Favorite Children's Books in 2016

My wife and I try to make books and book time valuable in our home.  Reading is something you get to do after you do the things you have to do. So that means a lot of reading with mom and dad. Or at least we attempt. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite books for our family in 2016. These weren't school books or books. Contrary to the blog title, these books may not have been written in 2016. These were just some of the books I enjoyed reading to my children last year. Did they enjoy them? I think so, but you'd have to ask them.  

Wise Words by Peter Leithart is a book of short stories that bring Proverbs to life.  Each story is captivating and well-written.  The moral of each proverb/story comes through without seeming forced.  I originally hoped this would be a mealtime book. Fail. The stories are too long for that. 

Over several months (and with too many breaks) I read my son N.D. Wilson's book The Dragon's Tooth. It's the first in his Ashtown Burials series. Like many of Wilson's books, this book is too peculiar to try to summarize here. But if you like are looking for a modern-day fantastical novel, my son and I both recommend it. It's intense, supernatural, and even ties in some history. I love how combines world history and fantasy into the story of a brother and sister in Wisconsin.  Warning: Wilson's story-telling is not for the faint of heart.

I collect signed books. A few years ago (and two less children) my wife and I stood in line to have Sally Lloyd-Jones sign our newly purchased copy of Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing. When our turn came she asked who the book was for. We told her our (then three) children's names. "Oh, those sound like movie star names," she said in her lovely British accent. That has nothing to do with the book except to say we love our copy even more. The book is a collection of very short reflections on God's love, prayer, grace, etc. I marvel at Sally's ability to say so much so beautifully in so few words.  

Finding a chapter book that holds my daughters' attention is difficult. I gladly took the recommendation of another dad of daughters and picked up the The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy. There isn't any great plot to follow or morals to learn. I'll remember this book as the first book that captured my daughters attention and had them asking for more.

Of course, Kevin DeYoung's The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings us Back to the Garden (2015) was delightful. The artwork is stunning. The pace of the book is just right. The biblical content engaged the broad age-range of my children. I remember one of my seminary professors commenting on the need for the church to return to grounding itself in the basics. Books and publications, rightfully so, can become so specialized or nuanced over time that the forest is lost for the trees. Over time we can lose our rootedness to the most basic truths of Scripture. I'm thankful for good books like this one that tell the large story of Scripture. You should also check out the animated version of the book!

Book Review: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Having just finished Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, I shall attempt my first review of fiction.  Actually, "meanderings" may be a better word than "review." 

Cry, the Beloved Country is the story Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest from a small village in South Africa who spends all his savings to track down his prodigal son in Johannesburg.  It's a beautifully written story of humanity, suffering, and hope.

I love that Paton's writings are from a world (literally) different from my own. It's not simply the geography of strange land or even different language (he preserves much Zulu) or even lives full of trials so foreign from my own that are captivating.  It's that the rhythm and cadence of the book are entirely different than my own experience and anything I've read.  It has a different feel to it. I think other people have used the word "lyrical" to describe the book and I would agree. 

Even though the world and language and suffering are alien to me, the book is still compelling because the complexities of the human soul are not.  Paton beautifully captures the turmoil of humanity, the tension between the evil without and the evil within. As Kumalo plods through the nearly ubiquitous injustice in South Africa  (racism, prostitution, corrupt politics, etc.) and reach of sin into his own family, it is often his own soul that plagues him most.  His temper.  His deception.  His lack of faith. Where many books attempt to be "real" they end up with characters that are somehow subhuman.  But Paton's characters and dialogues do not suffer from this.  In fact, it is his exposition of human suffering that is the most real and one of the reasons I find the book so beautiful. In the book, Stephen Kumalo's life becomes eternally intertwined with white man James Jarvis, who is mourning the loss of his murdered son, Arthur. One of the most moving moments in the book is when Jarvis reads the last writings of his son. Arthur (whom we never meet in the book) was an activist for reconciliation between black and white South Africa and wrote passionately for the cause. Only minutes before his untimely murder Arthur penned some of my favorite words, "I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right...I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. (198)." The scene sums up the weightiness of the whole book. Jarvis, who had more or less ignores his son's activism seems to realize that when his son was murdered more than a man died. Hope died.  

