In Made for Greatness, Ginny introduces your children to each of the four Cardinal and three Theologial virtues in a way they have never before encountered them. After a brief accessible definition of what the virtue means, Ginny plunges straight into concrete examples of Saints, and contemporary people, whose lives demonstrated the virtue. I appreciated the diversity of saints from around the world and everyday people ranging from a young American with cerebral palsy to an architect from Oman.
Ginny also includes journaling prompts for brainstorming, reflection, goal-formation, and prayer. There are also scriptural passages which relate to each virtue. By the end of each chapter, your child will have come up with a concrete plan to begin implementing the virtue in his or her life.
Neuroplasticity and Empowerment
One part of Made for Greatness I really love is how Ginny brings in science to back up her claims. If you’re a bit of a science geek like me, you may have read up on the emerging field of neuroplasticity: the amazing, God-given ability our brain muscles have to create new neural pathways throughout our lives. Ginny takes the concept of neuroplasticity and simplifies it so even 9 and 10 year olds can grasp that they can free their brain from bad habits and create new ones. Children (and adults!) can feel stuck in their usual way of life and doubt their ability to truly improve. Ginny uses science to empower children to believe in their brain’s ability to build better habits.
Great for Gifted and Special Needs Children
Given her years of wisdom from both parenting twice-exceptional children and writing for Not So Formulaic, it comes as no surprise that Ginny is meticulous in making this journal accessible for exceptional children. This book is written to work equally well as a solo study for an independent reader and writer, or as a joint project the parent reads to the child and discusses. The spacing is helpful for dyslexics, and color pictures and icons scattered throughout help visual learners. Gifted children will appreciate the science and broad scope of journaling prompts offered.
Made for Christ
The overarching message throughout Made for Greatness is both inspiring and empowering for children. This journal challenges children to develop a growth mindest: “a constant decision to see challenge as an opportunity for growth.” At the same time, it enables children to work past negative self-talk, bad habits, and lack of confidence. One of my favorite sections is the conclusion, where Ginny reminds kids they are made for greatness and gives new verbalizations to substitute for common negative thoughts.
In The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, fairy tales meet science fiction. In this exciting series, a deadly disease is ravaging earth, a totalitarian moon queen is threatening war, and true love wins as some creatively portrayed princesses find their princes. These popular books are clearly aimed at teenagers, and the question is: are they indecent, innocent, or somewhere in between?
The Biggest Positive
The Lunar Chronicles had a surprising number of positive aspects. I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the covers! The best part about the series was its staunchly pro-life and anti-discrimination theme. In both earthen and lunar society, there is a lack of respect for the dignity of all human life.
On the earth, people who have received robotic parts, such as hands or feet, are considered as fair game to be used for medical research against their will. Labeled as “Cyborgs,” these people lack many of the rights and protections other earthen citizens have. Some, like the heroine of the series Cinder, are treated as property.
In lunar society, on the moon, some people are born with the “gift,” which is the ability to manipulate others by controlling their bio-electricity. Those unfortunate lunars who aren’t born with this “gift” are labeled as shells and torn from their parents at birth to be killed since they are “defective.” Some shells, like Cress, the heroine of the third book, do survive, but only as slaves.
Meyer does a fantastic job showing the appalling injustice of treating Cyborgs and shells as less than human. In our current society, this is truly a valuable theme. Any Catholic reader will immediately see parallels with abortion and euthanasia.
Other great themes in this book include an emphasis on showing the dangers and threat of totalitarianism and fascism. The lunar queen’s greed for power and adoration lead her to establish a dictatorship built on mind control and illusion. While her court lives in luxury, her people are impoverished and abused.
To give her full credit, Meyer does not fall into the trap of portraying the root of the queen’s evil to lie in the monarchy. Although the monarchy on the moon is portrayed as the example of fascism, Meyer fairly portrays several earthen countries as also having monarchies that are just. The problem is not the monarchy; it’s the coercion and injustice. However, in the end of the series, Cinder, crowned as moon queen, decides to dissolve the monarchy in favor of a republic.
Strong friendships have a prime place in the series. Without their mutual trust and respect, the four heroines could never have overthrown the moon queen’s evil regime. The girls’ friendships with their princes, and even android robots, become important in resolving the crisis. Loyalty, sacrifice, and love are the real tools that bring down the evil regime.
