This summer the theme at the writing camp my kids attended was Rising from the Ashes. As I thought through my past two years, I realized that books played a big part in helping me recenter my thoughts on good, true, and beautiful things. When my sister died, it felt like my life turned upside down. In experiencing pain like that, I've found my eyes opened to the world of struggle in the lives of friends around me. Life is hard. Parenting is challenging. Faith is fragile. In times like these, you need to guard your mind and fill your time with books that lift your thoughts out of the ashes and provide you with hope. Here are some of my favorites that have really encouraged my soul through challenging times:
Fiction Phoenix Stories
Sometimes you just need a different world altogether to escape into. That isn't always a bad thing. What I've found is that certain authors build a safe world to disappear into for a time, but as you journey through their domain, you find yourself better equipped to handle the real world. They offer a type or pattern for dealing rightly with trouble and offer a little light in the midst of dark times. Here are some of my favorites:
Books by Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo is a brilliant author. I have not found a book of hers that I do not love. However, there are two that have recently risen to the top as excellent reads for the soul.
The Magician's Elephant - I'm pretty sure this one needs to be read aloud and shared. There is something magical about the world that Kate cultivates within these pages. A young orphan boy spends money intended for food to ask a fortuneteller if his sister is still alive. Follow the elephant is all the advice he's given. When a magician conjures an elephant, the whole town is turned upside down as the search for family, healing, and forgiveness ensues. I read this one twice in a row because I needed to share it with my kids after I devoured it with my husband.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - Who knew that a porcelain bunny could be so relatable? Again, the magic of Kate DiCamillo's writing captures you as you walk through the highs and lows of a self-absorbed bunny who learns to love. It's a beautiful story of brokenness and redemption. My daughter and I read this one aloud in an afternoon and cried together as we fell instantly in love with all of the characters in this beautiful book.
I know I've talked about Andrew Peterson before, and how much his artist's heart has ministered to mine. He's just one of those tender-hearted souls that seems to feel the hurts of the world and express faith and hope in the midst of trials in such beautiful ways. The Wingfeather Saga is possibly my family's favorite series we've ever read. It came at a time when we felt the depths of sorrow and loss, and we needed hope. We needed someone to show us how to stand up when everything seemed to be going wrong.
What I love the most about this series is that the characters are imperfect. They struggle, fail, and fall just like we do. Not only that, but the "Creator" comes along side them in their imperfect state and allows them to do amazing things. You just need to read these...or let Andrew Peterson read them to you. He reads the last two in the Audible format. It's my favorite.
I found Jonathan Rogers from Andrew Peterson's Rabbit Room writers. This series came highly recommended, so we decided to give it a try. I read through the first book in the series in a night. It was so well written. However when I went to read the next one, I had a horrible headache, so I decided to get the Audible version to listen to it. When I discovered that Jonathan Rogers read the books himself on Audible, I was captivated. YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THESE BOOKS!!! The story pretty much takes the life of young David from the Bible and sets it in a swamp. This mash up is magic. Jonathan's accents, sound effects, and style made these an instant family favorite. I listened to these twice in a row.
N. D. Wilson
N.D. Wilson is simply a brilliant author. While this series is on the edge of too scary, I also love it for that reason. Even though we'd like to imagine that our lives are safe and cozy in our suburban homes, the unexpected often finds us in the most unassuming ways. That's what Wilson presents in the life of Henry from Henry, KS. You have to read this whole series to see the complex beauty that is woven through the story line. Power comes from the ordinary. The weak humble the strong. In the end, evil is conquered by the innocent. It's really a masterful bit of writing, and I love having stories like this to share with my kids to inspire them to find wonder in the mundane.
You can't appreciate fantasy fiction without mentioning C.S. Lewis's work that inspired so many. If you think about the times when he was writing, you're bound to understand why his work provides a soul lifting source. I know most people have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the others in the series are just as wonderful. Reading the whole series all the way through however, gives readers the greatest vision of hope in the midst of challenging times. Aslan is so tender and kind throughout. The Last Battle offers one of the best visions of Heaven I've ever read in a fiction series. If you've never made it all the way through, you ought to give it a try. It will not disappoint.
