James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
The kids have been up since o-dark-thirty. You’ve cooked and cleaned and worked and changed a dozen diapers and played referee to a hundred fights and gone over the silent e rule for the thousandth time and cooked again and cleaned again and read that story the kids want to hear for the zillionth time and finally, they’re asleep. You’re too tired to clean any more, and really what sounds best is dropping on the couch and binge watching a TV show until you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.
I know, I’m there too most nights. And I’ll confess there was a period where I did exactly that nearly every night: watched TV because it seemed like my brain was too foggy for anything else. But eventually, I broke the cycle and got back to my first love: reading books. Not because it’s easier, because it’s not. And not only because it’s better for me, though it is. I read because it makes me a better mom, wife, and person.
There are at least 9 great reasons to spend some time reading at the end of the day, even as a brain-fogged, busy mom.
2. Read to grow spiritually. Here’s an obvious one, but spiritual reading is a easy and accessible source of spiritual growth. What better way to form a more personal relationship with Christ than by studying His life and learning from His friends? Maybe you like to sit down with your Bible and a journal. Or perhaps you prefer to read a spiritual classic like St. Francis de Sales’ An Introduction to the Devout Life or St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.
3. Read to give a better perspective on your life. We all get mired down in the difficulties of our particular here and now. Like little kids, we feel miserable because we’ve got a cold, or our favorite mug shattered, or the air conditioning broke, in July, in Florida, at 36 weeks pregnant. Reading other people’s stories can help us both gain perspective on our minor everyday woes and learn to embrace true suffering when it comes with grace. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a major wake-up call to me recently to be grateful for how blessed my life really is. A Severe Mercy had a similar effect, but also is an inspiring account of suffering leading to growth and hope.
4. Read to set an example for your kids. We all know the old “do what I say, not what I do” advice doesn’t work with kids. Telling your kids they should be reading instead of glued to electronics doesn’t carry much weight unless you’re following your own wisdom. I intentionally read in front of my kids sometimes so they see that I enjoy it. In fact, at breakfast time in our house I encourage everyone to read at the table!
5. Read to improve your vocabulary. Of course, I don’t think we all need to speak in words with a minimum of 12 letters at all times. But since what you read impacts your writing and speech, you will find reading well-written books helps your vocabulary and diction. Our family favorite for this purpose is P. G. Wodehouse. His mastery of the English language is truly unparalleled. His books are the perfect blend of easy to read, yet studded with wonderful words like ephemeral, insoluble, dearth, peremptory, and poltroonery. Really, though, any literary classic cannot but help improve your diction. Try some Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, L. M. Montgomery, or George Orwell.
6. Read to lower stress and improve sleep quality. Did you know that less than ten minutes of reading drastically lowers your stress levels? Studies show that your stress levels drop by 68% by the time you’ve read a book for ten minutes! If you struggle with falling asleep or insomnia, try curling up with a good book for a half hour before turning off the lights.
8. Read to escape to a better place. We all have difficult seasons. Maybe we struggle with depression, loss of a loved one, or financial trouble. A good book can be a refuge for a time from the stress of the moment. Our minds can be soothed and our hearts lifted for a time, at least by an engaging adventure, romance, or comedy. You can find some of my favorite “light” reads like Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy on this list.
9. Read so you can answer your kids’ questions. My kids are like sponge-shaped question marks. They ask questions like “Why can’t the devil be forgiven?” and “How do we know there isn’t life on the moon?” and “Why is that flower yellow?” Now, I know there’s no way I will ever be able to answer all their questions offhand, but I hope that if I continue to learn, I’ll be able to answer some of them anyway. Particularly that one about the devil.
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
This list would be incomplete without some Louisa May Alcott! Though Little Women focuses mostly on sister-relationships, other Alcott books like Rose in Bloom and An Old-fashioned Girl are about finding love, sometimes in unexpected places. Rose and Polly learn to remain true to their beliefs and wait for a man wiht a pure heart.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting historical fiction novel about a fiery teenage girl who becomes deeply involved in palace intrigues, caught between two rivals for the Egyptian throne. Oh, and of course there is romance too. I love how this story shows Mara’s growth from utter selfishness to understanding the sacrificial nature of love.
Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is another book that fits many genres. I call it a romance for two reasons. First, because it teaches the reader that everyday life is romantic. Second, because a third of the book is about two characters falling in love and fighting in court to be allowed to marry.
Here are some novels with romantic plots I recommend for teens over 14.
Funny and memorable, My Heart Lies South is a true story about a young American journalist who falls in love on a trip to Mexico and ends up staying. Readers will love this amusing love story that also touches on the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture and family.
Do not assume all of Gene Stratton-Porter is appropriate for teens, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is really a charming story told by Laddie’s Little Sister, who explores themes about family, nature, redemption, and forgiveness. She also recounts how Laddie fell in love with and won the heart of a Princess.
Freckles is another great book by Gene Stratton-Porter. Similar to Laddie in many ways, a simple lad must win the heart of a high-born girl. A charming romance, and a great story of personal growth and overcoming disability.
The Robe is the story of one man’s quest for love and truth. He finds it in Christ. But he does also find love with a special young woman, which teen readers will enjoy.
The James Herriot Books are the funny and endearing stories of everyday life as a country veterinarian. James Herriot weaves his story of wooing and winning his wife into his animal anecdotes.
[Parental warning: mild language]
Everyone knows that teenage girls should read Pride and Prejudice, but don’t stop there. Read The Jane Austen Collection for more classic stories about finding love, with a side of social commentary and comedy.
[Parental warning: mentions of out of wedlock relationships, illegitimate children, mistresses]
The Virginian is a classic western full of cowboys, shoot-outs, and true love. With his quiet humor and gentle nature, the reader is rooting for the Virginian to win the lady.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as I mentioned above, a stellar example of how true love is sacrificial. No-good Sydney Carton never does get the girl, but his pure love for her ends up being his redemption.
P. G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he also wrote some hilarious romantic comedies such as the Adventures of Sally. Many of his Blandings Castle novels also include a strong romantic plot, such as in Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a love story, which is kept carefully PG. Strong female heroines abound in these novels.
[Parental warning: one of the girls is wilder and does break some of the rules, occasionally is described as dressing in a more risque fashion, etc. There is also mention of someone keeping a mistress, which is portrayed negatively.]
[Parental warnings: one scene of attempted date rape in the very first book]
Older teens (16+) will enjoy these more difficult novels.
A classic mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is driven by a romantic interest. The protagonist and narrator must solve the mystery of who the woman in white is in order to gain a happily ever after with his wife.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart looked like a fairly simple book. I had recently finished reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, which in typical Chestertonian fashion is absolutely amazing but also leaves you feeling like your head may explode from his awe-inspiring insights. Anyway, I wanted a simple book to review and ended up choosing The Mysterious Benedict Society at the library. I soon realized this book was a poor choice if I wanted a straightforward subject. In no time, I found myself dusting off my Theology major cap and delving into the Catechism, Aquinas, and Augustine trying to ascertain the exact position the Catholic Church holds on spying and lying while spying.
A STRAIGHTFORWARD PREMISE
The plot of The Mysterious Benedict Society is fairly simple. Four lonely but gifted children (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) are recruited by a benevolent genius (Mr. Benedict) to assist in foiling a plot by an evil genius. The evil genius aspires to control the minds of all humankind via his hi-tech invention, “The Whisperer.” The children are chosen because they have a particularly strong love for the truth and therefore a certain immunity to The Whisperer. Reynie and his friends have to go incognito into the evil genius’ organization to uncover his plans and foil them. On the surface, it’s a classic conflict of good versus evil with the reader rooting for the good guys.
LYING AND SPYING
The potentially troublesome scenario which this book creates is placing the four children undercover, in situations where they may have to lie, cheat, and otherwise practice deception. The children are repeatedly described as special because they have a strong love for the truth. This doesn’t jibe well with portraying them as lying, cheating, and so on.
