Review of the “Divergent” Series


By request, I conclude my series of reviews of popular teen dystopian series with my thoughts on Divergent. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is one of the most popular in this genre, probably second only to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”.  Like Hunger GamesDivergent features a strong female protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who tells the story in the first person present. And like Hunger GamesDivergent raises questions about societal norms, fascism, and what a good person is to do when confronted with an unjust government. Like Hunger Games, there are certainly positive messages to take away from reading the series, but the question is: do the positives outweigh the violence and negative messages?

THE OVERALL STORYLINE

Divergent, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to a dystopian Chicago which is divided into five factions, each of whom is obsessively fixated on one virtue. Abnegation values self denial, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values bravery, Erudite values knowledge, and Amity values kindness. Usually a person has an aptitude for one faction, but a few special Divergents have aptitudes for multiple factions. At 16, a teenager has one choice to decide which faction to join, and Beatrice “Tris” Prior chooses Dauntless. Divergent follows Tris through the initiation process, then stars her and her boyfriend Tobias “Four” stopping an attempt by the Erudite to seize control of the city.

Book two, Insurgent, describes Tris’ attempts to figure out what is beyond the fence which encloses Chicago. With the help of a few unlikely allies, she reveals hidden Erudite footage about the origin and mission of the city: to produce a primarily divergent population which can help the outside world.

The final book, Allegiant, reveals Tris, Four, and others leaving Chicago and entering the outside world. There, they learn that Chicago is actually an experiment by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare to determine if living in factions can help return damaged DNA to its original “pure” form. The series concludes with Tris sacrificing her life to wipe the memory of the scientists at the Bureau so that the genetically damaged will be regarded as equal human beings thenceforth.

Overall, it’s an exciting, fast-paced series with a compelling, charismatic first-person narration style. Its popularity is easily understood. But beneath the swift-moving story line there are a host of issues which parents may find concerning.

VIOLENCE

Hunger Games took a lot of bad press for violence, but honestly I found Divergent much more consistently violent. Teenagers intentionally harm other teenagers, such as one occasion where a sixteen year old sticks a butter knife into a rival’s eyes. There is an inordinate amount of hazing in the first book, both instructor on student and student to student. There are massacres, and there are executions which involve shooting the wrongdoer in the head. There is a scene where a group of students attempt to sexually molest and then murder Tris.

Even more alarming to me is the amount of violence Tris herself commits willingly. At least in Hunger Games Katniss mostly committed violence under duress. Tris chooses Dauntless as her faction because she craves the danger and adrenaline rushes, but quickly decides that if it takes hurting others to excel, she’s willing to fight her way to the top. She scorns her classmate who refuses to beat others senseless to improve his rankings. In contrast, Tris herself  continues kicking a girl who has bullied her long after she’s beaten, and then says she doesn’t feel guilty at all. Tris also repeatedly has to shoot her family in the head to escape her fear landscape, a visual I had a hard time shaking.

SEX SCENES

Divergent is simply awful when it comes to setting an example of a chaste relationship to teens. The protagonists, Tris and Four, are forever ending up making out in bed together, sometimes scantily clothed. There are no explicit sex scenes, but a lot of talk about wanting to have sex, descriptions of taking off clothes, hands under clothes, and sleeping together. There is also a disturbing theme about using each other and kissing or sex to forget problems temporarily and avoid addressing relationship issues. Tris is forever saying things like, “I press my mouth to his, because I know that kissing him will distract me from everything.” Are these messages about what is appropriate between teenagers and using one another what we want to teach our teenagers?

TATTOOS

Having tattoos is apparently an integral part of the Dauntless identity, which is obviously lauded since Tris and Four choose it. Parents should realize that in Divergent, tattoos are normalized as a legitimate way of immortalizing a memory. Tris gets several to mark important events and persons in her life. There is also an interesting motif about enjoying the pain involved in getting a tattoo. For example, Four describes getting his first tattoo: “It was agonizing. I relished every second of it.”

DRUGS

The drugs in Divergent are a series of serums which achieve different results: memory erasing serums, peace serums, death serums, fear-inducing serums, and so on. The way these drugs are used is mostly by injection, and some characters use them in ways alarmingly similar to real life drug use. The Dauntless use a fear-inducing serum to cause a hallucination of one’s worst fears: a fear landscape. Four obsessively injects himself and goes through his fear landscape, and even injects Tris so she can “journey” with him. The Amity inject a peace inducing serum to send troublemakers into hippy happiness again. The Amity also bake this peace drug into their bread so that their entire community “feels peaceful” constantly. I find all this drug use normalization concerning in a novel aimed at teens.

HOMOSEXUALITY

Another normalizing attempt in the series is a couple of completely unnecessary plugs for homosexual relationships. One of Tris and Four’s friends, Lynn, confesses on her death bed to “really loving” her friend Marlene. Another minor character, a grown man named Amar, confesses to having had a crush on Four when he was a minor. However, he is described as being over that and now being in a relationship with another minor character, George. There are repeated descriptions of Amar and George hugging and sharing affection.

