Category: Book Reviews

Review: Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters the Most

In our house, there is one word that can be used at any time, as long as it’s not used by itself.

Whatever.

It’s an innocent enough word, but left to stand by itself, it can be relational harmful. Using this word often signals a premature disengaging that, if said often enough, can cause a wall between two people. In a house full of know-it-alls (how did this happen? Jesus help us), this word is the equivalent of a curse word.

I don’t even remember the context now, but for some reason I let the W-word slip. Ada, startled all of a sudden, looks right at me and says, “Mom, did you use that word in a sentence?” At first I felt indignant- how dare my 3-year-old challenge me in my usage of the English language? I’m the mom, don’t I have the right to say whatever I please? But, with the next wave of thoughts, I recognize my lack of respect with my words and quickly admit my error and began mending the situation.

I’ve been learning from my kids these days that just because I’m the parent and have the so-called “power” in the relationship, I still don’t get to break the rules. I don’t get to show disrespect or use relationally hurtful words that my children aren’t allowed to use with me or one another.

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In her new book, Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most, Amy Julia Becker writes about some of the important things that she has learned from her children, whether it be in the van on the way home from school, observing her kids during an after school playdate, or on the back porch eating dinner. She writes in the introduction:

This book is a series of reflections from my past few years of parenting…it is not a how-to guide. It is not filled with advice. It is, I hope, a word of encouragement that good things can emerge out of the hard but ordinary everyday moments. It is, I hope, a reminder that on those days when you wonder if there is any meaning in the dishes and disputes and diapers, you are not alone.”

In this book, Amy Julia travels the path of friendships, traditions, beauty, disability, baptism and everywhere in between in a way that leaves the reader feeling encouraged, contemplative, and with an eagerness to listen a little more closely to what comes out of the mouths of our babes.

While Amy Julia is a great writer and thinker whose writing has been published in the New York Times Motherlode blog, the Atlantic, Christianity Today, etc., in this book she stumbles upon what all of us parents come to know eventually- some of our greatest learning, our deepest theological musings, our most potent catalysts for spiritual transformation begin with an interaction with our children.

To learn more about Small Talk or about Amy Julie Becker, you can read her blog, Thin Places or connect with her via FB or Twitter.

Thanks to BookLook books for the review copy in exchange for an honest review.  

 

Review: Not Yet Christmas (an Advent reader)

The season of Advent begins in one week- and while many of you have the resources that you are planning to use for this upcoming season, I know that some of you are totally procrastinating and have no idea if you’re even going to do this “Advent thing” ;). If this is you, I’d like to introduce you to Not Yet Christmas: It’s Time for Advent by J.D. Walt, who is the current sower-in-chief of Seedbeed, a Wesleyan resource hub that puts out really great resources (books, videos, blog posts, curriculum, etc), sowing seeds of the Gospel and resourcing the global Church. Once upon a time, J.D. was the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY, which is how I first knew of him, and later Seedbed.

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J.D. begins this reader with a call to Christians to stop complaining about the consumeristic American culture “stealing Christmas” from us (how dare the store clerk say ‘Happy Holidays’ to me!), but instead, to just live the season wholeheartedly ourselves. “Let’s joyfully embrace the fact that we will do Advent in the midst of a culture that loves Christmas but doesn’t really understand it. But let’s not be mad about it. We do no live in a Christian culture. We live in an American culture…Jesus is not competing with Santa” (vii). It is out of this vein of truly celebrating Advent and living Christ-centered in the midst of whatever else is being celebrated around us that J.D. writes each of the daily readings.

Each reading begins with a piece of Scripture that speaks towards Jesus’ second coming. I think this focus is a bit unique for many Advent devotionals– most of those I have reviewed over the years tend to be mostly focused on Jesus’ first coming to the world without a whole lot of emphasis on the future. After the piece of Scripture, J.D. writes a bit, often not more than a page of text, and then ends with a poem written by a team of poets from around the country.

