All the World's a Classroom
Happy mid-year! It’s time for the first round-up of the best books of 2019. If you’re curious about all the books I’ve read in 2019, check out this page.
This is a fantastic book of an incredible story written by the Pulitzer Prize writer Eli Saslow. Derek Black grew up in the middle of white nationalism. His family was, and still is, at the head of the movement. Yet when Derek went to college, things began to change until he finally left the movement and is now actively fighting against it. This book tells the dramatic story of his evolution through interactions he had with college friends, a few of whom invited him to Shabbat dinners, and continued to do so even after they knew who he was. The story is presented with empathy toward everyone involved and contains so many lessons for us today.
This book is a memoir by Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. As he retells the story of how they arrested and condemned him, and as you go through the years of him hoping and fighting for his innocence, you get this suffocating feeling because you know that he ultimately had to spend 30 years before he was finally released. Hinton shares the incredible darkness that he and his prison mates lived through, and also the humanity that could not be taken away from people, even on death row. It’s dark story of injustice, but also an incredible story of resilience, hope, and faith.
Hinton’s life is intertwined with Bryan Stevenson’s, author of Just Mercy, one of my all-time favorite books. Stevenson eventually became Hinton’s lawyer, who after years of work finally got him freed from death row.
In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott shares profound wisdom for a life of hope in her usual witty and humorous writing. The timing of when I picked this book up coincided with the 10th anniversary of my dad’s passing, which made this book such a welcome salve to what I was thinking and feeling at the time. It simply is a delightful book on the most essential things in life, and most of the credit goes to the writing.
Written by the same Eli Saslow who wrote the first book in this list, this collection of articles trace the lives of individuals across the country who are impacted or depended by America’s food stamp program. The challenge of having enough or anything to eat is very real for many American families, children, and senior citizens. I think these articles should be required reading, and for more sources that enlighten the complex problem of poverty, see this Understanding Poverty Reading List.
This book makes the list because it is such an infuriating story. John Carreyrou traces the story of Theranos, the one-time multibillion-dollar biotech startup, with the enigmatic Elizabeth Holmes at its helm. Yet Theranos’ unicorn status was based on a fraud, a technology that didn’t work. Selling the promise to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would be able to do a variety of blood tests with a single tiny prick of blood, Holmes was able to fool many high-ranking investors and became at one point the star young female tech CEO that the world was craving for.
The infuriating part was the cost that many people bore from getting false blood test results, and Holmes seemingly walking away mostly unscathed from this whole ordeal. Presently, she faces criminal charges for fraud. Her trial date is just set for July 2020. As for her life, she got engaged to a hotel heir and reportedly living in luxury.
Now how about a story about women who are true heroes. This book tells the under-told story of thousands of women who were codebreakers during World War II, their marvelous accomplishments, the challenges and stigmas they faced in the workplace and the changing role of women in society. Brilliantly researched by the writer.
What are your favorite recent reads? Comment below for reading recommendations!
Other best books lists
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For the fourth installment of my favorite children’s books, I’m focusing on Christian and Bible-based children’s books. Just like what any parent would want, I want to read books that communicate the values I hold dear to my kids, whether they be faith-based on not. But specifically for Christian children’s books, I apply a slightly different list of criteria compared to general children’s books.
What I Look for in Christian Children’s Books
There are a few things I look at when compiling a list of favorite Christian children’s books.
1. Fresh re-telling or interpretation of Bible passages and stories.
I’m looking for a language that’s not trite and not super formal. Simple, but fresh. Usually, if I read something that makes me say, “Huh, I never saw it that way,” that’s a good sign. The Jesus Storybook Bible featured in this previous post is a great example of this, and there are more books by the same author and illustrator that make it to this post. For example, in The Jesus Storybook Bible, the author interprets “Let there be light” as “Hello, light.” I just love that. It’s so accessible to kids, it sounds like us, and it’s creative.
2. Visually appealing graphics
Beautiful blend of colors, artistic interpretations, and willingness to push boundaries on what kids’ books should look like. They don’t all have to be cartoonish.
3. Socially conscious graphics
I love to see diversity in the characters portrayed in the graphics. I care about representation in what my kid sees in his books, something that more accurately shows the world at large. This becomes more important if you live and socialize in less diverse locations. (Sometimes my son sees a random Asian guy and he thinks it’s his Dada. A good hint of how the world looks like through his eyes.)