LIAR, LIAR…

Another extremely disquieting theme in Divergent is that lying is not a big deal. From the beginning, Tris declare she could never belong in Candor because she lies easily and often. She does not seem to see this as a negative at all. She describes herself at one point: “I don’t know when I became so good at acting, but I guess it’s not that different from lying which I have always had a talent for.” Tris also lies to Four repeatedly, even premeditated lies. For example, in an emotional scene in Insurgent Four begs her not to sacrifice her life by going to Erudite headquarters. She knows she is going to go anyway, but looks him in the eyes and promises not to go, then thinks: “This lie- this lie is the worst I have ever told. I will not be able to take it back.” Additionally, many of Tris and Four’s plans are contingent on lying convincingly. Tris can even resist the “truth serum” and gets herself out of trouble multiple times by lying while under its influence.

ENDS JUSTIFYING MEANS

The reason Tris and Four lie frequently is that they believe the ends justifies the means. Divergent gives lip service to the belief that ends do not justify means insofar as Tris states that it is wrong to sacrifice the lives of human beings for the purpose of genetic cleansing. But in practice, Tris and Four often lie and even kill to achieve their goals. Four explains at one point in Allegiant that for his father, his mother, and sometimes himself, “the end of a thing justifies the means of getting there.” For Tris, it doesn’t even have to be a noble means. She will lie to save herself embarrassment or inconvenience.

RELIGION

Unlike Hunger Games, where God and religion are absolutely ignored, Divergent flirts with the idea of God and religion having some meaning, at least for some people. Praying and talking about God and heaven is something only the Abnegation do in Divergent. I consider this relegation of God and prayer to being a belief specific to a particular Faction an extremely subtle way of dismissing religion.

Tris herself has little to say on the subject of religion. She is basically an agnostic, treating all things religious with ambivalence. She is generally uncertain about the existence of any afterlife. But when faced with imminent death in Insurgent, she states that she does not believe that anything she does or doesn’t do will make an impact on her eternal future, if there is one. “I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all.”

PHILOSOPHY OF VIRTUE

At first, I was excited that Divergent was raising questions about what it means to have various virtues. But by the end of the series, I realized that the conclusions Roth leaves the reader with regarding specific virtues and how virtues relate to one another are quite problematic.

I believe one fundamental issue in Divergent is a lack of understanding of what a virtue actually is. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to act rightly, and as a mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency. This simple yet powerful definition is what Roth was clearly lacking when she wrote the Divergent series. She often describes an excess as the virtue. For example, the Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, which Roth describes at times as a complete unwillingness to ever accept help. Unwillingness to accept help is a form of pride, not a virtue. Similarly, she describes the Dauntless bravery in terms of recklessness or rashness, which are actually vices directly opposed to the virtue of courage. These muddied examples of virtue are concerning in a teen novel since many teens are not going to have the ethics background to recognize the false understanding of virtue shown in Divergent.

Another part of Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is that the virtues do not exist in isolation; they are facets of a virtuous person. Divergent definitely treats the virtues as separate goals to pursue, and even vacillates on the question of whether different virtues are actually opposed to each other. Four is more correct than Tris when it comes to this question, telling her in the first book that “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” But Tris disagrees, saying: “It doesn’t work that way. One bad thing goes away, and another bad thing replaces it. I traded cowardice for cruelty.” She honestly believes that one person cannot have two virtues.

I hoped that by the end of the series, Tris and Four would espouse a more accurate understanding of virtue, but the last book, Allegiant, leaves the reader with the message, “Every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling.” I do not accuse Roth of intentionally confusing teenagers about the nature of virtue, but I think she lacks a coherent, correct understanding of virtue. Unfortunately, this translates into potentially dangerous misconceptions about virtue in impressionable readers.

THE CONCLUSION

Considering the sexual content, violence, lies, agendas, and shaky philosophy, I advise not having your teenagers read Divergent. In case you’re still unsure, let’s talk about the ending of the series.

Spoiler here, but Tris dies near the end of Allegiant, so the trilogy ends with a devastated Four receiving life advice from Tris’ best friend Christina. The important take away for teenagers here from the surviving main characters? “Sometimes life really sucks. But you know what I’m holding on for? … The moments that don’t suck. The trick is to notice them when they come around.”

Okay, I will admit there is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. But honestly, I found it sort of depressing. The best we can do is hold out for the moments in life that don’t suck? Really?

How about seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful? How about living with passion and purpose? How about seeking all the virtues and becoming the best version of yourself? How about striving to see each moment as a gift, each suffering as a kiss, each joy as a taste of heaven?

 

 

Review of “The Princess Bride”


Growing up, I watched The Princess Bride at least a dozen times and knew half the lines by heart. It really is a hilarious movie, so I was excited all these years later to read the book that inspired it: The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman. Because the book is always better than the movie, right?