One of my favorite days is Day 17: It’s Time to Recalibrate our Pace. The reader slowly reads through Psalm 25, and then our thoughts are turned to the thing we all do best– waiting. J.D. challenges us to consider why we despise waiting so much, and then asks this question- “What if the ‘paths of the Lord’ are more about pace than destination? What if our days became exercises in waiting on the Lord, as in, ‘for you I wait all day long.’ How about we take all those occasions in the coming days where we find ourselves waiting and we consider in the midst of it all that we are waiting on the Lord” (38). This devotion hit home because not only is the Advent season about waiting and anticipating and waiting some more, but also the achiever in me is far too often tempted to not wait around for something to happen, but to seize ahead and MAKE something happen. What does it look like for me to wait upon the Lord and rest in peace?

Some strengths of this reader include:

  • J.D. writes with a perfect mixture of grace and exhortation. If one is not challenged by this devotional, then the reader probably isn’t reading and listening close enough.
  • I appreciate the brevity of each day’s readings. The reading is not very long, and the content is quite potent, giving the reader something to carry with them throughout the day.
  • The poems are a great addition. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, mostly because I don’t want to slow down and spend time on it. But, the season of Advent comes with a necessary slowing, and the poetry is a literary reminder to do that each day.

Thanks to Seedbed for providing me a copy of this reader in exchange for an honest review. I’m thankful to be using this as part of my Advent journey this year!

 

 

Review: Unwrapping the Greatest Gift

This year for Advent our little team is using Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift family devotional. What’s different about this devotional than other traditional Advent resources is that it widens its focus to include the whole story of Scripture instead of only the Christmas story. I’m pretty excited with this alternative because it goes along nicely with Jake and I’s attempt this year at helping the kids learn the big story of Scripture.

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Part of the using the book involves making a Jesse Tree. Ann says that, “to make a Jesse Tree is to trace the family line and heritage of your own forever family- the family of God.” So each day we’ll use this book to:

  1. Read a portion of Scripture.
  2. Read a family friendly devotional written by Ann. The devotionals are 2-3 pages long and are really well written. If you need something to compare it with, I would say that they have the same feel as the Jesus Storybook Bible.
  3. Talk about the story (she gives a couple questions).
  4. Do an activity. She gives a couple options, so we’ll do what we want and skip what we don’t. Some activities require some preparation, but many do not. For example, one of the days she says to “Turn off all the lights in the room except the Christmas lights. notice how the darkness makes the light seem even brighter. Thank God for being your light, even in the dark times” (76).
  5. Finally, we’ll hang up a paper ornament onto our Jesse (Christmas) tree that goes along with the Scripture that we read. The paper ornaments are free (downloadable from her website with a code in the book), but there are also real ones that can be bought from incourage.me. While I’m not a huge fan of the style of the ornaments, they’ll have to do for this year. I’m throwing around the idea of having the kids draw their own ornaments some of the days.

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The pages of this book are beautifully illustrated, and the writing is powerful. Ann does a wonderful job at pointing us towards Jesus and the good news of the gospel that so many of us need to hear again and again and again.

As for the age range of readers, I’m guessing that my almost 4 year old will possibly lose interest at some parts, just because of her age and attention-span, but I think that my elementary schoolers will be very interested.

Does your family celebrate Advent? If so, what do you do? 

Thanks to Tyndale books for providing this complementary copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Review: Faith Shift

I first decided to review this book not because of the title or content, but because of the author, Kathy Escobar. I recognized her name from another book on my “to read” list, Down We Go. In a world of climbing the business/social/christian ladder, I felt like I needed to read a book like that to balance myself out, and to remind myself of what following Jesus could look like in a today’s world kind of way.

So, I thought, if Kathy wrote a book like THAT, then this Faith Shift one should probably be pretty good.

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Oh and it is. Kathy writes this book for those who are going through a faith shift, meaning what was once comfortable and comforting to you (your church tradition, your core beliefs, your relationship to Jesus, etc.) no longer is. Perhaps it was caused by a slow drift, or maybe something significant happened, but whatever the reason, you find yourself asking a whole lot of questions and having way less answers than you used to.

