Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor became a priest in the Episcopal Church in the years when few women thought of such things. She became a clergyperson in Atlanta, where she was worn out by the constant demands of urban church life. Eventually, she admitted to herself that her marriage had been on the back burner for so long that it was cold and her heart had become numb toward those to whom she was ministering. All the while, she had been expending all of her energy in performing the good deeds that were expected of her. She couldn’t remember her spiritual passion.

Barbara found a new position in charming Clarkesville, Georgia. The tiny, historic church building spoke to her, and after she and her husband had been there for a few years, they built a home in the gentle mountains nearby. The challenges of a small, rural congregation are different from a city parish: more intimate, but often claustrophobic. Over the years, Barbara won many accolades for her preaching and writing, and the congregation grew exponentially, to the point that she and her assistant were holding several services each Sunday and talking about a building program. After finding herself frazzled and exhausted again, Barbara began to question the role of the church. Was this what Jesus intended for his followers? For that matter, was she even making disciples for Jesus? After many years of dedicated service, Barbara decided to leave the her position. Since the Episcopal church advises their separated priests not to visit their former churches, and Barbara and her husband wanted to stay in their beloved home, she left the church entirely.

Despite the title, most of this volume is more of a memoir of Ms. Taylor’s years as a priest, and she only comes to the questions about faith, the Bible, and the modern church in the last part of the book. After leaving the priesthood, she became a religion professor at a university nearby, and she approached spiritual studies with a wide-open point of view. Her husband had always been a spiritual adventurer, and he once invited some local tribes to use their property for a multi-day religious observance. Barbara began her questioning with that experience, and then she committed to acquainting her students with world religion in ways that they would not typically encounter in rural Georgia.

David and I lived in northern Georgia for a number of years, and we often spent Saturday afternoons strolling through the antique shops of Clarkesville. I now know that Ms. Taylor was priest at Grace-Calvary Church during that same time period in the 1990s. Although the book cuts off very shortly after she left Grace-Calvary, she has gone on to write many others that continue her story and delve more deeply into the issues. I was surprised to discover that I already own two other books by Barbara Brown Taylor, the newest in my teetering pile of to-be-read titles and another, older title on my bookshelves. Clearly, I need a cataloger. Taylor’s approach to life is so thoughtful and her writing so accessible that I will surely move her other books to a higher spot on the list.

A moving and candid memoir by a woman of faith.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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December Reading

December passed in a blur of decorating and frantic knitting, but there was also reading! Audiobooks are perfect for needlework and cooking times. Here are some fiction and nonfiction adult books, two of which were terrific on audio. Someday, I may blog about podcasts, which accompany hours of my handcrafts, too.

How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith

The history of our nation cannot be told without talking about slavery, but a great deal of that history is hidden by the “official” story we all learn in school. Clint Smith takes a unique approach to the history of slavery by traveling to various locations that are integral to the story, interviewing local people, and relating the memories passed down by the slaves’ descendants as much as possible. Some of the places are well known, such as Monticello and New Orleans, but it may be a surprise to find out that the second-largest slave market in America—second only to Charleston, SC—was in Manhattan, and that, at a certain point in time, the rate of slave ownership in New York was higher than in the South. Smith also visits such places as Blandford Cemetery, a resting place for Confederate soldiers, during a remembrance ceremony where he holds very difficult conversations with those who cling to memories of the Old South, and Angola, a maximum-security prison that used to be a plantation and now houses thousands of black prisoners. Their unpaid labor blurs the line between slavery and incarceration.