Redemption is another important motif in The Lunar Chronciles. Most of the “princes” are in need of redemption when they enter the story. Wolf is a volatile, genetically modified man with a dark past. Thorne is a cocky thief. Jacin is a palace guard with divided loyalties. The third heroine, Cress, also is plagued with guilt for working for the lunar tyrant for years as head programmer. Each of them finds redemption through sacrifice and reparation by the end of the series.
Unlike many teen novels, The Lunar Chronicles are relatively clean overall. Minimal crass language. Minimal mentions of alcohol or drugs. Almost no sexual content: there are several passionate kisses between main characters, but it doesn’t go farther than that. There are some passing mentions of “companionship” rooms and “escort” droids, which I deduced had to do with some kind of prostitute droids. But that’s it.
Sounding pretty great so far? Read on for the not so pretty.
One concern I had with the series was how Meyer handled the Red Riding Hood retelling in book two, Scarlet. Scarlet was great: fiery and tough. But Meyer chooses to twist the story so the Wolf becomes the “prince.” I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s great redemption here: the Wolf repents when he falls for the girl and spends the rest of the books trying to help the good side. But on the other hand, I think Meyer twisted the spirit of the original fairy tale by changing the wolf into the good guy. I generally don’t like plots where a villain symbol is portrayed as a good guy. And in fairy tales, wolves are the bad guys. But then, in fairness, St. Francis did redeem the wolf of Gubbio, so there is a certain precedent to redeeming the wolf.
Also, Wolf’s genetic engineering and past training as a wolf-man brings some other challenges to the series. His wolf-like instincts make him very protective of his “mate” Scarlet, but also bring violence into their relationship. At one point, he almost rips her throat out while under the mind control of a lunar villain. The thing that bothered me here and in a few other Wolf-Scarlet scenes was there seemed to be a sensual-sexual aspect to the violence. Almost a BDSM vibe. Subtle, but there in my opinion.
The violence is minimal in the first book, but quickly ramps up in the rest of the series. There is an awful war, with some truly terrible genetically engineered creatures running amuck. There are descriptions of people cutting their throats and shooting themselves under lunar mind control. Wolf-men rip out people’s throats. Lots of bloody fights. Overall, I considered these books a little heavy on the graphic violence.
Another element in the plot that never seemed to be adequately addressed was the mind control question. Mind control is portrayed as an evil overall, yet Cinder, the heroine, frequently uses it to protect herself and others. She also uses it to fight, and sometimes, in anger, to humiliate. In contrast to Cinder, Princess Winter in the fourth book simply refuses to use mind control for any reason… until in the end she does once to save her love. The question is: if mind control is evil, is it licit for Cinder and Winter to use it to protect others? Morally speaking, if mind control is inherently an evil act, using it for a good end still makes the act evil. Food for thought.
One final negative with The Lunar Chronicles is that they’re simply not all that well-written. Yes, it’s a fast-paced, exciting plot with lots of action and dialogue. But there is little to no descriptive language to flesh out the story. These books read like what they are: typical 21st century YA fiction.
Overall, The Lunar Chronicles are a gripping, fairly clean series with lots of action, romantic tension, and a great pro-life theme. But on the other hand, they’re not particularly well written, not great literature, and have some concerning elements like the confusion about mind control, sensual violence at times, and overall graphic violence. Worth reading? Maybe if you have an older teen who really enjoys science fiction and wants to use them for a book report to delve into some of the controversial topics. Otherwise, I’d give them a pass.
Ruby in the Water by Catholic Indie author J.P. Sterling was as unexpected as a rainstorm in the middle of a sunny afternoon. As a pluviophile, I love rain, so this is actually a compliment! This book explores so many great themes about disabilities, family, adoption, and coming of age. And equally importantly, Ruby in the Water tells a fascinating, relatable story about family secrets, forgiveness, and the power of love.
Coming of Age with Disabilities
Peter Arnold is without question a twice exceptional child. Because he was born prematurely, he has cerebral palsy, an undeveloped urinary tract, and a host of neurological issues. But he also has an incredible gift: a unique musical ability which brings him fame as a pianist from a young age. Navigating young adulthood isn’t going to be easily for medically complex, talented Peter.