If you haven’t seen the movie, it is in essence a spoof on fairy tale adventures. Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, is being forced to marry a wicked prince. But she is rescued by her her lover Wesley, a Sicilian bent on revenge, and a giant. There are swashbuckling sword fights, miraculous rescues, wicked villains who are satisfactorily punished, and a hilarious commentary from the narrator. The book also has these elements. In fact, the movie contains all the best parts of the book and leaves out the muck.

And there is so much muck in this book. Before you get to the adventure proper, you must wade through 32 pages of Goldman describing, first, making a pass at a bikini-clad Hollywood starlet (note that Goldman is married). Second, lying repeatedly to his wife. Third, complaining about how his wife doesn’t understand him. Fourth, describing how he knows all the above is wrong, but doing it anyway.

By the end of these 32 pages I was so angry I almost destroyed the library book. After cooling down, I continued to the story proper. The book version of The Princess Bride opens with an account of the most beautiful woman in the world, a maid who is having an adulterous affair with a duke. The duke’s shrewish wife ruins the maid’s beauty by plying her with chocolates. I’m not a psychologist, but by this point I was convinced that Goldman had a very dysfunctional marriage. I later found out that he and his wife, who was actually a psychologist, divorced after the book was published.

It’s rather sad, really, to realize how Goldman views marriage. There isn’t a happy relationship in the book. Buttercup’s parents are described as having an unhappy marriage: “All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.” Buttercup and Wesley do not even have a particularly inspiring relationship. Buttercup is rude, slovenly, and quite dull-witted when Wesley falls in love with her. Basically, he loves her because she’s beautiful. And once he rescues her, they soon fall to bickering and belittling one another.

Now there is still some decent comedy in the story. As I said, the movie combines all the best parts of the book with a wise cutting out of the love-doesn’t-exist theme. But a little comedy does not make this book worthwhile reading, so do not waste your time or give it to your teenagers. While disappointing, I will give The Princess Bride credit for being life changing for me in one way. I am never again going to be able to say “the book is always better than the movie.”

Good Books about Princesses for Catholic Girls of All Ages

Did you know many Catholic saints were princesses? Sadly, in recent years, the word “princess” has become synonymous with a spoiled or arrogant girl. But for centuries, the word “princess” connoted a young lady who exhibits beauty both interior and exterior, grace, kindness, wisdom, and self-control. I am a proponent of resurrecting the image of the virtuous princess as a positive role model for our daughters. Because what little girl doesn’t instinctively admire a princess? So let’s read them stories about the type of princess we want them to emulate. Here are some great stories about real princesses for girls of all ages.

PICTURE BOOKS


St. Elizabeth of Hungary is a Catholic saint and queen who truly exhibited charity through her great love of the poor. Roses in the Snow is a beautiful picture book about this beautiful soul.

 

 

 

 


Little Gold Star: A Spanish American Cinderella Tale is a creative Spanish American version of Cinderella which features Mary as the “godmother” who helps the young girl.

 

 

 

 


The Princess and the Kiss is a wonderful story about cherishing the gift of purity. I love how the king and queen in the story guide their princess to develop virtues! Also check out the sequel, The Three Gifts of Christmas, which describes how the princess is cured of her selfishness.

 

 

FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLERS


I was thrilled to discover the Twin Princess series at our local library recently. These sweet little easy readers offer great lessons for little girls. In The Princess Twins and the Tea Party, Princess Abby learns a lesson in humility as her sister Princess Emma reminds her: “Only God is perfect!” And in The Princess Twins and the Puppy, Abby learns a lesson in trusting God.

 

 


The Queen and the Cats is a retelling of little known legend about St. Helena, Queen mother of Constantine and finder of the true Cross. After finding the Cross, legend has it that Helena visited Cypress and helped save their churches from the rats.

 

 

 

 


Once upon a Time Saints offers the stories of some lesser known saints who also happened to be princesses such as Alice, who trusted God and married two different kings. And Elizabeth of Portugal who was a great peacemaker and patron of the poor.

 

 

 


M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess was a favorite princess story of mine as a girl. Princess Amy’s godmother bestows on her the gift of being ordinary. At first this seems like an impossible gift to burden a princess with, but eventually Amy finds a prince who likes her exactly as she is- especially her ordinariness.

 

 

 

FOR TWEENS TO TEENS


The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie are two classics from master storyteller George MacDonald. Princess Irene explores labyrinths with a magic ring, avoiding malicious Goblins with the help of Curdie, a simple miner boy.

 

 

 


The Light Princess is another George MacDonald story. A princess loses her gravity: both her ability to stay on the ground and her ability to be serious. She is insipid and carefree, and utterly selfish. Will even the prospect of her suitor dying rouse any compassion?

 

 

 


The Princess Guide: Faith Lessons from Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty brings together princess tales, scripture, and the Catechism of the Catholic church into simple lessons for teenage girls about the virtues and Catholic womanhood.