We visited Monticello for the first time in late November on the way home from my niece’s wedding, and this book—along with other excellent new works on the topic— was prominently displayed in the gift shop. We were impressed by the Jefferson Foundation’s ability to continue to showcase the great accomplishments of the former president while being completely open about his unapologetic enslavement of hundreds of human beings. Jefferson may have written about the horrors of slavery, but he did nothing to free the slaves that he owned, except for his own children. Great care has been taken to represent Sally Hemings’s life and the stories of all her children and their descendants. In the 1990s, the foundation started the Getting Word project to gather the life stories of the 607 enslaved people of Monticello and their descendants. We hoped that Clint Smith would talk about Monticello in his book, and indeed, it is the first chapter. Smith agreed that the Jefferson Foundation was making progress in opening up the history of slavery in our country’s founding, but apparently, this has not always been the case. Until the DNA results of the Hemings descendants were confirmed to be related to Jefferson in 1998, the Monticello guides would not discuss the possibility of the president’s relationship to an enslaved woman.

We listened to an audiobook edition of the book, which is read by the author. Some of the chapters show hopeful progress in our reckoning with our past, while others reveal the dark underbelly of our history, still churning with hatred and division to this day. Fascinating and important.

Once Upon a Wardrobe, by Patti Callahan

Megs’s little brother, George, has a weak heart, and in 1950s England, there is no treatment. George has just read the new book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his greatest wish is to find out where Narnia comes from. Megs is a brilliant maths scholar at Oxford, and she sets out to find the answer to her brother’s burning question. Walking to The Kilns in the middle of winter, Megs meets the Oxford professor, C.S. (or Jack) Lewis, and his brother, Warnie. Over many chats by the fireside, Jack and Warnie tell the tale of their sometimes difficult childhoods, their early stories, and the fantasy world they created. The next Narnia tale is coming out soon, but George will probably not live to read it. Her parents worry that George gets too excited about this fantasy land, but the stories that Megs retells from her notebook are the very things that give George’s life meaning.

Solitary walks in the snowy wood, cozy teas at The Kilns, and an impetuous trip to a ruined Irish castle: this is a perfect winter’s tale with a sweet romance mixed in. Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis (reviewed here) is probably a stronger story, but Once Upon a Wardrobe is a sort of prequel that fills in the blanks in Lewis’s young life.

Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson

Since I am a children’s book selector, I knew Andrew Peterson as the author of the wildly popular “Wingfeather Saga.” His book for adults, Adorning the Dark, is a meditation on the creative imagination and an encouragement for those who wish to be sub-creators, as Tolkien would say, after the great Creator of all things. It is also a memoir of someone who considers himself primarily a songwriter, recounting his struggle to put words and melodies together in a way that would support himself and his growing family. He and his wife found an idyllic piece of land outside of Nashville, Tennessee, and one of my favorite stories is of an English master gardener who came to stay with them during a conference, then mailed back a detailed schematic of their property with outdoor “rooms” designed to make even more beauty in the wilderness. This volume is an inspiring, thoughtful read.

N.D. (Nate) Wilson is one of the contributors to the latest addition to the saga, Wingfeather Tales. If you can find it on YouTube, Wilson’s conversation with Betsy Bird and Jeanne Birdsall on this topic of creativity is not to be missed. Ditto Wilson’s children’s books, beginning with 100 Cupboards.

If you have children in late elementary or middle school, the “Wingfeather Saga,” beginning with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, is a fantastical yet homely tale in the style of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Peterson is also the founder of the Rabbit Room Press, publisher of the beloved book of everyday liturgies, Every Moment Holy.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Adorning the Dark, and I listened to library audiobook copies of the other two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Beautiful Banned Books

I have been following with interest and fury the efforts of parents and school boards to remove every book written by any author of color from school libraries, and sometimes even public libraries. Here are two award-winning children’s books that— I was flabbergasted to find out— were removed from school libraries in Texas. Both of these beautiful books tell the tale of the authors’ childhoods in which they were oppressed by white people and others. Keeping our children ignorant does not make the world a better place, even for them. Please read them yourself, and if they make you uncomfortable, read them twice.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Mia and her family have just moved to the United States from China, and they are disappointed at how much more difficult it is to survive than they had been told. They think they’ve found their lucky break when Mr. Yao offers them the management of one of his motels, but their fellow countryman turns out to be a cheat and a bully. Mia and Jason Yao are the only two Asian kids in their class, but they are not the only ones hiding secrets about their families.

