Return of the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Eugenides, Thief of Eddis, married the queen of Attolia, and now, through a series of unimagined twists and turns, he is the high king of the entire peninsula, including Eddis, Attolia, and Sunis. His cousin is queen of Eddis, and his friend is king of Sunis. The powerful Medes are not happy to see the little countries unified, and so they launch an attack that may end them all.

Pheris is the young heir to Baron Erondites’ family, and his grandfather berates his mother for not killing the crippled boy when he was a baby. Eugenides has asked for the baron’s heir to be raised at the palace in order to create a bond with this dangerous family, but everyone thinks that the heir is Pheris’ younger brother. When Pheris arrives, drooling on the floor, Gen sees something in him that no one else does. Even though he realizes that the Baron sent him to humiliate the new king, Eugenides insists that he stay in the capital. The entire book is written as Pheris’ journal.

Megan Whalen Turner does not rush to get a book out every year, so when she does publish a new title, it is An Event. In October, after twenty years of writing, she released the last of six titles in her beloved “The Queen’s Thief” series, Return of the Thief, and it is a perfect resolution. The title has many meanings, only the first of which is the return of Eugenides as the main character of the story. “Gen” has often been voted the best hero of YA literature, and readers missed him in a couple of earlier volumes when Turner focused her story on secondary characters. Now, however, he is front and center, but the title also hints at the deep character study Turner unfolds throughout the story. All human beings are more complex than meets the eye, but brilliant and powerful people are able to indulge their desires in ways that may be dangerous to those around them, and the revelation of one’s darker nature can be unsettling, even to those who love them. Eugenides is a king, but before his ascension to the throne, he was born to be a Thief.

This series has never fit comfortably in the Young Adult category, and this particular volume continues the political intrigue and subtle deception while adding thoughtful explorations of marriage and other adult relationships. “The Queen’s Thief” is set in a pseudo-ancient Greek world, with rugged terrain, hot weather, and a panoply of pagan gods and goddesses. The series reads mostly as historical fiction, but it slips into fantasy territory with the occasional visitation from the gods. Eugenides is startled to discover that he is not the only person able to see the goddess Moira.

I cannot recommend this series highly enough for everyone from smart young teens to adults. The layered plots and intricate relationships stand up to repeated readings, as I can attest after reading earlier volumes over again as each new one came out. It is best to read them in order, as they are not stand-alone novels, and the details are complex. Turner certainly stuck the landing. The last few pages and the epilogue fairly sing off the pages.

*Postscript: The Hollywood Reporter has announced that Disney has picked up The Thief for the screen. It will be tough to do the books justice. Here’s hoping!

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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A Long Road on a Short Day, by Gary D. Schmidt

When Mama says that she would love to have a brown-eyed cow to give milk for the baby, Samuel’s father takes his best knife off the mantle and sets out with Samuel to make a trade. A snowstorm is brewing, so Papa says to Samuel, “Keep up. It’s a long road on a short day.”

Samuel and Papa walk from their farm to a neighbor’s barn, meet travelers on the road, and visit houses and businesses in town. Each time, they trade for another item in this cumulative tale set in an earlier time. Samuel is often wistful when they have to leave dogs, kittens, and ponies behind, but he is always polite and helpful, and his positive spirit is rewarded in the end with an extra gift just for him.

Gary Schmidt is a Newbery Medal-winning author (also reviewed here), and Long Road is based on a manuscript by his late wife, who wrote as Elizabeth Stickney. The nostalgic story is reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, and it is refreshing to read about a young boy learning how to be a man of admirable character by observing the older men around him. This early chapter book is punctuated by Americana-style illustrations by Eugene Yelchin.

A perfect winter read for loving families.

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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Nonfiction Gems for Exceptional Children

Teatime Around the World, by Denyse Waissbluth and Chelsea O’Byrne

Tea is a beverage that has been enjoyed all over the world for a very long time. Every nation and culture has rituals surrounding the service and consumption of tea. Some people drink tea in glasses with lots of sugar, others add spices and milk, and some countries enact elaborate rituals to honor their guests with cups of tea.

I grew up drinking tea. My Scottish grandmother drank tea with milk and sugar, and my mom would occasionally have a cup, as well. My best friend, Eithne, whose parents were from Ireland, lived next door to us in New Jersey in a house of perpetual teatime. Her father was a professor, and the whole family was bookish, as I was. At any time of the day or night, one or more of the six family members would be sitting at the large kitchen table with a book, a cozy-covered teapot in the middle and scones or some other baked treat close at hand. When my own son was growing up, I could usually be found with a big mug of Earl Grey in my hand, with sugar and milk, of course. I remember how my Japanese friend jumped and exclaimed, “Oh, no!” when I offered her some tea, anxious to avoid her family’s complicated tea ceremony, and then she wondered aloud when I just poured some boiling water onto a teabag. Some friends who were African missionaries taught us to make chai, and these days my tea of choice is a spicy rooibos blend that needs no sugar.