My favorite thing about this book is Kathy’s ability to explain the spiritual formation process and to normalize it. For many of us, we’ve learned that questions can be dangerous. Have you ever asked a question in a group of people and immediately get shot down because “we will never know the answer” or because “that’s a question that can cause doubt?” I have, and it’s an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. But, what I’ve learned over these past couple years is that questions are actually signs of a growing faith. In fact, it’s an odd thing that it has become so taboo these days, because many of our church mothers and fathers knew that it was a common stage in one’s spiritual formation (p 20).

Kathy breaks down the process into a few sections:

  • Fusing: This is where you first become a Christian and everything is so fantastic. You are soaking up Scripture, you are having incredible worship experiences, you are learning so much and things make so. much. sense.
  • Shifting: Something happens in how we relate to God or the church (p. 38). “We hit a significant spiritual barrier and things stop working in the ways we are used to. Our connection with God wanes, and we can’t seem to pray. Our hearts begin to feel dead. We start to feel resentful. We stop caring about church, and events and programs lose their attraction. We notice inconsistencies in leadership and theology that never occurred to us before. We become ambivalent, apathetic, or feel hints of anger and fear in deep places of our soul.”
  • Unraveling: Also known as deconstruction. Lots of questions. Lots of ranges of feelings. I liken this to what many church mothers and fathers have described as a spiritual wilderness. Henri Nouwen. St. John of the Cross. Mother Theresa.
  • Severing: This is when people cut their ties and walk away. Fortunately, not everyone does this, but it certainly happens.
  • Rebuilding: The slow, careful process of rebuilding your faith.

She goes into depth in each area, sharing her own story as well as stories of others she has interviewed. She provides some ideas for soul care as people are moving through each stage, and is careful to honor where people are at in their faith.

People, parts of this book served as water for my soul. I underlined. I starred. I journaled. I even talked out loud while reading it at times.

I had a hard time identifying with other parts of the book, but that’s okay because it probably means those parts aren’t really written for me. I think readers should be aware that she is pretty inclusive, so if this is something that really bothers you, then you probably don’t need this book. 🙂

I also think this is an important book for people to read who love someone who is going through a faith shift. As I was reading, I not only reflected on myself, but I also began to understand past friends more. I would read something and say, “Ohhhh. I see. I understand now what they meant when they said _________.”)

So, not for everyone, but essential to others!

You can learn more about Kathy at her website, www.kathyescobar.com.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for this complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review! 

 

Review: Lean on Me

Community has been an incredibly important part of my spiritual formation. I believe with all of my heart that no person is an island, and that to be healthy human beings, we have to find people and places where we can both be known and also really know others.

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Perhaps reading Anne Marie Miller‘s newest book, Lean On Me, is a no-brainer for me. Yes, community! Yes, vulnerability! Yes, availability! I wondered at first if I really even should read this book since I’m already convinced of these things, but I’m really glad I gave this book a shot.

Anne shares part of her journey with us. She weaves together an honest story about a community that held her up in the midst and in the aftershocks of divorce, anxiety, kinda depression and just struggling to find herself again after the loss of her marriage.  She reveals the good times and the bad times, and also shares what she has learned about community lived out, even in the not-so-perfect situations in life.

This book is part memoir, part pastoral. I think I expected it to bit heavier on the details of her story (I’m super interested in knowing more about her life), but I bet there’s more of that in her book from a few years ago called Mad Church Disease. I felt like some parts of the book felt really overgeneralized and didn’t offer much depth, but then other sections were really poignant.

Thanks to Anne for sharing part of her story with the world- so brave and so needed!

 

Thanks to Booklook Bloggers for providing this book in exchange for an honest review! 

Review: Simplicity Parenting

 

simplicityparentingSimplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids has been on my books to read for well over a year. I’m always drawn to anything with “simple” in the tag line, especially when it comes to parenting, because I’m in constant need of the reminder that less really is more. We as parents can step back, give our kids some breathing room, and that hectic schedules filled with good things typically isn’t the best thing for our kids. Repeat repeat repeat.

