Concerning Dragons

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Dragons have historically been associated with evil by western tradition, but in recent years a spat of books have appeared featuring friendly dragons. Is the traditional view of dragons superstitious? Or is there a certain inherent evil in dragons? Should our children be reading books that reverse the evil dragon stereotype?

DRAGONS IN THE BIBLE

There are a couple mentions of dragons in the Bible. In the original Hebrew, the author of Genesis uses the word worm to refer to Satan in the Garden. In Hebrew, worm would mean serpent or dragon. The more well known Biblical mention of a dragon is in Revelation 12, where a dragon waits to devour the child the woman is about to bring forth. Thus there are at least two place sin the Bible where the dragon is equated with the evil one.

DRAGONS IN WESTERN LEGEND

Throughout western mythology and legend, dragons are closely associated with serpents (harping back to the Hebrew Biblical word), evil, and Satan. Catalan Drac and German Lindworm are examples of snakelike dragons. The Hungarian Zomo, was a giant winged snake. In English legend, dragons are often referred to as worms. In Albanian legend, Bolla is a serpentine-like dragon that wakes once a year on St George’s feast day to devour the first human it sees. In nearly every European country, one finds legends of this sort linking serpentine dragons to evil.

PRO-DRAGON BOOKS?

A number of popular books in recent years have portrayed a very different dragon than the evil serpent of western tradition. For example, Tomie De Paola, whose work I usually like, has a picture book, The Knight and the Dragon, in which a cute chubby dragon and young knight are at first mutually terrified of each other and end by becoming good friends.  Similarly, a well loved early chapter book called My Father’s Dragon is the engaging story of Elmer Elevator, a young boy who rescues a friendly baby dragon. The Eragon series, which stars a young man who hatches a friendly dragon, has gained popularity in recent years in Catholic circles. These books and others in a similar vein, while engaging stories, are in complete contradiction to centuries of oral and written wisdom concerning dragons.

DRAGONS AND DEMYTHOLOGIZING

Michael OBrien’s A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind is, in my opinion, the definitive guide to understanding the intricacies of dragons, magic, fairy tales, paganism, and a plethora of other tricky topics in contemporary children’s literature. In regards to dragons, O’Brien explains that western Christian legends and myths about dragons “refer to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” He describes recent pro-dragon literature as “demythologizing,” and explains that the devil actually would be thrilled to see us forget the traditional narrative of the good knight fighting for his King

“The dragon has a vested interest in having us dismiss the account of the battle as make-believe. It is not to his benefit that we, imitating our Lord the King, should take up arms against him. He thinks it better that we do not consider him dangerous. Of course, the well-nourished imagination knows that dragons are not frightening because of fangs, scales, and smoke pouring from nostrils. The imagination fed on truth knows that the serpent is a symbol of hatred and deceit, of evil knowledge and power without conscience.”   ~ Michael O’Brien

Imagination Forming Fantasy

If your children love fantasy, the good news is there are plenty of books that depict dragons in an appropriately fearsome manner, respecting their traditional symbolism as evil. I recently read The Squire and the Scroll to my 5 year old. This awesome picture book reinforces purity of heart and has a satisfyingly evil dragon for the young squire to slay. Margaret Hodges’  retelling of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is another awesome picture book. For older readers, Tolkien’s The Hobbit has a wonderful depiction of Smaug as the evil dragon. Fairy tales and Arthurian legends are also rife with traditional themes about dragons.

A CHESTERTONIAN CONCLUSION

When it comes to dragons, I find myself thinking of G. K. Chesterton’s wisdom about fairy tales. Since tiny children instinctively imagine dragons and monsters as a visual symbol of the evil one, the best course of action as a parent is to give them hope for victory over that evil through stories which end with the dragon defeated.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”  ~ G. K. Chesterton

I think we’ll be reading Saint George and the Dragon for bedtime tonight!

Review of “Between the Forest and the Hills”


I was only thirteen or fourteen when I was first enchanted by Between the Forest and the Hills. Even as a young teenager I recognized this book was something out of the ordinary and it became an instant lifelong favorite. Author Ann Lawrence labels it a Historical Fantasy, but I find it defies categorization, effortlessly surpassing typical genres. You could describe it as a lighthearted frolic through lush forests with two children, or as a humorous yet profound philosophical dialogue between a Christian and a pagan, or as a thoughtful exploration of different ethnic groups learning to coexist. And there is also a fascinating theme running throughout about the existence of miracles. And a generous dosage of humor strewn throughout for good measure.

HISTORY AND PLOT

Lawrence set Between the Forest and the Hills in a fascinating place and era historically. Isculum is a tiny garrison town in western Briton, situated between the forest and the hills. Nearly forgotten by a declining Roman Empire, Isculum has become self sufficient. Between the Forest and the Hills begins as a leisurely stroll through this lazy little village where the town leaders bicker about theology, write down the history of their town, and wonder about the future of their isolated outpost. Young Falx, ward of the Prefect, stirs up the story and town by rescuing a little Saxon Princess, revealing the proximity of barbarians. The children’s meeting becomes the catalyst for war, alliance, friendship, and miracles.

