Picture Books about the Middle Ages: Monks and Monasteries

In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a change in the world of picture books. The picture books that explore history and the lives of famous people have gotten so much better. You can see it in the Caldecott lists, with titles starting to appear such as Henry’s Freedom BoxA River of WordsDave the PotterMe…JaneThe Noisy Paintbox, or Freedom in Congo Square — all books that tell compelling stories while at the same time exploring a particular historical person or event. As both a history buff and a lover of picture books, seeing more of this kind of picture books makes me very happy.

There’s something magical about exploring history through picture books.  Instead of a list of kings and battles and dates, you get a compelling narrative or personal story, complete with illustrations that give the kind of visual cues for the historical setting that are almost impossible to relate solely through words. A well done historical picture book engages the senses and gives a unique window into the time period.

So when I started looking over my 7-year-old son’s history curriculum for this year, I was disappointed with the lack of picture books. We homeschool and our curriculum (Sonlight) relies mainly on A Child’s History of the World and The Usborne Book of World History for its survey of world history. These are both good books, but I thought the experience would be enriched by adding in some well chosen historical picture books along the way.

In this first post, I will share the picture books we used to supplement our study of monks and monasteries during the Middle Ages. I’ll continue with an ongoing series of posts featuring the picture books that align with various periods of history as we study them. Our curriculum for this year covers the rather daunting period of the Middle Ages through World War II. With this large of a time span, it’s obviously going to be a high level survey, with just a few hand picked picture books to go along with each era.

So whether you’re a homeschooler, a teacher, a librarian, or just a parent or care-giver who wants to explore history with the kids, I hope you enjoy diving into this collection of picture books.

Picture Books About the Middle Ages:

Monks and Monasteries

The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane – by C.M. Millen


This tale follows a plucky young monk named Theophane as he works in the scriptorium of an Irish monastery, copying manuscripts and creating books. Told in lilting verse, and with beautiful stained-glass style illustrations, the story brings to life a number of aspects of bookmaking — making the ink, collecting herbs and berries for color, binding up donkey hair for brushes, etc. My favorite aspect of this particular book was the fact that it incorporated into the text translated quotations of actual poems written by Irish monks in the margins of their manuscripts.

Magic in the Margins – by W. Nikola-Lisa


This story also focuses on a young boy working in the scriptorium of a monastery, but the focus is different than in The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane. Our main character, Simon, is just an apprentice in the scriptorium, and he longs to progress from simple sketches and exercises to being able to fully illuminate pages in the manuscripts. An unusual assignment from the abbot of the monastery leads Simon on a journey of discovery about meaning and imagination in art. This book goes into more depth about the artistic marginalia that monks included in the illuminated margins of their manuscripts than other books I’ve seen.

Saint Francis and the Wolf – by Jane Langton


Set in 12th century Italy, this is the tale of a wolf who terrorizes the town of Gubbio until Saint Francis steps in and brokers peace between the wolf and the town. The charming illustrations are in the style of medieval illuminations and give a good sense for both the dress and the architecture of the time.


{For fellow homeschoolers: this list of books aligns with Week 1 of Sonlight’s Core C}



Engaging Books to Read When it’s Hard to Concentrate

I ended up with unexpected surgery on my ankle two weeks ago, so I’ve found myself laid up on the couch with plenty of time to read. Unfortunately (between the pain and the pain medication) I’ve also found it difficult to concentrate on books. It’s been harder than usual to find books that are engaging enough to hold my attention as I recover, but I’ve managed to find a few that fit the bill. These four books were quite engrossing, and I found them hard to put down despite my lack of concentration.

The Sun is Also a Star – by Nicola Yoon

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This is a sweet YA romance between a Jamaican girl and the Korean-American boy that she meets by chance on the day before her scheduled deportation. It all takes place in a single day, and has a narrative that shifts between characters and perspectives. The main characters are both flawed and charming, and I found both of their backstories to be compelling.

Born a Crime – by Trevor Noah

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I listened to this riveting memoir on audio, and I think that Trevor Noah’s voice talents added a great deal to the experience. Parts of this book are intense — as the son of a black woman and a white man in Apartheid-era South Africa, Trevor Noah’s very existence was illegal. Yet the tone doesn’t stay heavy. Interwoven are hilarious stories of mischief and mayhem, and cultures colliding. Deeply compelling and incredibly funny at the same time.