Yes, God save Africa, the beloved country. God save us from the deep depths of our sins. God save us from the fear that is afraid of justice. God save us from the fear that is afraid of men. God save us all
— Cry, The Beloved Country, p. 249.

But true hope cannot die. New hopes are born even in suffering. This hopefulness is what makes the book so beautiful.  It is not a naive hopefulness but a hope shaped deeply by understanding the world and the cross. Near the end of the book one of Kumalo's friends says to him (another of my favorite lines), "I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering, umfundisi [Zulu for priest]. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering (p. 251)."  

I read Cry, the Beloved Country on my wife's recommendation because it is one of her favorites.  I'm glad she made me read it. 

From the Bookshelf: My Favorite Books in 2014

The Secret Thoughts on An Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Butterfield.

What drives me in reading a books isn’t information.  It’s experience.  In books,  I live in different world and see through different eyes.  One of the most profound books I experienced this year was Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  By the time she was in her thirties Rosaria was a tenured professor at a university, a published author, and a premier voice within her field of study.  Her area of expertise was queer theory.  Rosaria was a lesbian in a committed relationship, an activist for the gay community, and a scholar in the field.  Secret Thoughts is the story of her conversion to Christianity.  Actually, she says conversion is too trite a term.  Rather, it was a “train wreck.”  As an English scholar, she crafts words and thoughts with beauty often not found in Christian literature today.

Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson

Speaking of crafting words, Doug Wilson’s little book for writers was a work of art. Wilson unpacks seven principles for aspiring writers and models talented writing in the process. Don’t let the fact that this books is for writers steer you away from it.  Watching an artisan at work brings joy even if you don’t plan to learn the trade.  So it is with reading writers on writing.  My wife and I found ourselves laughing out loud frequently as we read this. We enjoyed this book so much we will be revisiting it again soon.  

Unbroken - Laura Hildebrand.  

I’m a sucker for those “read the book before the movie” lists. And when multiple tell me this is one of the best books they’ve ever read, I usually read it. If you haven’t read the book or seen a preview for the movie, Unbroken is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete and WW2 veteran.  Louie’s bomber crashed in the Pacific, killing all but three. After 47 days drifting in a raft he was captured and imprisoned in the most despicable of Japanese POW camps.  I cannot say that a I liked this book.  I do not revel in reading about the pervasive suffering of others.  But I am glad I read this book.


Concerning Christian Liberty by Martin Luther

Some of the most helpful advice I’ve received about thinking through difficult life or theology issues is to read a different generation.  It is helpful advice because it reminds me there’s nothing new under the sun, and it gives a perspective not clouded by contemporary thinking.  So this summer as our church studied passages commonly associated with “Christian liberty” I thought it best to go back about 500 years for study.  Too often we associate “Christian liberty” with supposedly gray areas in the Christian life (movies, music, etc.).  But historically, Christian liberty is not freedom to do, but freedom from the Law.   Concerning Christian Liberty was richly theological and deeply devotional.

Harry Potter (books 4-7) In June 2013, I began my time at Hogwarts. I finally finished this fall, and boy was my wife happy to have me back! Rowling is still no Lewis, and I often found myself longing for more redemptive writing, but the world J.K. Rowling created was seamless and mesmerizing. Seven very long books with the same characters, same villains, and growing plot—this is just good, fun writing! Yes, many Christians do boycott the Harry Potter books for witch and wizard themes.  While I’ll have to explore this some other time, I found their arguments unconvincing. The more prominent danger of Harry Potter, at least for myself, was not the magic but how easy it was to become entrenched in another unreal world.  

\Here are other great nonfiction books I read: Taking God At His Word by Kevin DeYoung Embracing Shared Ministry by Joseph Kellerman; Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith;   The Lord’s Supper edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright.  Another fiction book I loved was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.