Another part of this consciousness is how the book illustrates Jesus and other Bible characters. I have seen books, typically older publications, where the color of Jesus’ hair is different from one page to literally the next page. Others show baby Jesus and the people around him with blond hair and blue eyes. I mean, come on. For this reason, I tend to prefer more recent publications than older ones.
4. Books that touch on the complexity of Bible stories
One of the things that happen when you grow up in the Christian faith is the surprises you get from Bible stories as you get older. When you’re little, you get the really happy version of Bible stories and everything ends happily. Then you grow up and realize that, oh my, a lot of Bible stories are actually horrific! It turns out that it’s not a collection of happy stories.
For example, the story of Noah, the ark, and the flood is a staple in Christian books, Sabbath or Sunday schools at churches. It’s always a fun one because you get all the animals, and even as adults, you are almost persuaded that living in the ark is like a fun trip to the zoo. But really, the story is scary, and who wants to think about what living with animals in closed quarters for a year is like.
As an adult, I learn that the Bible doesn’t shy away from grotesque details of the human life and it’s truthful in describing human nature (See more in this post). But I kind of wish that more of this nuance was talked about when I was a teenager.
Of course you can’t go all realistic and burst all your one-year old’s bubbles. You still need to focus on the happy parts of the story to introduce them to the Bible. But as a bridge, I like books that hint a little bit of the complexity that the Bible presents. Things like, a Jonah story that says something about his character development, not just a happily-ever-after ending with Nineveh turning to God.
This idea still needs to be validated, of course. If any of you has thoughts or suggestions on this, please comment!
5. Focus on God’s love
There are many wonderful books that focus on building proper self-esteem in kids. They affirm how wonderful and wonderfully made you are. I think these are great for older kids, especially when they start to go through experiences that challenge their self-esteem.
Since I’m reading for a one-year old, I try to focus on God’s love first and reserve those self-esteem books for later. I tend to choose ones that have an outward focus, like the wonderful things in the world, instead of the inward ones, for now at least. I also try to avoid stories in which the characters are showing bad behavior that I haven’t seen in my son yet to avoid him becoming what he sees.
Again, this is a personal approach that may well change as soon as I publish this post. But I’d love to hear from other parents out there on how you all approach book selections for your kids!
As I go through more children’s books in this series, I will be developing my personal philosophy of children’s literature and sharing what I learn in the posts. I’d like to have a conversation with all of you on this, so please share your thoughts!
With that, here are my favorite Christian children’s books. Click on the images for Amazon links to the books.*
This sweet life-a-flap book is a great first book for your kids. The story is not an uncommon one in the children’s Christian literature, where the child is thanking God for all the blessings she experiences throughout the day. But this particular version of the board book is just sweet and beautifully illustrated.
This one and the next in the list are brought to you by the creators of the Jesus Storybook Bible. Found is based on Psalm 23, a love story between God the shepherd and a lamb. This one wins for the fresh retelling of the psalm, which is very touching even for adults, and the illustrations.
Same strong points as Found. This one is based on the Lord’s prayer. I just love how the author condenses lofty ideas into words that a little child can express.
The World is Awake is about the wonder that we can experience in the world and in nature, but this one wins especially for the graphics. They truly show that awake-ness invoked in the title. Swing by your local bookstore and take a look yourself!
I love this re-imagination of the question, Where does music come from? Who Sang the First Song draws our minds to think about the sounds that nature makes, how each sings its own tune and rhythm. But most importantly, it imagines a God who sings, who plants music into everything He creates.
What are your favorite Christian children’s books? Share your favorite titles by commenting!
*Product links on this post are affiliate links, which means I get credits if you purchase products through them. Would appreciate it if you do!
A reflection on life, growing up, and becoming.
I’m thirty-three years old, far too young to be conclusive in my draft of life lessons, yet old enough to have gone through a handful of life transitions. That is to say, I’m writing as someone who (according to life expectancy statistics) still have much life to look forward to, yet also have needed to say goodbyes—to people, places, and previous identities.
So as far as life reflections go, here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.
The art of living and growing up is a dance between the me that I used to be and the me I am becoming. Between changing, yet staying the same.
Sometimes the more current me is better, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a change is welcome, sometimes it’s not.