CULTURAL CROSSROADS

Lawrence vividly portrays the uneasy melding of Roman, British, and Saxon cultures brought about through necessity. In the beginning of the story, Roman and Briton are already living peacefully together after generations of intermarriage. But the Roman-British town is fearful of the proximity of the barbarian Saxons. At first the only option seems to be war and the annihilation of one party. But through a miracle involving two talking ravens and the still unwritten Hallelujah Chorus, both sides reconsider and wonder if cooperation might be possible. The Saxon Torcula decides, “Even to be neutral, we must try to be friends.” The wise Roman prefect Frontalis agrees to an alliance, observing, “So the Saxons may outnumber the Britons in the end- so what? It’s the land that makes the people. In another hundred- two hundred years, they will be us. All we have to do is hold things together until the process is complete.” Lawrence certainly introduces serious and profound questions about immigration for a young adult book. Agree or disagree with her conclusions as you will, Between the Forest and the Hills is a great springboard for an immigration discussion.

CONVERSATION, FRIENDSHIP, AND CONVERSION

The books is punctuated by a series of exchanges about Christianity between Frontalis and Malleus, the Christian bishop. Lawrence paints Frontalis as a most erudite and noble minded pagan whose eventual conversion is the result of decades of friendship and discussion with the good bishop. These conversations offer great reflections points for the reader. For example, Malleus talks about the limited understanding of human beings at one point, “Uncertsinity is the perpetual lot of mortal creatures… We’ve no choice but to trust what we don’t understand, accept what we can’t believe, and walk where there’s no path that we can see.”

MIRACLES

Between the Forest and the Hills has an interesting thread of theme about miracles running throughout the book. The still somewhat superstitious British converts are inclined to see a miracle from the saintly bishop at every turn, to his comic distress. This raises an interesting question for Malleus: if seeing a natural event as a miracle brings people to God, is there anything wrong with seeing God’s hand in that event and crediting it to him? Malleus struggles with this question, feeling hopelessness and discouragement. But in his lowest moment of doubting God’s intervention, a true miracle occurs with his staff bursting forth into flower as a sign of hope.

CLEAN AND CREATIVE
I would wholeheartedly recommend Between the Forest and the Hills for advanced twelve year old readers to high schoolers. The publisher Bethlehem books recommends 14 and up, possibly because of the detail about the bishop, Malleus, having been married and having a son (this is in fact in keeping with the historical setting since priestly celibacy was not yet a rule). I loved Between the Forest and the Hills as a young teen and loved it more as an adult, recognizing more clearly how rare it is to find such a clean, creative book for teenagers. My hope is your teenagers love it as much as I did!

Review of “A Wrinkle in Time”

Many book lovers have a soft spot for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time based on fond childhood memories. Though perhaps not on par with The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of popularity, A Wrinkle in Time has quite a fan following. I am in the unusual position of a bibliophile who did not read A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I believe my late, adult introduction to A Wrinkle in Time gives me a certain advantage in writing an unprejudiced review since my clarity of analysis is not obscured by any warm emotional attachment rooted in a childhood identification with Meg.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
My first impression upon finishing A Wrinkle in Time was a certain vague disappointment. After all the hype I had heard about Christian themes, gripping plot, and memorable characters, I was hoping for so much more than I found. Upon reflection, I decided my dissatisfaction might in a small measure be rooted in the fact that I was not the twelve year old audience at which the book is aimed. But more fundamentally, I think I was disappointed because I grew up reading and re-reading Fantasy and Sci Fi such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ The Space Trilogy , and Children of the Last Days. And L’Engle’s skill as a writer, depth of thought as a philosopher, and moral imagination is not remotely on par with the likes of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Michael O’Brien.

BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
I do truly appreciate that L’Engle tries to clearly define the conflict as a cosmic battle between good and evil. In this aspect, I believe A Wrinkle in Time was intended to be reminiscent of Lewis and Tolkien. The evil fog and IT are supposed to be evil, while the Mrs W’s and humans from earth are combating in the name of good and love. However, though L’Engle had good intentions, I believe her portrayal of good is flawed in several essential areas.

JESUS: ANOTHER GOOD MAN
Madeleine L’Engle was an Episcopalian, and her book reflects a watered down Protestant version of Christianity. Biblical references are strewn generously throughout A Wrinkle in Time, although Meg and the other characters are not overtly identified as Christian. There is on the one hand an acceptance that certain Christian themes, such as free will, and Bible passages contain wisdom and even a certain inherent beauty, truth, and power. Yet on the other hand Jesus is placed on par with other artists and spiritual leaders like Michelangelo and Gandhi. If you say Jesus is just another good teacher, you discredit the Bible message, reducing it to just another good book. In this sense, A Wrinkle in Time is a decidedly poor witness to Christianity.

Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Witchcraft
I don’t by any stretch accuse L’Engle of nefarious intentions, but another reason I would hesitate to hand my tween a copy of this book is her comparatively lighthearted take on the occult. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which are described as guardian angels and messengers from God. Yet these angels  “play” at being witches. Calvin calls the witch symbolism of broomsticks, cauldron, haunted house, old crones, “their game.” Since Catholic popes, priests, and theologians have repeatedly cautioned again any “games” dealing with occult objects, I find the concept of playing at witchery disturbing. I immediately thought of the passage in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters in which Screwtape says one of the best ways to allow power to a devil is to deny its existence.