Mia is a spunky girl with a precocious understanding of business and finance, and her optimism often keeps her parents’ spirits up when their mounting debt threatens to force them to despair. On the other hand, she is a child, so sometimes her I Love Lucy schemes fall to pieces and put them in danger. She makes friends easily with adults and children alike, leading to a hilariously varied cast of characters.

This semi-autobiographical novel details Kelly Yang’s early years in California, the bigotry she encountered, and the poverty and hard work her parents endured to secure a better life for their daughter. She has written a sequel called Three Keys. Although it is highly readable and enjoyable, the story of Mia’s journey was more heartbreaking than I had expected. It all works out, though, as Ms. Yang went to college at age 13 and later became the youngest woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Front Desk won the Asian / Pacific American Award for Literature in 2019 and the Parents Choice Award in 2018, as well as appearing on many “Best Book of the Year” lists. Illuminating.

New Kid, by Jerry Craft

Jordan wants to go to art school, but his mom wants him to go to the very best prep school she can find, even though that means extra work for his parents. When Liam— the student assigned to show him around— and his dad pick him up in their limo the first day, Jordan is sure that he will not fit in to this new school: he is not white, he is not rich, and he really doesn’t like school. He just wants to draw.

As it turns out, there are several other black students at Riverdale Academy Day School, and white Liam is a really great kid. The racism that Jordan encounters is mostly the liberal elite, microaggression type. One of the coaches is so afraid of making a racist remark that he can barely get out a sentence without apologizing for it. Many characters hurt the minority students unintentionally out of ignorance, since they rarely interact with anyone outside of their rich, white bubble.

On the other hand, one of the white teachers calls all of the black kids by the same stereotypical names because she can’t be bothered to learn their real names, and while this is annoying and insulting, Jordan and a friend make a game of it and start calling each other by a different name every time they talk. Eventually, they confront her, and she is surprised to come face to face with her own racism. The students have frank and productive discussions of bigotry, and Jordan has friends of every ethnicity.

Jordan’s parents are joyfully loving and supportive, especially his delightfully gushy mom. After his initial disdain, Jordan discovers that the art teacher at Riverdale really does have things to teach him, and the book has occasional breaks to show young Jordan’s sketchbook pages, drawn in a different style from the rest of this appealing graphic novel.

Another autobiographical work by a person of color, New Kid was the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award in 2020 and is followed by the sequel, Class Act. It also won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Kirkus Prize. Jerry Craft combined his own and his two sons’ experiences in this work, which shows that even in our day and even among very “nice” people, the playing field is not even and there is still work to be done. You’ll want to read the sequel.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own, I swear, and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Beatryce Prophecy, by Kate DiCamillo

Brother Edik approached the goat’s stall warily, since Answelica had a very hard head and was not hesitant to use it on any of the monks’ backsides, but what he did not expect to find was a young girl curled up fast asleep, holding on to Answelica’s ear as if it were a lifeline.

Beatryce could only remember her name, not her parents nor where she lived, but she could easily read anything put in front of her, which was a crime. Girls were not allowed to read. As a matter of fact, Edik had not even known that it was possible for females to read, so he shaved her head, put her into the smallest monk’s robe he could find, and took her into the monastery of The Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing in order to protect her life, whatever that life might be.

Of course, Brother Edik knew what Beatryce did not: that there was a prophecy that read, “There will one day come a girl child who will unseat a king and bring about a great change.” The king and his counselor knew it, however, so Beatryce’s life was in danger, although no one knew why.

Every tale Kate DiCamillo spins turns to gold, and this one is no exception. Folded into this medieval story of a lost girl and a charmingly wicked goat are glimpses of glory, a good dose of feminism, nuggets of wisdom, and a stubborn hope for a brighter future. When it came time for Beatryce to prove that she could write, she slowly inscribed: “We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.” Indeed, we shall.