I listened to this series with my son right after my sister passed away. The action and the content kept my mind occupied and in a good place. Last summer we listened to the series again as a family on our California road trip. It was even better the second time around. Chuck Black does an incredible job of merging a Jason Bourne type action thriller story with angels, demons, and unseen wars. I loved how this series reminded me that there is always more to the story that I can see with my limited vision.
Cloak of the Light - The first book in the series takes the perspective of Drew Carter, who seems to find trouble at every turn. After an accident in college leaves him temporarily blind, he feels totally lost and alone. When his sight miraculously returns, he finds he can see more than he could before.
Rise of the Fallen - The second book follows back through the story of the first book except now you hear the story from the perspective of the angel that is sent to guard Drew Carter.
Light of the Last - In the last book of the series, the two stories collide in ever increasing intensity as the battle for Drew and the destiny of America ensues.
L. M. Montgomery
Sometimes you just need someone to remind you what it looks like to cultivate imagination. Anne is just the girl for the job. She's romantic, impulsive, and resolute. You'll fall in love with her from the moment you meet her and be swept away by her innocence as she inspires you with her scope for imagination. There is so much life and love in this book, you can't help but giggle as you find yourself rising from the ashes around you.
The world is a tough place, and it's easy to feel like if you just hide from the trouble, it will leave you alone. God generally has different plans for our lives than hiding in a hole...even one as cute and well appointed as a Hobbit hole. This epic tale is one that sets your soul soaring as you travel with Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee through adventures. These two unsuspecting friends journey together to defeat evil. They need lots of help along the way, and most of all they need one another to follow through on the most difficult assignment of Middle Earth.
Francine Rivers is another author I mention frequently and for good reason. This series always challenges my thoughts on what my life should look like, what faith looks like, and what persecution of that faith looks like. Hadassah, a young Jewess, is captured and sold into slavery in Rome. Her faith and sweet servant-heartedness in the midst of impossible circumstances inspire me every time I read it. I return to this series about every other year because it keeps compelling me to love my God better and serve His people relentlessly.
Classical Conversations Reads
I've found that many of the books that I've read with my children as they've worked through the Classical Conversations programs have been soul lifting books. There are definitely many reads that are difficult and cynical that can be challenging to read when your heart is hurting. However, these books have been bright spots along the way that have really blessed me and my kids.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch - After being indentured at an early age, the future seemed bleak for young Nat Bowditch. That didn't stop him from making the most of every opportunity. Based on a true story, this book will inspire you with Nat's determination to learn and generosity to share that knowledge with anyone who will listen.
The Secret Garden - You might question this option for lifting one out of the ashes, but I love the transformation of all of the characters in this book. They all start out pretty miserably, but I've been there too...throwing pity parties for myself for well deserved reasons. It isn't until they start working on something outside of themselves that they can throw off the darkness that holds them back from loving one another. I learn from this book every time I read it! Two other wonderful options by Frances Hodgson Burnette are Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Some question why this book might be on a Freshman reading list, but I love that it is. There is something important about shaking up old inherited beliefs and claiming them for your own. It's a short read, and great for reading around Christmastime.
Elizabeth George Speare
Elizabeth George Speare writes some incredible historical fiction. My all time favorite of hers is The Bronze Bow. Set in the time of Christ, a young Jewish boy who is angry at the Romans for killing his parents learns what love and forgiveness are really about. This book gets better every time you read it because you see the subtle hints that the author sneaks in all of the writing. Two other books of hers that I love and are also Challenge reads include: Sign of the Beaver and Witch of Blackbird Pond.
Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books in the British literature category. This book is soul satisfying because of the resilience of Jane Eyre throughout all of her troubles and her willingness to love even when people don't deserve it.
Pride and Prejudice is another excellent British Literature selection. Sometimes the troubles we're in are a bit of our own making, and we can make things harder for ourselves when we do this. I love the way that Jane Austen writes, and walking through this time period of uncertainty and veiled communication helps me to remember to appreciate those around me.
An Old Fashioned Girl - This is one of the optional reads of Challenge I, but I read it anyways because I love Louisa May Alcott. Polly is an old fashioned girl but she's moved in with her cousins in the big city. This story is beautiful because it shows how a young lady doesn't have to lose herself even if everyone around her behaves differently. The end is highly satisfying and soul lifting!