The first question I had when analyzing the morality of the children’s actions was: are all the scenarios where the children tell lies under coercion or in order to preserve their secret identities? Mostly yes. Mostly. There are one or two occasions where Sticky tells a completely unnecessary lie, such as when he lies about his parents in the beginning of the book. These occasions are quite indefensible. It is up to you as a parent to decide if your child has the maturity to recognize these lies as deplorable and know not to imitate.
The rest of the lying and cheating is in the context of the children preserving their secret identities. What does the Church have to say on the morality of deception in this context? Not much, actually. There isn’t an infallible teaching about the morality of spying. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ argument would preclude lying when spying. But Aquinas isn’t always right.
In a fascinating article in First Things, Ethics professor Janet Smith provides a round-up of various Catholic positions on the lying and spying question. She notes that the lack of an official Church teaching on this subject points to it being a moral gray area, rather situation dependent. She draws an analogy to taking human life. Killing is wrong, but in order to defend oneself or another innocent, one can kill. Similarly, she says, lying is wrong, but in particular situations such as to save human life, one can lie. I recommend reading her article for a more thorough understanding of her argument.
Whatever your position on the question of lying and spying, the inclusion of such a tricky subject definitely makes this children’s book more complicated than your average adventure story. I would highly recommend discussing the morality of the children’s lying in the story. In fact, this makes for a great book report topic or family discussion!
To counterbalance the lying question, I found a plethora of redeeming themes in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Watching four children with diverse personalities coalesce into a team is a great lesson for the reader. Sticky is shy, Reynie is a natural leader, Kate is independent, and Constance is contrary. Their only similarity is a shared love of truth and common mission. Which is plenty to form a team and eventually friendships!
Another great theme throughout the book is overcoming fear. Sticky particularly struggles with overcoming his fears to do the right thing. The Whisperer soothes his fears and makes him feel happy: a seductive evil to resist. Reynie and Sticky both find themselves tempted to succumb to The Whisperer. Reynie thinks:
“The Whisperer’s version of happiness is an illusion – it doesn’t take away your fears, it only lies to you about them, makes you temporarily believe you don’t have them. And I know it’s a lie, but what a powerful one!”
Reynie and Sticky overcome The Whisperer’s seductive pull by relying on their friendships with each other and Kate and Constance. Reynie also turns to an adult, Mr. Benedict, for his wisdom. Through the help of other people rather than a machine’s lies, Sticky and Reynie learn to push past fear to complete their mission.
TV AND TRUTH
A third theme that will make most parents smile is the juxtaposition of TV and truth. The four children are chosen because they love the truth. What is one of the primary signs of their attachment to truth? They dislike TV and its messages. Now of course, in the story the evil villain is piggybacking poisoned messages on TV waves. We don’t have that in our world… or do we? Are the messages our children ingest from the media a positive or negative in forming their moral imaginations?
Weighing the pros and cons, I found The Mysterious Benedict Society to be an enjoyable adventure story with overall wholesome themes. After a discussion of the morality of lying and spying, this book is quite appropriate for children ten and older. Younger children could also enjoy it if they are mature enough to grasp the concepts of spying, mind control, and temptation.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga consists of four volumes: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, and The Warden and the Wolf King. I recently enjoyed reading all four books for the first time, and was quickly captivated by Peterson’s realistic characters and the fascinating world of Aerwiar. The Wingfeather Saga is the story of a family: the former royal family of Anniera, now in hiding from the great evil one, Gnag the Nameless. Each of the three children- Janner, Kalmer, and Leeli- has a special gift and role to play in saving their world from the great evil. Children and teens who love fantasy will certainly enjoy these novels with a subtle yet decidedly Christian world view.
In the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Wingfeather Saga is not overtly pushing a Christian agenda, yet details throughout reflect the author’s Christian worldview. “The Maker” is referenced repeatedly throughout the series as the creator of the world of Aerwiar. In times of need, the children call on the Maker for aid, and sometimes receive it. There are many references to all things ultimately being in the Maker’s hands. There is even a major theme throughout of the Maker bringing good out of evil:
“Gnag bends things for breaking, and the Maker makes a flourish! Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well! That is his way.”
