Book Reviews for January 2023

Book Reviews for January 2023

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Well, my friends. We have a fresh year of reading ahead of us. What stories will come our way in 2023?

Here are my book reviews for January 2023—a fresh batch, I’m happy to report.

This month, I’m sharing…

  • A knockout memoir—and I don’t even like memoirs that much
  • A brand-new middle-grade novel that feels wonderfully old-timey
  • Loads of kids’ books—I’ve done the prereading, you’re welcome 😜

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads and The Storygraph. Connect with me so that I can see what you’re reading, too!

Everything Sad Is Untrue

By Daniel Nayeri

Memoir of an Iranian refugee as told (hilariously) by his adolescent self

You’ll love it if poop jokes make you laugh and the truth makes you cry

This ain’t your typical woe-is-me memoir. This book is crafted so beautifully and written with so much tenderness—I laughed, I cried, I loved it. Don’t expect a linear storyline. You’ll be a little disoriented at first, but please do give it a chance. I promise all the pieces will come together.

Content warnings: Domestic abuse (not graphically portrayed). Drug smuggling (not condoned).

The Death of Ivan Illych

By Leo Tolstoy

Novella-length cautionary tale

You’ll love it if you want a challenging story that’ll disinfect your soul

This tiny book is brilliant but extremely uncomfortable. I think most of us have more in common with the unremarkable and self-centered Ivan Illych than we’d care to admit. So, let’s heed the truth of Tolstoy’s cautionary tale. (Fun fact: The name Ivan Illych is the Russian version of John Doe.)

Content warnings: There’s passing mention of Ivan visiting a red-light district.

The Matchmaker’s Gift

By Lynda Cohen Loigman

Alternating timelines chronicle the stories of a Jewish matchmaker in the early 1900s and her granddaughter in the 1990s

You’ll love it if you want to read something light and mildly romantic

I wanted to read this book because I’m interested in the role that matchmakers play in Jewish culture, especially in modern times. How do they make matches? How do they work with families? What’s the process? The fee? This book provided NO such sneak peek, sadly. It was cute, but not for me.

Content warnings: This book portrays a very worldly view of romantic love, so don’t expect much substance.

The Two Towers

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Aragorn and company tackle Saruman, while Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to Mordor

You’ll love it if you’re craving a fantasy adventure written by a master craftsman

I will say it again: The Andy Serkis audio version is tremendous. I’ve only ever seen the LOTR movies, so I had no clue that this book is structured in two parts with parallel timelines. The first one follows Aragorn and his crew to Rohan and onto Helms Deep and then to Orthanc. The second part, which is far and away more intriguing, follows Frodo, Sam and Gollum to Mordor. These books are off the charts.

Content warnings: Wars and violence. Andy Serkis does that raspy/gurgly Gollum voice, which may creep out younger listeners.

Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation

By Madeleine L’Engle

Reflections on Jesus Christ in human form

You’ll love it if you want to grapple with some of the harder-to-understand aspects of Christianity

I read this book off and on during the Christmas season. It’s not exactly an advent book, but it examines the Christian belief that God took human form. Why did God choose to redeem the world THAT way? How should the incarnation affect us? I didn’t finish this one. It wasn’t bad at all, but there were a few things that struck me as woo-woo.

Content warnings: She briefly describes an icky incident in which an adult male molested her.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

By Elizabeth George Speare

A free-spirited young girl from Barbados tries to survive in Puritanical New England with mixed results

You’ll love it if you want to read superior historical fiction (with more than a touch of romance)

I’m on a mission to read all of Elizabeth George Speare’s books because I never read ANY of them as a kid. I can definitely see why this is her most popular work. The plot is nice and tight, and all of the characters have virtues AND flaws that make them human. Preteen me would’ve loved the romance element—I was a big sucker for that stuff (and still am).

Content warnings: Some parents don’t like when a book is overly focused on romance, and this one definitely has its share, although it’s all tastefully displayed. There is a witch hunt, but no actual witchcraft is portrayed.

