Category Archives: Best Books

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Wow.  That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about Locomotive by Brian Floca.  This is a nonfiction picture book that manages to pack an epic story–the building of the transcontinental railroad–into the interesting narrative of a family making their own transcontinental journey on that very railroad.  In other words, the information about the railroad is interwoven throughout the family’s journey much as if they have their own personal historical  guide they’re sharing with the reader.   The story itself is written in a very poetic prose that verges on pure poetry both in sound, rhythm, and format:

Up in the cab–small as a closet, hot as a kitchen–

it smells of smoke, hot metal, and oil.


The fireman keeps the engine fed.

He scoops and lifts and throws the coal,

from the tender to the firebox.


It’s hard work, hot work,

smoke and cinders,

ash and sweat,

hard work, hot work–

but that’s a fireman’s life!

He tends the fire

that boils the water,

that turns the water into steam.


Beautiful typography–stylized capitals, script, boldface–all help communicate this very rich narrative.  Floca‘s illustrations, which are rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache, are every bit as much the star of the story as is the text.  He uses a variety of perspectives to communicate the immensity, power, and detail of the steam engine itself and what it was like to travel cross country by it.  One of my favorite illustrations is a huge, two-page close-up of the train’s wheels on the track, which are accompanied by the very onomatopoetic text that includes the words huffs, hisses, bangs, and clanks in large, colored, boldface typography.  The very next two-page spread includes small vignettes:  an aerial view of the train; the ticketmaster collecting tickets; our passengers looking out their window; the engineer leaning out of his window with “the wind on his face, the fire by his feet.”  If you’re expecting a gorgeous picture book, you won’t be disappointed.  However, don’t expect a simple, pre-school story; this book is appropriate for all ages, from school-aged to adult.  I read it to my three year old, and while I think he probably missed most of the details (and honestly, so did I–this is no lightweight informational book!), he appreciated the rhythmic text and the beautiful illustrations.  From the detailed endpapers (maps, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a beautifully detailed diagram of a steam locomotive) to the author note and lengthy list of sources, this is a not-to-be-missed informational picture book for history lovers and train lovers alike.  I won’t be surprised by any accolades this book receives–a Cybil, a Caldecott–whatever.  Don’t miss this one.  Highly, highly (highly) Recommended.   (Atheneum, 2013)

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This is a long-ish video of Floca discussing his creation of Locomotive (which is essentially about “a big teakettle on wheels”) at the 2013 National Book Festival:


Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I read Sherry’s review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein and immediately clicked through to purchase a copy.  Then it languished on the shelf for almost four months before its shortlisting for the YA fiction category of the Cybils prompted me to pick it up.  After being completely blown away by Wein’s Code Name Verity, I knew this one would be one I wouldn’t be able to put down, and I was right.   Rose Under Fire isn’t a sequel to Code Name Verity; instead, it’s sort of a companion novel, a novel with a few characters in common, as well as the general setting and time period.

It’s the story of Rose Justice, an eighteen year old pilot from the U.S. who comes to Britain to fly, like Maddie Brodatt in Verity, for the ATA.   The first third of the novel or so is about Rose’s experiences in war-time England–she’s just on the periphery of the war itself, losing a new friend in a crash after the friend tries to “tip” a German doodlebug–a winged bomb, an unmanned aircraft set on destruction–out of the air.  Rose is one of Maddie’s bridesmaids when Maddie has a hasty war time wedding.  Rose has her own soldier beau.  In other words, her world has been upended by the war, but not in any real tragic way.  Then, through a series of blunders brought on by her foolhardy courage in the air, Rose is captured by some Luftwaffe pilots and eventually ends up in Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi work camp.  What follows then is harrowing and heart wrenching and ultimately (but only ultimately) full of hope.

