Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Well, apparently it's book month.  I didn't plan it that way, but after weeks of illness, perhaps gushing over my favorite books requires the least amount of energy and provides the most therapeutic joy.  Oh, and I also wanted to get some book ideas out there prior to advent and the start the Christmas gift buying season.


A highlight of our advent season is the unpacking of our box of beautiful Christmas books.  They, like our favorite ornaments, embody the ghosts of Christmases past.  Each holds a dear memory - curling up by the fire with hot chocolate in hand, the twinkle of Christmas tree lights dappling the ceiling, babes in footed fleece pjs cuddling on mommy, or the "remember whens" represented by many of the vacation-purchased ornaments.  Out of that box of books, we unpack love, anticipation, excitement and tradition, and every year, we look forward to carefully choosing and adding a new addition or two.  

A few years ago, we began a new Christmas tradition.  The kiddos open their sleepy eyes Christmas morning to find a small stack of books sitting at the foot of their beds.  The day starts peacefully, as they enjoy exploring the newest additions to their libraries.  Mom and Dad also happen to benefit from a little more sleep before the present-opening festivities begin.  We do love our books!

Here are a few of our favorite Christmas books, and two new ones we'll be adding to the family:

12.  We're looking forward to receiving a copy of Russ Ramsey's new book Behold the Lamb of God.  For those of you who are familiar with Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God Christmas concerts, this is written with the same heartbeat.
"When Andrew Peterson sings 'Behold the Lamb,' three worlds collide:  ours, Abraham's and Jesus'.  Russ Ramsey's book opens the doors between those worlds and helps us bring them together."  Michael Card
Behold the Lamb of God can be used either for personal reflection or as a family devotional during advent.  The jury is out regarding the book's inaugural use in our home (I may selfishly monopolize this first year),  but I look forward to incorporating it into our annual Christmas reading list.

If you would like to download a free preview of Behold the Lamb of God or place an order, you can visit here.  There is also an option to bundle the book along with the CD, which makes a great Christmas present for those who are unfamiliar with Andrew Peterson's music.  You really can't go wrong with an amazing songwriter (Peterson) and a fellow-appreciator of Rembrandt (Ramsey).  

11.  If you have young ones in your life, you won't want to miss Sally Lloyd-Jones' new picture book Song of the Stars.  Our copy is in the mail, so I can't yet testify as to its beauty and warmth; however, I have the fullest confidence that I will soon be able to do so.  
"The Psalms tell us that the created order now declares the glory of God (Psalm 19 and 65) and then when Jesus returns even the trees will sing for Joy (Psalm 96).  How fitting, then, to imagine the animals and stars sensing and rejoicing in the coming of Christ for the first time.  This is a lovely book!"  Tim Keller

Perfect for young ones, or those who are young at heart.  You can purchase Song of the Stars here.

10.  A few years ago, a dear friend loaned a copy of Jotham's Journey to us for use during advent, and I was not prepared for the significant impact that reading it would have on our family.  Jotham's Journey is the first of a trilogy in which Arnold Yuletide weaves together the story of a young boy, his friends and their adventures leading up to the birth of Christ.  In reading these books, we're able to pull away from the hectic pace and distraction of our society in order to stop and consider the world into which Jesus was born.  A world ruled by the Roman Empire, a world of oppression, a world of political domination, a world of slavery... a world in need of a Savior.  Far from the typical peaceful manger scenes found in many children's books, Jotham's Journey  is rich in suspense, danger, anticipation, and confusion around the events that take place.

Each of the three books ( Jotham's Journey, Tabitha's Travels and Bartholomew's Passage) represents the viewpoint of one of the three friends, and the books don't necessarily need to be read in a particular order.  We read one each year, and I'm amazed by the corroborating details that the children remember from prior years.  Each chapter is to be read on a given day during advent and has a short devotional at it's end.  Given the intense nature of the political and social climate, I wouldn't recommend that they be read to children younger than elementary age.  There is enough substance and depth that these books would easily be enjoyed and appreciated by those without children in the home.  

You can order Jotham's Journey or its sibling books here.

9. The Birds' Christmas Carol is a heart-warming story about a little girl, who although sick and bedridden, embodies gratefulness and unselfishness as she plans a Christmas celebration for a needy neighboring family.  Written and published in 1887, this book whisks the reader back to the Victorian era, yet the love, compassion, and humorous family dynamics shared are timeless.