There are also many parallels to the Biblical story of Creation in the history of Aerwiar: a first couple created by the Maker, evil entering the world through misuse of free will, and so on.
SELF-SACRIFICE AND REDEMPTION
In line with the Christian worldview, major themes in The Wingfeather Saga are self-sacrifice and redemption. Janner is repeatedly placed in situations where he must choose between self-preservation and protecting his siblings. At first he resents this duty to sacrifice himself, but by the end of the series recognizes his selfishness and embraces the Biblical ideal of laying down one’s life for one’s brother.
There are several characters who undergo redemption of various sorts. For example, Kalmar is “fanged” (changed into an animal) when in a time of weakness he loses hope and succumbs to the desire for power. With Janner’s help, Kalmar repents of his sin and regains humanity in the end. Another notable redemption is of the villain in the series, Gnag the Nameless. Peterson accomplishes the difficult feat of portraying Gnag as utterly evil, yet by a strange concatenation of circumstances redeeming him in the last seconds of his life.
Another wonderful aspect of The Wingfeather Saga is its positive portrayal of family love and loyalty. The three siblings overcome jealousies and resentments to forge a close bond. The relationship between the brothers, Janner and Kalmar, is particularly noteworthy for its loyalty and sacrificial aspect. Their mother, Nia, is truly awesome: loving, supportive, protective, always willing the good for them. Their father, Esben, is believed to be dead, but eventually comes into the story and (here’s the self-sacrifice theme again) gives his life to save his children’s.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Music as healing, music as an art form, music as a weapon. Music comes into the book over and over as a powerful force for good. Leeli is a skilled whisle-harpist, and her music saves lives, tames animals, and can carry messages. The pure of heart are roused to courage and imbued with energy when they hear her music. The evil cringe and cover their ears at the beauty of her music.
One of the trickiest parts of finding good fantasy novels is evaluating the “magic” factor. What does the author mean by magic? Does he equivocate about whether magic is good or evil? Does he encourage children to dabble in magic?
I found that Peterson had a unique approach to the magic question. In The Wingfeather Saga, there are no spells, potions, or witches’ hats. Instead, Peterson uses the term “magic” to be more synonymous with “mystery.” Nia explains the magic of Leeli’s music to her children:
“What’s magic, anyway? If you asked a kitten, ‘How does a bumblebee fly?’ the answer would probably be ‘Magic.” Aerwiar is full of wonders, and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker- it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. … The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when He knit the world.”
Portraying magic as synonymous with a mystery may be slightly confusing for younger readers, so I would discuss how Peterson portrays magic with my children when they read this book.
I ascribe to Michael O’Brien’s views on dragons (see my post Concerning Dragons), so I approached a series which I knew contained dragons with major misgivings. I found Peterson’s views on dragons slightly nebulous. He doesn’t try to make them good, portraying them as having done many dark deeds such as sinking the mountains and destroying the countryside. The primary dragon character, Yurgen, is vengeful, destructive, and lusts for power. But Peterson also doesn’t consider all dragons as inherently evil. Upon hearing Leeli’s music, a few dragons are even moved to contrition for their past evil deeds and end up helping in a final battle for Aerwiar.
Overall, the dragons come into the story fairly infrequently and are not major characters. The question is whether the “redemption” of a few dragons is a form of demythologizing? Does it contradict the centuries of western tradition which use the dragon as a symbol for evil? I think Peterson does unintentionally contradict tradition here a bit. But given how overwhelmingly Christian and wholesome these books are as a whole, this is another time where I would discuss the dragon question with my children when they read the books.
WHO SHOULD READ IT?