WHOSE LOVE?
One final detail in the plot that I found particularly troublesome is that when the climax comes, Meg finds she must rely on herself. Her love is most powerful.  A common theme in Catholic literature is a person realizing that they are nothing before God, but with God they are everything. Perhaps one could try to make a case that Meg’s love for her brother must come from God, and so bring God into the victory. But your average ten or twelve year old is not going to leap to this interpretation, which is a stretch even for me. L’Engle is pretty clear that Meg herself sees it coming down to just her love alone.

LEWIS DID IT BETTER
I kept having this reaction while reading A Wrinkle In Time: “Lewis already used this idea, and he did a better job.” To be clear, I am not accusing L’Engle of plagiarizing. But for a devotee of C. S. Lewis, details such as the disembodied brain controlling people and scientists being taken to another planet by celestial guardian angel figures will inevitably lead to comparisons. And in my opinion, A Wrinkle In Time just can’t begin to compete with The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Add to that the fact that I find L’Engle to lack an authentically Christian voice, and my advice is to skip A Wrinkle In Time, or at least be sure to have a discussion with your children about it before handing it over. And also make sure they read some C. S. Lewis.

 

Review of “If You Give a Moose a Muffin”

I remember enjoying listening to my parents reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie when I was young. So I bought several of the “If you give…” books by Laura Numeroff sight unseen. I was quite disappointed when I began reading them to my own kids.

I will admit that my little ones were instantly captivated by these books. Something about the short phrases on each page, the simple, sequential story, or the animals’ antics amuses children. However, I reluctantly had to conclude most of this series needed to disappear in the night from our bookshelf.

The original If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is tolerable in my opinion (though not handsome enough to be a favorite for me). The illustrations are not as realistic and beautiful as I might ask in an ideal world, but do have a certain cuteness. The story line is actually helpful in explaining sequences and causes to very little children. And I appreciate how the little boy tries so hard to clean up after the mouse throughout the story. Of course, the deeper theme about desire following desire in a cyclical fashion is way over the intended audience’s head.

I could nitpick about Numeroff’s later books. For example, the illustrations move from cute and calm to sometimes frantic, as in If You Give a Cat a Cupcake Also, does it bother anyone else how though cookies and milk is an American combination, apple juice and donuts just don’t really go together?

But the book that I really take exception to is If You Give a Moose a Muffin.

Look at this moose.

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Observe the sweater. (Or is it a bolero?) Take note of the daisy.

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Notice the stance. This is a moose who carries a clutch purse. This moose is … a girl, right?

But no. “If you give a moose a muffin, HE’LL want some jam to go with it.” (My italics)

So, we have a male moose wearing a girly sweater with a daisy in the pocket, standing like a girl, carrying a clutch. Am I the only one who prefers my milk and cookies, or muffins and jam, unaccompanied by a homosexual or transgender normalizing agenda?

This book did not find a home on our bookshelf.

Good Books for Catholic Husbands and Fathers

In our house, I am undeniably the bibliophile.  My very busy, military officer husband used to claim he didn’t like reading, but over time has altered his position to: “I only like (and have time for) reading practical, inspiring books.”  Once he actually finds a book he likes though, he thinks everyone should read it!  This list includes some of his favorites, which you will probably hear recommended over dinner if you ever come to our house.

Peter Kreeft’s clear, logical style resonates with men, so it’s no surprise my husband’s first book recommendation is usually Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions. Actually, both of us loved this book, because it offers exactly what the title states: practical wisdom about everyday moral decisions. Kreeft provides a general framework and then addresses some specific common moral conundrums.

Kreeft has written a plethora of excellent books such as , but another title of particular interest for Catholic fathers is Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. In this book, Kreeft shares his astute thoughts on what is most important to discuss and pass on to our children.

Another favorite author of both my husband and father is Matthew Kelly, a devout Catholic and also fantastic self-help type motivational speaker. His Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction was extremely helpful for my husband in mapping out his path forward for his career and our family.

Another Matthew Kelly book which is perfect for a couple to read together is The Seven Levels of Intimacy. This book is sure to help you improve communication with your spouse and build a more meaningful relationship. Matthew Kelly’s simple, direct style makes this a quick and easy read.

Randy Hain’s Something More: The Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life is similar to Matthew Kelly’s Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction. It’s another excellent book about trying to create harmony in all areas of your life.

Another great book by Hain is Journey to Heaven: A Road Map for Catholic Men. In this book, Hain undertakes to synthesize a lifestyle that combines authentic masculinity with a deep spirituality.

St. Alphonsus de Liguori’s Uniformity with God’s Will is a very short but highly practical little book which lays out a path to holiness based on submitting our will to God’s throughout the events of every day life.

