Category Archives: A Book That Helped Me Grow series

A book about angels for your own little angels



Angel of God,
My guardian dear,
To whom God’s love commits me here.
Ever this day be at my side
To light and guard,
To rule and guide.


Today is the Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, which makes it a great time to talk about a darling new kids’ picture  book.  The book is God Gave Us Angels, written by Lisa Tawn Bergren and illustrated by Laura J. Bryant.  It’s a gentle, very appealing introduction to angels for the preschool/ early elementary set.

In the book, a little polar bear cub asks Papa Bear about guardian angels, and they have a conversation about angels as they move throughout a snowy landscape.  Other creatures make an appearance – penguins, birds, rabbits – and as they discuss guardian angels, a polar bear angel occasionally hovers in the background, wings unfurled, giving visual proof of the daddy bear’s words.

The question/answer format is an effective way to cover the range of kids’ questions about angels.  What do angels do?  Will I ever be an angel myself?  Can we pray to angels?  (Papa says no, you only pray to God, which Catholic parents can turn into a teachable moment about how different  people believe different things about prayer).   Papa also emphasizes the role of angels as messengers and protectors; the very last page shows Little Cub asleep in bed, her guardian angel watching over her as she sleeps.

My favorite question/answer page is when Little Cub talks about how she hasn’t always been safe, sometimes she has gotten hurt.  “Why didn’t God give me an angel those times?”

“I’m not sure, Little Cub,” is Papa’s response.  “But no matter what happens, we can trust he is near and watching.  He loves  us, even more than the angels do.”

I like how a child’s book has the honesty to admit that sometimes we just don’t know why bad things happen.   If there’s one thing I am learning, it’s that kids are smarter than  we often think, and they can see through us if we try to give a phony answer, particularly to the question that has stymied believers for centuries.   And I really like how the book  immediately reinforces the fact that God loves us always, constantly, no matter what.

God Gave Us Angels  is a lovely book, one full of gentle warmth.  It makes me want to check out the other books in the series (they include God Gave Us You and God Gave Us Love).  My kindergartener is enjoying this one  thoroughly and I like reading it with him, especially at bedtime.   At the end of a busy  day, it’s nice to send kids off to bed with thoughts of angels in their heads.

God Gave Us Angels is  published by Waterbook Press, and I was delighted to receive a review copy.  It’s available at the publishers’ website, Barnes and, and

A Book That Helped Me Grow: Jessica Mesman Griffith on “Grendel”

For today’s installment of A Book That Helped Me Grow, I’m delighted to welcome author Jessica Mesman Griffith.  I got to know Jessica through the book Daily Inspiration for Women, and she is the co-author (with Amy Andrews) of Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters (full bio below).  She writes about a book that opened her eyes to what reading could be, a book that proves that monster stories are not just for kids.  Thank you, Jessica!

When Ginny asked me to write about a book that changed my life, I thought I wouldn’t be able to choose. But there was a catch—the book had to be one that I’d read before graduating from high school. The only books in my childhood home were the Sweet Valley High series neatly lining my sister’s (decorative) desk and the Life Cycle books my mom hid in her closet when she found me leafing through them with great curiosity.

Yet I was a reader, though I don’t know exactly how or why, since I had no examples. On report card days my grandmother –who only read the National Enquirer–would take me to the bookstore in our small town, the Bookshelf on Fremaux Avenue, to buy me a book as a reward for straight A’s. The old man who ran the place would always direct me to quality, wholesome fare like Anne of Green Gables and The Great Gilly Hopkins, but I all I wanted to read was V.C. Andrews.

None of those books changed my life, at least not for the better. If only I’d taken the old man’s advice, I might have been a very different teenager.

Instead, I was troubled. My mom died at the beginning of my freshman year and I wore a lot of black and listened to too much Depeche Mode. I was lazy and depressed and responsible for getting myself to school, so I often ended up somewhere else. And when I fell in with a group of friends who were as troubled as I was, I went from all honors classes to barely graduating.