A Special Family
Fortunately, Peter has the support of his devoted parents and five brothers and sisters to help him through the coming storm. The Arnold family is by no means portrayed as perfect, but parents Thomas and Anne’s dedication to and love for their children are truly inspiring. Ruby in the Water is peppered with flashbacks from both Peter and his parents’ perspectives, giving the reader a window into Peter’s challenging childhood and his parents’ graceful acceptance.
All is Grace
Without question, Ruby in the Water is a deeply Catholic book, but Sterling takes the higher road and lets her story speak for itself as regards its message. There is no pontificating or preaching here; just a gripping story that happened to happen to Catholics. The reader is left to decide on his own whether Anne and Thomas handle their challenges with greater grace because of their faith.
An Unabashedly Pro-life Story
Ruby in the Water does have an amazingly strong pro-life message since Peter is a late-term abortion survivor. This is only revealed at the end of the book, but clearly had huge impacts on the lives of Peter, his adopted family, and his birth mother. The brave souls who chose to save Peter’s life after a botched abortion are an inspiring example of truly embracing the pro-life view that every human life is precious.
A Short, Inspiring Book Mothers Will Enjoy
The magic of this book is the bond between Peter and his adopted mother Anne, whose love and patience shines through the tragedies. I think most moms will find themselves smiling and commiserating with Anne’s struggles to raise her brood of young children, especially with Peter’s special needs. Her graceful yes to God’s plan is an inspiration.
The only negative things I found to criticize in this book are a few editing errors that do give it a slightly self-published feel. Otherwise I am happy to recommend it for adults, young adults, and older teenagers. There is no objectionable content that would preclude younger teens from reading it, but this book will resonate more with parents and older teens.
I received a copy of Ruby in the Water in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
Dear Mr. Knightley is certainly not a classic, but at the same time it isn’t simply fluff literature. The majority of the book is a series of letters written by Samantha Moore, journalism grad student, to the mysterious benefactor who is paying for her education. The multitude of references to Jane Austen books, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Daddy Long Legs, and other classics are enjoyable for book lovers. But this is certainly not a period-era book; in fact, there is quite an intentional dichotomy between the civilized classical world Samantha, commonly known as Sam, wishes she belonged to and the raw, rough life she has actually lived.
Sam has unquestionably had a tough life.
Her earliest memories are of abuse from her parents. In and out of the foster-care system for years, never connecting with a foster family, she ends up on the streets at the age of 15. After months on the street, she ends up in a Christian group home, where she finds a precarious sense of safety. Yet after years of danger and tumult, she finds herself unable to connect with those around her, instead
The question becomes, how can Sam heal from her traumatic life?
There are two answers offered in the novel: first, that Sam needs to “find herself,” and second, that she needs to learn to trust God. I was pleasantly surprised by the second theme, which is subtle and not fully developed, but undeniably present.
With the first theme about healing by “finding yourself,” I was concerned initially about Gnostic influences, but ended up deciding that the author’s intent was simply to show that Samantha needed to stop hiding behind her impersonations of literary characters. Samantha had perfected the art of copying the speech and mannerisms of whichever character she thinks appropriate for the situation: an amicable Jane Bennet, a ruthless Edmond Dante, a spirited Lizzie Bennet. Of course, this is a dangerous habit since it distances others and keeps them from meeting Sam herself. Sam learns that in order to make real friends, she has to let go of pretending to be her literary companions. The theme here is about stopping hiding your past, personality, or vulnerability, but rather embracing the unique experiences that molded you.
The second theme about healing as learning to trust in God is not as fully drawn out, but the Christian influences in Sam’s life are undeniable. Most of the people who help her are Christians: the priest at the group home, the professor and his wife who “adopt” her, the mysterious benefactor. Sam notices these people have a peace and certainty that she admits to wanting for herself. She finds when she chooses forgiveness, she finds peace and joy. There is no radical conversion in Dear Mr. Knightley, but the reader can certainly assume that with the continued influence of her good friends, Sam eventually will find her way home to Christ.
Who would enjoy Dear Mr. Knightley?