 

 

 

 


Catholic author Regina Doman’s series of fairy tale princess retellings are fun books with good themes for Catholic girls, if not necessarily memorable for their great prose. The Shadow of the Bear, the first book, is a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red. (Parental Warning: mention of date rape) Black as Night is a creative take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featuring friars as the dwarfs. Waking Rose is Sleeping Beauty retold, and the final book in Doman’s initial trilogy, which I would consider appropriate for about 14 and up. The Midnight Dancers is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a timeless theme about teenage rebellion, modesty, and obedience. (Parental Warning: mention of unwanted sexual advances, a torture scene, drug and alcohol use) Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyberthieves is Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, of course. Note that Doman’s latest book, Rapunzel Let Down, is meant for a much older audience.

FOR OLDER TEENS (18+)


Helena is Catholic author Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Saint Helena. This is a story of Helena’s quest for meaning, for love, for eternity. Also it an inspiring story of a woman who suffered many humiliations with great graciousness and channeled her sufferings into a search for eternal love.

 

 

 


Life of St. Margaret Queen of Scotland is a short, fascinating contemporaneous description of Saint Margaret by a bishop who knew her.

 

 

 

 


Rapunzel Let Down is Regina Doman’s latest book, intended for a much older audience than her previous novels aimed at high schoolers. This is a very dark story of temptation, sin, and selfish love, juxtaposed to forgiveness, true love, and second chances. Only for readers over 18.

Review of the “Anne of Green Gables” Series

Reading at least Anne of Green Gables, if not the entire Anne series, is basically a rite of passage for young girls in America and Canada. L. M. Montgomery’s classic series is so beautifully written and her vivid characters, particularly Anne herself, are so memorable, these books deserve to be read and re-read over the years. There is a certain sense of the transcendent and sacramental in the Anne books which is wonderful to imbue in a girl’s imagination. So the question for a Catholic parent is not “if” to give your daughter a copy of the Anne books but “when” is the most appropriate age. Too early and they may be cast away unappreciated. Too late and the first at least may be discarded as too childish. My aim in this review is to introduce you very briefly to each of the eight books about Anne and explain the most appropriate age for each to be read by your daughter.

In Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery’s most famous work, the reader is introduced to Anne with an E, the irrepressible red-headed orphan whose pluck and cheerfulness earn her the love of an entire village. This first book begins with Anne coming to Green Gables at age 11, and follows her up until about age 16. There are so many wonderful themes in this book about both self-improvement and self-acceptance, loyalty and forgiveness, hard work and true happiness. Add to this gentle humor and Montgomery’s beautiful prose, and you have one of my very favorite books. Of course every girl will be different, but I think around age 12 is the perfect age for first encountering Anne.

Anne of Avonlea recounts Anne’s adventures from ages 16-18. This book is a touching coming of age story as Anne sacrifices some of her own dreams to support her family at Green Gables. I really appreciated how Montgomery portrayed Anne as mostly disinterested in boys and dutifully accepting Marilla’s opinion that 16-18 is too young for courting. This second volume of the Anne series is also appropriate for 12 and olders.

In Anne of the Island, Anne heads off to Redmond College with several of her friends from Avonlea. I found this one to be among the most amusing of the series, humorously recounting Anne’s college escapades, early attempts at getting stories published, and horrifically memorable marriage proposals. I consider the story line about college life more appropriate for 14 and up, but there is no material that would be objectionable for a 12 year old to read.

Anne of Windy Poplars  is a collection of the letters Anne wrote to Gilbert during the three years of their engagement and separation while he attended medical school and she worked as a Principal at Summerside High School. This book is particularly delightful since Anne herself narrates her experiences far from Avonlea. With careful propriety, Montgomery “omits” those paragraphs where Anne’s pen is not too scratchy for her to write of her love for Gilbert, so these letters read as very PG, though I would personally save them for 14 and older again since I think they will be more appreciated at that age.

Starting with the fifth book, Anne’s House of Dreams, and continuing with Anne of Ingleside, the Anne books take a decided turn towards more adult conflicts and themes. While they are still tame compared to the sordidness spewed forth in many modern novels, these books simply present a realistic picture of adult life with believable concerns, cares and crosses. Anne and Gilbert suffer through the death of their first child. Anne helps a friend stay true to her difficult husband despite loving another man. The Blythes navigate their first disagreements. Anne even begins to doubt that Gilbert still loves her and worries about an old flame of his who is attempting to ensnare him. Stories along these lines were meant for a more mature audience, and I would definitely not recommend them before age 16.

In Rainbow Valley, Montgomery returns to her style in the very first Anne book, recounting the adventures of the six Blythe children and their young neighbors, the four Merediths. These stories are innocent and fun, all about helping the Merediths find the perfect stepmother and taking care of a young runaway girl named Mary Vance. Girls 12 and older will enjoy them.

Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne series. Rilla is Anne’s youngest daughter, a slightly spoiled but still sweet fifteen year old who comes of age during the different years of World War I. The book focuses on the effects of the War on the tiny village of St. Mary’s Mead, and the Blythe family particularly. Rilla’s story of a rather selfish young girl learning true courage and selflessness in a chaotic world is quite inspiring, and a great book for girls 14 and older.

One fun way to present the Anne books would be to give one book each year as a traditional birthday gift starting at about age 12. In this case, I would recommend giving the first four books in order, then skipping to give books 7 and 8, then ending with books 5 and 6 since they have the most mature themes. You could even continue the tradition by gifting further Montgomery books about the Blythes such as Chronicles of Avonlea and The Road to Yesterday. I hope your daughters come to love Anne and the village of Avonlea as much as I do.

Review of “Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy”


I recently had the delectation of inhaling Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden. I really could not put this book down after the first chapter. Although Godden’s style is discursive, almost rambling, this book gripped me from the start. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy  switches back and forth between a peaceful, pastoral description of convent life and the dramatic, vicious ambiance of a Paris brothel. I hazard a guess that Godden intentionally chose these incongruous settings, for Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy  is in essence a book of contrasts: the depths of evil versus the height of heroic virtue, the healing power of love versus the destructive force of hate, freedom versus bondage.

This is the story of Lise, known by many names: Elizabeth Fanshawe, a middle-class English orphan; Lise Ambard, the prostitute; La Balafree, the youngest brothel manager in Paris; and Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire. This is Lise’s story of conversion and redemption, but also the story of the many people whose lives she touches in her journey, their lives intertwined to form a chain, not unlike a rosary. Lise, a recipient of God’s mercy, becomes an instrument of God’s mercy to so many others.

There are so many wonderful themes woven into Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy . Forgiveness, for one. Lise is a modern Magdalen figure, one who sinned so greatly yet grasped at the promise of God’s mercy with childlike trust. As I read, a line from the Our Father echoed over and over in my memory: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Lise, although a sinner, has been sinned against even more grievously. Yet she is a perfect exemplification of the Our Father forgiveness, not only pardoning but loving those who have most deeply wronged her.

Another theme is freedom. Modern wisdom might maintain Lise was most free as a young girl in Paris, choosing to flaunt tradition and move in with her lover. Yet following her own desires brings her no lasting happiness or satisfaction. Then she begins to find true freedom in a prison, where she meets the Sisters of Bethaine and hears a call to true freedom. And in the convent, where her life is regulated and regimented, and she voluntarily gives her life to God, she finds the greatest freedom: contemplation of God.

Rumer Godden tastefully handled the adult content which is an unavoidable part of the plot of this story, but Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is still not for the naive or easily scandalized. If you are considering letting your teenager read this, be aware that there are descriptions of brothel life, implied fornication and adultery, characters who are prostitutes or former prostitutes, incest, child molestation, and more. This book reveals the darkness and evil in mankind, which makes the light of God’s mercy shine brighter. Lise’s redemption would not be as convicting if she had not been so great a sinner. This is a truly inspiring book well worth taking the time to procure and peruse.

My 5 favorite children’s authors who also illustrate their books

One day, our then three year old daughter C was watching me read Homer Price to her older brother. When we finished the chapter, she went to the bookshelf and out of the confusion of several hundred picture books she carefully selected Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, and One Morning in Maine.

We were stunned that such a small child noticed McCloskey’s distinctive illustrations and correctly identified all the other McCloskey books we owned. Small children notice more than we think about picture books. The story is important, but so are beautiful illustrations! As St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists: “beauty is the visible form of the good.” Here are five authors who grasp this and personally pour effort both into crafting their story and creating artwork to accompany it.

1. Shirley Hughes is one of my absolute favorite children’s authors/illustrators. Not only are her distinctive illustrations carefully executed, they contain so many small details that little children delight in studying them. Her stories are always simple and engaging on the surface, but underneath they invariably present an age appropriate lesson. For example, Alfie Gets in First is a cautionary story about locking your parents out of the house. Moving Molly encourages children who are moving that there will be good aspects of their new homes. In Alfie and the Big Boys, Alfie exemplifies that even a small child can offer comfort and help to an older child. And Dogger is what I consider Hughes’ masterpiece: a tear-jerking tale of sibling love and sacrifice. Hughes also wrote one of my favorite book of children’s poetry:Out and About: A First Book of Poems.

 

2. Jan Brett‘s highly realistic and detailed illustrations are extremely popular right now, and I like most of her stories, though not all. One of my favorites is Fritz and the Beautiful Horses , a lovely story about a pony who realizes that being gentle and kind is more important than being physically beautiful. We also enjoy Annie and the Wild Animals, Town Mouse, Country Mouse and Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella. While I enjoy the illustrations in her Christmas themed books, I do not recommend them since she sadly promotes a heavily secularized view of Christmas.