Rebel of the Sands – by Alwyn Hamilton


This action-packed fantasy focuses on Amani, a young woman desperate to get away from the small desert town where she grew up. Her world is reminiscent of the Middle East, except that Djinni and magical beasts still roam the desert and interact with the human world. The fantasy world is intriguing, the characters are compelling, and the plot kept me reading past the time I should have turned off the lights.

The Night Gardener – by Jonathan Auxier

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This eerie and lovely middle grade novel follows a young Irish brother and sister who find themselves employed in a decrepit English house that hides many secrets. It’s a spooky tale, with a certain reminiscence towards Edgar Allen Poe, but the creepiness never gets over the top. The characters are memorable, the plot moves quickly and gracefully, and the storytelling is enchanting.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Why I Read

Why I Read

by Kaytee Cobb

cobb-maternity-19Hello, my name is Kaytee. I’m a relatively new-ish book blogger over at notesonbookmarks.wordpress.com. I love to read; and when I’m done, I love getting to interview authors for my site. But that’s just a little part of who I am. My husband, Jason, and I are about to celebrate 11 years of marriage. We met at the University of Arizona, so we are avid Wildcats fans. I finished a Masters in Spanish while he went to Medical school and then we moved to Oregon for three years, where we had a hard time with the dreary skies. In 2012 we moved to Albuquerque, NM, to be closer to family (but not so close that we get free babysitting!), and enjoy the sunshine again! I’m also a homeschool mama of three sweet, little boys, director of our local homeschool co-op, and considering becoming a lactation consultant (or maybe an author!) as a “later” career path… but my plate is too full right now. Reading is where my heart is, so I’m looking forward to being here as a guest today to tell you about WHY I READ!


I’ve been an avid reader ever since I was a little girl. I loved destroying my classmates in monthly reading challenges in school (competitive, much?). Like many of us, I fell off the reading bandwagon a bit while I was in college because I had so much other required reading to do, and much of mine was in my second language. The limited number of hours in a week meant that free-time for reading was almost non-existent. After I finished my degree, I took a slow dive back into the bookish world, typically reading somewhere between 30 and 50 books a year, even after having our first baby or two.

That number has exploded over the past year, though, even as we added baby #3. I’ve found ways to squeeze reading into every free moment of my life, whether I’m driving, cooking, cleaning, or homeschooling, there’s a book in my hand or in my ears. I just cannot get enough. I’ll read anything I can get my hands on, but especially love good literary fiction, and I can devour a psychological thriller in just a few hours. I could write another entire post about how I read so much with three littles at home, but this post is about the reasons.

When I open a book for the first time, I am so excited to discover a new world (or re-enter a favorite one, if this is the next in an already-loved series). I cannot wait to meet new characters, explore new landscapes, or feel new feelings. I am thrilled to fall in love for the first time (again!), run away from a killer, or experience the prejudices of racism. Maybe this time I’ll grow up in the south, see the world through the fingers of a blind man, or live in India. I might be part of these characters’ lives for a week or a year or three generations. Every single new book that I open reveals another facet of the world I love to explore.

As I jump from book to book, I am transported from space stations to springtime in Manhattan, from the battlefields of WWII to a future I could never imagine. Great fiction takes me there, for far less than the cost of a plane ticket, or time machine.

Non-fiction involves the same transportation, but always somewhere of this world. Perhaps I know myself better; perhaps I walk a hard road alongside the author; or perhaps I recognize the seedy underbelly of a society that I have never seen before. When non-fiction authors open my eyes, they force me, or maybe just help me to look further inward and outward than I have in the past. These authors open up new worlds that exist right here around me, instead of only in the pages of their books.

Last year, I read 123 books (remember I said my reading exploded?). That means I had 123 new worlds opened up to my eyes via fiction and non-fiction. This year, I look forward to reading even more. I know that with every word I devour I become more than I was. I know more, yes, but I am more, too.


Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

Best Books of 2016

There were so many wonderful books published in 2016, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that particularly stuck out to me. Here they are:


War and Turpentine – by Stefan Hertmans

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This book took me completely off guard. It’s a fictionalized account of the author’s grandfather: his life as an artist, the trauma of WWI in Belgium, and the shattering of an old way of life. Perhaps because it’s fiction that borders on memoir, the characters seemed so real, so vivid, so fragile. I’m looking forward to re-reading it again and again over the years.