Refreshingly clean, this book is perfect for older teens and adults. I would not recommend it for younger teens due to some descriptions of domestic abuse and a plot line about Sam’s first boyfriend, Josh, pressuring her to “sleep over” with him. Although Sam refuses and eventually breaks up with him over his unfaithfulness, her reasons for refusing are rather nebulous. The teenage reader would already need to be able to make the correct moral judgments about the situation since Sam does not have the benefit of a strong moral compass.
This book is perfect for a light, quick read on vacation, when the kids are falling asleep, or at the end of a long day. The literary allusions are delightful, the romance between Sam and Alex is sweet, and there are some worthwhile themes about friendship, trust, and healing.
If they haven’t yet, believe me, they will! Why does a loving God allow us to suffer? This is a question that has been repeated and pondered throughout the ages. In The Seed Who Was Afraid to be Planted Anthony DeStefano takes on the question of suffering with a simple story that even young children will be able to understand. DeStefano seamlessly weaves together several Bible verses into a parable about a fearful seed whom a wise gardener insists on planting. Planted in a dark hole, the terrified seed feels abandoned and alone. But then the tiny seed begins to grow into a magnificent tree which helps others and experiences a beauty and freedom it had never dreamed possible.
This book is so helpful in explaining suffering to children.
Like the seed, we feel forsaken and afraid when God allows us to experience suffering, death, loss, and pain. Like the seed, we don’t want to go down to that dark place and feel abandoned. In this parable of a tale, we are reminded that God only allows us to suffer to bring us to a more beautiful, wonderful place than we could imagine. Whether we see the fruit of walking through darkness in this life, or don’t know the why until heaven, this story reminds us we can trust that God has a perfect plan to bring us to true freedom and peace.
The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted can also be helpful in explaining death.
This world is all we know, so leaving it can be a scary thought. Like the seed, we like our drawer, our little box of known experience. Like the seed, some kids find the idea of being buried a terrifying thought. This story helps ease those fears with the reminder that dying is just the beginning of a new, better life, beyond our wildest dreams of beauty and freedom.
What is freedom?
The seed tells the gardener not to plant him: “I’m scared to be planted, I want to be free.” For the seed, freedom is being allowed to do what he wants: stay in his drawer. But by the end of the book, the seed realizes true freedom is found by following God’s (the gardener’s) plan and allowing himself to die so he may live. In the end of the story, the seed, now a tree, has found peace, freedom, and a life without fear.
The whole family will enjoy The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted.
Although this story is written for younger children, the high quality illustrations and timeless parable-like story will make it a favorite with all ages. Our entire family enjoyed this book with its reminder that God always has a perfect plan for us. Although many other great books on suffering have been written targeting adults, this simple story is perfect for explaining to children why God allows suffering.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is extremely popular with the 8-12 year old crowd. I see librarians and book clubs frequently recommending it as the perfect book to interest reluctant readers. I read it for the first time the other day in a little over an hour; it is more comic book than novel so it’s a very quick read. And, I hated it.
The basic problem is that the protagonist, Greg Heffley, is a lying video game addict who manipulates his friends, disrespects his parents, and doesn’t show personal growth to speak of in the story. I’ll break that down with details for you.
Greg is a liar. He lies to his parents, his teachers, his friends, and his peers. He’s not just any liar: he’s a skilled, sneaky one. For example, when his dad tells him to go play outside, Greg goes to a friend’s house and plays video games. Then he soaks himself in a sprinkler so it looks like he’s been running around working up a sweat, thereby deceiving his dad. On another occasion, Greg deceives his friend’s parents by sneaking in a forbidden violent video game in the case of an educational one.
Let’s talk about the video games. Greg lives for his video games, and he prefers violent ones. He describes car-racing as too babyish, and resents his friend’s contentment with such boring games. The more violent the game, the cooler for Greg. When Christmas comes, he sulks about not getting the particularly violent video game he wants and is ungrateful for all his other presents.
Greg has a rather sweet, slightly immature best friend, Rowley, whom he manipulates and bullies. He beats up Rowley using all the same moves his own brother used to beat him up. He makes fun of Rowley’s simpler tastes in video games and humor. On one occasion, he convinces Rowley to ride a big wheel down a hill repeatedly while Greg throws a football at his head to try to knock him off. This is the great friendship in the book, and I actually found it truly sad to read.
