Tween to teen is a tricky age to pick books for, since they are looking for something challenging, but are not ready for mature content yet. I strongly believe in not overwhelming children in this age range by exposing them too early to classic literature that was intended for adults, so you will not find Charles Dickens or Jane Austen on this list. But you will find books by many other fun, age appropriate authors such as Meriol Trevor, L. M. Montgomery, and Father Francis Finn. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books are beautifully written, inspiring books for girls and young women, featuring the struggles, triumphs, growing pains, and dreams of Anne. These books are often introduced to children too early; I highly recommend waiting until at least age 12 for the first book. Cheerful, dreamy Anne grows up throughout the series, so do not make the mistake of handing your daughter the whole series at once! The first three books are appropriate for middle schoolers; save the rest for high school.
Discussion: What virtues come easily to Anne? What are her flaws? How does she strive to improve herself? Does God have an important part in Anne’s life? What is most important to Anne: God, friends, home, beauty?
J. R R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, is a famous fantasy adventure both girls and boys enjoy. It may even inspire a reluctant reader to continue following the story of the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings.
Discussion: Tolkien’s books are rife with Christian symbolism and allegory. If your child becomes a real Tolkien devotee, offer The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft as an in depth look at Tolkien’s Christian perspective.
Catholic author Meriol Trevor wrote a captivating adventure series for Catholic middle schoolers which begins with The Crystal Snowstorm. Set in the tiny, fictional, European Catholic country of Letzenstein, these books chronicle the involvement of Catherine, Paul, and other English children in the politics and future of the throne of Letzenstein. The maturity, responsibility, and courage these children show are a breath of fresh air, as is Trevor’s unabashed use of a Catholic culture, faith, and values. Good and bad characters are clearly defined, all people are valued, a cripple is a hero, family trumps politics; I love Meriol Trevor. There are three sequels: Following the Phoenix , Angel and Dragon , and The Rose and Crown.
A stand alone book by Meriol Trevor, The Rose Round is on the surface a simple story of unlikely friendship between a poor cook and her brother with the rich son and granddaughter of their employer. But in typical Trevor fashion, there are many themes under the surface: being handicapped, what is truly ugly versus truly beautiful, whether love is a gift or something earned, emotional abusive people, how hurt people hurt others.
The Light Princess is a fairy tale by master storyteller George MacDonald. Subtle humor, a lesson about selfishness, and a redemption theme elevate this simple story about a princess who lost her gravity (both types) to classic literature level.
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is, of course, an American classic. The famous story of the struggles and joys of four sisters raised by their widowed mother has delighted girls for generations. If your daughter loves this book, by all means offer the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys .
A more sober but still enjoyable duo of books by Alcott, Eight Cousins
and Rose in Bloom take a thoughtful look at the virtues and flaws in eight cousins first as children then as young adults. As is typical in Alcott books, recklessness and laziness results in misfortune, while hard work, perseverance, and faithfulness are rewarded.
Discussion: Which cousins does Rose admire and why? Does Charlie bring on his own misfortune? In our current age and country marrying a cousin is atypical, but in Rose’s time it was normal.
Jack and Jill is a lesser known novel by Alcott, but at least as wonderful as her more famous works. This is another thoughtful look at the long term consequences, good and bad, recklessness can have on the doer, the injured, their families, and a whole community. And also a simply fabulous story.
Discussion: How does Jill suffer for her recklessnes? How does the free forgiveness offered her change her? How does God bring good out of her carelessness?
An Old-Fashioned Girl, a stand alone novel by Alcott, has a timely message about peer pressure and staying true to one’s values even when others see them as outdated. The heroine discovers compromising her values in order to fit in doesn’t gain her real happiness.
Have a tween who doesn’t want to read saint books? Check out my review of Catholic comic book The Saints Chronicles.