 

3. Jane Hissey‘s endearing illustrations fittingly accompany the gentle adventures of a gang of stuffed animal friends in The Old Bear Collection. We love all her stories about Old Bear, Jolly Tall, Little Bear, Rabbit, and Bramwell!

 

 

 

 

4. Nick Butterworth is another English author whose stories we read with great appreciation. His stories, such as The Secret Path , star Percy the Park Keeper, a sweet-natured gardener who makes friends with all the animals in the park. The largest collection of Percy’s adventures, Percy the Park Keeper: A Classic Treasury, is out of print but can often be found in used condition quite cheaply.

 

 

5. To return to the anecdote I began with, my children all love Robert McCloskey‘s stories and illustrations. We also appreciate that not only does he draw illustrations for his simplest picture book, Blueberries for Sal, but he also includes fun illustrations in his chapter books like Homer Price.

Thoughts on “One Beautiful Dream”


I am not presumptuous enough, or perhaps not daring enough, to judge myself capable of writing a critique of Jennifer Fulwiler’s work, but I so enjoyed her latest book that I felt compelled to post a few commendatory remarks on One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both.

I know Jennifer Fulwiler by repute but this was my first time reading a single word she had written because- prepare for a deep dark secret- I do not read blogs. That’s right, I am the hypocritical blogger who loves to write but doesn’t bother to read other people’s blogs. Okay, in my defense I’m sure I’d love to read other people’s blogs, but equally sure that I would sink so swiftly and surely into the bottomless quicksand of blog surfing that I would never read a real, full-length book again. And then what would I write about?

To return to Jennifer Fulwiler and One Beautiful Dream: from the first page, her story resonated with me. She describes herself as a cerebral introvert who often feels that her gifts are not the best adapted to being super mom. Yep, that’s me too. And she even had the same theory I posit to my husband regularly:

“Decades of living in big houses with few people had carved deep grooves into my habits; I had a great need for quiet and for complete control of my surroundings. Sometimes it felt like my current life was a macabre psychological experiment to see exactly where the mental breaking point was for someone with my temperament.”

See I knew I wasn’t the only one with the theory about God running some kind of psychological experiment giving me this type of kid! (Actually, I’ve decided He just has a really good sense of humor.) The further I read, the more I felt like I was reading my own story of difficult pregnancies, high need children, and deep down a longing to just be alone with silence, a stack of books, and a computer for typing. At least, both Jennifer and I would have described our dream as such in our early years of motherhood.

But as Jennifer describes so lucidly, and as I am slowly realizing also, this individualistic dream of what my perfect imaginary life will someday be, is not cut out of the fabric of happiness, or even reality. Jennifer calls life a symphony, and that analogy struck home in my classically grounded soul. A mother, a wife, a daughter, an aunt, a cousin, a friend.  A woman’s life and dreams are intertwined and harmonized with those of her loved ones.

Do not for an instant think that Jennifer is advocating a sacrificial immolation of all a mother’s dreams. On the contrary, she would be the first to tell you to nourish your “blue flame, the passion that ignites a fire within you when you do it.” She urges women to follow their dreams and utilize the gifts God has given them: to pursue the work that gives them energy and joy. On a personal note, I have come to the same conclusion. Writing fills me with energy and joy, which I can then channel into caring for my family with renewed vigor.

Jennifer is inspiring, but practical. At first I thought she was an advocate of the “have it all” mentality, but she tackled that topic with her usual forthrightness and pragmatism.

“I had set out on this quest to try to “have it all,” to use the terminology of the age-old debate about women and work. Now that I considered everything I’d learned along with what Joe was saying, I saw the entire concept differently. It occurred to me that you can have it all in the sense of having a rich family life and pursuing excellence in your work, but you’re going to need to re-imagine what having it all looks like. Your work will never be your number-one priority. You might need to walk away from glamorous opportunities that don’t allow you to live a love-first life. You’ll be bombarded with one interruption after another, yet you’ll find that those interruptions are the very building blocks of a good life.”

A good life. A love-first life. A life grounded in a wholeness of vision that melds family and personal goals. I think every woman really wants just this.

I have read a LOT of books by Catholic moms, for Catholic moms, and inevitably take away some nuggets of wisdom. But Jennifer’s story really spoke to me because she has had what some might call a difficult life: chronic money problems, difficult pregnancies, high need children, one setback after another in her personal goals. But if she hadn’t had all those experiences, how could she have given the world the wisdom in her books and blog? Each difficult moment shaped her into the woman who can inspire thousands of other Catholic mothers.

My own life has been a bit rocky for the last decade, and if Jennifer had an easier life or more natural inclination towards being a mom, her words would not have had this power to lodge deep in my soul and make me question my priorities and preconceived notions about what my life should look like or can look like.

Jennifer’s words have encouraged me to pursue writing more seriously again now, as opposed to waiting for the someday when my children are less demanding. I hope you read One Beautiful Dream too and it challenges and inspires you to recognize and nurture whatever gifts God has given you. And if you are that lucky mom whose gift is to be a home maker, pray for the rest of us!