Dr. Gregory Popcak’s Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving is a favorite wedding gift for my husband’s friends. This isn’t simply a book about sex. Rather, it’s about how every moment of our day to day married lives needs to be about loving and serving one another, because that is the path to a happy marriage.

We are admittedly fond of Popcak’s books, so Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising almost Perfect Kids has been our general road map for parenting style.

My husband really enjoyed reading Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know recently, and has already loaned it out to a friend! He was really impressed with how important the father is for girls’ success in life on every level from emotional stability to academic success to being able to pick a good husband.

Since we were blessed to attend classes by Dr. John Cuddeback during college, we have a particular fondness for True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. Cuddeback draws on Aristotelian philosophy to explain what true friendship looks like and what its purpose is.

My husband has a fondness for Venerable Fulton Sheen’s work, whether in audio or book form. We own Life is Worth Living, which is a collection of scripts from Sheen’s extremely popular television show of the same title. Each chapter is short, but thought-provoking.

Dale Ahlquist takes G. K. Chesterton’s prodigious genius and simplifies it to a level that mere mortals can understand at the end of a fourteen hour work day. All Roads: Roamin’ Catholic Apologetics is a series of very short (three page usually) chapters which clarify Chesterton’s unique wisdom and insight on a wide variety of topics.

The Way, Furrow, The Forge are three spiritual classics by Josemaria Escriva which my husband enjoys for its concise yet compelling one liners about following Jesus.

Good books about Emotions for little Catholic kids

I know I am not the only mom God has blessed with very strong willed and passionate children! Helping my little ones learn to understand and control their strong feelings is a daily challenge. One of the most successful techniques I have found is reading them books to familiarize them with the different emotions, normalize their strong feelings, and teach techniques for dealing with emotions. Here are some of our favorite books about emotions and feelings.

What Do You Do With a Grumpy Kangaroo? is one of our favorite first books about feelings. Grumpy kangaroo feels a range of emotions from anger to fear to sadness to happiness throughout his day.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear is not specifically about emotions, but it is easy to pick up the wide range of emotions the mouse feels throughout the story and point out his expressions.

Jilly’s Terrible Temper Tantrums: And How She Outgrew Them is the perfect book for the young child who struggles with terrible temper tantrums. I love how Jilly’s parents exhibit patience and calm throughout the story!

When I Feel Scared, When I Feel Sad , and When I Feel Angry are a series of books written specifically to help young children identify the emotions they feel and deal with these emotions in healthy ways. These books contain a section at the back with teaching tips, questions to discuss with your child, and further ideas for handling emotions.

Can God See Me in the Dark? takes a Catholic look at a mild fear of the dark by addressing whether God is still watching over children in the dark. We love this series by Neal Lozano!

One Busy Day is not overtly about emotions, but it does offer a good lesson about different situations where different feelings are appropriate to act on. Active, crazy Spencer takes his energy and wild feelings outside so that he can be calm when his new little sister is around.

The Treasure Tree: Helping Kids Understand Their Personality is a wonderful story about four animal friends with very different personalities who use their strengths to together complete a treasure hunt. Great for showing children that their strong willed personality may have different strengths and weaknesses than their friends’ temperaments, but that all sorts of personalities are important.

Not a book, but I’ve had good success playing Q’s Race to the Top Educational Board Game as an extension of reading about emotions and feelings. This game helps children practice skills to deal with emotions and empathize with others.

Review of “The Hunger Games”

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Colllins was a smashing success, inspiring a plethora of dystopian young adult novels, none of which are remotely as gripping in my opinion. For Hunger Games is undeniably a well-told story with captivating characters. Collins uses the first person present tense: an unusual choice, but unexpectedly successful in drawing in the reader and providing a memorable voice for the heroine, Katniss.

To fill you in on the plot, Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who is chosen as a “tribute” or contestant in a mandatory “game” (fight to the death) between 16 children imposed as a punishment on the 12 districts of post-nuclear war Panem by its authoritarian government, the Capitol. The first book focuses on the two tributes from District 12, Katniss and Peeta’s, preparations, the game, and its aftermath. Book Two, Catching Fire, brings Katniss and Peeta back for another round of the games, and introduces a new plot line about Rebels working to overthrow the Capitol. Book Three, Mockingjay, describes Katniss’  uneasy alliance with the rebels, ostensibly to overthrow the Capitol, but in reality to get revenge on those she holds responsible for destroying her life.

There are a good number of problems with these books on a philosophical and moral level, some serious, so this is a series which it is important to discuss with your teenagers and encourage them to read with analytical attention. A first theme to have them watch for is the attitude towards religion. Or rather, the lack of any attitude towards religion. In fact, make that no mention of religion or God at all. For Panem apparently came to exist in a vacuum in which no one even thinks of a creator or supreme being, even to curse him. This complete and intentional refusal to even allow the characters to mention any religious sensibility is a glaring moral problem with the series, but honestly I also think one can see a theme here that a world that has no religion and no recognition of God is a harsh, barbaric world. Little wonder that one ends up with the horror of the Hunger Games when mankind is making up its own morality based on no objective moral standards. The real wonder is that Katniss, Peeta, and others actually do show loyalty, kindness, and compassion. In my opinion, despite an obvious attempt to remove God from the picture, Collins’ portrayal of good and bad characters and default to natural law morality still reflects the reality of God.