The Star That Always Stays

By Anna Rose Johnson

A young girl in the 1910s must figure out who she is, past, present, and future

You’ll love it if you’re a fan of Anne Shirley, Jo March, and the Penderwick sisters

Do you ever wish that a modern author would write lovely, wholesome books like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women? Do you also wish that authors would have the guts to point their young readers to The Truth? If you answered yes, then you MUST check out this debut middle-grade novel. I can’t wait to read more from Anna Rose!

Content warnings: None

The Green Ember

By S. D. Smith

It’s rabbits vs. wolves in this inspiring children’s fantasy

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Watership Down (or you’ve got kids who want an animal adventure with teeth)

I have a confession: I’m not a fan of animal protagonists. (I prefer people.) But I will say that this was a GREAT read-aloud for my boys, who thoroughly enjoyed the rabbity adventure. The first half of this book is too long and needs to be edited, but the second half really picks up. If you haven’t heard of S. D. Smith before, he’s hilarious and I dare you not to like him immediately.

Content warnings: There are some scary wolves and birds of prey that’ll be too much for the very, very young.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain

By Alice Dalgliesh

Will Jonathan meet bears on Hemlock Mountain, even though his mom says he won’t?

You’ll love it if you want a lightning-fast read-aloud for young kids

This is a great early chapter book that my 7-year-old is reading right now in homeschool. It’s a super-simple story with a slow build of suspense—will there actually be bears???—and a wonderfully fun climactic moment. This reminds me a lot of Robert Clyde Bulla’s kids’ novels.

Content warnings: None

The Light at Tern Rock

By Julia L. Sauer

Can young Ronnie help his elderly aunt keep the lighthouse working in winter?

You’ll love it if you want a highly discussable Christmas book to read with youngsters over the holidays

What a gorgeous kids’ Christmas book! Not only are there beautiful black-and-white illustrations throughout, but the story. It’s complex without being complicated. My boys’ll need to be older to appreciate this, but I was thoroughly charmed.

Content warnings: None

The Door in the Wall

By Marguerite de Angeli

A young boy in Medieval times becomes a hero in spite of a physical handicap

You’ll love it if you want to empower a young man in your life with a tale of bravery

If you’ve got a kid who can’t get enough of knights, castles, or Ye Olde Britain, then this slim novel serves up a lot of historical flavor, and it has a wonderful message to boot. One day, young Robin, our protagonist, can no longer walk. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he learns to find the next “door in the wall,” i.e. a way to pass through whatever barrier is stopping him from progressing in life. The first half of the book is somewhat slow, but the second half picks up, and the ending brings all the drama.

Content warnings: None

The Secret of the Hidden Scrolls: The Beginning (Book 1)

By M. J. Thomas

Kids time travel to Bible events

You’ll love it if you want your kids to get hooked on a chapter series that’s connected to the Bible

Remember the Magic Treehouse series? This is like the Christian version. A brother and sister time-travel back to Bible events. In this first book, they witness God create the world. They have a (somewhat silly) mission to complete. There are more books in the series with more missions. My opinion: just okay.

Content warnings: I wasn’t crazy about the mission the kids had to complete, which was to translate Hebrew writing on a scroll. It seemed like an arbitrary plot device and a little too derivative of Magic Treehouse. I don’t want my boys to think that God would ever leave them stranded up a creek without a paddle just because they couldn’t complete a random mission.

Book journal pages you can color

Love books AND colored pencils? Then these printable book journal pages are for YOU. I designed them to be cheerful and nostalgic. Pop your email into the box below, and I’ll send you the FREE printables.

Book Reviews for Winter 2022

Book Reviews for Winter 2022

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

My book reviews for winter 2022 include quite a mix of fiction, nonfiction, light and heavy, short and long books.

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads and The Storygraph. Connect with me so that I can see what you’re reading, too!

Letters from Father Christmas

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Collection of real-life letters from Tolkien to his children

You’ll love it if you wish you could be pen pals with Santa Clause

This book is a collection of letters and drawings that Tolkien sent to his children each Christmas, starting in the ’20s and into the mid-’40s. For real. He writes pretending to be Father Christmas, telling them about the goings on at the North Pole (polar bears, snowmen, and even goblins). This was extra-merry on audio with sleigh bells ring-a-linging.