*You can download The Birds' Christmas Carol for free at

8.  The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald.  How can you go wrong...

7.  We recently discovered This Way to Christmas by Ruth Sawyer.  In this delightful folktale, a young boy is sent away to live on a lonely mountain during the war.  As he gradually befriends his neighbors, he hears their tales of Christmas celebrations from other cultures.  I'd recommend that this book be read aloud, as there are a few sections which deal with prejudice, and some of the terminology merits discussing (or avoiding if you're reading with young children).  As one would expect, all ends well as the diverse, superstitious, isolated neighbors discover and enjoy community.

6.  Plum Pudding for Christmas by Virginia Kahl is pure fun.  True to her other books, it is written in rhyme, and is delightfully witty.  The king is away, and all chaos breaks loose when one of his many daughters eats the last plum in the kingdom.  How will a fitting Christmas celebration be possible?  Although out of print, it's fairly easy to find on Amazon, ebay, or

5.  Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl Buck is probably the least-known yet has become one of my most-loved books among the list.  This simple picture book depicts an unspoken, yet deeply felt love between a father and a son. The young boy makes a selfless choice in order to show his father the depth of his appreciation, and they are both blessed deeply as a result.  Life is found when one lays down his own comfort on behalf of another.  I cry every time I read it out loud.  

4.  A Tale of Three Trees reminds us that God's plan often differs from our own expectations and dreams - yet it is always best.  A beautifully-illustrated book that can (and should) be read during both the Christmas and Easter seasons.

3.  The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean is ideal for children of elementary age through adults, and can be used as a family or personal devotional during advent.  As an old man whittles away at creating a Jesse Tree for his church, each symbol carved introduces a story from the lineage of Jesus.  We are reminded that all of history, beginning in the Garden of Eden, was in preparation for the One who would come to save us.  

2.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  It just gets better through the years.

*You can download A Christmas Carol for free at

1.  The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston will forever be one of our "staple" Christmas books.  It's simple, sweet story about an Appalachian family which is preparing for Christmas while at the same time longing for the father, who has yet to return from the war.  It's a story of hope, family, faith, perseverance, and Christmas miracles.

Wow.  That was harder than I thought it would be.  I feel compelled to console the books that didn't make the list by assuring them they'll be included next year.  Hmmm.  

If you're a lover of books, I hope that you've found something new to add to your collection.  If you're not, I'd invite you to discover a new treasure to add to your Christmas memories.


During a season that is marked by food prepared to delight the palate, decorations hung to please the eye, and music played to bring joy the ear, it seems fitting that we carefully choose and read books which will nurture the soul.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Foundational Five: Poetry

"Genuine poetry can communicate before it can be understood."
T.S. Eliot 

As I was pulling out my favorite books and resources on poetry, I was convicted.  I’m an idealist.  The world of beauty, goodness, well-chosen words and pursuit of truth is the world in which I aspire to invite my children.  I love poetry.  I’m thrilled that my children share some semblance of that same sentiment.  But as with so many other lofty aspirations, I’ve allowed the “necessary” to crowd out the routine enjoyment of our sharing poetry together. 

In writing this post, I've been reminded… of the wonder of childhood… of the joy found in falling in love with words… of the magic of language.

In the spirit of repentance,  I dutifully dug through a shelf crowded with binders, loose papers and workbooks to extract our book used for poetry memorization (more on that later).  My children’s responses to the sight of the book were delightful.  They clamored to recite long-forgotten verses.  They wanted more.

Why poetry?

“Poetry is the liveliest use of language, and nobody knows more instinctively how to take delight in that playfulness than children.”    
Serious Play:  Reading Poetry with Children

Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, and Sam I Am.  Although it may have been years (or decades) since we’ve intentionally invested our time in reading poetry, most of us can recall these childhood rhymes with little to no effort.  They’ve been stored deeply within our memories alongside Christmas carols and favorite birthday presents.  Memorizing them came at no cost – we loved the words, the rhythm, the beautiful illustrations, and the endless repetition which provided comfort in a sometimes-unpredictable world. 

Poetry invites us into a magical realm where individual words, each which alone have only their assigned meaning, can be arranged in such a way as to result in a thing of beauty… or mystery… or cleverness.  To discover and enjoy poetry with our children is to cultivate their love for language.