Don’t miss DiCamillo’s other works, especially The Tale of Despereaux, and those reviewed in this blog, Flora & Ulysses, Raymie Nightingale, Louisiana’s Way Home, and Beverly, Right Here.

A luminous tale for ages eight to eighty-eight. Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Kaleidoscope, by Brian Selznick

When we look at an object through a kaleidoscope, it is fractured and scattered around our field of vision, almost unrecognizable, yet glittering and beautiful. Afterward, when we see the whole object, it is a revelation.

What if we did the same thing with a story?

In a series of tales told out of time, Selznick gives readers a kaleidoscopic view of the first-person narrator’s relationship with James. Some are fairy tales, while others are stories of an ordinary boy’s life. And who is James? He could be a friend, or perhaps an imaginary friend. At other times, he seems to be the ghost of a departed friend or the King of the Moon. James and the main character sail a ship to the moon, explore a dark cave, break into an ancient castle, and live in a house in Kensington.

Each story begins with a two-page spread of a view through a kaleidoscope, followed by a one-page sketch of the normal appearance of the object. On a webinar about the book, Selznick discussed the depression he experienced in his isolation during the pandemic, and how he decided to experiment with a kaleidoscope he found. Each of Selznick’s books, beginning with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has showcased his artistic talent in a different way, but I would say that this volume takes his storytelling to new heights. The prose is scintillating, and the dreamlike stories hint at deep mysteries bound by ties of a love stronger than death.

Not the usual fare for middle grades, but a jewel that will especially enjoyed by children who love fantastical fairy tales.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Clovis Keeps His Cool, by Katelyn Aronson

If anyone needs to keep a tight rein on his temper, it’s a literal bull in a china shop.

Clovis used to play linebacker for the Cloverdale Chargers and help his granny in her tea shop. Since Granny died, though, and left the shop to him, Clovis has traded tackling for polishing and practices a few moments of meditation each day in order to keep a peaceful heart. He repeats Granny’s saying: “Grace, grace, nothing broken to replace.” In spite of his best efforts, though, the bullies just won’t leave him alone.

Eve Farb illustrates this hilariously motivational picture book in cool blues and whites, with just a spot of red here and there, until the page where Clovis—spoiler alert—loses his cool. The cover sets the tone with this oversized head of livestock seated primly at his delicate table, pouring a cup of tea and fuming at the hecklers in the window. A few pages later, the painting of the hulking Clovis, seated on the floor with his eyes closed and his little hooves raised in the lotus position, is priceless. The amusement continues on with page after page of fragile china teetering perilously close to the roughhousing, clumsy animals, until… well, you can imagine the result.

Little ones with anger issues or those dealing with real bullies will discover coping strategies for maintaining control and defusing confrontations, but they will also learn about forgiveness, both for the aggressive meanies and for themselves when they fail to live up to their own expectations.

This beautiful picture book of a bull trying desperately to be good may be just right for an earnest little one of your acquaintance.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Fallout, by Steve Sheinkin

We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but we do need to acknowledge that the planet is now covered with toothpaste.

After the bombs dropped at the end of World War II, the government encouraged scientists to create an even more destructive weapon using nuclear fusion, instead of fission. At first, they couldn’t figure out how to ignite the fusion bomb without obliterating the launch pad, but at last, of course, they got it. As we learned in Sheinkin’s earlier works, even deadly secrets don’t stay hidden for long, and so, the world moved rapidly from having zero nuclear weapons to a world where the two superpowers at the time— the United States and the Soviet Union— were armed to the teeth with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire planet many times over.