Simplicity Parenting, now on my list of must-read books, is written by Kim John Payne who was a school counselor for 18 years and is now a private family counselor in New York. He’s of the Waldorf persuasion, and believes that kids need to play, to be bored, and to be kids (not mini adults) as long as possible. He is convinced that working on simplifying is incredibly important as a first step to this kind of childhood: “By simplifying, we protect the environment for childhood’s slow, essential unfolding of self” (6).

Payne identifies 4 main areas in which we can work on simplifying for our kids:

1. The environment: We can declutter and get rid of many of our kids’  toys, books, clothes, etc. so that they can actually enjoy what they have in the mountain of “stuff” accumulating in closets, on the shelves and under the bed.

2. Rhythm: “Increasing the rhythm of your home life is one of the most powerful ways of simplifying your children’s lives.” When kids are familiar with what comes next, they are more likely to be at ease and focus more energy on the work of childhood. Rhythms can be made at waking-up, breakfast, going out the door, the window between school and dinner, and bedtime. Think about your day from your child’s point of view. What’s predictable? What’s not?

3. Schedules: I love that he talks about balancing busy days with quiet days. We do try to do this at our house- if we have a busy week, we’ll make sure that Saturday and maybe Sunday has nothing planned so that we can be at home, play, and enjoy the boringness of life. It really helps the kids to unwind emotionally and get some restful time so that they can reenergize for the upcoming school week. He warns that always packing our kids’ schedule with stuff to do can create an addition to busyness in our kids that many of us are desperately trying to deconstruct as adults.

4. Filtering Out the Adult World: Many of us want to have smart, educated kids who are knowledgeable about the world and what’s going on in it. However, what if the adult information we are sharing with them (or that they are overhearing in our dinner conversations, on the phone, on the news or on the radio in the car) is actually causing stress to them? Payne hosts a conversation about the innocence of childhood, and the importance of our kids’ needing to feel safe in their formative years, as they build their sense of self and the world. Too much information too young can cause anxiety and then behavior issues.

I appreciated Payne’s mindfulness and willingness to push back against the culture of go-go-go and “start getting these kids ready for college when they are in 1st grade”. Parenting and childhood has become a competition in our culture, at the expense of our kids. We can turn the tide if we’re willing to be mindful and make thoughtful decisions about the life of our family!

 

Review: Exploring and Engaging Spirituality for Today’s Children

Discipling our kids is easy, in a way. Discipleship happens all day, everyday. Our mini-mes are watching us and picking up on what things are important and valuable to us, as well as discerning what being a follower of Jesus looks like. It’s happening whether we’re trying or not.

Discipling our kids is also really hard. Because we mess up. Or have habitual sins that we can’t shake but are so glaringly ugly. Often we want better for our kids than we do for ourselves. And we are keenly aware that at times, our behaviors, attitudes, words, etc. are certainly not ones that we wish for our children. Do as I say, not as I do.

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Because discipleship is easy and because it is also hard, I am on a constant lookout for resources that will help me be more intentional with them. One such resource I’ve had the pleasure of reading is Exploring and Engaging Spirituality for Today’s Children: A Holistic Approach. This great collection of articles is written by a variety of authors and it is a truly thoughtful, interesting work! The scholars and practiioners who wrote the articles were also presenters at the Children’s Spirituality Conference in 2012 at Concordia University in Chicago.

The book is divided up into 4 sections. The first part explores the historical and theological foundation of ministering to children. The topics have a broad range, but they all fall into the scope of how children’s spirituality and ministry in the church sits in history or in Scripture. One of my favorite articles from this section is an article, “Beyond Sunday School: How Child-Centered Studies of Religion are Transforming Our Understandings of Children and Their Traditions.” In it, author Susan B. Ridgely observes: …”virtually all churches discuss children as ‘the next generation’ of believers. Thus congregations position young people as future, rather than current, practitioners of their traditions even as they actively engage in Sunday school and services, even if it is just to protest their forced presence in these places” (p. 68). Isn’t that the truth? How can we as parents and we as the bigger church view kids and treat kids as young people who are seeking God and an active part of the current church?