Review of “A School for Unusual Girls”


A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel by Kathleen Baldwin is a fast-paced alternative historical fiction novel that offers the reader a captivating blend of adventure, romance, and mystery. This first installment in the Stranje House novels is told by Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, a young lady of noble birth and many talents. Unfortunately for her, being a brilliant mathematician with a scientist’s curiosity is not an asset to a young lady in 1814. Exiled to Stranje House by her exasperated parents, Georgiana finds herself swept up in a world rife with mystery, romance, and most importantly opportunities for a girl with unusual abilities.

THE GOOD

In contrast to many teen novels I read (like my recent experience with “The Selection”), I actually enjoyed Kathleen Baldwin’s writing style and plot. She writes a swift moving story without sacrificing descriptive language and character development. One of the parts I most appreciated was that while Georgiana was clearly the heroine of this book, the other girls at the school also receive character development and seem to be fascinating people too. This harmonizes with one of the major themes in A School for Unusual Girls: acceptance, both of your own gifts and those of others. Each of the girls at the school is highly gifted in their own unique way, but has been rejected by society for not fitting the accepted mold for young ladies. At first Georgiana envies her schoolmates their beauty or talent in other areas, but in the end comes to peace with accepting the gifts she has been given and appreciating what her friends have without jealousy.

THE BAD

The main problem in A School for Unusual Girls is a typical one in secular teen novels: God and religion are left completely out of the world of Stranje House. Personally, I do not see this as a reason to utterly discount a well-written book, as long as your teenagers are noticing the void. In the area of sex, parents need to know that the “romance” in this novel borders on sensual at times, with some passionate kisses. There is also a point in the plot where one of the girls dresses seductively to distract some soldiers. For these latter reasons, I would suggest parents use their judgment in determining the appropriate age for their teens to read this. I would not this book recommend for a  girl younger than fourteen.

THE BOTTOM LINE
A School for Unusual Girls may not be great literature on par with Leave It to Psmith, but it a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some encouraging themes for teenage girls. I do not see boys enjoying this book at all, but it will resonate with teenage girls who may not quite fit in easily for some reason, whether that be introversion, unusual interests, high intelligence, or something else entirely. I hope this book will encourage girls to explore and develop their individual, God-given gifts.

 

Review of “The Selection”


After reviewing a parenting book, I wanted my next review to be on light literature, so I continued my project of reviewing popular dystopian novels such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner”. Unfortunately, the next teen dystopia on my list was The Selection by Kiera Cass. I say unfortunately because this book is high on the list of “most unsatisfying” and “least worthwhile” books I have ever read, and I almost did not even bother reviewing it. However, given its popularity with teenage girls and status as  a New York Times Bestseller, I felt obligated to provide feedback.

THE PREMISE

The Selection is marketed as “dystopia meets the Bachelor.” I would describe this novel as a very light, vanilla form of dystopia, where hardship consists mostly in rigidly defined social castes and some food shortages among the lower classes. The heroine, America Singer, is, predictably from a lower caste and the long shot to win the Prince Maxon’s attention in a Bachelor-esque contest for the queenship and throne. Again predictably, she gains his attention immediately with her honesty and sad story of having a broken heart from being dumped by her ex-boyfriend back home, Aspen.

THE GOOD

Of course this book is not evil incarnate, and I will freely admit there were certain redeeming themes. For example, America is careful to only use make up and clothing to enhance her natural appearance. She also learns a good lesson about premature judgments when she has to rethink her rashly formed opinions about Prince Maxon. America is also a good role model when it comes to friendships, being open, amicable, and charitable to the other contestants. That is the best I can say for her.

AMERICA THE CHEATER

Since this is a teen romance novel, of course there is a love triangle, activated when ex-boyfriend Aspen decides he no longer wants to be an ex. I found it completely infuriating that America has little problem with dating Prince Maxon, knowing he loves her and admitting she might love him, while also renewing her relationship with Aspen. America admits she knows this is wrong, says she feels guilty, but continues to lead on both men anyway. I found this deceit from America particularly offensive because what initially catches Prince Maxon’s attention is her honesty. Take away her honesty, and she becomes a much less likable and admirable character, and a poor model for Catholic teens.

SELECTION QUESTION

The whole concept of The Selection actually bothers me. Should a man be dating 35 women at once? Perhaps you must define “dating” to answer that question. Calling taking each of 35 women out to dinner in turn “dating” is one thing, but when you add declarations of love and kisses into the mix, Prince Maxon’s behavior begins to verge more on cheating, at least to me. America struggles with feeling jealous of the parade of “other women,” but thinks she needs to squelch her feelings because it’s all part of the Selection. Yes, it’s strange circumstances, but I find the overall messages here about what dating should look like, especially dating multiple women, troubling.