Fr. Francis Finn understood boys, and his books reflect his belief that though your average school boy is not a saint, he should strive to be one. His books are school stories about boys and for boys, complete with humor, adventure, fights, friendship, and forgiveness, and are overall imbued with a deeply Catholic worldview. His most well known trilogy begins with Tom Playfair: Or Making a Start, which is a story of a mischievous boy whose energy, when properly channeled, becomes fervor for Christ. The series continues with Percy Wynn or Making a Boy of Him, in which Tom helps teach a boy raised by his sisters about manly virtues, and Harry Dee: Or Working it Out.
Outlaws of Ravenhurst is a captivating adventure about a Scottish Catholic clan’s struggle for freedom to worship during a Catholic persecution. This inspiring story makes real the challenges and amazing faith and courage displayed by Catholics facing martyrdom.
Note: These books will particularly resonate with boys, but girls love them too!
The Great and Terrible Quest was one of the most loved books in the large family I grew up in by both boys and girls. Young Trad, an orphan, risks his life to save and care for a wounded knight. The orphan and knight set out on a quest for something which the knight cannot remember. Bravery, sacrifice, love, redemption, and some fine storytelling make this story memorable.
The Good Bad Boy, by Fr. Brennan, is written as a diary detailing the everyday challenges and thoughts of a thirteen year old Catholic boy growing up in the mid twentieth century.
The Drovers Road Collection: Three New Zealand Adventures is an absolutely charming collection of anecdotes about a young girl growing up on a sheep farm in New Zealand. Often funny, sometimes touching, with nuggets of true wisdom, these stories told by the poignant voice of young Gabrielle carry the message that life may look different on the other side of the world, but people love and learn just the same.
The Sherwood Ring is a unique combination of modern day mystery and historical fiction, with a touch of romance for good measure. This is just a well written, well researched, fun read.
Fabiola is an inspiring story about the early church during the Roman persecutions. Fabiola is a convert to Christianity whose faith is tested by fire. Cameos by popular early saints such as Sebastian add a true story feel to this Christian historical fiction.
The Small War of Sergeant Donkey is World War II historical fiction focused in a unique location: the Alpine region of Italy held by American forces. Twelve year old Chico knows the Americans are supposed to be his enemies, but ends up befriending a soldier, whose life he later saves with some help from a heroic little donkey and a creative Catholic monk.
Cleared for Action!: Four Tales of the Sea is a collection of four books by Stephen Meader, a fine author of historical fiction. These tales of courage and fortitude span fifty years of American history, including the Civil War, and are particularly interesting for boys.
Midshipman Quinn: Collection is a collection of four humorous, adventurous stories about nerdy Septimus Quinn who joins the British Royal Navy at age 15 in 1803. These historical fiction tales are made memorable by Quinn’s quirky, resourceful, ever-loyal personality.
Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers is the first book in Ralph Moody’s masterful retelling of growing up in the western United States at the turn of the twentieth century. This series is in many ways a twentieth century equivalent of the Little House series. Moody has a captivating storytelling style which combines details about everyday life with an engaging overall plot. Our favorite books include The Home Ranch , in which Ralph spends a summer working as a hired hand on a ranch, and Shaking the Nickel Bush, in which a broke Ralph road trips through the west making money by sculpting bankers.
A majority of Catholic historical fiction focuses on male protagonists, so I am happy to add Madeleine Takes Command to this list. Teenage Madeleine shows true heroism as she takes command of the family stockade in New France and defends her people against the Iroquois.
The Red Keep is swashbuckling historical fiction set in twelfth century France. Young Conan is determined to save the Red Keep for its rightful owner, Lady Anne. Allen French writes enjoyable, engaging historical fiction. He also wrote The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, which is a wonderful Viking-era story with a moral about sacrifice and redemption.
G. A. Henty is, in my humble opinion, the gold standard when it comes to historical fiction. This prolific English author wrote dozens of novels intended to educate his teenage audience on wars, countries, cultures, history. My favorites include: Beric the Briton, A Story of the Roman Invasion, With Lee in Virginia, True to the Old Flag, <In the Heart of the Rockies: An Adventure on the Colorado River, and Cat of Bubastes.
Discussion: Henty is not afraid to take a controversial perspective and tell the other side of a story. For example, in True to the Old Flag, he offers the British perspective on the American Revolution. The theme to discuss would be that in a war, there are human beings on both sides who end up suffering.