Another problematic theme in this series is revenge. Katniss cares deeply about friends and family, and spends much of the later books motivated by her desire for revenge on those who harmed her loved ones. Collins sometimes even portrays her desire for revenge as a somewhat laudable motivation. The question for Collins is not whether revenge is the answer, but who is ultimately responsible for the pain and suffering and deserving of death. Not should one take revenge, but upon whom should one wreak vengeance? Katniss, deeply damaged by her experiences, declares she wants the Hunger Games played out again by the Capitol children as a punishment. Readers need to realize that her desire for vengeance is disordered, again pointing back to the problems with removing God and eternity from the worldview. A fitting companion book to read is The Count of Monte Cristo, which has a powerful theme about revenge not ultimately bringing fulfillment or happiness.

Unsurprisingly given the lack of any belief in God or afterlife, suicide receives a troubling treatment in the Hunger Games. In the climatic final scene of the Hunger Games in the first book, Katniss and Peeta defy the Capitol by threatening to kill themselves rather than kill each other. This solution is cleverly designed by the author to portray suicide as a noble course of action in certain circumstances. Of course, as Catholics we know that suicide is never acceptable, and a discerning reader can point out that there were other options for Katniss and Peeta. For instance, they could have simply refused to fight at all and let themselves be killed by the mutant dogs that had been attacking them. Defying the Capitol did not need to involve a suicide threat.

One final negative influence I will point out is the theme that adults are incapable or unreliable. Almost without exception, the adults in the story disappoint Katniss and thrust her into taking an adult role herself. Her mother suffers from severe depression and her father is dead, so she is the head of her family from the age of 12. Her mentor for the games is a drunkard. The authority figures in the Capitol are the sick individuals who ordered the Games. The head of the Rebels proves to be as heartless and scheming as the Capitol rulers. Collins places Katniss into a world where every adult fails her, forcing her into the role of heroine and Rebel figurehead as a sixteen year old. The real wonder is that Katniss seems to understand intuitively how to be a leader given her complete dearth of positive role models.

Now while I clearly do not wholeheartedly embrace the Hunger Games as a moral tale, I do think there are some worthwhile positive themes that cancel the negative and make this series acceptable reading material. A first positive moral in this series is the theme that violence is bad. There is an odd dichotomy between the amount of violence described in the series, and the theme that violence is wrong: that violence is never the answer. In the first book, Katniss finds herself forced into scenarios where she must kill or be killed, but what sets her apart from most other players in the Games is her attitude that the violence and killing is wrong. Katniss sees killing human beings as horrible, and through her perspective so does the reader. This positive message about violence does become murkier as the series progresses, with the third book particularly devolving towards more gratuitously described violence and a damaged Katniss starting to become numb. I do think that Collins’ conclusion of the series with Katniss portrayed as a troubled, haunted woman who cannot move past the violence and trauma she has witnessed and endured is accurate and an important point to emphasize.

The overarching redeeming theme in the Hunger Games series is the positive message that human beings are persons to be valued, not objects to be used. Katniss’ charisma comes from her ability to see the people she meets as human, her compassion for them, her humanization of  those she meets. The moments that everyone in the entire country loves her, such as her flower burial of a murdered 12 year old in the arena, are the moments when she combats dehumanization and makes everyone see the dignity of each person. Similarly, Peeta, the “good” character, is first seen as such for his kindness to Katniss and other people, even trying ones. His goodness is that he treats Katniss as a person from childhood onward. In contrast, the other character in the love triangle, Katniss’ friend Gale, loses her to Peeta because she cannot bear that he begins to treat people like animals. Likewise, the evil Capitol devalues human life, sentencing children to a sick game of slaughtering one another. The goodness or badness of persons and entities in the Hunger Games series is closely tied to their recognition or dehumanization of human persons.

Another theme that makes Hunger Games beautiful and memorable is that even in a brutal, dehumanizing totalitarian regime, people find the courage to help one another, treat each other as human beings, and resist, even if only by their silence. Several poignant scenes involve a protest where an entire District refuses to cheer, or offers a silent salute to Katniss’ human dignity-affirming actions. The message that evil flourishes when good people do nothing is strongly affirmed. All that it takes to begin to overthrow the Capitol’s power is a couple teenagers who refuse to kill one another. Their small resistance leads to silent protests, then to full out revolution.

The Hunger Games Trilogy teeters on the brink between truly worthwhile literature and sensational young adult fiction. The three books in the series vary greatly in coherency, theme, and merit. The first book, The Hunger Games, is the best in my opinion, and certainly worthy of having a high schooler read and discuss or write a paper on. Yes, there are some moral problems with the series, but with a little guidance, high schoolers can recognize the bad, take away the good themes, and enjoy a creative story.

