For all of you adults and teens and older middle grade readers who have loved Little House on the Prairie and hoped for a wider perspective on that time period and setting, I have a lovely book for you today!
A Sky Full of Song is the story of a Jewish family that flees persecution in Ukraine to make a new life on the North Dakota prairie. The middle child of five, Shoshana struggles with fitting in in her new school and new life, and wonders if it would be best to hide their Jewish heritage from her new schoolmates and friends.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
After fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, eleven-year-old Shoshana and her family, Jewish immigrants, start a new life on the prairie. Shoshana takes fierce joy in the wild beauty of the plains and the thrill of forging a new, American identity. But it’s not as simple for her older sister, Libke, who misses their Ukrainian village and doesn’t pick up English as quickly or make new friends as easily. Desperate to fit in, Shoshana finds herself hiding her Jewish identity in the face of prejudice, just as Libke insists they preserve it.
For the first time, Shoshana is at odds with her beloved sister, and has to look deep inside herself to realize that her family’s difference is their greatest strength. By listening to the music that’s lived in her heart all along, Shoshana finds new meaning in the Jewish expression all beginnings are difficult , as well as in the resilience and traditions her people have brought all the way to the North Dakota prairie.
This book is spectacularly written; highly compelling, deeply moving. I loved learning more about what it would have looked like for a Jewish family to transport their customs and traditions to the New World. Shoshana is a complex and very likeable character, and I loved the big family interaction with her siblings (super cute literary toddlers are my favorite).
I would give a content warning before you hand this to young readers who loved Little House and want more of the same. The content is definitely more intense than anything you’d encounter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, particularly the depictions of the violent persecution Shoshana and her family experience both in Ukraine and North Dakota. There are also a few scenes revolving around Libke getting her first period, and she and Shoshana are very scared until their mother explains what’s going on; while ultimately their mother’s explanation is very positive, I wouldn’t want my young reader to read the “scary” descriptions if we hadn’t had a chance to discuss this together yet. (I did wonder why the mother in the book wouldn’t have prepared Libke for her first period, and it seemed a little bit forced to add drama.) I’ll be handing this off to my 12+ readers, but your children may be ready at a different age.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
Besides being amazing writers, do you know what Lewis Carrol, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, G. K. Chesterton, Madeleine L’Engle, Brian Jacques, and Neil Gaiman (and many, many others) have in common? They were all deeply influenced by the writing of a humble Scottish minister and pioneer of fantasy literature, George MacDonald.
Sarah Mackenzie, author of The Read Aloud Family, often discusses a concept she calls “reading upstream.” Basically, use your love of a certain book or author as a starting point to explore more books and authors. If you delve into the things that influenced that writer or work, you’re “reading upstream” and gaining a greater understanding of the thing you love—as well as finding new things to love! If you begin reading upstream of almost any fantasy author of the past century, you’re going to find yourself at a big river of inspiration called George MacDonald.
I’ve read a few of MacDonald’s works aloud to my family—they’re particular fans of The Princess and the Goblin illustrated by Arthur Hughes. But it can be hard to find some of his lesser-known works, so I was thrilled when I discovered that Word on Fire Spark just came out with a beautiful new edition of The Golden Key, including two more of MacDonald’s lesser-read fairy tales, The Light Princess and Little Daylight. Just look at this beautiful cover! And the illustrations by Anastasia Nesterova are perfect for these stories (which is saying a lot, considering that MacDonald has been illustrated by some of the greatest artists of the golden age of illustration).
While each of the stories in this collection are fairy tales rich with symbolism, they are very different from one another. The Golden Key is about two neglected children who stumble into a fairy world and must go on a quest. The Light Princess is a wry and humorous story about a princess whose gravity (both on a physical and metaphorical level) has been stolen by an evil witch. Little Daylight highlights MacDonald’s humor as he creates a topsy-turvy verson of Sleeping Beauty, in which the princess is cursed to sleep during the day and wax and wane like the moon when she awakes at night.
For those of us who have the pleasure of reading MacDonald in a post-Tolkien age, it’s impossible to read without Tolkien’s thoughts on fairy stories intruding (pleasantly) into our minds. Take this quote, for example, from his essay On Fairy-Stories: "It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."