Bring a world of tea culture to your home with this Canadian import filled with artwork depicting children and parents around the globe enjoying the many varieties of this delicious beverage.

Big Ideas for Curious Minds: An Invitation to Philosophy

Why did you yell at your mum and knock over your little brother’s blocks? Think about it. Are you really angry at your mum or your brother? No, something that happened at school is still bothering you. Let’s see what Socrates had to say about that.

This very accessible volume from Britain’s School of Life Press presents the main ideas of twenty-five philosophers from a child’s-eye view. While there are many elementary philosophy books on the market, generally ranging from dry to dessicated, this clever text introduces a story about a child’s life first, engaging children to take a closer look at their own thoughts and behaviors. Once the child becomes curious about the reasons for her emotions or actions, the authors offer two or three pages about a philosopher who ruminated about these very same problems. Just enough, not too much, and totally relevant. Some of these names will be familiar, and some more obscure. The editors take care to present thoughts from the east and the west, from men and from women.

The pages presenting situations in the child’s world are generally plain with perhaps a hand-drawn chart or graph, but the two-page spreads about the philosophers are richly illustrated with pictures of the subjects and their world. Don’t be fooled by the somewhat uninviting cover. This is an excellent, kid-friendly introduction to philosophy.

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

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Hieroglyphics, by Jill McCorkle

Frank and Lil are getting up in years, and their daughter, Becca, thought it best that they move from snowy Massachusetts closer to her home in North Carolina. Lil had kept journals and other records of her entire life, and after the move, she sifted through them, reliving joys and sorrows. Lil’s mother had died in a nightclub fire, and Lil had been inspired to continue her mother’s dream of dancing and teaching little ballerinas. Frank, on the other hand, had lost his father in a train accident, and when they moved to North Carolina, they were back where Frank grew up in his stepfather’s home, right near the scene of the accident. He is often drawn to the tracks, searching for the artifacts that are still being discovered after all these decades.

Shelley lives with her son, Harvey, in the house where Frank grew up. Frank came to the door one day and asked to see inside, explaining his interest to a hesitant Shelley. Even though Lil waved from the car, Shelley was afraid to let them know that she was alone with her child. She didn’t want to admit—even to herself—that Brent might never come back. Harvey is filled with nightmarish fears, perhaps from all of the stories that his older brother had told him, or perhaps something more. He sees dark figures moving through the house at night, and although Shelley tries to comfort him, she sees them, too.

My friend, Janet, suggested Hieroglyphics as a group read, and this novel offers rich ground for discussion. It is told through all four viewpoints, including young Harvey’s, and each person has a distinctive voice. Although, as Janet told us, this book is darker than most of McCorkle’s work, her writing is thoroughly accessible, and the pages fly by. For those of you who are McCorkle fans, part of Shelley’s story ties in to an earlier novel. She is such a skillful writer that I expected a completely different ending right up until the last page.

One theme that came up during our group session concerned how some people’s lives will be forever changed by one pivotal event, while others can break free from the past and move forward. This novel is nostalgic to the point of being haunting, and all of the threads of the tangled plot resolve suddenly at the end—except one. Another novel, perhaps?

This engrossing story may be best for readers over 40 or so, and it makes a great pick for book discussion groups.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader 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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If You Want to Visit a Sea Garden, by Kay Weisman and Roy Henry Vickers

“If you want to visit a sea garden… you’ll have to get up really early. These magical gardens only reveal themselves at the lowest tides.”

For over 3,000 years, the Native Peoples of the Pacific Northwest have been farming shellfish, according to this striking informational picture book from Canada. They build manmade reefs in order to provide more surface area for growing shellfish. In this way, the “farmers” can harvest up to four times as many clams than would grow naturally, enough to feed the entire community.

This informational picture book uses minimal text to teach children about this ancient and ongoing practice. However, it is the glorious artwork that makes this book stand out. In horizontal layouts, each double-page spread portrays seascapes in glowing colors, using silhouettes and patterns to invoke feelings of peace, cooperation, and wisdom. The illustrator, Roy Henry Vickers, is a chieftain in the House of Walkus in Wuikinuxv, and his artwork employs indigenous motifs reflected in anthropomorphized creatures and tribal signs in the sky. The last page goes into greater detail about the history of sea gardens and the current refurbishments underway off the coast of British Columbia, as well as a website address for further research.