Ideas for discussion questions or book report topics:
1. Does the author intentionally never mention God or religion? Is that a realistic picture of human nature: are people religious by nature? Despite attempting to remove God from the picture, does the author still acknowledge the natural law by creating good and bad characters? Does the author’s Godless world seem to need God?
2.Apply three of Peter Kreeft’s arguments for God’s existence to the world of Panem.
3. Are there any positive adult role models in Katniss’ life? Why would the author create a book where all the adults are deeply flawed? Does this play on a common teenagers’ assumption that they are wiser than adults?
4. Is violence portrayed as negative or positive? Killing? How well does Katniss recover from her ordeal? Peeta?
5. What are the moments Katniss most touches the world of Panem? Why do her compassionate, personhood-affirming actions resonate so strongly? Is it in contrast to the view of human dignity the Capitol takes?
6. How do people resist the Capitol regime? What does Catniss do (give examples) that is a catalyst for people waking up and refusing to allow the brutality of the Hunger Games any longer?

Good Books for Catholic Young Adults (18 and older)

My recommendations for Catholic adults include the books on my list for Catholic high schoolers, but also these additional titles which may contain content more appropriate for adult readers. I hope these books inspire, refresh, and satisfy your thirst for the good and true and beautiful.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Norwegian Catholic author Sigrid Undset is a beautifully-written trilogy about sin and its far-reaching consequences as seen in the life of a Norwegian woman from girlhood to death.

Undset’s other famous trilogy, The Master of Hestviken, is less recognized in America, but she considered it her greatest work, and I agree that I found it even more powerful than Kristin Lavransdatter.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating mix of an apologia for Catholicism and a recognition of the imperfection of individual Catholics. In addition to his overarching theme of Catholic redemption, Waugh describes the decay of the English aristocracy around the time of World War II. This masterfully written classic is one of my very favorite books to savor.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is not fiction at all, but rather his autobiographical tale of true love, found first in his wife, then ultimately in God. This beautifully written and moving book details Vanauken’s love affair with his wife, conversion to Christianity with the assistance of C. S. Lewis, and strengthening of faith through the devastating loss of his wife.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece both on philosophical and literary levels. My favorite Russian novel, this book deals with deep themes such as redemption through suffering, true happiness, and ends justifying means.

Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel achieves the considerable feat of captivating the reader for a whopping 587 pages. Lengthy, yes, but still surprisingly readable, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a futuristic story of a voyage from earth to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. The quirky, wise elderly narrator, Neal, is juxtaposed to the controlling, totalitarian government most obey blindly. O’Brien has created both an enjoyable science fiction novel and a philosophical look at human nature.

G. K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas are a wonderful balance of carefully researched history, theological and philosophical insights, and Chesterton’s signature poetic imagination. These biographies are memorable and well-worth reading.

For sheer hilarity and perfect use of the English language, I consider P. G. Wodehouse invincible. His Blandings Castle series will have you laughing until you cry with its cast of idiosyncratic English aristocrats, servants, and imposters.

In stark contrast to Wodehouse’s levity, Flannery O’Connor‘s The Complete Stories are quite dark on the surface, often dealing with tragedy and ugly sin. But each story contains a lesson about human nature and motivations and insight into O’Connor’s Catholic vision which the discerning reader may discover.

Agatha Christie is the queen of the golden age of mysteries. Her plots are clever and thought provoking in more ways than one. Her most famous books, such as Murder on the Orient Express, feature eccentric Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Christie’s Miss Marple stories illustrate that crimes whether large or small can often be solved by a knowledge of basic human nature. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, Christie’s mysteries satisfy the human desire for justice, though her solutions strike a discordant note with a correctly informed Catholic view of morality. At times, she advocates solutions such as allowing a criminal to kill himself as a merciful solution.

Although Christie is the queen of mysteries, I personally prefer Dorothy Sayers, who is considered by many a close second in the lineup of golden age mystery writers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series feature aristocrat sleuth Lord Peter whose lazy manner masks a sharp intelligence. I am partial to Sayers’ books because in addition to producing a fine mystery, she also writes from a broad liberal arts platform, rife with references to other great literature and philosophical insights.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written for its picture of human nature with all its complexities and faults. This is a lengthy read, but fast moving enough to keep the reader’s interest.

Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt is a gripping historical fiction novel detailing the story of a Catholic priest secretly but faithfully performing his ministry to the persecuted English Church. An inspiring story of faith and love of Christ under trying circumstances.

Bleeder: A Miracle? Or Bloody Murder? by John Desjarlais is a well-plotted mystery in which a Classics professor finds himself playing detective to clear himself of a murder charge.

Tobit’s Dog: A Novel by Michael N. Richard is a creative retelling of the Old Testament book of Tobit, set in the deep south. I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-moving novel.

Review of “A Game of Thrones”

A Game of Thrones is one of the most popular series on TV right now, but my review is more specifically about the books by George R. R. Martin on which the series is based.

A Game of Thrones is by genre a fantasy series, though I might consider it more apt to classify it as a porn drama. Yes, I confess to thoroughly disapproving of A Game of Thrones. Yes, there are moments of surprising heroism by the few characters the reader can root for, notably the dwarf Tyrion and the young princess Arya. Yes, there is excitement and adventure and fast-paced action. But overall, there are so many negatives that I can not recommend these books for a child of any age, or even for adults. I’ll bring you up to speed on the plot briefly, then jump right into the reasons to say “NO” when your teenager asks to read (or watch) this series.