During our senior year a friend who I’d known since kindergarten got into the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a prestigious program for gifted high school writers. I was intensely jealous, though I’d never even applied. I didn’t even know how to apply, and I would never have asked. I already had a sizable chip on my shoulder, and I’d become the kind of kid so afraid of failing that I couldn’t bear to try. But my friend, Brandon, did something that changed my life, set me on a different course, and helped me to become a writer. When he finished the NOCCA reading list, he gave me his books.

I’d been kicked out of every club, demoted to remedial classes, and disinvited from the National Honor Society. But when Brandon gave me those books—telling me he knew I was good enough to be at NOCCA too—I felt like trying again. So I started reading. It was a sizable stack of challenging work, including John Gardner’s Grendel.

 Honestly, the books were too hard for me, and I thought to myself that it was a good thing I hadn’t auditioned for NOCCA because it was better to let Brandon think I was smart than to prove him wrong.

But even though I didn’t really understand it, I never forgot Grendel—a dense, dark retelling of Beowulf from the villain’s perspective. The symbols and allusions sailed over my head but oh, how I identified with the intelligent, isolated, rebuffed Grendel, who longed for the noble and beautiful poetry of men but was damned by fate to a life of violence. Grendel, who thought he could see through man’s pretty illusions to the real chaos of existence. Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls! Grendel, Wrecker of Kings!

Not exactly the typical role model for a 17-year-old girl from Slidell, Louisiana, but that was the appeal. Grendel pulled back the curtain on a world so alien and grand, so beautiful and full of magic even when it was dark and brutal. Of course, its very inaccessibility appealed to the little snob in me, for at the time I thought reading it would prove to the world and to me that I was smart. But Grendel was also the first book I read that spoke to me of something true, and I wanted to be worthy of the challenge. Here, at last, was something worth working for.

 Jess 3 cropJessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published writer whose work has been noted in Best American Essays. She is the author, with Amy Andrews, of Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, winner of the 2014 Christopher Award, and a regular contributor to Good Letters, the Image blog. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, writer Dave Griffith, and their children.



A Book That Helped Me Grow: Cara Meredith on “The Runaway Bunny”

When I was a kid, I adored the picture book The Runaway Bunny.  That’s why I was delighted when Cara Meredith chose to reflect on it for the series  A Book That Helped Me Grow.  (And it’s the day after Easter —  great timing for a book about a bunny, no?).  Cara is the brains and heart behind Be, Mama. Be, where she blogs about life with faith and books and her adorable son and her HBH. (What do those letters stand for, you wonder?  Read her blog and you’ll find out!)   She welcomed me on her own site two weeks ago, and I’m thrilled to have her share her wisdom here today.  Thanks, Cara!


The inscription inside the worn cover is dated 1983, from Grandma Audrey and Grandpa Jack.   And at four years old, this was my book – the one that only sat on my shelf, the one I let dictate who got to open its pages.  Read the bunny book!  Read the bunny book!  I’d say to Mama, and she’d gladly oblige, reading the story of the little bunny that wanted to run away from his mother.  Again and again she turned the same pages, reading the same message for the umpteenth time: desirous of running away, the little bunny would become a crocus in a hidden garden, but, in return, the mama bunny would don farmer’s gear and gardening hoe.   He would become a sailboat, and “sail away from you!” but she would become the wind, blowing him where she wanted him to go.

Maybe I had a strong hankering for its words because the book was my special present, the one neither of my siblings could claim as their own.  Maybe it remained my favorite because I too dreamed of running away; I yearned for bravery akin to Huck Finn, the ability to survive an hour outside of the comforts of home.  But maybe I was drawn to the book because there was something about being sought after, about being so worth it that nothing would stop The Other from chasing after you. 