Poetry can provide a vibrant thread to be woven into the unique fabric of our family culture.  When asked, “Who left the door open?”  I’ll often get the clever response ”Mr. Nobody.”  "Jonathan Blake" who ate too much cake can serve as a warning for all those consuming too many sweets. “I eat my peas with honey” (the opening to a clever poem taken from Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin) is recited when those particular veggies are served for dinner, and it wouldn’t be Christmas without A Visit from St. Nicholas

In addition to igniting our children’s love for language and enriching our family life, poetry provides the added benefit of contributing to their intellectual growth.
There is perhaps no greater tool than memorization to seal language patterns into a human brain, and there is perhaps nothing more effective than poetry to provide exactly what we want: reliably correct and sophisticated language patternsBy memorizing and reciting, you practically fuse neurons into permanent language storage patterns. Those patterns are then ready to be used, combined, adapted, and applied to express ideas in a myriad of ways. Additionally, because of the nature of poetry, poets are often compelled to stretch our vocabulary, utilizing words and expressions in uniquely sophisticated—but almost always correct—language patterns.”  Andrew Pudewa

We enjoy using A Word Well Spoken… Linguistic Development Through Poetry Memorization (found here) by Andrew Pudewa.  This thin spiral-bound book gives simple strategies for memorization and is divided into four sections, each with twenty poems.  The level of difficulty and length of the poems increase with each level, beginning with such fun poems as "Ooey Gooey Was a Worm" and ending with "The Hunting of the Dragon" by G.K. Chesterton.  Although children may occasionally memorize poems for school assignments, this approach allows a family to enjoy the process together.  A few minutes a day (perhaps right before dinner)  2-3 days a week is all the time required.  We have also found the companion CD helpful, particularly for young children to listen to during naptime or rides in the car. 

Some of our favorite books of poetry:

~Book of Nursery & Mother Goose Rhymes by Marguerite de Angeli
~Mother Goose by Kate Greenaway

~A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa or Tasha Tudor)

~The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne 
~Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book for Young Children by Christina Rosetti
~Animals, Animals by Eric Carle

~Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O'Neill 
~The Beauty of the Beast by Jack Prelutsky
~The Complete Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear
~Poetry for Young People by Emily Dickinson (includes fun "riddle" poems of nature)
~Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot (especially fun if you've shared the music from Cats with them)

Additional resources:
Jim Weiss audio Cds including Famously Funny - A Beloved Collection of Stories & Poems 
Blackstone Audio Cd collection Winnie-the-Pooh 
Dover Publications coloring book of A Child's Garden of Verses

When we share the gift of poetry with our children, we are giving them an inheritance of deep love for language. It is a gift to be enjoyed while they are young, appreciated as they grow older, and passed on to future generations.

*This is post one of what will eventually be five postings on foundational genres of literature for children.  More on the backdrop for those discussions can be found here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

First of the Foundational Five: The Bible

This is the first of what will eventually be five postings on foundational genres of literature for children.  More on the backdrop for those discussions here.


During our children's early years, we have the great privilege of introducing the world to them, bit by bit.  As we begin exploring the literature that shapes the minds and souls of our young ones, we'll start at the very beginning... with the book that introduces the great themes found in all literature...  with the most published and widely read book of all time - the Bible.

There is an increasing acknowledgement, even in secular circles, that Biblical literacy is an important part of a well-rounded education. "The Bible's influence is impossible to ignore. There are more than a thousand Biblical references in the works of Shakespeare alone. John Milton, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, all drew on the Bible, too.  Then there's Rembrandt, Chagall, da Vinci, who all put the Bible on canvas.  Even the Declaration of Independence alludes to the Bible." The Bible as Literature (CBS News). 

In addition to classical literature, Biblical references are plentiful in pop culture as well.   Leonard Cohen's ballad "Hallelujah," which has been performed by Justin Timberlake on an MTV telethon and K.D. Lang during the 2010 Olympics opening ceremonies, weaves together allusions to King David and Bathsheba as well as Samson and Delilah.   Virtually all aspects of our culture - sports, politics, movies, television, popular literature - are influenced to varying degrees by the Bible.