The plot is epic in sweep and far too complicated to break down here in detail, but in broad brushstrokes, you are dealing with a fantasy country called Westeros, where several noble families vie for the “Iron Throne” of the country. The Baratheons, the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Targaryens all think they have a claim to the throne, and the series is a convoluted knot of plots, intrigues, treachery, betrayal, and love triangle, all recounted from a constantly shifting third person viewpoint of various family members. However, the real evil is to north over “The Wall,” where snow zombies walk and the Winter King prepares to invade. A final plot arc involves the young Targaryen claimant’s journey across the sea to raise an army and bring dragons back to conquer Westeros.

Now, a first reason to avoid this series is the deplorable language. Crass, lewd, sexually graphic language is the norm for many of the male characters. The repetition of this sort of language over the course of book after book in the series creates a refrain that you will not want your teenagers having drummed into their brains.

Another reason to avoid the series is the violence. Of course, the “bad”
characters are cruel and sadistic. But even the “good” characters choose inordinately violent actions as the series progresses. For example, one of the teenage girls chooses to feed her husband to his dogs in revenge for his abuse. Another teenage girl has her brother killed by pouring molten gold on his head. It’s not just some characters occasionally using violence. The entire series is primarily about either violence or sex.

And here we come to one of the biggest problems with A Game of Thrones. The series is absolutely saturated with sex. We’re not even talking simple, old fashioned romantic sex. One of the primary “love” arcs is the incestuous relationship between twins Jamie and Cersei Lannister. Princess Daenerys Targaryen first grows to like a rather abusive husband, then after his death engages in a sexual relationship with one of her maids. And of course, there is rape. All described graphically. This series is a form of soft porn, completely inappropriate for any Catholic to read.

Moving onto more subtle concerns, let’s look at the messages Martin sends about religion, God, and human nature in his books. There are several different religious sects and “gods” in A Game of Thrones, but despite their plurality Martin does not seem to ascribe any real weight or truth to any religion. The only cult that seems to have real power are the worshipers of the “Lord of Light.” The “Lord of Light” is some sort of powerful “god” who demands human sacrifice and whose priestess births “dark shadows.” Does anyone else sniff a demonic element here? I find Martin’s choice of the title “Lord of Light” particularly disturbing, given its obvious parallel to Christianity and Jesus.

In addition to no significant religion, in A Game of Thrones there is no objective morality, no meaningful moral code, in a sense no natural law written on his characters’ hearts. Despite some hints at certain characters, notably Tyrion, Arya, and Daenerys, sometimes attempting to follow some sort of vague honor code, overall no one seems to know how to act like a decent human being with any consistency. When it is convenient, characters adhere to family loyalty, but generally their actions are motivated by their desires: avarice, lust, but most of all power-hunger. Every. single. character. seems to be blundering in the dark morally speaking, and you find yourself questioning each chapter: when will the good guy show up?

In essence, A Game of Thrones has an alarming lack of just plain good characters. In fact, this is part of the series’ success: it’s “fresh” way of turning typical fantasy conventions upside down by doing away with knights in shining armor, pure maidens, and good conquering evil. As enticing as something new is, I see no good coming for us Catholics in filling our imaginations with a fantasy world where there is no Supreme Being, no heaven to strive for, and only earthly pleasures to console one. Skip A Game of Thrones. Your soul will thank you.

Good Books for Catholic High Schoolers Part 2 (Age 16 and up)

Here is the second part of my list of worthwhile fiction for Catholic High Schoolers. (Check out Part 1 here). I recommend these books for young adults sixteen and older either because of a more challenging theme or more mature content such as graphic violence,  situations involving fornication or adultery, or language. I will specify why each book requires a more mature reader to better assist you as the parent in determining what is appropriate for your teenager.

The three Bronte sisters each wrote a classic. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is the fascinating story of a young woman’s moral and spiritual growth to adulthood through the tumultuous love affair she engages in with her pupil’s guardian. Mature content includes an adulterous affair, sensuality, and mature themes.

Emily Bronte’s single published book is Wuthering Heights, a book showing both a deep moral sensibility in its author and a shocking immorality in its characters. Themes about the havoc sin wreaks on the perpetrators and even an entire community are twined with a story about forbidden love and vengeance.

Ann Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is yet another book that is attempting to uphold morality by showing the consequences of sin in sharp, ugly detail. Alcohol use, illicit affairs, and adultery make this appropriate for a more mature reader.

I recommend most of G. K. Chesterton’s fiction for an older reader simply because his soaring imaginative genius can be better grasped and appreciated the older one gets. Manalive , was my favorite Chesterton book as a teenager, inspiring me to live each day with passion and purpose, rejoicing in being alive. On a more basic level, this is also one of Chesterton’s funniest works.

The Flying Inn: A Novel is another simply hilarious work about a band of madcap rebels resisting prohibition and arrest in a merry journey across England.

Chesterton takes on atheism in The Ball and the Cross. A passionate Christian and equally passionate atheist desire to duel over their differences, but find themselves unlikely allies when the government refuses to allow them to fight over their difference in belief.