For your Egyptian historical fiction, I recommend Shadow Hawk and Mara, Daughter of the Nile . Court secrets, espionage, danger, a touch of romance: these books will hold a reader’s attention and stick in their memory.
Across Five Aprils is civil-war era historical fiction about young Jethro, who comes of age amidst the conflict of the War Between the States.
The Trumpeter of Krakow is an absorbing novel set in 1490s Poland. This story offersman interesting combination of legend with the real fact that to this day the trumpet is played on the hour in Krakow.
In World War II historical fiction, Escape from Warsaw will please boys and girls with its brother-sister protagonists. Set in the chaos accompanying the end of the war, three children must use courage and cooperation to escape Warsaw and travel across Europe to rejoin their parents.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction about Roman Briton are some of my favorite books to recommend. Sutcliff is both an enchanting storyteller and an excellent writer. You will leave with the feeling you have visited Briton and made a new cast of friends after reading The Eagle of the Ninth , The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers .
Taken by the Enemy is first in a fascinating series in that Oliver Optic wrote it soon after the Civil War, thus offering a unique historical perspective. This story of a teenage boy attempting to recover his sister from the south on the eve of the war is a tale of courage and family loyalty.
Fingal’s Quest by Madeleine Polland is a great coming of age story set against the backdrop of Irish monastic life in the sixth century. There are great thought provoking themes about what doing God’s will really means.
The Red Badge of Courage is a very well known Civil War historical fiction novel about a young man’s experience fighting in the Union Army. Memorable for its depiction of the horror of war, it is also offers a good storyline of character development through the young man’s personal battle againt cowardice.
In the realm of animal fiction, The Yearling is a famous book with its timeless themes of growing up and sacrifices. A bit sad, but a classic every young person should read.
One of my absolute favorite authors in animal fiction, Albert Payson Terhune writes with such evident affection for his beloved collie chums the reader inevitably falls in love too. His most famous book is Lad: A Dog, but he wrote equally wonderful stories about his other collie friends such as Bruce, Treve, and Gray Dawn.
How’s Inky? is the first of naturalist Sam Campbell’s books about his animal friends of the forest. Campbell combines funny anecdotes with a down to earth philosophy of life in these very enjoyable books.
Old Yeller is an American classic, comparable to The Yearling with its themes of growing up and responsibility. This is a poignant, tear-jerking story of love, loyalty, and making tough, right decisions.
The Incredible Journey is another animal story, this time about three determined pets whose loyalty and perseverance are tested on a trans-Canadian journey to find their owner. This is the book that inspired Homeward Bound.
Another classic boy-dog growing up story, Where the Red Fern Grows is the famous story of Billy and his two hounds growing up together in the Ozarks. By turns tragic and hopeful, this book is certainly worth reading for its themes of hard work, courage, perseverance, and faith.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is the touching life story of a horse, as told by Black Beauty himself. This story is sure to delight any young horse lover.
Loved by generations, Lassie Come-Home tells a story of loyalty and perseverance as Lassie crosses Scotland to find her master.
Pollyanna should be read for culturL literacy, but sometimes is read too young. The drama of Pollyanna not being wanted is rather heavy content for a young child, so I prefer waiting until this age when the reader can better understand that Pollyanna’s hardships are used as a foil to highlight her cheerfulness in adversity.
Henry Reed, Inc. is a simply hilarious book by Robert McCloskey about quirky Henry and sensible Midge, two all-American kids with big schemes enjoying summer in small town USA. The best part of this book is the creativity and resourcefulness these kids show. No wasting time in front of the TV here!
The Weka-Feather Cloak: A New Zealand Fantasy is an exciting, colorful adventure story with a Catholic twist. Nuns, art, legend, demons, saints, a disabled girl, thieves, and angels all play a part in this creative story by Leo Madigan.
Banner in the Sky is the story of Rudi, who wants to fulfill his dead father’s dream of climbing the treacherous mountain known as The Citadel. This story highlights perseverance and courage.