Content warnings: There are some goblins who try to take over the North Pole, but nothing scary. If your kids believe in Santa, they will still believe at the end of this book. 😉

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

Literary historical fiction

You’ll love it if you want a complex plot and complex characters, richly rendered

I loved The Lincoln Highway, but I was hesitant to try this book because it sounded SO boring. And it might be boring to you—but I adored it. This is my kind of book. Simple plot + complex characters = 5 stars. You don’t need a degree in Russian history to enjoy it, either.

Content warnings: This is an adult book, and there is the normal stuff, but nothing gross.

The Thirteenth Tale 

By Diane Setterfield

Historical mystery

You’ll love it if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre or gothic novels in general

A young bookish woman receives a mysterious handwritten letter from the most prolific and famous writer of her time. This writer has long evaded biographical questions from the press. But now, she’s ready to spill all her secrets, and she’s chosen an unknown, unpublished person to write what will surely be the biography of the century. Expect plenty of chills and a gothic atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Content warnings: There is some major family dysfunction (including incest, rape, and self-harm) in the first third of the book, but thankfully this doesn’t persist into the middle and ending.

M Is for Mama: A Rebellion Against Mediocre Motherhood

By Abbie Halberstadt

Christian motherhood

You’ll love it if you’re seeking iron-on-iron motherhood advice that’ll convict you as much as it’ll inspire you

I forced myself to listen to this on audio SLOWLY. One chapter a day max. It was a solid five-star read for me. Abbie basically says, “Here’s an issue that tempts us toward mediocre motherhood.” Then, she says, “Here are some scriptures that speak to this issue.” And then she offers sound, grounded advice that points us toward excellence in our chosen profession.

Enough about Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self 

By Jen Oshman

Christian inspiration

You’ll love it if you’ve tried “self-care” and “self-love” but it didn’t work as promised

This is a well-written, scripturally based argument for why a me-first mentality leads (eventually) to deep unhappiness and disillusionment. Instead, Jen Oshman offers a life that is Christ-centered and that leads (eventually) to deep joy and peace. This is a solid, brief primer on God-first living.


By A. J. Hartley

YA thriller

You’ll love it if you’re seeking a YA thriller with robust multicultural worldbuilding

This book wins major points for original worldbuilding and atmosphere. Major points. But, it’s not going on my list of favorite YA dystopian thrillers. Like many other novels in the genre, it stars Katniss Everdeen in different trappings. “The fate of the world hangs on an obscure, oppressed teenage girl…” you know the drill.

Content warnings: There is an attempted rape, murder, and violence. But it all stays within the realm of what you’d expect from YA. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much romance at all in this one and no sex.

I Am the Messenger

By Markus Zuzak

Magical realism

You’ll love it if you’re in the mood for grit, humor, mystery, and LOADS of teenage male angst

I adored The Book Thief, so I had high expectations. Like The Book Thief, this was brimming with emotion and foul language. But the message at the heart is…solid gold. This book will appeal most to young males because it (rightly) reflects their maleness in a way that’ll (logically) feel a tad alien to a female reader.

Content warnings: Lots of violence and aggression. Rape occurs offstage. I’d recommend 16+ years at the very youngest.

The Giver Quartet  (the 4-book series)

by Lois Lowry

Middle-grade and YA dystopian

You’ll love it if you prefer dystopias that are free from raunch and graphic violence

Every autumn, I get the itch to re-read a series (just for the comfy-ness of it). Last year, it was The Hunger Games. The year before, it was Harry Potter. This year, it was The Giver Quartet. I have so many memories reading The Giver as a young person. These books do venture into social and political issues, so I recommend that young people read these with guidance, if possible. (This is because there will be no earthly utopia unless Jesus Christ says so, and we can’t rely on systems to get us there.)