Rose falls in with a surrogate family in Ravensbrück that includes her lagermutter (camp mother), Lisette, a French beauty who mothers the younger women after losing her Jewish husband and her three handsome sons to execution by the Nazis; a spitfire of a  Polish girl, Róza, one of dozens of Ravensbrück “Rabbits,” the victims of unspeakable Nazi medical experiments; and Irina, a Red Army pilot–a double Ace, no less–who’s tough as nails and hates the Communists almost as much as she hates the Nazis.   Ultimately, Rose and her unlikely family have a single goal:  to tell the world about the Ravensbrück atrocities, specifically those committed against the Rabbits.  This, along with the poetry Rose writes, is what keeps her and her friends going.   I won’t reveal any more about the plot than this because this book is one best left unspoiled.

Whew.  What a story.  I almost couldn’t read it fast enough, and yet, it is heartbreaking.  Wein is definitely a master storyteller, and she withholds just enough information to keep from putting this one totally over the top in terms of heartbreak and misery.  This one reads like an actual survivor’s story, though it is fiction.  One of my favorite parts of Rose’s story is her poetry–it’s very, very good.   Of course, I couldn’t help but think of Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place while I was reading this since Corrie and Betsie were held in Ravensbrück, too.   The obvious differences are first the fact that Rose Under Fire is fictional; and second,  Corrie and Betsie’s faith in Christ is  front and center in The Hiding Place, while in Rose Under Fire the only reference to religion or any of its accoutrements that I recall is a reference to Lisette reminding the girls to pray over their food (and which Rose and Roza do later in remembrance of their lagermutter) and Rose’s thinking of herself as a “good little Lutheran girl.”  While I definitely think both stories are worth reading (and I feel, to a certain extent, that we have an obligation to keep reading and writing about such atrocities), this one is definitely not for the faint of heart.  Beyond the obvious subject matter concerns, this one contains quite a bit of foul language.  While I don’t find it too off-putting given the subject matter, I know some of my readers will want to know it’s there.

So, will this one get a Cybils nod?  I don’t know.  Can it stand up against all the YA angst?  I don’t know.  It’s definitely a worthwhile read, and I won’t be a bit surprised by any of accolades it receives.  Wein is a fantastic writer, and I don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of what makes this such a wonderfully, terribly compelling read.  Highly Recommended (with the aforementioned caveat).  (Hyperion, 2013)

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Read Aloud Thursday–December 2013 (List and Top Ten for 2013)



Today I’m sharing a list of our long 2013 read alouds, as well as our top picks.  I’ll link up our December reads in the linky list.

These are the books we read and enjoyed together in 2013:

  1. The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
  2. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  3. Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace
  4. The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch
  5. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
  6. The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit
  7. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
  8. The Runaway Dolls by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin
  9. The Fields of Home by Ralph Moody
  10. The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  11. George Müller by Geoff and Janet Benge
  12. The Magic Half by Annie Barrows
  13. The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin
  14. The Peterkin Papers by Lucretia P. Hale
  15. Nurse Matilda by Christianna Brand
  16. Pagoo by Holling C. Holling
  17. The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton

I polled the girls separately to find out their top three reads of the year from the list.  Lulu, age 9 1/2, chose George Müller, A Little Princess, and The Magic Half as her favorites.

Louise, age 8, chose The Brave Little Toaster, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and The Thirteen Days of Christmas as her favorites.

For me the most memorable reads were The Fields of Home, The Peterkin Papers, and Nurse Matilda, with Pagoo coming in a close fourth.

While I don’t regret a single one of our read-alouds this year, I’m realizing more and more how refreshing it is to read older works–and what a valuable way to spend our time it is.  The attention required to process the longer, more complex sentences is reason enough to read them!  I don’t have any specific goals for our read-aloud time in 2014, but I want to pick works the girls wouldn’t ordinarily pick up themselves.  I’ll likely draw from the Ambleside Online lists, my own Classics Club list, and your suggestions via your Read Aloud Thursday posts.