Lab Girl – by Hope Jahren

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I’m fascinated by memoirs by people who are passionate about things I know very little about. That was definitely the case with Lab Girl. Hope Jahren is a scientist studying trees and plant life, but her memoir covers so much more than science. It’s the story of a woman trying desperately to prove herself in a field full of men. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship with her oddball lab partner Bill. It’s the story of a fight against mental illness and a tenuous questioning of the workings of the mind. Hope tells her story against the backdrop of short essays about the trees she studies, and it ties together to create a thing of beauty.


A House Full of Daughters – by Juliet Nicolson

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Not many people can trace the women in their family back seven generations the way that Juliet Nicolson can. But she has fascinating stories to tell of the women in her family all the way back to the 1830s. In the midst of telling her own family story through the eyes of its women, she traces the historical context of these women’s lives as well as exploring the angst-ridden relationships of mother and daughter that travel throughout the years. I found it to be beautifully written, and intriguing in its scope and focus.


The Rain in Portugal – by Billy Collins

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I’ve loved Billy Collins’ poetry for years — he treats poetry so lightly and includes such winning humor, yet his poems have moments of true depth and poignancy as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. He covers topics as various as jazz music, a lonely summer from his childhood, and the ghosts of siblings he never had.


The Gene – by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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This fascinating and highly readable book offers the history of genetics in a way that blends history, science, sociology, and personal narrative in a compelling way. Mukherjee draws us in with his own family story of genetically transmitted mental illness, and then takes us on a fascinating history of how the gene was discovered and explored. He starts with Pythagoras and Aristotle and takes us through the mapping of the human genome. In an age of so much change and discovery in the field of genetics, I found this book to be particularly intriguing.

Science Fiction

The Paper Menagerie – by Ken Liu


This grouping of science fiction short stories blew me away. Each story is original, unusual, and written with subtlety and grace. The sheer diversity among the stories caught my attention — some are more traditional science fiction with astronauts on ships; others are speculative fiction about how history could have been different; some are set in our own world with one thing slightly “off.” There’s a murder mystery with a cyborg detective, a tale about the last living Japanese man, a story about humanity’s shift into a robotic form. Overall, it’s a book with gripping storytelling, compelling new ideas, and beautiful prose.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This is the story of an enmagicked girl, a snarky witch, a disgruntled swamp monster, and paper cranes that come to life. The world-building is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the story wends between humor and pathos in a compelling way.

Middle Grades Fiction

The Wild Robot – by Peter Brown


I found myself utterly charmed by the antics of Roz, a robot who comes to consciousness one day, finding herself alone on a wilderness island. She explores the secrets of her own existence and develops relationships with the animals who inhabit the island. The juxtaposition of the mechanical and the wild creates an intriguing world, and the illustrations that appear throughout the book only add to the delight.

If you have a middle grades reader in your house, be sure to check out my post on the 10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 as well!

Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenges

Did anyone else do the 2016 Reading Challenge from Modern Mrs. Darcy? I found it to be so fun and motivating!

If you’re interested in joining in for the 2017 Reading Challenge, check out the two different options Anne is offering — Reading for Fun as well as a Reading for Challenge! I’ve started the Reading for Challenge list, and it’s already gotten me diving into an essay collection and a Pulitzer prize winner. Let me know if you’re joining the 2017 challenge!

Here are the books I read for the 2016 challenge. I found some real winners among them! I’d love to hear about your picks for these categories as well.

A Book Published This Year:

To the Bright Edge of the World – by Eowyn Ivey

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Eowyn Ivey’s book The Snow Child is one of my favorites of all time, so I knew I had to read her newest book as well. It’s set in Alaska, in the era of white explorers discovering the Alaskan interior and meeting with native tribes. The story is told in a combination of letters, diary entries, and photos — I loved the way that this format allowed the reader to understand the thoughts and feelings of so many different characters. The book didn’t quite live up to my expectations from The Snow Child, but was still quite compelling and enjoyable.

A Book You Can Finish in a Day:

Nimona – by Noelle Stevenson


I read this graphic novel in one sitting, and absolutely loved it. It’s snarky and irreverent in its humor while still providing a compelling adventure.