Overall, The Wingfeather Saga is refreshingly clean from any sexual content, adult humor, and language. There are, however, loads of violent battles. Note that the descriptions of the battles are not graphic like in “The Maze Runner” or “The Hunger Games”. But still, you have Janner and Kalmar killing many fangs in self-defense. A couple beloved characters such as Leeli’s dog and grandfather also die. Given the violence and the need for a nuanced discussion about magic and dragons, I would recommend this book for those over 12.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular novel about circus life in the Great Depression. Jacob, 93 years old, retells his adventures one life-changing summer when he happens upon a job as a veterinarian for a traveling circus. The story bounces between Jacob’s frustrations with life in an assisted living facility, and his circus memories of meeting his future wife and the animals he learned to love. A depression-era traveling circus is an intriguing and colorful setting for a book, and one that held a lot of promise. But on several levels I found this book unsatisfactory.
First of all, an integral part of the plot is Jacob falling in love with his future wife, Marlena, who just happens to be married. At first, Jacob expresses guilt over his feelings for a married woman. But once it emerges her husband is abusive and schizophrenic, the implication is he is free to succumb to his feelings for her. Which he rapidly does.
Enter problem two with this book: a truly ridiculous amount of sexual content. Jacob spends way too much time talking about his desire to be rid of “the burden” of his virginity. I would even describe it as a minor conflict point: when and to whom will Jacob lose his virginity? There are also descriptions of masturbation, fornication, adultery, strippers, pornography, and more. It’s bad on a moral level, and also unnecessary on a storytelling level. Honestly, even if I hadn’t been repulsed by the blatant sexual content, the amount it interrupted the flow of the plot ruined the book.
A relatively minor quibble is I found what I call the “unforgiving, judgmental Catholic parent” theme, which I see often in popular modern books. A Catholic character (in this case Marlena) makes a blunder by the so-called Catholic standards of her parents. These supposedly Catholic standards are often not even in line with Catholic teaching; in this case Marlena is disowned for marrying a Jew. The parents then utterly disown and refuse to help the character ever again period. This drives the character out of the Catholic Church and also justifies all his or her future morally questionable actions. I really dislike this portrayal of Catholics as irrational, unforgiving people.
I was so disappointed with this book overall. The focus on the sexual content resulted in the circus itself really got short-changed. The enjoyable parts of the book were about the animal performers and the friendships Jacob forms with the other crew members. I wanted to read more about the elephant, Rosie. And the liberty horses act. And the other performers and crew members. If this book had focused more on the circus and less on an adulterous relationship, it might have been worth reading. But it didn’t. So my advice is don’t bother reading it, and given the graphic sexual content definitely do not allow your children to read it.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was an international bestseller, garnering awards in Sweden and Britain and a coveted spot at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It was published in 2005, but libraries are still promoting it as a must-read book. I read it out of curiosity, pure and simple, not even intending to write a review. This book is part thriller, part mystery, part social commentary. With a cast of memorable characters, an intriguing “locked room” style scenario, and a cold case, it is easy to see why this book gained popularity.
The plot is complex, but to try to summarize in a paragraph: a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is asked by wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger to investigate his granddaughter’s probable murder many years previously. Blomkvist ends up enlisting the help of computer-hacker Lisbeth Salander, a strange young adult with a troubled past and serious personal problems, to solve the mystery. Together, they uncover the dark family secrets at the root of the Vanger girl’s disappearance.
WHAT’S TO LIKE
As Catholics, there are a few themes in this book with which we can easily agree. Yes, of course abuse of women is indeed terrible. It’s terrible that rape is under-reported and there is such a stigma of shame for survivors. Abuse of the disabled by persons in positions of authority is a terrible injustice. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo does indeed draw attention to these evils.
For lovers of children’s literature, there are a lot of fun references to Astrid Lindgren, best known in America as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books. She wrote many other children’s books which are popular in her native Sweden, and I loved Larsson’s obvious appreciation of her skill.
And, I ran out of positive things to say. So, the negative.
GLORIFICATION OF VICES
I certainly do not require protagonists which are models of virtue, but I do hope that their flaws are acknowledged as such, and that there is some growth or redemption. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson fails in both these areas. Both protagonists are deeply flawed, yet portrayed as admirable, and there is no positive character development.