OBJECTIONABLE MATERIAL

To give a small measure of praise, at least in this first book of the series Kiera Cass keeps her characters clothed. However, I did find the rather graphic descriptions of America making out with her ex-boyfriend needlessly erotic. One might also pause to wonder why these scenes between America and Aspen are dwelt on so heavily, since the overall impression from the book is that you should want America to end up with Prince Maxon. On this front alone, I would pause to question the authoress’ agenda before handing this book to a young teenager.

BIRTH CONTROL

Another interesting agenda I noticed in this novel is a theme promoting free access to birth control. The only law America seems to truly dislike is the one forbidding fornication. She is angry that she doesn’t have the right to choose when and with whom she has sex. She also resents that birth control is a luxury only available to higher castes. Again, this is the heroine of the story here, the one the reader is supposed to admire, advocating for birth control and free love. Troubling much?

CLIFFHANGER ENDING

The Selection ends abruptly on a cliffhanger without resolving any of the main conflicts. A loose end to be tied off in a future book is one thing, but this level of jerky ending is usually a sign that the author is more interested in garnering sales of additional books then writing a worthwhile book. All things considered, The Selection  is not a selection I would recommend.

Review of “No-Drama Discipline”

Recently, I felt like refreshing my parenting techniques and exploring some new ideas. Browsing through recommendations of parenting books in a gentle parenting group, the title No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind intrigued me for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a mouthful. How did a publisher let that one slip by? Second of all, I personally am passionately adverse to drama in my relationships, so removing drama from my parenting sounded like a spectacular idea. Finally, I was interested in seeing how the authors, a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist, approached the subject of discipline.

SCIENTIFIC BASIS

The ideas on discipline in No-Drama Discipline are heavily influenced by emerging research on brain development. I personally found it fascinating to learn about the order in which the different parts of the brain develop, what brain integration means, and how neural connections are forged. The authors did a great job simplifying some weighty concepts so sleep-deprived parents like me can easily grasp them, using easy terminology like upstairs brain and downstairs brain. I appreciated their balance between keeping it simple, but explaining how each discipline strategy was focused on the ultimate goal of building your child’s brain.

CONTINUITY WITH THE SOCRATIC METHOD

Fans of the Socratic method of education will love this book, which advocates liberal use of questions and discussion. A huge part of “no drama discipline” is teaching your child to think, not just feel. One of the authors’ important concepts is “mindscape,” which is the ability to be not only the feeler and doer, but also be the observer. Put another way, mindscape is the ability to see one’s actions and feelings as if from the outside and analyze them. The authors say,

“When we teach our kids mindsight tools, we give them the gift of being able to regulate their emotions, rather than being ruled by them, so they don’t have to remain victims of their environment or emotions.”

One important way mindscape is taught is through a Socratic approach of initiating dialogues with your child to encourage empathy and insight.

IN HARMONY WITH THEOLOGY OF THE BODY

I was delighted to find that No-Drama Discipline presented a surprising cohesion with Theology of the Body’s respect for the human person. One of the fundamental tenets of No-Drama Discipline is that a parent must respect their child as a person, acknowledging and validating their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. No-Drama Discipline advocates collaborating with children to brainstorm discipline solutions together as a part of this respect for a person. It also empathizes the importance of developing your child’s neural network through relationships, noting that nourishing your relationship with your child is crucial in developing his full potential as a person.

DEVELOPING THE CHILD’S CONSCIENCE

Although the authors approach discipline from a secular and scientific perspective, they amazingly conclude that it is imperative for parents to help their child build a conscience! A big principle in this book is that instead of simply lecturing and demanding blind obedience, a parent should nurture the child’s innate feelings about right and wrong. They= authors explain that guilt is actually an important emotion to teach the child to recognize and respect as a sign that an action was wrong and not to be repeated. The authors say that

“Initial awareness of having crossed a line is extremely healthy, and it’s evidence of a child’s developing upstairs brain … It means she’s beginning to acquire a conscience, or an inner voice, along with an understanding of morality and self-control.”

OVERALL, REALISTIC

One other thing I really appreciated about No-Drama Discipline is that I found it be almost entirely realistic. The authors readily admit that there is no “magic wand” that will instantly end all bad behavior forever. They teach that integral parts of no-drama discipline are response flexibility, taking your parenting philosophy off autopilot, and being creative. They don’t claim that their strategies result in perfect child. But they do claim that their strategies produce more positive interactions overall and minimize damage when those really dreadful parenting nightmares happen. I think they are right, although I would love to see them do a follow up book on applying no-drama discipline to a large family situation where a parent is constantly torn between conflicting demands from a small army of children.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A college psychology professor said that a child’s relationship with their parents forms their view of, and relationship with, God. If a parent is authoritarian and dictatorial, that is how the child will view God. But if a parent is a loving and gentle, yet also consistent and challenging, teacher figure like Jesus in the New Testament, then this is the image of God they will see. I think this book helps teach parents to present that latter example to their child, so I highly recommend it to any Catholic parent.