Transitioning from the Eisenhower administration through Kennedy’s presidency, Sheinkin details the confrontations between Nikita Khrushchev and the American leader, not in physical battles, but in the excruciating brinksmanship that dragged on over years in what is called the Cold War. He spends many pages explaining the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis, not only in the overt actions by both sides, but also in each leader’s political posturing and private considerations, showing that Khrushchev thought of the new American president as young and weak, while Kennedy struggled against both physical pain and his own bellicose generals. If it had been left to General Curtis LeMay or Cuba’s new dictator, Fidel Castro, the Cold War would have been short and catastrophic. It is sickening to read of the many close calls that took place just within the few days of the Missile Crisis: prank phone calls, US pilots straying into Soviet airspace accidentally, and misinformation falling into the wrong hands. Complete destruction was just a breath away.

Sheinkin is the master of young adult historical nonfiction. His previous books have won multiple awards, and I’ve reviewed Bomb, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and Most Dangerous in this blog space. To be honest, the 342 pages of this book are just about right for most adults who want to be conversant on the topic without slogging through excessive, tedious detail. Sheinkin’s writing is more like a spy novel than a textbook, and readers will gain context for why the Berlin wall was such a big deal and how building rockets for exploring the universe turned into the Space Race. Even though I was a child for some of these events, I learned a lot! My brother and I spent hours discussing this book. Not only is he ten years older than I am, he is also a historian, so I knew he would be up on all of it. He told me that Barbara Powers, the wife of the downed pilot/spy Francis Gary Powers, had lived in our hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, while he was in a Soviet prison, and that our next-door neighbor, who owned the radio station where my brother worked, had interviewed her for national television. The federal government was openly encouraging citizens to dig bomb shelters in their backyards at the time, and he clearly remembered a few obvious ones in our town.

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown is a thrilling nonfiction read for anyone twelve or older. The toothpaste is most assuredly out of the tube, and the most chilling thing about this book is that the world is far more fractured now than it was then, and there are even more nuclear bombs in many more hands today.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Kids’ Bio Bonanza

Wonderful children’s biographies are being published this fall, and even adults may discover new heroes and heroines! Here are a few that I’ve read recently.

Banksy Graffitied Walls and Wasn’t Sorry, by Fausto Gilberti

This small book is a cartoon-style, speculative biography of an artist that no one knows. Banksy started leaving his graffiti art in public places in England in the 1990s, and he has since placed random works of art in various museums, waiting to see when people would notice. He has never been caught, so there is a great deal of buzz over the mystery of his true identity, or whether he is actually a woman or even a group of artists. Italian writer Gilberti created all of the artwork for this book, with just one photo of a Banksy piece in the back, so this volume is best used as a jumping-off point to create curiosity in children for further research online. Very fun.

Einstein: The Fantastic Journey of a Mouse Through Space and Time, by Torben Kuhlmann

Okay, this is not technically a biography of Einstein, since it is told through the point of view of a mouse, but it will introduce children to the life and scientific theories of the great man. A little mouse wants to attend a cheese festival, but he arrives a day late, and somehow ends up in Einstein’s former workshop, trying to figure out how to go back in time. He goes too far back, though, and lands in Einstein’s lifetime, leaving the scientist notes that lead to his discovery of the theory of relativity. The real star of this thick picture book is Kuhlmann’s artwork, which is luminous and fascinating. If you and your children have not discovered this artist’s work in the past, do yourselves a favor and get all his books. Your kids will spend hours poring over all the tiny details, and they might even learn something!

J.R.R. Tolkien for Kids: His Life and Writings with 21 Activities, by Simonetta Carr

This large paperback is part of the Chicago Review Press series that relates easy projects to the subject of the book. If your children are of an age to read The Hobbit, this biography would be the perfect accompaniment. From his birth and the early death of his parents, through World War I and his romance with his beloved wife, to his professorship and famous works of literature, this volume chronicles Tolkien’s long life on an upper elementary or middle school level. Although all of the activities are simple to accomplish at home, some reinforce the narrative more appropriately than others. There is an annoyingly large number of typographical errors, but the content is worth it. Tolkien’s works will enrich every child’s life.

Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi, by Sigal Samuel and Vali Mintzi

Osnat was born in Mosul about 500 years ago. Her father was a rabbi, and even though he didn’t think girls needed to read, he didn’t have any sons, so he taught her. When he died, Osnat’s husband took over the yeshiva—or school—where he taught boys about Hebrew and their Jewish faith. Since he was busy, Osnat began teaching Torah, so that when her husband also passed away, she was the natural choice to lead the yeshiva herself. She went on to perform miracles, along with her beloved pet dove. Mintzi filled this picture book with vivid paintings in red, deep blue, and gold that recall the colors of ancient Iraq. A beautiful volume to introduce your children to a rich culture.

Unbound: The Life + Art of Judith Scott, by Joyce Scott, with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet

Joyce and Judith Scott were twin sisters and best friends throughout their early childhood in the 1940s. One day, Joyce came home from school to find that her beloved sister had been confined in an institution because she was deaf and had Down Syndrome, and at that time, doctors had no alternatives for parents. When Joyce grew up, she petitioned to have her sister come to live in her house, and each day, she would take Judith to the Creative Growth Art Center. At first, Judith seemed uninterested, but one day, the staff brought out yarn, ribbons, and fabric scraps. Judith began gathering up pieces of wood and various objects and creating sculptures with the materials. She hid things inside the layers of material, excitedly bringing meaning to her art. Eventually, people began to appreciate her creativity, and her work was displayed in art shows, written about in books, and honored in documentaries. Judith died in 2005, but her sister continues to spread the word about the value of creativity for all people. The body of the book is illustrated with Melissa Sweet’s lovely, childlike drawings, followed by photographs, a timeline, and other explanatory backmatter.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rachel Held Evans

Rachel was the best little Christian girl. She won prizes in AWANA for her knowledge of the Bible. She looked for things to do for others so that she could be a servant. She pitied everyone else because they were all going to burn in hell. By her own admission, she was pretty insufferable. When she reached a certain age, though, she started to notice that some things just didn’t make sense in the worldview she’d been given by her parents and her church, so she started to ask questions. This did not go over well with her Sunday School teachers, but her very religious parents supported her curiosity and allowed her to pursue answers to her quandaries. It took a long time to shed the Good Evangelical Girl persona, but in time, Rachel Held Evans was able to write about her faith journey, and she became famous on one side of the church and infamous on the other.

Rachel Held Evans was the author of Searching for Sunday and The Year of Biblical Womanhood, among other works. She started the Evolving Faith conference with her friend, Sarah Bessey, and spoke and worked tirelessly for groups that the church had marginalized, especially the LGBTQ community. She was the mother of two little children when she suddenly contracted an infection, then had an allergic reaction to the medication. She died at age 37. Her death stunned the Christian world. She had just started on what looked like a brilliant career, and then she was gone. I recently listened to her speaking on a podcast from just a few months before her death, and she and the host were talking about her upcoming projects. None of us are promised tomorrow.

Two new books by Rachel are being published posthumously this fall, one for adults and one for children.

Wholehearted Faith

As you might imagine, a prolific writer has a lot of manuscripts and fragments in computer folders, desk drawers, and sundry other places. After her death, Rachel’s husband, Dan, gathered up some of them and asked Rachel’s friend, Jeff Chu, to help get them to publication. Jeff edited and organized the manuscripts, plus he filled in those she had left unfinished. This volume is a collection of essays on a variety of topics, written in Rachel’s friendly, thoughtful voice. Some of them recount her childhood and faith journey, while others muse on the complexities of life and the corruption of the church.

Her chapter called “From Death to Life” is especially compelling. It is a long chapter that starts with self-deprecating humor. She admits that her Enneagram type 3 personality can turn a fun game into a fight to the death, and how that drive for success affected her life and her faith. She grows more serious toward the end as she shows how the drive to be successful in our country has influenced the church, and she reminds us that those afraid of death do not believe in the resurrection. If the death of the American church is inevitable, she recounts the many ways that it could be resurrected more gloriously, and she concludes by stating that death is not the end of the story. I would love to quote these beautiful passages, but I read an advance reader copy, so that is not allowed. In November, though, you can read them yourself.