In the second section, scholars discuss how churches can equip parents and their congregations to participate in the active discipleship of the children in the church. I learned something from each article in this section, and it took me forever to get through them all because I felt like I had to stop after each article to think on the information and suggestions they shared. From introducing the church calendar into family life to helping kids learn Scripture in a deep way to helping children recognize the experience of God in their daily lives, these articles are filled with important information for parents and churches. How can the church equip parents to disciple their children at all ages and stages? Research has found that most parents know it’s important but don’t know what to do or just don’t do anything. These scholars want to help churches fill that gap.

The third section explores various methods of ministering to children. They write on a variety of subjects: the importance of physical movement in the spiritual development of a child, learning how kids learn and how that affects their spiritual development, even adapting some of the Ignatian spiritual exercises to kids.

The final section zooms in on ministering to justice issues surrounding children and what that means for the church- at-risk youth, child pornography, social justice, sex education, and intercultural contexts. My favorite article in this section was the one on how our culture affects how we help form children spiritually. Do we have them memorize prayers or pray spontaneously? Do they participate in the corporate worship service or are they taught in a different room? What expectations do we bring to the table in a church and how might other families from different cultures expect different things? Sadly I guess most churches in America don’t have this problem because they tend to be monocultural. BUT, when we do (I have hope!) what are some conversations that we’ll need to have?

And last, but not least, I’ve discovered no less than 30 more books that I’d like to read sometime (one of my favorite things about reading scholarly articles- the references at the end of them)! This books makes me wish I would have taken more spiritual development of the family classes as Asbury… :).

 

Thanks to the publisher, Wipf and Stock for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review. 

 

 

Review of Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul

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Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul is Bill Hybels’ newest book. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Bill Hybels is the father of Shauna Niequist, husband of Lynne Hybels, and probably most known for his start of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL more than 20 years ago.

We’ve been on a slow transition to simple living over here. We’re reading about slowing down. We’re beginning to say “no” more often. We’re learning that sometimes simple food is better food. We’re learning that we don’t need so much stuff, and that it’s okay to just let go of it. We’re learning that our time is worth a lot, and that it should only be given to things that are truly important and life giving.

We’ve found it’s a fairly straightforward task to unclutter our closets and toy shelves and bookshelves and cabinets. It’s a bit harder to unclutter our souls. What does that even mean, right? And to take it one step further, how DO that?

Hybels enters this conversation with a whole lot of practical advice. This book is an incredibly typical Bill Hybels book- down to earth, pastorally tone, lots of Scripture, and real life illustrations. Bill is a great, thorough communicator, and it’s obvious he worked really hard on thinking about what every single person on the spectrum of life could use to hear when it comes to simplifying (284 pages!).

He talks about external changes, internal changes, and of course how they’re all related. He discusses the need to find a job that fits you, saying “yes” to things you actually like and “no” to the things you don’t, to forgive those whom you haven’t forgiven (takes up lots of soul space) as well as cutting off friendships that aren’t healthy and making ones that are. While this book doesn’t live up to the “groundbreaking” promise that is on its dust cover flap, it does offer some good general advice with some helpful “action steps” for those of us who need some extra help getting from point A to point B. Overall, the information offered is pretty run-of-the-mill in the area of figuring out how to get the most out of life.

One section that I did find particularly helpful, though, was about life seasons. In it, Bill helps the reader to see that each life stage is really just that- a stage. It’s not going to last forever, and each one has it’s own benefits and limitations. To do life well, we must both recognize and understand what season we are in, and then life accordingly. Sure, sometimes those seasons are bound by age, location, age of kids, job, but other times these seasons are something deeper- a season of grieving, a season of doubt or wilderness experience, a season of loss, a season of simplifying, a season of giving– it could be a ton of different things! But, the most important thing is to recognize that, lean into it, and then to move on when it’s obvious the season is over.

So, perhaps this isn’t my favorite book of Bill Hybel’s (I’ve read quite a few), but it’s a good primer for those who are needing something to kick start their season of getting life on track.

 

Thanks to Tyndale for providing this complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Also, please note that some of the links above are affiliate links.