Years later, as a high school student, I found myself sitting in a room full of teenagers at an outreach camp.  We’d begun to hear the story of the God who loves us, who desires nothing more than to have a relationship with the children he already loves dearly.  And then a magical intertwining happened: at the end of the speaker’s talk one night, my book – my adventurous, wandering bunny – suddenly flashed on the screen before me.  Just like my mom had done for me, the man talking had read the same story to his children every night.  Then one night, upon reading it for probably the 300th time, it’d hit him: the Mother Bunny was a delightful picture of the God who chases after those he loves with wild abandon.  There exists a great Chase and Rescue mission we’re invited to participate in, no matter how hard our little bunny hearts try and run away, again and again.

A mother now, these same threads of wonder make me marvel at the complexity woven between the worn pages of my old book.  Every time my son requests I read that threadbare copy of The Runaway Bunny, I think of the One who chases after every single one of us.  I smile, my own heart warmed by the gentle reminder that I can do nothing but receive that same love of God, of my Mother Bunny. 

“Aw shucks,” [the little bunny declares at the end of the story, my own liberties taken with added exclamatory shucks.]  “I might as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” 

 And so he did.  “Have a carrot,” says the mother bunny.

 The End. 

For there the little bunny stays.  And I realize that it’s the same for me.     


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 Former high school English teacher turned youth minister, Cara is now a free-lance writer and speaker.  She holds a Masters of Theology degree (Fuller Seminary), and is currently chipping away at her first book.  She loves pretending to be a foodie, being outdoors and trying to read seven books at a time (although never very successfully).  She lives near San Francisco with her husband, James, their son, Canon, and a second baby brother scheduled to arrive late this summer.  You can connect with Cara on her blog Be, Mama. Be, on Facebook, and on Twitter (@caramac54).


A Book That Helped Me Grow: Karen Beattie on “Little House on the Prairie”

It’s Friday, and what better way to kick off the weekend than to celebrate the power of books?    Today’s guest-post in the series A Book That Helped Me Grow comes from Karen Beattie,  author of  the terrific book Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost.  She reflects on Laura Ingalls Wilder and other Midwestern writers (and if you’re anything like me, her words will make you want to re-read the whole Little House series).   Thank you, Karen!


As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

–My Antonia by Willa Cather

I am 10,  sitting in the deep valley of the two hills between my grandfather’s brick bungalow and my family’s house, which is a 100-year-old white clapboard four-square with a wide front porch and green shutters.

The deep summer grass feels like velvet under my skinny legs, and I watch as the wind gently blows across the hills, turning the grass into waves. I have my journal and Strawberry Shortcake pencil. I look out over the Des Moines River valley, the vast landscape of rolling hills and big blue sky. Here, it is quiet, and vast, and empty. I am writing my story.

I grew up on the prairie – in the countryside of Iowa. My four siblings and I roamed the hills and explored the creeks and took hikes through the cornfields. We built stick forts, found baby rabbits in the fields, collected ladybugs, and searched for arrowheads in the plowed fields in the spring. My dad told us about the Woodland Indians who lived there long before us. We kept our arrowhead collection in a glass case in the living room. We spent evenings sitting outside watching the sunset or storms roll in from the west.

My grandmother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse until she married my grandfather. I never met her because she died of cancer a few months before I was born, but she gave me a beautiful gift. She instilled in my father, who then passed on to me, a love for books.

I have vivid memories of my dad gathering us kids onto his bed at night and reading poetry. “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree….” He would read from the Joyce Kilmer poem. From him I learned to love language, and the rhythm of words.

We had a collection of Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in our house, and I devoured them. I played in the fields during the day, and at night I read those books and imagined travelling with Laura and her family as they moved from the big woods in Minnesota to the prairie of Kansas, and then the Dakotas in a covered wagon. I imagined going to sleep with the sound of Pa’s fiddling. I imagined riding horses across the rolling prairie hills.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie books were my gateway books into other Midwestern writers. In high school I read Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneer and My Antonia. Later it was Jane Smiley’s 1000 Acres and then Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.