For those who loved Rachel Held Evans or for those troublemakers who ask questions, this is a deep and moving collection from a writer whose canon closed too soon.

What Is God Like?

I did not know that Rachel Held Evans was friends with one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Matthew Paul Turner. Since she had little children, Rachel had started to write her ideas about God for a very young audience just two months before she died. At that time, she and her husband, Dan, had a three-year-old son and a new baby girl. Dan asked Turner to bring this unfinished work to completion. Using images and emotions from nature and children’s daily lives, she describes God in open, nonspecific ways that convey love and safety to little ones. Her language is inclusive and trinitarian, showing a mother on one page and a father on the next, three dancers of various genders and ethnicities, happy children playing outdoors or creating artwork, all using “he” and “she” pronouns equally. The illustrator, Ying Hui Tan, stays close to Turner’s usual style, with floaty, swooping figures and diverse skin tones.

This beautiful book will be helpful to parents who wish to convey reassuring ideas about God to young children. There is no reference to sin and punishment or even to any particular religious tradition. Evans prefers to introduce children to the mystery and lifelong pursuit of the divine, which may be a tall order for children at an age when their thinking is fairly concrete. Parents who are more sectarian might take note that this volume will not reinforce the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Whether parents find this book charming or not will be according to the style of their own pursuit of the divine.

____________

So, be open with your questions and share your gathered wisdom, because God already knows, but the rest of us might need to hear it.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Wholehearted Faith and a library copy of What Is God Like? Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Belle Greener’s father was a professor who became a civil rights activist in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the enactment of Jim Crow laws. For a short space of time, the future looked hopeful for freed Blacks, but during their years at the university, Belle’s parents saw the mood of the country turning against them. At that point, Belle’s mother decided that the only way her light-skinned children could be safe was to pass as white. The Greeners separated over this issue, and their daughter lived the rest of her life as Belle da Costa Greene, inventing a Portuguese ancestor to explain her olive skin.

After attending Princeton University and working for a short time, Belle was hired by the famous financier, J.P. Morgan, to be the librarian in charge of his incredible collection of ancient manuscripts and artworks in New York City. Her salary allowed her sisters and brothers to complete their education and secure good jobs of their own. Over the years, Belle’s career grew beyond her wildest dreams, and Morgan trusted her completely to journey to Europe to negotiate for rare volumes and works of art. These trips also allowed her to meet secretly with the much-older art dealer, Bernard Berenson, with whom she maintained a romantic relationship that lasted for decades, although they endured some rocky years.

On my last trip to Manhattan, in pre-pandemic times, my brother and I visited the Morgan Library. What a treasure! I had not heard of it before, but I read an article about its medieval illuminated manuscripts and its Gutenberg Bibles, so I thought it would be worth a trip. The soaring architecture, particularly the three-story main room, is awe-inspiring. The manuscripts were as beautiful as described, but there were many other fascinations, including sculpture and paintings, ancient cylinder seals from the near East that I looked for in vain as earrings in the gift shop, and the only intact copy of Lady Susan in Jane Austen’s own handwriting. There were other handwritten manuscripts and musical compositions, as well, and so much more. At that time, there were very few people in the museum with us, but the success of The Personal Librarian may have changed that.

The fact that a woman, and a black woman at that, was in control of the selection and acquisition of this important man’s collection is gratifying for this librarian! Morgan included Belle in many of his family functions, although not all of his children appreciated her prominent role in their lives. Marie Benedict turned to Victoria Christopher Murray to portray a more authentic understanding of a black woman’s feelings and experiences. Between the two of them, this novel hews very closely to the historical record, while sweeping readers along for all of the fear, thrill, excitement, sorrow, and triumph that was Belle da Costa Greene’s life.

I listened to this book on an excellent audio version, although I own an advance reader copy that I will treasure, as well. This is an absorbing novel for anyone who loves history, biography, art, and literature. Read the book, see the library. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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