Unique and beautiful, this little book enriches our understanding of working in partnership with nature to provide for ourselves and to care for our environment.

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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The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman

Kate’s life was boring. It was nice enough; she had nice-enough parents who both worked and a nice-enough younger brother, and they all lived in a nice-enough house. When her parents were home, though, they talked to each other about work things or stared at their phones, and Tom was, after all, a little brother. She never had the kinds of adventures that she read about in her beloved books. In an effort to shake up her world a bit, she wrote a letter to her infamous Uncle Herbert, whom she had never met. Apparently, he did nothing but was incredibly wealthy. She let him know that it was her birthday, and the least he could do would be to buy her present. So, he did.

Kate and her family awoke the next morning to the delivery of a steam engine, the Silver Arrow, placed on brand-new tracks in the backyard. Uncle Herbert himself, in a banana yellow suit, presented her with this full-sized train engine and coal car, and while her parents argued with him, Kate and Tom climbed aboard—still in their pajamas—and the train rolled onto the long-abandoned tracks in the woods behind their house. At the next stop, they added passenger cars, dining cars, a library car for Kate, and a candy car for Tom, and the kids were off on a magical adventure, picking up animals at each stop and dropping them off at destinations around the world and beyond.

The Silver Arrow is Lev Grossman’s first foray into middle-grade fiction. He is the author of the very popular grown-up series that begins with The Magicians, a Potteresque story of a group of recent graduates from magic school who drag their powers into a dissolute adulthood. The Silver Arrow is more of a Willy Wonka goes to Narnia story with a smidgen of preaching.

The fantastical elements of this novel are charming, hitting that lovely sweet spot between cozy and chilling. It’s all very well to pick up talking animals at each stop, but there are wild creatures curled up in the library car, and this could end very badly indeed. The animals introduce themselves with a quick, Wikipedia-like summary, such as the fishing cat: “I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of us. There aren’t many of us, and we don’t get as much attention as the big cats. We are related to the rusty-spotted cats and the flat-headed cats—unfortunate name that, although it’s true, they have very flat heads. And they eat fruit, if you can believe it. A cat that eats fruit! Also the leopard cats.” (pp. 89-90) Although informative and sometimes amusing, this device wears thin after a while. Grossman’s main objective seems to be to recruit children to save endangered species, fight climate change, and stop staring at their phones. All noble causes, to be sure, especially ending device slavery, but the didactic passages feel awkward and uncomfortable at times.

On the other hand, this is an exciting adventure story, written in an appealing, somewhat British style. Grossman builds a world where anything could happen, and his characters grow in knowledge and confidence as they handle dangerous situations, from flying a train into the sky to confronting freeloading warthogs. Quiet, studious children will relate to Kate, who loves to eat breakfast alone with a book, and everyone will approve of Tom’s fabulous candy car, which contains every confection a child could imagine. Young people who love animals will devour this title and may move on to effect change in the real world.

A fun fantasy with teeth, this novel would make a great family read-aloud.

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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New in Kids’ History

A couple of notable new history series for grades 4-8 have recently hit the market, so I chose one title from each series for review.

History Smashers

The Mayflower, by Kate Messner

This chapter book of about 200 pages uses prose, generous black and white illustrations, photographs, and the occasional comic panel to bring kids a comprehensive understanding of the Pilgrims and the early settlements in Massachusetts. Messner goes beyond the basic understanding of people who fled England for religious freedom, landed at Plymouth Rock, and had Thanksgiving with the local “Indians.” She gives the backstory of the Separatists’ flight to the Netherlands, the dangerous voyage, and the struggles the English settlers had to survive for the first couple of years. She also spends a good deal of time correcting traditional misunderstandings. Although she is very fair to the English, she does not gloss over the injustices they inflicted on the Wampanoag tribe who lived in the area. The Pilgrims stole native inhabitants’ corn stores and even robbed their graves soon after they landed. Although there were years of cooperation, particularly with the help of Tisquantum (Squanto), it did not end well.

Messner’s writing is engaging, and young people will learn about early attempts at government, the first contracts in America, the typical menu of the settlers, and the layout of their small homes. They will also gain an understanding of native tribes and the differences between native and European worldviews that made peace agreements so difficult. She brings in quotes from primary sources and historical paintings to help kids to think critically about history.