Greg has a abysmal view of adults in general. He considers them dumb and easily tricked. Unfortunately, in this story the adults are rather dumb and easily tricked. He repeatedly gets around video game grounding by sneaking off to game at his friend Rowley’s house. He tricks Rowley’s parents by sneaking in video games they have expressly forbidden in their home. Greg’s teachers are also sometimes taken in by his lies.
The ending of the book is supposed to provide a shade of redemption in one area of Greg’s life at least: he finally does something kind for Rowley. But here’s the problem: the kind act is telling a lie to get Rowley out of an embarrassing predicament. At this point, I was asking, really, Jeff Kinney? That’s the best redemptive moment you can come up with?
There are miscellaneous other problematic areas of the book. One that really bothered me was a scenario where Greg’s older brother left a bikini pictures magazine laying out and Greg’s littler brother took it to show and tell. This is supposed to be hilarious; it’s most certainly not what I want my 8-12 year old laughing about.
There is also extensive potty humor, lots of bullying at the school, a scene where the angry dad throws objects at Greg, and really resentful sibling relationships. All things considered, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the last books I’d ever give my child to read. Don’t fall into the trap of believing junk food books like this are all is out there for your reluctant reader! There are so, so many better books out there! Check out my lists for 8 to 9 year olds , 10 to 11 year olds, and Graphic Novels and Comic Books for some awesome alternative options!
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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a truly compelling historical fiction novel: inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking, and devastating in turn. The story follows two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, from the time the first rumbles of World War II begin to affect France to immediately after the end of the war. By focusing on these two sisters’ very different but equally difficult paths through the war, The Nightingale succeeds in powerfully conveying the reality of the horror, the magnitude of the losses, the utter wrecking of lives in World War II. This book does not spare the reader from the awful depths that man can sink to. Yet the depravities man conducts are but a foil to the heights of heroism to which everyday people can rise. The Nightingale offers inspiration and hope with its themes about unbreakable love, heroic sacrifice, and the miracle of children.
The Nightingale is an affirmation of the power of all the forms of love to survive and thrive in the worst conditions imaginable.
The bonds of friendship are a potent force. In her small French hometown, Vianne and her best friend Rachel encourage and help one another to keep supporting their families, whether that is with words or by sharing the last morsels of food. When Jewish Rachel is taken away to a concentration camp, Vianne risks her own life to save Rachel’s son.
The love between sisters also survives the horror of war. Vianne and Isabelle had a tumultuous relationship growing up, but during the war each strives to protect the other as best they can. Vianne attacks a German soldier to save Isabelle. Isabelle distances herself from her sister’s family to protect them from the repercussions of her underground work. At the end of the war, Vianne searches tirelessly for her lost sister and brings her home.
The Nightingale depicts the love between parents and children as particularly beautiful and powerful. Vianne and Isabelle’s father Julien eventually gives his life to save Isabelle’s. Vianne repeatedly reflects that the only reason she continues struggling to survive is out of love for her children. Vianne’s husband Antoine writes to her from POW camp that she must remain strong for their children.
Love between man and woman also gets its due, mostly through Vianne’s clinging to Antoine’s memory through the years of war, and determination to rebuild their relationship afterwards. Isabelle’s relationship with Gaetan also illustrates the power of love to endure torture, sickness, and imprisonment.
The Nightingale is a paean to sacrifice, a tribute to the countless simple folk who made unimaginable sacrifices to help save lives during World War II.
At first, parents sacrifice for their children, townsfolk for their neighbors. But soon, the war make each person question what they truly believe about the sanctity of human life and how much they will risk to preserve it. First, Vianne saves and hides her Jewish friend’s son Ariel. Later, she helps save the lives of 18 other Jewish children, hiding them in an orphanage and forging identity papers for them. Her actions are all a heroic sacrifice, since they seriously endanger her life and her children’s lives. When asked how she could risk so much, Vianne tellingly says she does it for her daughter Sophie: what would she be teaching her daughter if she did not help save lives?