2013 was the most challenging year of reading aloud I’ve personally had, especially the last 2/3 of the year after Benny’s birth.  Balancing the needs of an active (and chatty!) 3 1/2 year old, a baby, and my older girls made me feel like I was losing my mind sometimes, but obviously I survived.  ;-)  Reading aloud is too important for me to give up, so I press on and try to remain flexible in the way I approach it so that it can continue to be an important part of our days.

If you’re interested in what we’ve read aloud before 2013, here are some lists for you:

This month’s Read Aloud Thursday is coming at what is perhaps an inopportune time for many of you, the day after Christmas.  Please, please come back later and leave your links to your own reviews, December posts, or yearly wrap-up posts whenever you have time.  The linky should remain open!  

Here’s to more reading aloud in 2014!

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

Vince Vawter has delivered one of those books that translates so well to those beyond the age of its protagonist in his first novel, Paperboy.  Nominated for a Cybils Award in the middle grade fiction category, this is a book that certainly has already received its fare share of accolades and one that I will not be surprised to see on virtually any awards list.  It’s the story of twelve year old Little Man (who isn’t named until the very end of the book) and the summer he spends filling in for his best friend, Rat, on Rat’s paper route.  Little Man lives in 1950s era Memphis, and he is looked after by the family’s African American maid, Mam.  (It is Mam who calls him Little Man, and that’s really the only name we know him by.)  His family is well-off, with his father a businessman of some sort and his mother a society lady with little time for her son.  As Little Man’s summer unfolds, we learn some things about him:  he has a debilitating stutter, he is a very good baseball player, and he has a story to tell, as evidenced by the very first few lines of the novel:

I’m typing about the stabbing for a good reason.  I can’t talk.

Without stuttering.


There are several plot threads going on in this story:  Little Man meets a few paper route customers who make his summer interesting and give him something to think about.  One, Mrs.Worthington, is a beautiful woman on whom Little Man develops a twelve year old’s crush.  We see her in her neediness and with all her problems, the least of which perhaps is that she drinks to excess.  He meets Mr. Spiro, a Merchant Marine who reads widely and opens up to Little Man a world unknown to him before.  Most importantly, Mr. Spiro is the only person besides Mam who sees beyond his stuttering, understands him, and has the patience to help him through it to a real conversation.  There’s also a narrative thread in the story that involves Mam’s African American community, namely in the person of one Ara T., the one person Mam despises.  Yet another element of the plot is Little Man’s discovery of a family secret.

Yes, there is a lot going on in this novel, but each thread is told through thoughtful Little Man’s eyes.  This story has been rightly compared to To Kill a Mockingbirdand while I won’t go so far as to elevate it quite to that level, I definitely agree that it is similar both in theme and tone.  This is a coming-of-age story in which Little Man experiences quite a bit of the adult world but retains his innocence thanks to the love of a few key adults.  My personal favorite aspect of the story is how accurately it seems to portray the feelings of a child who stutters.  Vince Vawter writes from very personal experience.  This description is perfect, especially for a twelve year old baseball player:

No luck.  The sound stuck tight in my throat like a tennis ball in a chain-link fence.  (58)

And this:

Most grown-ups and especially my relatives and friends of my parents treated me about as well as could be expected without them knowing exactly what I was going through when I tried to talk.  Some people tried to finish sentences for me and mostly would get them wrong.  Some people just smiled a fake smile and waited on me to get my words out while they were looking around the room.   Some got confused and just wandered off as quickly as they could [. . .]

[. . .] It’s like I walked into a room with an organ-grinder’s monkey witting on my head and everyone pretending the monkey wasn’t there.  (60)

Again, this is another story that I’m not sure will translate quite as well for children as for adults, though Vawter does capture a twelve year old’s voice very well.  (I actually think this one might appeal to boys and children in general a bit more than others I’ve loved as well.) The middle grade Cybils designation might be a wee bit young, but with a twelve year old protagonist I doubt this one would go over well as a YA novel.  There’s a smattering of cursing (though it is contextually powerful and realistic) and some heavy issues–alcoholism, infidelity, abuse, racial inequality, etc.  This reads like a memoir, and Vawter says it is that it is “certainly more memoir than fiction.”  Whatever it is, it’s good, and I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended.  (Delacorte, 2013)

Contentment by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.