A Book You’ve Been Meaning to Read:

Binti – by Nnedi Okorafor


I’ve been meaning to try out a book by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor for a while. She writes African-based science fiction, and I was utterly captivated by Binti. It’s an intriguing tale of a girl who leaves not only her village, but also her planet, for the first time in order to attend university.

A Book Recommended by Your Local Librarian:

Hillbilly Elegy – by J.D. Vance

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This book is an unusual combination of memoir and sociological commentary on Appalachian culture. As a memoir, I found it to be compelling and thoughtful. Having grown up in Appalachia myself, I found much of the author’s experience familiar and understandable. Aspects of the sociological commentary sections of this book seemed a bit universalized — I prefer reading about people’s own experiences rather than reading a single experience extrapolated to explain an entire culture. Yet I still found it to be a moving and worthwhile read, which left me contemplating my own culture and roots in a new way.

A Book You Should Have Read in School:

Beezus and Ramona – by Beverly Cleary

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I can’t believe I made it all the way through childhood without having read Beverly Cleary. I’ve read the Ramona books and the Henry Huggins books aloud to my son this year, and we’ve both fallen in love with the characters.

A Book Chosen for You by Your Spouse:

Starship Troopers – by Robert Heinlein

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My husband and I tend to stretch each other in our reading recommendations for one another. When he recommended Starship Troopers to me, I knew it wasn’t one that I would have picked out on my own. Yet I found it intriguing and it turned out to be an enjoyable read.

A Book Published Before You Were Born:

Emily of New Moon – by L.M. Montgomery

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I grew up on the Anne of Green Gables books, but hadn’t read the Emily of New Moon trilogy until this year. I’ve heard that Emily is a more autobiographical character than Anne, and I particularly enjoyed the sections of the book that spoke to her growing love of writing, and the way that the act of writing informed her way of living. These books made me want to spend more time with my own pen and paper.

A Book That Was Banned At Some Point:

Fatherland – by Nina Bunjevac


This memoir, told in the format of a graphic novel, tells the story of the author’s parents. Nina’s mother flees a difficult marriage and takes her children from Canada back to her own homeland of Yugoslavia; Nina’s father, a violent Serbian nationalist, is part of a terrorist group that plans to bomb homes of Tito supporters. The illustrations are excellent, the storytelling is gripping, and the historical setting is one that was completely new to me.

A Book That You Previously Abandoned:

The War That Ended Peace – by Margaret MacMillan

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My favorite period of history to study is 1870-1945, the fin-de-siècle and the two world wars. This book sits firmly in that area, covering the late 1800s through the start of World War I in fascinating detail. Margaret MacMillan is a superb researcher — I thoroughly enjoyed her book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World as well — and this book shows off her talents well. It’s not a short book — I think that’s why I abandoned it last time I started it — but in the end, it’s well worth the effort.

A Book You Own But Have Never Read:

Uncle Tungsten – by Oliver Sacks

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I don’t know of anyone who writes quite like Oliver Sacks. He’s a neurologist, yet writes about people with an empathy and understanding that I don’t usually associate with scientists. His memoirs are clear, pithy, and memorable. This one had been sitting on my shelf for a while, before I decided to pick it up. It focuses on Oliver Sacks’ childhood — growing up in London during WWII, surrounded by brilliant and interesting aunts and uncles who introduce him to different realms of science, and experimenting on his own with chemical compounds that are no longer available to 11-year-old boys for home chemistry sets. This book ties in well with Oliver Sacks’ more recent memoir, On the Move, which focuses more on his adult life.

A Book That Intimidates You:

The Three-Body Problem – by Cixin Liu

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I found this book a bit intimidating, both because of its size and the amount of theoretical physics involved in the plot. But I was intrigued, and had never read science fiction by a Chinese author before, so decided I had to dig in. I’ve now read the whole trilogy, and found the books to be fascinating — particularly the cultural aspects that are so clearly non-western. Science fiction is so much about how we imagine the future might be, and it seems that our imaginings of the future often rely heavily on our cultural expectations and context. The second book was my favorite — my husband and I ended up reading the library’s copy at the same time and vied with each other for the chance to read ahead!

A Book You’ve Already Read At Least Once:

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – by C.S. Lewis

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I’ve read this book far more than twice. It was one of my absolute favorite books as a child, and it was a delight to read it aloud to my son for the first time this year.