Her sister takes an even more risky path to help save lives. Isabelle envisions a way to help the English and American airmen escape from occupied France into neutral Spain. Although she realizes that she will almost certainly be captured eventually, tortured, and killed, she begins the “Nightingale Route.” She leads over 27 groups of airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety before her capture.
One of the most beautiful sacrifices in the novel is after Isabelle is captured, when her father chooses to enter SS headquarters and confess to begin the ringleader of the “Nightingale Route” so that her life will be spared.
The Nightingale offers a strongly pro-life message about the blessing of children.
Returned POW Antoine says it most plainly: “This child… is a miracle.” All the main characters believe and live this truth throughout the novel: children are a miracle. They are the reason to keep going during the darkest years of the war. They are the cause for hope in a shattered world at the end of the war. Their existence is the healing as rebuilding begins.
The Nightingale is surprisingly clean with few exceptions.
As with any novel that attempts to accurately capture the atmosphere of occupied France, The Nightingale has its share of brutal violence. Vianne sees pregnant women shot, and experiences beatings and rapes herself. Isabelle is tortured and endures concentration camp life. The focus is not on the violence, though, but on the will to endure and survive the sisters exhibit.
There is little to no language. The only instances are the rare curse in French or German.
As far as sexual content, there is only one rape scene described, and it is short and easily skimmed over by sensitive readers. There are references to a husband and wife making love, but no descriptions. The most problematic content from a Catholic perspective is that Isabelle and Gaetan do sleep together despite being unmarried. Again, there is nothing graphic described, but parents should be aware if considering letting their teens read this book. I personally think it is too intense for any but very mature older teens.
The Nightingale is a sobering yet gripping novel which I highly recommend for Catholic adults.
This book leaves you reeling, yet inspired. It’s an important book because World War II needs to be remembered. The unspeakable evils committed and the heroic virtue shown both need to be kept in memory. Laugh, cry, enjoy this fantastic novel.
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Have a 6-12 year old who loves high adventure? Check out Prince Martin Wins His Sword, the first in Brandon Hale’s epic series of Prince Martin adventures. In the first book the reader meets Prince Martin, a young boy whose wise father the King of the land sends him on quests to learn virtue and build character. In order to win his sword, Prince Martin must demonstrate friendship and loyalty.
A major theme in the Prince Martin books is positive portrayal of the virtues of loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, and compassion.
In Prince Martin and the Thieves, Prince Martin helps save a wolf from a trap; later the wolf saves the prince’s life. Further on in the story, Prince Martin chooses to give away his reward money to a poverty-stricken beggar instead of buying a new weapon.
Many times in the stories, Prince Martin must choose between running for safety or standing his ground and sticking with his friends in the face of fear. In Prince Martin and the Dragons, Prince Martin and his three friends choose to risk death by fighting the dragons in order to save their country. Prince Martin is a hero boys can both relate to and want to imitate.
These books are mini-epics, reminiscent of the Iliad or the Odyssey.
Like great epics like Beowulf, Odyssey, and The Iliad, these terrific tales are cleverly written in rhyming cadence. I loved how author Hale used epic conventions such as beginning in medias res in the second adventure, Prince Martin and the Thieves. There are many other examples of epic conventions, such as cataloging of weapons, formal speeches, and enemies of superhuman proportions. These epic qualities bring authenticity and excitement which will captivate kids. They also make the Prince Martin books a great early preparation for reading classics like The Odyssey in high school or college.
Overall, these are eminently enjoyable epic tales that will appeal especially to boys.
This is not to say girls will not find them inspiring too! Adventure-loving girls will be thrilled that the newest book in the series, Prince Martin and the Cave Bear, features a female character: Prince Martin’s cousin Meg. If you have a 6-12 year old, check out all four books, available for purchase on Amazon!
What is the real magic in fairy tales? Why are they timeless and what do they teach us? Literature professor Mitchell Kalpakgian sets out to answer these questions by analyzing some of the themes repeated throughout classics children’s literature with a particular focus on fairy tales. The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature is a wonderful book for parents to read. This book clarifies so many of the enigmatic themes in children’s stories, empowering you as the parent to point out these themes to your children in stories from Cinderella to Pandora’s Box. It also helps Catholic parents understand the importance of exposing our children to these classic stories as a type of faith formation in shaping their hearts and imaginations.