Have you ever read a book that when you finished reading it, you felt like you should immediately start again at the beginning to try to get the thing ingrained in your thinking?  That’s the sort of book Contentment by Richard A. Swenson, M.D., is to me.  I had heard of Swenson back years ago at a homeschool conference when a speaker referred over and over again to his book Margin.  I have Margin somewhere around here, but I’ve never read it.  For some reason one day I clicked over to the Simply Charlotte Mason blog at a very serendipitous Providential time and read this post in which Contentment is referenced.  Something (or Someone) made me click through right then and buy a copy for my Kindle.  I don’t usually consider books like this one page-turners, but this one was that for me.  I felt like I was just taking it all in as quickly as I possibly could–like I wanted to write it all down and learn it by heart.

Here’s the problem:  I have an ungrateful heart.  Yes, I do.  I don’t see the things I should see, and I see all the things I shouldn’t.  I focus on the things I don’t have instead of on the things I do.  I doubt that God’s in control of my situation.  I lust after the wrong things. Swenson‘s book pulled me up short and made me really examine myself, and obviously, I came up wanting.  For several days while reading it, I found myself reexamining my life through a new lens, and what I found is that things are really pretty good.  Actually, they’re more than pretty good–because I have Jesus, and He’s enough.

I know I will in no way do this book justice by sharing my halting thoughts about it.  In bullet points, here are just a few of the things I love about it:

  • It’s interesting.  It’s more than just a devotional exercise; Swenson uses sociological studies, history, and personal anecdotes to make his case for contentment.
  • It’s chock full of wonderful, thought-provoking, and convicting quotations from the sages of church and secular history.  I LOVE a succinct quote (shoot–I even love long, rambling quotes!), and Swenson has collected and expounded on what must be the best on the subject.
  • Swenson gives one of the best discussions on the Beatitudes I’ve ever read (or heard).  Here’s a snippet from it:

In our first reading of the Beatitudes, we think how marvelous it is that Jesus would speak such kind and encouraging words to the suffering, misunderstood, the passed-over [. . .]

On the second reading, after our magnanimity has been expressed and we feel better about ourselves, we breathe a sigh of relief that at least we are not included in this lineup.  What a load of grief Jesus is addressing here–glad that’s not me.  Can you imagine this being your list of goals to accomplish in the next decade?

On third reading, we can see that Jesus is speaking to us after all.  If we are his disciples, living according to His words and examples, these are the things we can look forward to.  This list is precisely what the normal Christian life looks like in its matured state, which is why Carl F. Henry wrote, “Jesus clothes the beatitudes with His own life.”

On fourth reading, we wonder how Jesus is going to pull this off.  [. . .]

Answer:  The Beatitudes came to life as soon as Jesus uttered them.  His words became active the minute they escaped His mouth.  They are now the law of eternity.  If the first half of the verse describes us, the second half is automatic.  He is the power behind these promises, and Jesus does not make idle promises.  Everything He says He will do, He does.  Everything He says will happen, happens.  In fulfilling His promises in the Beatitudes, He brings to bear the same power that created the universe, redeemed it, sustains it, and will judge it.


  • Swenson reminds me how worldly my thinking is and my need of sanctification.  (Ephesians 5:26 and Romans 12:2)
  • He also reminds me of what truly matters in this life.

The timing of my reading this book was really Providential, too.  As our homeschool year has started, I’ve realized just how hard what I’m doing really is.  Homeschooling two elementary students, wrangling a busy three year old boy, and caring for a five month old infant isn’t just a walk in the park.  In order to do this well, I must be content in this place God has called me to.  It’s what I’m striving for.

Anyway.  This book is excellent.  I’d consider it a must-read if you want to grow more like Jesus.  Highly, Highly Recommended.  (NavPress, 2013)

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