  • The Giver: A must-read for anyone of any age.
  • Gathering Blue: An interesting story with a somewhat muddled message.
  • Messenger: A quick, easy read with a much stronger and cohesive message.
  • Son: A good series-ender, but much longer than it needed to be.

Book journal pages you can color

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Book Reviews for July 2022

Book Reviews for July 2022

It’s m’duty to tell you that this article contains affiliate links, which earn me commission at no extra cost to you. Here’s my disclosure policy.

It’s July, and that means the monsoons are sweeping over our desert mountains. It gets hot—very hot—and just when we think we can’t take it anymore, the sky growls and pops and (finally) showers blessed relief. There’s something beautiful about reading a book during a balmy rain.

This month, I want to tell you about two books that I didn’t finish and why. I also read a steamy (but clean) Regency romance as well as a classic travelogue and a beautifully crafted Christian exegesis.

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads and The Storygraph. Connect with me so that I can see what you’re reading, too!

Now, onward to the reviews!

The Measure book review (DNF 50%)

By Nikki Erlick

Genre: Contemporary realistic fantasy

Format: Audible audiobook (thank goodness for free returns)

Mood: Worldly, exhausted, and stressed

You’ll love it if you want (yes want) to relive all the psychotic distress of the 2020 news cycle.

Well, this book had one of the most intriguing hooks I’d ever encountered. But the execution was just, well, sad.

The hook: On a random day, everyone in the world who is 22 years or older wakes up to find a wooden box with their name on it and a strange inscription that reads something like “inside is the measure of your life.” Open the box, and there’s a piece of gauzy fabric. Lift that, and you see a string. The string’s length corresponds to how long you’re going to live, from the day you’re born to the day you die.

The arrival of these boxes, of course, changes a LOT of things for a LOT of people. Some people open their boxes, and some don’t. Some people make huge life-changing decisions based on the length of their strings. The people who have short strings are soon labeled as a quasi-underclass, and they are stereotyped and feared by the long-stringers.

This is all quite interesting, and this setup…painting the world as a tinderbox with a lit match inching toward’s a thrilling idea.


The characters were bad. I did not love them. I barely cared about them. The characters were like little puppets. They were lifeless wooden dolls acting the way that the author wanted them to act to serve the story’s messaging. (This story lacked meaning but was jam-packed with messaging, most of which was too trite for me to bear.)

If the characters had been real, then I might’ve kept reading in spite of the messaging, but I just couldn’t go on. The inciting incident was SO good. It could’ve been the start of a really wonderful story, and maybe things perk up in the second half, but I didn’t have the stomach to stick around.

Content warnings: Two of the main characters are in a lesbian relationship. There’s a shooting at a hospital and at a rally. Not sure what goes down in the second half.

It Ends With Us book review (DNF 33%)

By Colleen Hoover

Genre: Contemporary romance

Format: Library paperback

Mood: Emotional, sexy, disillusioned

You’ll love it if you’ve got a gnarly craving for an angsty romance.

For some reason—Verity, I suspect—Colleen Hoover’s books have blown up this past year! She’s, like, skyrocketed to fame. Her backlist is selling like there’s no tomorrow. So, naturally, I’m curious. 

I tried reading Verity for the second time last month and had to put it down at the 25 percent mark. I got a little further with this one, but I just can’t justify spending time on it. Too raunchy and lusty for my tender little soul.

This book is what I consider mommy porn. It’s a book that your average, everyday mom can read in public and nobody bats an eyelash, yet the book contains explicit sex scenes (and seems to exist primarily for these scenes).

Content warnings: Lots of sex and swears. Also, the protagonist’s father is verbally and physically abusive. There is a teen boy who is homeless.

The Cheat Sheet book review

By Sarah Adams

Genre: Contemporary romance

Format: Kindle ebook

Mood: Frothy, fun, silly, steamy

You’ll love it if you want to read something so sweet it’ll give you cavities.

Kindle said, “This ebook is only $1.99!” So, I impulse-bought it, knowing beforehand that it’s a sassy closed-door romance about two best friends who become lovers. There’s also a fake relationship. And dual POVs. Okay, Amazon, I’ll give it a try!