How to do this dance gracefully is the question. And to answer it, I have to turn to the wisdom of several wise writers.
On Staying the Same
Who we are today, physically, mentally, in character and personality, is most likely unrecognizable to our 4-year-old self. Our minds have changed, our bodies have changed, and our souls have changed. But at the same time, I can still hear the self-talk of my younger years. That soundless voice I speak to myself with, the one in which I am most eloquent, the one that can wallow in despair, and then empower—that voice is still very much the same, still recognizably me, today.
This evolving self and the inner recognition that I am and have always been me, are beautifully described by Maria Popova as the “elasticity of being.” Our sense of self is continuous and schism-less, even in a changing body and outside circumstances.
Part of this elasticity of being is also the enlargement of our personal identity as we grow. We are who we are. We have always been who we are. And we too are becoming more of who we are. Embracing more of who we are. Discovering more of who we are.
For wisdom on this continuous “arrival,” I turn to the wonderfully titled Becoming by Michelle Obama.
On Changing and Never Arriving
Michelle Obama’s deeply reflective account of her personal evolution, Becoming, is sandwiched between two gems. The first is on the first page, where she laments a trite question we ask of little kids.
“I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
She used to answer pediatrician, because she learned that that was an answer that pleased the adults.
She then lists the many things she has become in her “grown up” life—a lawyer, a vice president at a hospital, a director of a nonprofit, a working-class black student at an elite mostly white college, the only woman and African American in many situations, a bride, a grieving daughter, a stressed-out mom, and until recently, the First Lady of the United States of America—a loud testament that one, you can be more than one thing or have one career in your life, and two, it’s okay to change paths and become something different.
Our life evolves and our interests may change. We may find out that what we do is not synced with our developing passion. We may face the question, after achieving some goals, “Is that all there is to it?”
In all of this, it is perfectly okay—maybe even necessary—to change. (And Obama describes later in the book how and why she made the change from practicing law to service, one of the most valuable life and career guides I have found.)
The second gem is in her Epilogue, which to me captures the essence of the book.
“At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope that I always will be.
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end. I became a mother, but I still have a lot to learn from and give to my children. I became a wife, but I continue to adapt to and be humbled by what it means to truly love and make a life with another person. I have become, by certain measures, a person of power, and yet there are moments still when I feel insecure or unheard.
It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.”
Becoming is an exploration inward and outward to discover deeper and more richly of self—this vehicle that we are given to pass through life on earth—and our purpose.
On Leaving Things Behind
If we are to embrace change and grow, by necessity we also have to learn how to leave things behind gracefully. Most of the time, the assumption is that we change into something better—in all sense of the word. But if we look at the human life as it truly is, in its whole scope, it is for certain not always becoming better. In fact, its end is always a decline.
Our health gets worse eventually, our mind eventually declines, our financial situations may take a turn for the worse, et cetera. In these circumstances, you are leaving behind a situation that is better into one that is worse. These are the more extreme examples, but little examples show up everyday too.
Don’t you ever miss something that you had in your previous life? For example, even though I am happy in my current life situation—being in a young family—I still get longing nostalgia, occasionally, of the times I was single or without kids. It does not detract from my contentment now; it’s not an either-or state of mind, but of both-and, of feeling two things at the same time.
The key is not to let nostalgia turn into resentment.
Surprisingly, to me, Marie Kondo’s advice on how to let go applies perfectly here.
In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo proposes a way to let go of things that may still be new, have sentimental values, or are gifts from important people, but they don’t “spark joy” anymore when you hold them in your hands: Thanking goods for their service. She says to thank them for showing you that this was a wrong purchase, or that people cared enough to give you a gift. Their purpose is then complete, and you can let them go.
Who knew that you could KonMari nostalgia too?
It seems to me that life is not a cumulative experience, in which we gather up goods, family, friends, job, kids, until one day we declare that we “have it all.” We can maybe have some, some of the time, and we can be grateful. Eventually, we will have to let go of this having-it-all ness.
When nostalgia comes, we can linger in it for a little bit, grieve it if you will, be thankful of the chance to have lived the memory, and then let it go.
Because life will be a continuous journey of welcoming and grieving, of entering new doors and leaving worlds behind. And the peace with which we pass through these doors is the degree of how gracefully we grow and age.