I enjoyed this book very much, and even learned a few things about this well-trodden piece of our history. There is another volume in this series that is already published, Women’s Right to Vote, sporting the same bright, cartoonish cover. May there be many more to come. Highly recommended; do not miss it.

History Comics

The Roanoke Colony: American’s First Mystery, by Chris Schweizer

This 120-page graphic novel tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I’s foray into the New World in order to gather booty. During Elizabeth’s reign, the Spanish were making a fortune in the Americas by conquest and discovery, and their ships were constantly coming and going across the Atlantic, bringing treasure home to Spain. Rather than working on their own, the English thought that it would be much easier to get rich by intercepting the Spanish ships and stealing their cargo. Sailors did this under contract with the queen, so they were called privateers, because that sounds so much better than “pirates.” Sir Walter Raleigh, namesake of my closest city, thought that a port on Roanoke Island would be a perfect way to send ships out through the barrier islands to surprise the Spanish passing by. How wrong he was.

The large warships that the English were using could not pass through the shallow waters between the barrier islands and repeatedly foundered and wrecked, beginning what would be called “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” named for all of the sunken ships in the waters around Hatteras Island. For some reason, not least of which was pride, the English kept trying. After a while, they even brought families to Roanoke to start a real settlement. This settlement relied on England for supplies, however, and when a supply ship was delayed for three years, the would-be rescuers found the settlement on Roanoke completely abandoned. The fate of the Roanoke colony is the oldest mystery in America.

Schweizer uses two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo, to guide the reader through the story. They were real people, and their divergent views of the English allow the author to tell different sides of the historical record. Although he uses sarcastic humor to help the story along, the graphic panels are dense, and Schweizer conveys an enormous amount of information.

The legacy of the Virginia colonies is darker than that of the Pilgrims. Their goal was financial gain, and they had no regard whatsoever for the original inhabitants of the land. Some of the privateers were vicious, while others were more likely to desire peace with the local Secotans. None of them, however, viewed the natives as equals. Their disdain of the inhabitants as savages and heathens was upheld and encouraged by both their sovereign and the church, so when they had depleted their stores and were starving, they were foolish to turn to the Secotans for help.

Schweizer’s story pivots from America to England and occasionally Spain, using caricatures of proud Europeans and starving settlers to convey meaning and emotion. I learned from this book, as well. For example, I did not realize that Sir Francis Drake rescued 300 slaves from the Caribbean and brought them to safety in North Carolina (then Virginia). Unfortunately, that added 300 more starving souls to Roanoke, but it was a noble endeavor. Graphic novel enthusiasts will enjoy this series, produced by the excellent First Second, which also publishes the phenomenally popular Graphic Science series. Both series are recommended.

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

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Be the Bridge, by Latasha Morrison

Latasha Morrison, a North Carolina native, moved to Austin, Texas, to serve on the staff of a huge church. She was the only person of color—not on the staff, in the whole church. No worries, she was up on White culture. She watched Gilmore Girls and Friends and sang Hillsong tunes. However, at one point, while talking to her father on the phone, she realized that she had not seen or talked to a Black person in over a week. After a few well-meaning but cringe-inducing conversations with people in her church, she realized that White people did not understand Black culture at all, and when she decided to gently educate them, she realized that she didn’t, either.

Neil Gaiman once said, “Like all oppressed people, [they] know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.”* He was speaking of children, but it applies universally. For their own safety, the oppressed study their oppressors carefully, but since the powerless seem unimportant, the powerful do not care enough to learn about them. Latasha realized that her ancestors’ history had been erased from all of the textbooks that she had used in school. She was told that her forebears were sharecroppers, but there had to be more to it than that. She set out to learn her own rich and tragic history, and the reader of Be the Bridge will learn with her.

This book is designed to be used by the more than a thousand groups of “Bridge Builders” that Morrison’s ministry has created, so a list of discussion questions closes each chapter. In addition, there are prayers for the various topics, as well as a few liturgies that the groups can follow. The book does not have an instructional tone, though. Morrison is an enthralling storyteller, relating episodes from her own life and from history. She also brings in the perspective of various people from Bridge Builder groups that may mirror the experiences or feelings of her readers.

David and I read this book aloud and discussed our own encounters with racism and race relations from our childhoods in the segregated South to the present. Although we did not agree with all of Morrison’s conclusions and prescriptions, we learned an enormous amount about Black history. Just one example is the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, a horrifying event that marks the first time the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens. Neither David nor I had ever heard of it. There were many other such revelations in these pages, as well as encouraging stories of people who are taking steps to overcome the damage of our past.