Christian Heroes: Then & Now
I don't know how Janet and Geoff Benge keep doing it, but they have written so many incredible missionary biographies and they keep coming out with more. Eric Liddell is one of our family favorites, but then again, we could totally keep listing out the Christian Heroes: Then & Now titles and still call them our favorites. These stories are just so inspiring as they walk through the lives of people who gave up everything for the cause of Christ. My mother has read every single book they've written, and I know that these stories are what have helped to shore up her faith in the aftermath of losing a daughter.
Based on his own life, Ralph Moody's Little Britches series is incredible. We listened to these books on our last road trip, and we were just inspired by how Ralph faced difficulties. In Man of the Family, he's just lost his dad and at 11 years old, he's the man of the family. Figuring out ways to earn money for his family, Ralph is an amazing example of ingenuity, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Although not the next book in the series, Shaking the Nickle Bush is another incredible example of the power of a "can do" attitude. After being diagnosed with diabetes at 19 years old, which at that time was essentially a death sentence, Ralph moves out west for sunshine and health. Even though he doesn't end up getting the job he hoped for, Ralph still finds ways to make a living and enjoy himself while doing it.
There are definitely ups and downs in life, and at the beginning of The Dry Divide Ralph finds himself in one of the lowest points of his life financially. He's got ten cents to his name, and he's nowhere near where he would like to be, but again his ingenuity, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit shine as he leads a band of misfits to accomplish the unimaginable. I am reminded through this book that treating others with respect and kindness is a powerful way to build a business.
There is something refreshing about the worldview of a child. Life is simpler from their point of view. That is what I love about this little book about a child growing up in pre-war Japan. Her view on life is fresh and sweet. I also love that this memoir of the Japanese Television star presents such a beautiful picture of education and the value of children.
I picked up Hannah Coulter after Andrew Kern recommended it over and over at the last Great Homeschool Convention. I was not disappointed. Wendell Berry writes from the perspective of a woman who experiences love, loss, and joy in a sweet farming community in Kentucky. While this isn't a true biography, it reads like one. I think Berry does a beautiful job of giving an example of grief in the midst of life. You'll cry, and you'll want to move to Kentucky to take up farming.
Little Pilgrim's Progress - I read this one a couple of times with my kids, but I think it's time again to pull it back out with my youngest. She was so little when we read it last that she probably doesn't remember much of it. What I love about this version of Pilgrim's Progress is that it makes a heart changing classic accessible to anyone. Christians need to know that they are not alone in the struggles with sin. We will be sinners until God perfects us in Heaven. Until then, we are progressing towards Christ, and it's hard. There is so much loveliness in this book that will encourage your heart in ways that few books can.
Hinds Feet On High Places is another excellent allegory of the Christian walk. Based on Psalm 18:33 He makes my feet like hinds’ feet, And sets me upon my high places, this book journeys with Much-Afriad as she seeks to please the Chief Shepherd. It's a beautiful and imperfect journey that will help you process your own imperfect journey.
The last book on my Phoenix stories book list is fitting that is about a firebird. Firebird: He Lived for the Sunshine is a sweet children's book that paints such a beautiful picture of the truth about what's really going on when storms move in. It can feel like the sun is taken away when the clouds block the view. However we know that the sun is always there even when the sky seems to blot it out. In the midst of a storm, Firebird discovers that the sun never leaves; it's always there.
That seems to sum up the point of all of this book list. In my time of grief, reading the true source of hope, the Bible, seemed almost too painful to do. I was like little Firebird and felt that God had abandoned me in the midst of my storm. Reading through some of these books softened my heart to get back to the true source of healing. I read through the gospels until I reached the book of John. God reminded me that His love was so great that He never left. He was from the beginning, and He holds all things together. That's the knowledge that lifts your thoughts out of the ashes. It helps you rise like a Phoenix in new life.
What books have lifted your thoughts out of the ashes in a difficult time of your life?
Betsy Strauss is an unexpected homeschooler, mother of three, who is in a relationship with a sweet man for life. She loves reading books, drinking coffee, and learning anything with her kids.