I read it in three days flat, and it was exactly like watching a PG-13 romcom from the early 2000s. It’s full of witty dialogue, and steamy romance, and it had me literally laughing out loud. Netflix or Hulu could take this book and adapt it to the screen with minimal effort—it reads just like a movie, with adorable banter and with adorable banter and screenplay-ready episodes fully loaded.

I’m gonna call this “Hallmark meets MTV with a dash of Sports Center.” Weird, I know

Now, this book is cute as all get-out, BUT it’s pure escapism—the fluffy, wish-fulfillment kind. It was a total cupcake, and too much of this kinda thing can’t be good for me. 

But what about just a liiiiiittle every now and then? Honestly, the tension between what I can read and what I really should avoid is a sleeping bear that I’m currently poking at with my proverbial stick. You can bet I’ll letcha know how it’s going.

Content warnings: This book brings the steam, but without true substance to go along with it. There are makeout and bedroom scenes that are on the PG-13 side of things, but it does not depict the entire sexual act (i.e. fade to black). It does depict one of the characters having a panic attack.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers book review

By Dane C. Ortlund

Genre: Christian exegesis

Format: Library audiobook

Mood: Lyrical, unhurried, deep

You’ll love it if you secretly say to yourself, “If Jesus really knew me, I don’t think he’d love me.”

How do you describe the heart of Jesus Christ? This book takes a deep look at scripture in an attempt to find out. The conclusion is that the heart of Jesus draws near to sinners and sufferers. We don’t have to be perfectly righteous and content in order to be near the heart of God.

Often, we feel like we’re pestering Jesus with our constant needs, our constant backsliding, our constant selfishness. How can he possibly have a soft heart toward us when we’re so pathetic? Or, we think, yes, Jesus loves me, except THAT part of me. (No, he loves that part too.) Or, yes, Jesus wants a relationship with me, but if he gets too close, he has to hold his nose. (No, Jesus doesn’t just tolerate us in his family, he fervently wants us to be part of his family.)

Here are a few other things that resonated with me:

  • Jesus looks at our sin like a parent looks at cancer that’s afflicting his child. Just because the child has cancer doesn’t mean he stops loving his child. He hates the cancer and wants it gone, but he never hates his child.
  • Jesus is our mediator (continually acting as our lifeline to the Father, going before us day in and day out) and our advocate (clearing our name after we sin bigly and repent sincerely). This imagery helps me think of what Jesus is doing for me right NOW. It takes the cross and brings it to this present moment.
  • Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion WITHOUT the filter of sin to dull the highs and the lows. That’s why he’s the perfect empathizer. He felt ALL the emotions with more clarity and force than we ever will. If anyone knows what we’re feeling, it’s him.

A huge strength of this book is Ortlund’s beautiful prose. He’s a great writer! This book could’ve been dry and intellectual, but it’s filled with imagery and (no surprise) heart.

Content warnings: Ortlund is Calvinist, so that’s good to know because this naturally affects his commentary. I’m not Calvinist, but I found a lot to take away nonetheless.

The Matrimonial Advertisement book review

By Mimi Matthews

Genre: Regency romance

Format: Audible audiobook

Mood: Mysterious, romantic, on the slow burner

You’ll love it if you’re craving a soap-opera version of Jane Austen.

It’s a Regency romance! (Roll the Rs.) Rrrregency rrrrromance! Yes, that’s it. That’s how I feel about this book. It’s kinda silly and kinda great. When I think of “Regency romance” I think of Jane Austen but with more soapy social drama and at least one bout of fisticuffs. This book delivered on both counts.

Honestly, I thought this book was decently well written, but my expectations were low. It was crafted with more historical care, better characterization, and more believable plotting than Edenbrooke (IMO).

What’s the story about? Well, for reasons unknown to us at the outset, Helena has traveled far from home to answer a newspaper advertisement for a bride. She meets the man, a Byronic hunk with a shrouded past, and they agree to go ahead with the marriage, despite the fact that they’re both obviously hiding things.