Review: The sticky faith guide for your family

When we find out that we’re pregnant, or we apply to adopt, many of us begin reading. Whether it’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting or The Whole Life Adoption Book, we start reaching out for any information that is going to help make this life transition a bit easier. We are eager to plan our baby or child’s room, decide who is going to take care of them after they are born and maternity leave comes to an end, and we even have some ideas about activities we can do to help them successfully meet the important developmental milestones.

But what do we do to prepare ourselves for our child’s spiritual health? Sadly, there aren’t as many books about that. Many of our churches are helpful in that they provide a good curriculum for kids to do on Sundays, but what about the rest of the 166.5 hours in the week?

Most of us care deeply about our spiritual development as well as that of our children. We pray for them, we fill their bookshelves and nightstands with Bibles and books that point them towards God. We probably pray at meals and bedtime, and maybe before we send them off to school (or start the school day at home). We talk about the moral compass, and encourage them to “be good”.

While all of this is good, there’s a lot more to their spiritual life than that. While God is absolutely the one who makes the garden of their hearts grow, He certainly uses family to plant seeds, provide some water, and weed :).

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The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family: Over 100 Practical and Tested Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Kids gets that, which is why Dr. Kara Powell wrote this book. She and a team of researchers and practitioners at the Fuller Youth Institute have been researching families and the spiritual development of kids (from birth on through college) for many years now. While their first book, Sticky Faith, shares a lot of what they found in their research, this Sticky Faith Guide for Family gives some more practical tools for helping families evaluate where they are at, what their next step is, and lots of ways of how to get there. They get that families are very different, and that sometimes no matter how hard we try, our kids are going to make the ultimate decision about their spiritual  journey. I know that for me, even though this is true, I’m going to do everything that I can to help create an environment that is nurturing of their spiritual development. I definitely don’t want to look back and realize that I could have done so much more.

In this book, Powell talks about very common issues- mistakes/forgiveness, creating close family relationships, connecting with teenagers, building a Christ-centered community that our kids are a part of, communication, serving others, transitions, etc. While this book is probably geared best towards families with elementary-high school kids, I can’t really think of a reason why parents of younger kids wouldn’t want to start thinking about this. The reality is, faith formation starts at birth, and many of these thoughts could ideally be started in the toddler and preschool years.

I’m a huge fan of the Fuller Youth Institute. They have done some really careful research that doesn’t care about making news with numbers as much as they do with presenting the problem as clearly as they can, and then offering suggestions (not solutions) that are helpful and that have helped families and children who have come before us in this parenting journey.

While I typically say that books shouldn’t be bought, but instead should be borrowed, this is one that is a good one for the bookshelf. Libraries don’t like their books to be underlined, highlighted, and dog-eared :).

Thanks so much to Booklook Bloggers for providing the excellent book in exchange for an honest review. 

Please note that some links are affiliate links.

What Nerds Do for Fun: a Bend Your Brain review

What do nerds do for fun?

Well, I guess a lot of things, but one thing we do here at our house is puzzles- jigsaw puzzles, word puzzles, game puzzles, etc. If it’s a puzzle, we’ll try it out!

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Bend Your Brain: 151 Puzzles, Tips, and Tricks to Blow (and Grow) Your Mind is a new book from Marbles: The Brain Store of fun, unusual puzzles that are truly mind-bending. The book is divided up into 5 sections of puzzles with 5 levels of difficulty in each section::

  • visual perception
  • word skills
  • critical thinking
  • coordination
  • memory

Each set of puzzles are designed to exercise and grow your brain in certain ways, which the book explains in a clear, concise way. The puzzles are super fun and mostly unusual. There are a few word searches, sudoku, and mazes but they all have interesting twists, for example one puzzle is a 2 page maze, but on the front/back of a single page- whew, talk about tricky! Another puzzle the kids enjoyed had pictures of objects and they had to create compound words, using each picture once. It was cute to see them all gathered around the book, trying to work together to figure it out.

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This puzzle book would be a great way to spend one-on-one time with an older child OR a fun book to take along on a date night (if you and your spouse are nerds like us!).

 

Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing these complementary copy in exchange for an honest review!