First Books

On England

In 2019, my tenth year of having a summer reading game (always geographical) in my children's library, we moved for the first time across the ocean to England. It was an amazing summer. As I pulled books set in England off the shelves, I realized that there would be more books available for this game than ever before (and probably ever again). The children read up a storm, with 26 participants reading over 1,100 books.

There is no way to begin to cover the books on this subject in one column, so I will restrict this first of two to real people. Even so, there are many choices, a surprising number (or maybe not so surprising) being writers.

Books About Writers

We begin with Charles Dickens. Diane Stanley's eponymous biography, subtitled The Man Who Had Great Expectations, has rich, informative illustrations on every spread, and A Boy Called Dickens, by Deborah Hopkinson, tells about his difficult childhood. For a taste of Dickens's writing, try Stand Up, Mr. Dickens, an anthology by Edward Blishen that includes excerpts from Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and other works.

For Beatrix Potter, there is a nicely illustrated biography by Alexandra Wallner, which contains a surprising amount of information in a brief text. Another biography, The Country Artist by David R. Collins, is for the better reader. A delightful book is My Dear Noel, by Jane Johnson. It tells the story of a little boy who loves Beatrix Potter because she often visits his family, bringing her pet mice and rabbit. When the boy becomes very sick, she writes an illustrated story for him, which eventually becomes the famous "Peter Rabbit."

There is a simple biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, by Carol Greene, which includes photographs as well as other illustrations.

For the Brontë sisters (and brother), you might look at Catherine Brighton's The Brontës. It is a bit like a sporadic diary, and depicts scenes from their childhood, in which one can see the germs for some of their writings. For the better reader (but still with a few pictures), try Stewart Ross's Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre. The main text tells of Charlotte's life, while sidebars describe the conditions in England in her day, and at the end is a story of the book Jane Eyre itself.

For poets, there is a brief biography by Carol Greene of Christina Rossetti, illustrated partly with photographs. I was a little surprised that a 10-year-old girl who likes poetry said her favorite book of the summer (and she read a great many!) was Elizabeth: The Romantic Story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Frances Winwar. This is a no-pictures biography of the poet.

Of course there are many books about Shakespeare. To name four: Shakespeare—His Work and His World by Michael Rosen includes large print, lovely pictures, and many quotations; Ibi Lepscky's William Shakespeare is a brief story about the bard's early life and the imagination he showed as a young person; Bard of Avon by Diane Stanley does an especially nice job of describing Shakespeare's connection with Queen Elizabeth I, and is beautifully illustrated. Aliki's William Shakespeare and the Globe interweaves Will's story and the story of the theater, with great pictures.

To read about John Bunyan, try William Deal's John Bunyan, the Tinker of Bedford (later published under the title A Pilgrim Who Made Progress). It has no illustrations but is a good biography of the beloved author of Pilgrim's Progress.

For reading about the life of C. S. Lewis, I offer three possibilities. For the young reader, find C. S. Lewis, the Man Who Gave Us Narnia by Renee Taft Meloche. It is written in rhymes and has many pictures. Catherine Swift's C. S. Lewis has no pictures, but is not too long and easily managed by a middle-range reader. Beatrice Gormley's C. S. Lewis, the Man Behind Narnia is illustrated with photographs and would be just right for the serious reader. A good book about Tolkien is J. R. R. Tolkien—Master of Fantasy by David R. Collins. Illustrated with photographs, this book tells about Tolkien's life and education, the effect World War I had on him, and the origin of Bilbo.

Other Notable Figures

Going on to non-writers, children like reading about Queen Elizabeth I. Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema have an illustrated biography titled Good Queen Bess. For a simpler book, look for Carol Greene's Elizabeth the First, illustrated with paintings. A humorous treatment is Alexandra Sheedy's She Was Nice to Mice, written from a mouse's point of view. Finally, for the middle reader there is Alida Sims Malkus's The Story of Good Queen Bess, which includes a few line drawings.

I'll mention just two books of many about Florence Nightingale. A Picture Book of Florence Nightingale by David A. Adler is quite brief, but is full of information and lovely illustrations, and makes it clear that she felt a calling from God to become a nurse. Demi's beautiful Florence Nightingale is full of jewel-like pictures and gives you a sense of the history of the times.

The story of George Müller, who began an orphanage in Bristol and relied on God to provide all he needed, is told in verse form, with full-page pictures on each spread, in Renee Taft Meloche's George Müller: Faith to Feed Ten Thousand. A chapter-book biography for older kids is George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol's Orphans by Janet and Geoff Benge.

Finally, I mention two people in science. First is Mary Anning, who began finding dinosaur bones at age 12 and went on to make the discovery and selling of fossils her life's work, encountering many dangers along the way. She has become a favorite subject of children's writers who are always looking for strong females to write about. Probably my favorite book about her is Rare Treasure by Don Brown, with pastel paintings as illustrations. Another treatment, with bold illustrations, is Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins.

Last but not least is Sir Isaac Newton. A good biography by a Christian homeschooling mom is The Ocean of Truth by Joyce McPherson, which includes some line drawings. Another biography, simply titled Isaac Newton, is by a favorite author, Kathleen Krull. This book describes his struggle to get an education (not encouraged by his parents), his somewhat unorthodox beliefs, and his amazing discoveries.

There are such riches in reading about these people. I believe children grow in special ways when they read about people of accomplishment. They can be encouraged to think about what God may be calling them to do to add to what is good in the world. If they have an opportunity to travel to England, they may enjoy visiting the places where these people lived, as my husband and I did when we lived there for a year.

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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