Well-written stories provide insight into the answers of life's fundamental questions such as "Who is God?" and "Who is man?" You can't get much more foundational than that.  Our views of the world, ourselves, and others are shaped by what we believe to be the answers to those questions.  The Bible answers virtually all of the "big" questions in life - even if the answer is to have faith in that which we do not fully understand.  

Currently, we live in a country where we have endless choices from which we can select children's Bibles.  A search for "children's Bibles" on, for example, yields over 31,000 results.  How do we begin to narrow down the plethora of choices? 

Here's a start:

For those who are young or old, those with no Bible knowledge or those who have seminary degrees, I highly recommend The Jesus Storybook Bible (JSBB) by Sally Lloyd-Jones.  This is far from your typical storybook Bible.  Here’s a window into its uniqueness:

“No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes.  The Bible is most of all a Story.  It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure.  It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.   It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!  You see, the best thing about this Story is – it’s trueThere are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story.  The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”

With that as the setting for the greatest of love stories, Sally Lloyd-Jones takes complex theological truths and distills them to their simplest form.  Her approach to writing is based on the premise that “Nothing but excellence should be the standard for children.  The quality of literature should be higher (than that for adults) because the responsibility is greater… A story that takes children seriously uses rich language that invites imagination.”

Throughout the Jesus Storybook Bible, we’re invited into The Great Story through rich language, vivid illustrations, and profound Biblical truth.  Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the JSBB is the way in which Sally Lloyd-Jones masterfully, consistently weaves the heart of the Great Story, the Father coming back for his children, throughout each of the Old Testament stories.  The power and uniqueness of the JSBB are authenticated by the depth and breadth of the ways it is currently being used:

~THEOLOGIANS using it as their Bible study text
~JAPANESE BUSINESS men studying it before work
~CHINESE PROSTITUTES as part of their healing process
~PUBLIC SHOOLS after-school programs in Alabama public schools
~PASTORS using it to help them preach
~ELDERLY PEOPLE reading it in retirement homes
~LITERATURE classes using it as a set text (Calvin College)
~COUPLES using it for their devotions together
~EVANGELISM initiatives using it to introduce Jesus to different faith communities
~COLLEGE STUDENTS using it as their Bible study text
~FOOTNOTES in theological books referencing it

I had the great pleasure of meeting Sally Lloyd-Jones several weeks ago.  Her inscription in our family JSSB speaks to the heart of the gospel:

  "To the Silander Family - This story is for you." 

 And it's for YOU. 

 And it's for ALL.

For more information on JSSB, including video clips, free audio downloads, and ordering information, visit here.

Another resource that has become a staple in our home library is the The Child's Story Bible (CSB) by Catherine F. Vos.  The book was a result of her search for a Biblically accurate children's Bible when her children were young.  After finding only watered-down versions of Bible stories, Vos began writing with the goal of  producing a theologically-correct, yet accessible depiction of the Bible for her own children.  Her vision, however, took longer than expected.  The Children's Story Bible was not completed until she was a grandmother. 

You could view the CSB as an intermediate version of the JSBB.  Similarly to Sally Lloyd-Jones, Catherine Vos weaves the ultimate theme of the Bible throughout her recounting of the individual stories.  She takes a chronological approach to her telling of Biblical events by grafting complimentary stories from related Biblical passages, and consolidating them into topical chapters.  For example, the Chapter "The End of the Kingdom of Israel" pulls content from II Kings 16,17 and II Chronicles 28.  The chapter "Jesus' Last Word to His Disciples" assimilates corresponding passages from all four gospels.   

After years of attending in-depth Biblical studies, it was not until I read the CSB with my children that I experienced "a-ha" moments in piecing together individual stories in the Bible.  It reads like a novel, and succeeds in giving an accurate, comprehensive picture of Biblical history.

Our young ones have also enjoyed the Read Aloud Bible Stories by Ella K. Lindvall.  There are four volumes in the series, as well as the Parables Jesus Told:  Tell Me Stories.  Each volume contains five stories from the Bible which are written in large print, telling in sing-song fashion the fundamental truths of each story.   Written for pre-schoolers, the narrative paints a picture of the scene and invites the listener to step in and experience the action.  

The simplicity and directness of these stories speaks powerful truths to the old and young alike.  They are a wonderful addition to the resources mentioned above, and are perfect for new readers who want to read from "their own" Bible.

There is no greater gift that we can give our children than a winsome invitation into the life-long love story written by the Author of all Hope.