The less you know going into the story, the better.

The romance was very steamy but most definitely closed door, which is how I prefer things. No explicit bedroom scenes here. And it was like a 5 out of 10 on the Cheese-O-Meter. Some cheese but not so much that I was rolling my eyes. I was caught up in the story, which was dramatic but reasonably so, and this allowed me to enjoy the romance without getting distracted by too many “oh puh-leeeze” moments.

Content warnings: Some spoilers in this section. Helena was nearly strangled by her uncle and has bruises. She was subjected to “treatments” at a mental facility that amount to torture. Her mother suffered from post-pardum depression, but it isn’t discussed in detail.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America book review

By John Steinbeck

Genre: Travel (historical)

Format: Paperback

Mood: Lively, ironically funny, introspective

You’ll love it if you’re itching to jump in a camper and tour the great U S of A (1960s-style).

John Steinbeck is a masterful writer. I’d forgotten. The man writes beautifully, and this travelogue is worth a read for the sheer enjoyment of his prose.

Travels with Charley is the true story of how John Steinbeck wanted to see America. So, he outfitted his truck with a camper of sorts, and he set off on a grand tour of the U S of A. His travel companion? An intelligent blue-gray poodle named Charley (born and raised in France and therefore very discerning, although prone to bladder infections).

Steinbeck had traveled the globe, but he’d never made a concerted effort to look closely at America. He wanted to learn about America. What makes America itself? What are Americans like? Is it possible to characterize this vast, diverse nation?

He starts in the late summer of 1960 at Sag Harbor, New York, where he lives. He drives up to the fingertips of Maine, and then back down, across no-nonsense New England and then the Mideast (Ohio is very friendly) and up through Michigan and over through Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana, which stole his heart.

He makes it clear to Seattle, which isn’t what it once was, he says. He then heads south (through San Francisco “the City”) to his beloved Salinas Valley in California (a prophet is always rejected in his own country).

He speeds across Arizona and New Mexico (which exist in spite of themselves) but spends Thanksgiving in Texas at a millionaire’s ranch. Then, with trepidation, he enters the south, which is bowstring-tight with racial tension. Then, he makes a mad dash north to get home for Christmas.

Steinbeck doesn’t presume to have really “learned” anything in a general sense. What good are generalities when you’re talking about a land so wide-ranging as the U.S.? But, he has a wonderful way of retelling his encounters with people along the way. Individual people that he met at singular moments in time. He captures those moments, and that’s the stuff the book is made of. Brief roadside episodes. Sounds boring, right? NO. It’s not about the stories as much as how Steinbeck tells them.

Steinbeck is no fool. He didn’t just randomly slap this book together. He carefully selected the stories he’d tell, and I’m sure he had his reasons for each. But, his telling is so personal and relatable that I didn’t feel like he was lecturing or putting anything over on me. I think he was genuinely trying to understand his country because he LOVES it, despite all its shortcomings. And that warms my little newsfeed-shriveled heart.

“I do know this—the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”

Content warnings: Steinbeck visits New Orleans and witnesses a group of women (surrounded by news crews and a crowd of gawkers) who are loudly and obscenely protesting the desegregation of schools. This is an important part of the book, but it could be disturbing for some.

The Witches book review

By Roald Dahl

Genre: Children’s realistic fantasy

Format: Paperback (and audiobook)

Mood: Comedic and tongue-in-cheek

You’ll love it if you want to give your kids the creeps (in the good ol’ campfire-ghost-story kinda way).

I still have my tattered childhood copy of The Witches, and it was this copy that got the attention of my 5- and 7-year-olds. Witches? Oooooooh. What’s it about?!

It’s been ages since I’ve read this book, and it is one of the weirder Dahl stories…I know, they’re ALL weird, but this one is extra weird.

What’s the point of this book? To laugh over a silly story, maybe. To get that fun-creepy tingle up your spine at the thought of witches living among us. I dunno. But it held the same appeal for my kids as it did for young me.