The Paradoxes Of Mr Pond is a series of loosely connected mystery stories, thought-provoking and entertainingly recounted.

The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale is another collection of mystery stories, this time exploring the idea that a half mad poet may be the person best suited to understand and solve crimes committed by lunatics.

The Man Who Was Thursday is the book subtitled “A Nightmare” by Chesterton, and it is indeed a topsy-turvy, mind-bending adventure-mystery novel. Somehow Chesterton manages to combine allegorical and philosophical with fast-paced and exciting.

Wilkie Collins wrote two fascinating mystery stories, particularly notable for their use of first person narratives from a variety of characters to tell the story. The Woman in White is a romance, a mystery, and an examination of the vulnerability of English women in the nineteenth century. Mature content includes an abusive forced marriage.

Collins’ most famous book, The Moonstone, is both a captivating mystery and important from a literary perspective as one of the first modern crime novels.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a very lengthy, but worthwhile, novel treating an important theme about whether revenge brings real happiness or healing. Mature but not explicit content about an out of wedlock relationship resulting in a child, murders, and the main character having a mistress.

George Eliot’s most famous work is probably Middlemarch, but I personally enjoyed Daniel Deronda very much. Although long, this book explores many worthy themes about the importance of family, the Jewish people’s place in history, friendship, and true love being willing the best for the other person. Mature content includes illegitimate children, adultery, and domestic abuse.

C. S. Forester’s Hornblower Saga is a long series of books chronicling the adventures of a British naval officer beginning with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, set in 1793 during the Napoleonic wars, and following him to promotions, wars, and self-growth.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and North and South are two enjoyable and thought-provoking books, each in their own way. Wives and Daughters centers around the family, exploring personal relationships and human nature through a comedic lens. North and South, though also revolving around a romantic plot, takes on larger themes about capitalism and humanism.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work The Scarlet Letter is a compelling study of sin and its consequences. For a mature reader due to a plot revolving around adultery and an illegitimate child.

A familiarity with Homer is necessary in a well-read individual, so certainly have your teenager read The Iliad and The Odyssey.

I have two more C. S. Lewis titles to add to my recommended list. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is the story of Cupid and Psyche retold by Psyche’s plain sister. This is a masterful explanation of human emotions and motivations, and Lewis called it his best book.

The Great Divorce is an amazing allegory about heaven and hell, perfect scope for Lewis’ trademark clear distinctions and concise philosophical explanations. He raises questions such as are the gates of hell locked from the outside or inside?

The Betrothed: I Promessi Sposi , by Allesandro Manzoni, is a powerful story about the power of love and loyalty, as shown by a young couple who though separated for much of the lengthy book never swerve from their devotion to one another. A mature reader due to length.

Taylor Marshall has created a unique book that combines ancient legends about early saints with history and fantasy in Sword and Serpent. I found this book a very enjoyable look at the early church and how famous legends about Saints Blaise, Christopher, Nicholas, and George may have begun. A mature reader due to some sexual references and a truly disturbing look at evil.

Michael O’Brien is a modern day Catholic author of considerable talent. His Children of the Last Days Series begins with Strangers and Sojourners and continues with Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, Eclipse of the Sun , Plague Journal , Sophia House, A Cry of Stone, and Elijah in Jerusalem. These books are semi-apocalyptic in nature, and contain strong dramatic themes and occasional sexual references, though in a tasteful way. They are deeply Catholic, and should inspire Catholic teenagers and adults to face evil head on, knowing that Christ has already conquered.

Margaret O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka series is one of those books far too often considered a children’s book, when in fact it is more appropriate for older teenagers or adults. The classic story of daydreamer Ken’s coming of age through his love of a horse is beautifully written and utterly memorable. The sequel, Thunderhead, is also excellent. I recommend these books for an older reader due to the sexual content between the parents.

George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous books of the modern age, a real modern classic. This dystopian novel is both prophetic and disturbing in its vision of an increasingly totalitarian government which attempts to control every facet of life and brooks no individuality. 1984 is a powerful message not to hand all authority over to and place all trust in a centralized government. Sexual content and violence make me recommend for older readers.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a look at life for the natives of South Africa under white rule. Beautiful prose, almost poetic in nature, combines with an ugly story of desperation and desolation in an unlikely harmony of that makes this book a classic. Older readers due to violence and despair.

Quo Vadis by H. Sienkiewicz is an enduringly timely story set against the backdrop of Nero’s persecution of the early Church. A young patrician, Marcus, follows a circuitous path to converting to Christianity. Sienkiewicz provides not only a moving portrayal of early Christianity, but also an enlightening look at Nero’s court and ancient Rome. More appropriate for older readers due to sensuality and violence.

The Jeweler’s Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony Passing on Occasion Into a Drama is a play by Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. A beautiful reflection on matrimony through the lens of three different couples’ experiences.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels leaves the reader familiar with the main characters and action of the Battle of Gettysburg. An entire novel set during the four days of the battle, this book delves deeply into the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the players in this decisive battle. For more mature readers due to violence.