What is a children’s classic?
Kalpakgian believes that a classic explicates one of the mysteries of life for children (and adults). A great story illuminates the connection between the spiritual and physical. Kalpakgian writes: “Dreams and fairy tales are as useful and necessary as windows which join the outside realm to the inside world, which bring heaven to earth and draw the human world to the divine world.”
The themes in children’s literature can sometimes seem mysterious and contradictory.
For example, what’s the deal with wishes in fairy tales? Why do they sometimes come true, and sometimes don’t? Why are the consequences of wishing in fairy tales sometimes positive, like Cinderella receiving fairy help and a happily ever after, and sometimes negative, like Midas’ daughter turning to metal?
Kalpakgian classifies wishes in stories in four distinct categories: whims, fantasies, temptations, and true wishes. Whims are random, thoughtless wishes. Fantasies are “excessive, uncontrollable desires for gold or power that reflect the sin of pride, the worship of money, and self-delusion.” Temptations in children’s classics are false promises of excitement which entice innocent children to disobey. But true wishes begin in the deepest longings of the heart and reflect desires associated with genuine human happiness such as true love or the blessing of children.
Children’s classics help form an appreciation and desire for the transcendentals.
Kalpagian devotes three chapters to the Mystery of the Good, the Mystery of Truth, and the Mystery of Beauty. The transcendentals- the good, the true, the beautiful, and the one- are attributes of God. Each transcendental is intimately connnected to the others and points us to the others. For example, true beauty draws are heart and mind to truth and goodness. Kalpagian writes, “The mystery of beauty in children’s literature evokes a love and desire for knowledge.” Beauty drawing the beholder to truth and goodness can be seen in many fairy taeles such as Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.
Looking at the connection between the transcendentals from another angle, inability to appreciate beauty correlates with blindness to truth and goodness, as in Anderson’s Swineherd. These chapters on each transcendental and also the inextricable bond between them were the best in the book in my opinion.
To quibble a bit, I found Kalpagian’s chapter on The Mystery of Luck slightly lacking.
Of course, I didn’t agree with every part of this book. To nitpick, I wish Kalpakgian’s treatment of “luck” had a more overtly Christian tone. He treats luck or fortune as a mysterious force that brings gifts to some and ruins others. I found this treatment not so much incorrect as incomplete; as Catholics we believe that all events are part of God’s plan. What agnostics call luck, Catholics call Divine Providence or blessings from God. In The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, Arthur Ransome uses this Christian understanding of luck: “This is a story that shows that God loves simple folk and turns things to their advantage in the end.”
Kalpakgian actually does have a wonderful chapter on Divine Providence in children’s stories. He points out the mysterious yet very real motif of Divine Providence seen in the form of fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and mysterious elves in books. His explanation of Irene’s grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin is really exceptional as an example of Divine Providence as that invisible thread also seen in Chesterton’s Father Brown. But for some reason, Kalpagian doesn’t also see Divine Providence as represented by “luck” in children’s literature.
Classic stories help children develop a strong moral compass.
By reading or listening to classic stories at a tender age, children’s imaginations and hearts are formed to accept simple truths about virtue and life. Goodness, when done out of a generous heart and without desire for reward, is exalted and repaid twofold. The simple folk with no deviousness in their hearts are blessed. True wishes for genuine human goods are granted. Beauty leads to truth, which leads to goodness. Divine providence is a mysterious, but real and powerful force.
Not only are the pure of heart rewarded, the wicked or selfish are punished. Fairy tales and fables teach that ultimately good does triumph over evil. Often good triumphs in this life, but sometimes not until the next. For example, in the original Little Mermaid tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get to marry the prince and dies, but she is lifted up by the sky fairies at death and given the opportunity for immortality, which is the real desire in her heart.
The great writer G. K. Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy that the lesson he retained from fairy tales and stories from his childhood had a profound effect on his eventual conversion. I conclude that as Catholic parents we can not do better than to nourish our children’s minds, hearts, and imaginations with truly worthwhile stories that impart the lessons Kalpagian writes about in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature.
The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.
What is beauty?
What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.
San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.
In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.
Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.
The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.
Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.
Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?
The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”
Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.
This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.