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 know I’m usually all about middle grade fiction over here, but I just finished the most lovely adult historical fiction, and I have to share it with you all: Adrift, by Rhonda Ortiz, the second book in her Molly Chase series.
You guys, Adrift checks all the boxes of things I’d been dying to see more of in a book:
Historical fiction of a less-written-about time period (1793 Boston and Philadelphia), check.
Fascinating historical details, check.
Spies! Intrigue! Puzzles to solve! Check.
Romantic banter, check.
A beautiful representation of a realistic but God-centered engagement and a healthy, loving marriage, check check.
Adrift picks up right where In Pieces, the first book in the series left off: the engagement of Molly Chase to her childhood frenemy, if you’ll forgive me the modern term, Josiah Robb. Josiah has been recruited to be part of the new country’s team of intelligencers, as the war between France and England is threatening American shores. What follows is a story that is simultaneously adventurous and deeply philosophical at turns, while losing none of the good humor and historical richness of Book 1.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
Boston, 1793—Now engaged, Molly Chase and new federal intelligencer Josiah Robb want nothing more than to settle into quiet married life—or as quiet as life can be when one is hunting down a ring of traitors among Boston’s elite. But the plan has one glaring flaw: Molly herself, and the madness that has plagued her since her father’s death. Until Molly proves herself an asset rather than a liability, Josiah’s investigation cannot move forward.
Intelligencer Eliza Hall thought she had left her troubles behind in Philadelphia long ago. When she is sent back to follow a suspect, she’s ready to acknowledge the truth and make her peace—except that the man she loves, who doesn’t know about her past, is assigned to come with her. Now she must outwit her fellow spy and closest friend, lest he hate her for what she had been, while they maneuver to prevent Revolutionary France from dragging the fledgling United States into a war it cannot afford.
Both women are in search of a safe harbor. Little do they expect the winds to blow them into the most tumultuous waters of all—back home.
Since you’ll ask... Yes, in this case you should really read the series in order. In my opinion, you’d be a bit confused about the details if you jumped right in here. Do yourself a favor and order In Pieces if the series is new to you!
You can pre-order Adrift before its August 8 release day (and/or order In Pieces while you're there) at this link: https://rhondaortiz.com/store/adrift . Many thanks to Rhonda Ortiz and Chrism Press for providing me an e-ARC in exchange for my honest review.
I'll be doing an interview with Rhonda very soon—any questions you'd like me to ask her?
A hidden bonus of being a Catholic author is that I've spent my life steeped in story-worthy elements. You want beauty and drama? Walk into a Mass and breathe in the incense and beeswax candles. Let the music of Byrd and Tallis echo in your ears. See the gleam of brass in the smoking thurifer and the sheen of silk on the tabernacle and vestments. You want the perfect story? Read the Bible, with all its heartache and betrayal and sacrifice and longing and love. Or the lives of the saints, echoing this story in their own unique lives.
But the downside to being a Catholic author? It can get annoying when non-Catholic authors steal from the treasure box of Catholic imagery and items. When they do it well, I don't mind so much (I loved The Inquisitor's Tale, for example…even though it did say Dominicans wore brown...). But when they do it poorly and the book wins acclaim, it's honestly painful. A recent award-winning title by a truly brilliant author missed the mark so much on angels and religious life (to a Catholic, "religious life" means living as a nun, sister, priest, brother, or monk) that I was honestly astounded by its stellar reception. Didn't it matter to anyone else that sacred elements of our Faith were being appropriated to add drama and mystique to a story?
Last week I read Back to the Bright Before, by Katherin Nolte--a newly-released story that very much takes advantage of the "Catholic mystique," but also very much gets it right. I am assuming that the Nolte is Catholic or was at some point, because she not only uses Catholic elements carefully and respectfully, but she never lets them get in the way of a really well-told story. It would have been easy to point out much of her symbolism to her readers, but instead she leaves it there like a little Easter egg for her readers to notice or not notice—you don't need to know all the answers because what you're there for is the story.
Here's a description from the publisher:
When eleven-year-old Pet Martin's dad falls from a ladder on their family farm, it isn't just his body that crashes to the ground. So does every hope her family had for the future. Money is scarce, and Pet's mom is bone-tired from waiting tables at the local diner, and even with the extra hours, it's not enough for a third surgery for Pet's dad. Her five-year-old brother, Simon, now refuses to say anything except the word "cheese." Worst of all? The ladder accident was Pet's fault.
She's determined to fix things--but how? Good old-fashioned grit...and maybe a little bit of magic.
When a neighbor recites a poem about an ancient coin hidden somewhere on the grounds of the local abbey, Pet forms a plan. With her brother, a borrowed chicken, and a stolen pony, Pet runs away from home. If she can find the coin, Daddy can have his surgery, Momma can stop her constant working, and Simon might speak again. But Pet isn't the only one who wants the coin...which means searching for it is more dangerous than she ever imagined.
This dazzling debut novel filled with magic, family, and adventure is sure to be an instant classic.
Here's the thing. This book will be classified as magical realism, but to a Catholic reader, it will read as something even better: a story of miracles. As Pet learns in the story and I have learned in my life, miracles are all around but you'll miss them if you're not looking. How wonderful it was to read a story where faith moved mountains and hope overcame the darkest evil! If you want to see it as magic… that's ok. Maybe we can agree it's the "Old Magic" of Narnia and The Secret Garden, a power bigger than the powers of this world, bigger than evil and bigger than even our biggest problems.
On a final note—and I know I can't really work this in with a perfect segue—the NUNS ARE SO GREAT. Having lived across the street from a Dominican monastery for several years, and knowing many nuns and sisters very well, I do get prickly when they're portrayed in literature as socially-awkward mystics or repressed goody-two-shoes. Nuns are real people, guys. :) Every single one I've met has entered religious life because she feels called to something bigger and deeper than herself—she is running to a great love, not running away from the world. And that deep love and complete normality was perfectly portrayed in Back to the Bright Before. Sister Melanie, the novice sister who befriends Pet, is just like many young nuns I know: kind and funny and nerdy and normal. I just loved her.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
As a mother of eight, it has been hard at times to know what to prioritize for my children. The older I get, the more I see the evidence that St. Paul was right: whatever is true… whatever is honorable… whatever is pure… whatever is lovely… think on these things. Instead of focusing on the evil and injustice in the world, we look closely at the good and the fair fighting against it. Instead of simply deploring ugliness, we look deeply at beauty.
Keeping that in mind, there's little better to share with my children than stories of the saints: real-life heroes, pointing with their vastly different lives to goodness and truth and beauty. I'm so excited for the recent renaissance of excellent saint stories and picture books for children, and Light of the Saints, by Cory Heimann, illustrated by Tricia Dugat, is a perfect example. No dry and yawn-inducing text here, but lively stories with interactive illustrations that bring them even more to life.
In some ways, you really need to experience this book for yourself to truly appreciate it, but the concept itself sells it: on every other page, a "hidden" illustration appears when you shine a flashlight through the other side. I love this for the sheer creativity, but even more so because it works so appropriately for a book of saint stories, to show that God's activity in their lives is often secret and hidden until it shines gloriously through.
I was kindly sent a copy of this book by the publisher to review (it's the first book from Word on Fire's new children's imprint, Spark!), but as it happened, I already had a copy of my own—so I'd love to pass it on to one of you to share with your children! To enter, just leave a comment telling me who your favorite saint is. I'll choose a random winner next Thursday. (I can ship only to the U.S., but you international readers are welcome to share your favorite saints with us anyway—just let me know you're not officially entering!)
Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!