You don’t have to search hard in MacDonald’s stories to find this potency and wonder. But what struck me most on my current reading was another fairy story element Tolkien wrote of at length: that of the comfort of finding true joy and happy endings.
In today’s world, you only need to pick up your phone to find a world full of unhappy stories. So perhaps fairy stories, with their reminder that happy endings are possible and true, are more important now than ever. Did you ever hear the Albert Eistein quote about fairy tales? “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Tokien or Lewis or L’Engle might adapt that for today’s audiences. I certainly will: “If you want your children to be resilient… to be faithful… to be hopeful… to be kind… read them fairy tales. If you want them to be saints and heroes, read them more fairy tales.”
The Golden Key is a good place to start.
Here is the link to order from Word on Fire Spark (I think it’s on sale right now!): https://bookstore.wordonfire.org/products/the-golden-key
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
I am so, SO excited to share with you all a book I'd been dying to read since I first heard of its existence. The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry won't be released until March 5 of next year, but I hope you all start pre-ordering and requesting your libraries to buy it as soon as you can, because it's beautiful and poignant and old-fashioned and wonderful.
Here's the publisher's description:
Lucy, a spirited French-Ojibwe orphan, is sent to the stormy waters of Lake Superior to live with a mysterious family of lighthouse-keepers—and, she hopes, to find the legendary necklace her father spent his life seeking…
Selena Lucy Landry (named for a ship, as every sailor’s child should be) has been frightened of the water ever since she lost her father at sea. But with no one else to care for her, she’s sent to foster with the Martins—a large Anishinaabe family living on a lighthouse in the middle of stormy Lake Superior.
The Martin family is big, hard-working, and close, and Lucy—who has always been a dreamer—struggles to fit in. Can she go one day without ruining the laundry or forgetting the sweeping? Will she ever be less afraid of the lake?
Although life at the lighthouse isn’t what Lucy hoped for, it is beautiful—ships come and go, waves pound the rocks—and it has one major It’s near the site of a famous shipwreck, a shipwreck that went down with a treasure her father wanted more than anything . If Lucy can find that treasure—a priceless ruby necklace—won’t it be like having Papa back again, just a little bit?
But someone else is hunting for the treasure, too. And as the lighthouse company becomes increasingly skeptical that the Martins can juggle Lucy and their duties, Lucy and the Martin children will need to find the necklace quickly—or they may not have a home at all.
The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry is a timelessly sweet tale of found family from rising Ojibwe voice Anna Rose Johnson, author of NPR Best Book of the Year The Star That Always Stays . Perfect for fans of L.M. Montgomery and Karina Yan Glaser!
I'd like to say that if any of you aren't at least a little bit tempted by a description that encompasses 1) a heroine reminiscent of and L. M. Montgomery character, 2) a big family story, 3) a treasure hunt, and 4) A LIGHTHOUSE… well, you might be human but are you actually a happy person? ;) Those elements make me very, very happy as a reader. They really made this story so beautiful and so much fun.
I won't write at length today about each of the lovely elements of Lucy Landry. But I do want to focus on the big family aspect, as that's solidly in my wheelhouse. A lot of big family stories capture the chaos and fun of a family of many siblings. Many get the sibling rivalry spot on, and most portray the firm bond of love between brothers and sisters. Few, in my experience, capture the way that it's not just the good things about us, but also our flaws and failures and annoying little habits that allow us to help each other grow. Family is a school of love and a school of life. Without rubbing up against each other's rough edges, we wouldn't have the chance to smooth out our own. The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry portrays this aspect of big family life more accurately than any story I've ever read. Lucy is a very flawed character. The Martins are, too. They don't get along very well at the onset, and it's not just a misunderstanding they grow out of—it's their flaws, front and center, there for everyone to see. But Lucy and the Martins are also, well, wonderful. They are more virtuous than they are flawed, and those virtues do a lot to ease that work of softening edges. And of course, you can't go wrong when you throw in a good adventure and a treasure hunt!
As I said, The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry is available for pre-order now, and releases this coming March. In the meantime, you can check out Always in the Middle for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations!
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!