Midwesterners who live in “flyover country” often suffer from a deep insecurity. We fear that all of the important things are happening on the coasts. That if you’re smart and talented and want to be someone, you need to live in New York City or Los Angeles, or someplace exotic.

But these female authors who wrote about the prairie, of the landscapes I knew, understood my love for this land. They wrote about the emptiness, the subtle beauty, and the understated way Midwesterners navigate through the world. They acknowledged that the prairie where I lived was more than flyover country, and that the people who lived in it were important too.

These books helped me to grow because they told me that my story—the story of an introverted, shy, insecure girl who lived on the prairie—mattered. 


Beattie_photoKaren Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost (Loyola Press). She has a Master’s Degree in journalism and has written about art, faith and culture for many publications. You can read more of her writing at She lives with her husband, daughter and geriatric cat on the north side of Chicago. 



A Book That Helped Me Grow: Pamela Jay Gottfried on “Forever”

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that childhood and books are two of my favorite topics.  So a while back, I had the idea to do a guest-post series that would combine the two.   I asked  several writers to think back over their childhood and adolescence, and write about a book that helped them grow.  

Today, I’m thrilled to kick off the series with a post by Pamela Jay Gottfried.  Pamela is a rabbi, blogger, and wears many other hats as well (see her complete bio at the end of the post).  She writes about being in middle school and wanting to read a “daring” book, and what she learned from her mother’s response.  Thank you, Pamela!



It seems like forever ago.

I am in seventh grade, and everyone is reading Judy Blume’s new book, Forever. We are reading in class—hiding the paperback edition inside our textbooks and pretending to pay attention to our teacher at the front of the room. Aimed at older readers, the book contains explicit descriptions of a teenaged couple’s first sexual encounter. It is 1977, and the publication of Forever has stirred up a fair amount of controversy.

I am 11 years old. An early and voracious reader, I skipped second grade, so I’m more than a year younger than all of my classmates. I am simultaneously unprepared to rebel against my parents and desperate to fit in with my sophisticated peers. Most girls I know are reading this book without their parents’ consent, but I can’t imagine sneaking around school with a contraband copy.

My mom, who is completing her MA in Education at Monmouth and preparing to be a student teacher at my school, possesses a professional interest in which books Middle School kids are currently reading. Soon after Forever becomes a cultural phenomenon, my mom sits me down for a heart to heart. More than 35 years later I cannot recount her exact words, but I recall her earnest tone of voice; I can hear her desire to be an open-minded, modern mother.

My mom tells me that she knows many of my friends are reading this book against their parents’ wishes, and reassures me that she doesn’t believe in censoring my reading choices. She has already purchased a copy of Forever and will permit me to read it. But she wants to read it first, in case I am confused by its content. Then, if I have any questions at all, I can ask her.

I don’t tell her that I’m not going to have any questions. I know about the mechanics of sex. When I was four and wondered where my brother came from, she gave me an age-appropriate book to read. And I’d read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret a year earlier, long before I could relate to Margaret’s yearning to grow breasts. I realize that I may not be ready to read about Katherine losing her virginity, but I feel confident that I’m not going to discuss Forever with my mom.

Long after I’ve forgotten the details of the book’s plot, I remember our having this conversation before we both read it. At the time, I was unaware of how significant this moment was in my early adolescence. Today, as a mother of two teenaged daughters, I am struck not only that my mom granted me permission to read Forever, but also that she recognized and validated my desire to do so. Whenever I face similar circumstances with my own girls, I remember being in seventh grade, listening to my open-minded, modern mom take a stand against censorship. Her approach to the Forever controversy continues to influence me as a parent.


PGPamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher, artist and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom. She credits her love of words to her parents, who encouraged her to develop her vocabulary through reading and using the dictionary at an early age. Connect with her at