Our narrator is a young British boy who is never actually named (truly!). He is tragically orphaned and then put in the care of his beloved Grandmamma, who is a Norweigian witch expert. She’s a great storyteller, and she loves the topic of witches. They are REAL. And they HATE children. It’s very important that a child knows how to spot a witch to avoid getting squelched. Witches look just like nice ladies, you know.

Well, our intrepid narrator DOES come in contact with witches, and thank goodness he has his Grandmamma by his side. The book relies on a lot of slapstick humor and adventure-type scenes to keep things interesting.

I read about half of the book aloud, and the other half we listened to the audiobook narrated by Miranda Richardson. The voice she does for the Grand High Witch was a little hard to understand at times.

Content warnings: If you suspect that the idea of “witches hiding in plain sight” might freak your kids out, then pass on this for now. The Grand High Witch kills a witch by melting her with her eyes. Kids are repeatedly threatened with death.

The Whipping Boy book review

By Sid Fleischman

Genre: Children’s historical fiction

Format: Paperback

Mood: Funny, adventurous, and heartwarming

You’ll love it if you need a read-aloud that’s a morality tale wrapped in a romp.

My 5- and 7-year-old boys were NOT into this book much at all. It’s not a complicated story, but it was a little over their heads, and this surprised me!

I, on the other hand, thought this book was great. It’s not the end-all, be-all in children’s literature, but I loved the morality tale it presents.

We’ve got two main characters, Prince Brat, a terribly spoiled royal child. Then, we’ve got Jemmy, his whipping boy. Whenever Prince Brat gets in trouble, Jemmy gets a whipping (because it’s against the law to lay a hand on a princely hide.) Of course, this is terribly unjust, and kids can see that right away.

In the dead of night, Prince Brat decides to run away because he’s “bored.” He commands Jemmy to go with him. They are terrible runaways and get kidnapped immediately by two highwaymen who stink of garlic. They meet a girl with a dancing bear and a potato seller and a rat catcher, and it’s all good fun in medieval times.

There’s a hearty moral takeaway and plenty of vocabulary words tucked into the narrative and strong historical flavor. But it’s mostly a growing-up / unlikely friendship story that I think will appeal to my boys when they’re a tad older. 😉

Content warnings: As the title suggests, our two protagonists take a few beatings. There are also two (rather silly) highwaymen who kidnap the boys and threaten them.

Sarah, Plain and Tall book review

By Patricia MacLachlan

Genre: Children’s historical fiction

Format: Paperback

Mood: Sweet, understated

You’ll love it if you want a tender, emotional read-aloud (that’s super-short).

A beautifully bare-bones story that kids can relate to. Anna and her younger brother Caleb live on the prairie with their father. Their mother died giving birth to Caleb, but now Papa has decided to advertise for a wife. He gets a response from Sarah, who describes herself as plain and tall. The children desperately hope that she’ll fill the void in their home. Will she?

In addition to dealing with the loss of a parent, this book also presses into the topic of “moving away,” and might be a cathartic read for kids who are struggling with a move. Sarah was born and raised in Maine on the coast, so moving to the prairie is a big change for her.

Patricia MacLachlan is known for tackling tough topics in a way that kids can understand…and she does it in a way that isn’t too terribly sad. In fact, the narrative focuses primarily on hope for a happy future (versus the grief of the past). Her writing style is stripped of anything superfluous, so it leaves lots of room for discussions with kids.

I was surprised by how closely this book sticks to the children’s POV. We get hints as to what’s going on in the minds of the adults, but it’s very surface-level. (MacLachlan leaves all the adult issues to the imaginations of the parents who are reading this to their kids, haha.)

The kids are primarily concerned with whether or not Sarah will stay with them. Or will she miss her home by the sea in Maine too much and return there? Are they “enough” for her? Does she like them? Could she love them? This is so simple and straightforward. As adults, we realize just how fraught and complex this scenario would be for Papa and Sarah, but this book centers squarely on how the kids’ experience.

Content warnings: The children’s mother died in childbirth, and this is a central element of the plot. It may be sad for very sensitive kids. Anna has the image of her mother’s coffin being carried away in a wagon.

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