I picked up this book shortly after the George Floyd tragedy, at a brief moment in time when the nation seemed ready to openly examine our past and to listen to the voices of those who were peacefully protesting injustice. That hopeful moment has since been burned in the flames of rioters and stolen by the crimes of looters. However, the church must always be about the work of reconciliation and justice, eschewing partisan politics and rising above the headlines of the day. Morrison’s book was written in 2019, before Floyd’s death and before the Coronavirus lockdown changed our perspective on normal life. Churches everywhere are engaging in Bridge Builder groups. Morrison reports that 92.5% of America’s churches are completely segregated. It is way past time for us to admit that this is not normal and cannot possibly be God’s will for His people.

Whereas David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here) is meant more for pastors and church leaders, Be the Bridge is for all Christians who want to understand the suffering of Black people in America and to see the church in the forefront of reconciliation.

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

*Neil Gaiman’s Zena Sutherland lecture, May 4, 2012.

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What If Jesus Was Serious?, by Skye Jethani

If Jesus was serious, then God is both tender and terrifying.

If Jesus was serious, then we will not contribute to our outrage culture.

These are just two of Skye Jethani’s chapter headings in this unusual little study of the Sermon on the Mount. Recently, I was reading through the book of Matthew, and as I read the beautiful and familiar words of the Sermon on the Mount twice, I thought, “There is so much here, and I know that I’m just scratching the surface.” I researched commentaries on this important passage in Jesus’ teachings, and the best one was about 400 pages long. I knew that if I bought it, it would sit on the To Be Read pile.  Then, when I was looking at something entirely different, I glanced through Amazon’s “Recommended for You” list, and here was this 190-ish page, cartoon-adorned paperback about this very passage, boasting glowing reviews from people I knew. Add to cart.

Jethani arranges his 72 devotional conversations on two-page spreads, headed by a drawing of some kind—cartoons, graphs, flowcharts, Venn diagrams. Then comes the chapter heading and a short discussion, followed by references to two additional scripture passages. The daily readings are punctuated by orange two-page spreads containing the Biblical text from Matthew that sets up the theme of the next group of studies.

David and I read two selections aloud each evening on the porch, taking turns with the additional scripture readings. We really looked forward to devotional time! Somehow, Jethani manages to pack an incredible punch into very few words. Some of his lessons are timeless theology, some relate to ordinary life, and others, such as those about social media, are thoroughly up to date. We were able to have rich discussions based on these revelatory essays.

Although he uses drawings, this guide is meant for adults, not children. However, it would be fantastic for teens or for families with teens to use as a family devotional. So far— with no economic advantage to myself— I have successfully gushed to two other families enough for them to buy it, and they are both enthusiastic in their praise. Skye Jethani also contributes to the Holy Post podcast with Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales fame.

One of the most fun and effective Bible studies I have used. Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a 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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Stories of the Saints, by Carey Wallace

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us….” Hebrews 12:1

Rarely do we see religious books for children being published through secular publishing houses these days, and rarer still are inspirational books of such high caliber. Not only are the size and materials of this book beautiful, but the storytelling, the artwork, and the layout are top notch.

The subtitle, Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace, and Courage, assures the reader that the author is presenting positive stories meant to build children’s character. There is no careful disclaimer “as the legend goes…” or the winking “some people believe…” before each miraculous event. Rather, Wallace writes of Thomas Aquinas with the full-throated, “Another monk saw him in the chapel, floating in the air before an image of Jesus on the cross, with tears running down his face. He was having a vision.” (p. 140) He was floating, Joan of Arc did hear God’s voice, and Bridget’s cloaked stretched far enough to cover two Irish monasteries. Wallace is not here to argue; she’s here to tell the story according to the saints and the believers after them.

Each of the 70 stories begins with a gold-edged box with the saint’s name, birth and death dates, location and emblem, “patron of,” and feast day. This brief summary is followed by a two- or three-page story embellished by striking artwork. Nick Thornborrow’s illustrations use bold lines and deep colors to create images that are sometimes symbolic, sometimes fantastical, and often resemble woodcuts. The saints march through history in chronological order from Polycarp, who was born in 69 A.D., up to Theresa of Calcutta, who just died in 1997.

This handsome volume would fit well into a social studies curriculum, as world history details are woven throughout the tales, particularly names of rulers, wars, and religious persecution. There is a brief introduction, an afterward, a map of the Mediterranean area, and a list for further reading. Richly inspirational reading for every Christian child.

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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