Bayard Editions Jeunesse 2003). The themes, ideas, and images from selected psalms have been distilled into language accessible to children by Marie-Helene Delval and illustrated by Arno. Unfortunately, Eerdmans does not identify a translator (unless it was Delval herself ).

Some might object to the liberties taken with the text of these two books, but I think they are a great way to introduce children to the concrete imagery, themes, and language of the psalms. The original psalms might connect with some children, but most, I suspect, have trouble identifying with the language  and focusing their attention through an entire psalm. In contrast, after we had read Psalms for Young Children once through (in a number of sittings), my five-year-old started making requests like, “Read the one with the mother hen with her chicks,” or “Read the one that says you always forgives me when I do wrong things.'” It even inspired her, eventually, to write her own “psalm.”

We’ve also enjoyed a third book in a similar vein: Regolo Ricci’s illustrated version of the twenty-third Psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd (Tundra Books, 2007). My daughter and I both loved the rich illustrations of nature and farm life in bold hues, set into intricate borders. The text is based on the King James Version of the Bible. Ricci, as his name suggests, is Italian born, raised in Italy.

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