Lisbeth is on the one hand drawn as a girl with a dark, troubled past and some anti-social tendencies, yet at the same time Larsson clearly admires her. He praises her promiscuity as freedom from inhibition. Her anti-social tendencies are explained as due to greater than average rationality and self-reliance. Her eye-for-an-eye ethics is portrayed as fair.
Mikael Blomkvist is clearly supposed to be the “good” guy. Larsson repeatedly harps on his reputed honesty and thirst for justice. It’s easy when you’re reading to park a character described like this in a box labeled “good.” But when you examine Mickael’s actions, you wonder whether he really is a very good person. He ascribes to the philosophy that the ends justifies the means. To him, lying is okay if it saves a life, or even if it is just more convenient for him at the moment. His adulterous relationships and affairs are another major problem in this purportedly “good” character.
In both Lisbeth and Mikael’s cases, the problem is not their character flaws and vices, but the fact that these very vices are often presented in a positive light. For example, take a look at how Mikael’s affairs are portrayed.
AFFAIRS AND ADULTERY
I think Larsson intentionally makes the most “stable” relationship in the book a completely unconventional and amoral one. Mikael has a long-running affair with his married co-worker Erika Berger, an affair which her husband is aware of and allows. Larsson paints a very positive picture of this bizarre arrangement where Erika chooses on a nightly basis whether to sleep with her husband or Mikael. Supposedly this is liberating for Erika, and loving and enlightened on her husbands part. Of course Erika is also completely understanding and enlightened about Mikael having affairs with two or three other women over the course of the book. And Mikael? Well of course he’s a good guy because he only sleeps with one woman at a time.
I found it notable that the traditionally married couples in the book fared poorly in contrast. The twisted, horrible family situation with the Vangers involves incest, rape, and torture. Horrible, but it is raised to a new level of dreadful by the fact that the mother knew what the father was doing and ignored it.
GRAPHIC SEXUAL VIOLENCE
On the subject of rape, there is a truly brutal rape scene that no one needs to read. This description of the graphic violence her guardian inflicts on Lisbeth is unnecessary and voyeuristic. Then there is another brutal rape scene, less thoroughly described, where Lisbeth takes revenge on her guardian. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is really inappropriate reading for Catholics simply taking into account these graphic descriptions of sexual violence.
DISHONORABLE MENTION TO CHRISTIANITY
Larsson gives Christianity just enough recognition for a dishonorable mention. Religion and God are by and large are ignored. The only mention comes in when Mikael and Lisbeth discover the rapist murderer justifies his actions as Biblical. The villain uses twisted interpretations of Old Testament passages to rationalize raping and killing women. Mikael shakes his head over this, and worries that his teenage daughter will get involved in “religion.” The “gods” worshiped in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are “freedom” (read the ability to do whatever one feels like), not hurting others, and a vague sense of justice.
NOD TO NIETZSCHE
I believe Larsson’s worldview must have been strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. Lisbeth is remarkably like the Ubermensch ideal found in Nietzsche. Larsson holds up certain qualities as admirable in Lisbeth: her extraordinarily strong will, complete reliance on reason, disregard for the common good, lack of herd mentality, independence and so on. These happen to be the qualities that perfectly coincide with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch ideal. Nietzsche’s philosophy is inherently irreconcilable with Christianity, beginning as it does with the assumption that there is no God or objective morality. Perhaps it is purely coincidental that Lisbeth appears to fit the Ubermensch model so well, but perhaps Larsson was intentionally promoting Nietzsche’s ideal.
A DARKENED WORLD
Overall, Larsson has a dark, disillusioned worldview. Governments, businesses, and individuals are nearly all manipulate, deceptive, and basically self centered. I felt like I was reading an dystopia. And realized that without a belief in God, without hope, this is indeed a dark, depressing world we live in. Larsson seems to see all the evil without being able to offer any hope or redemption. I was waiting for some sort of turning point of redemption, and even skimmed the rest of the series, which is more of the same. There is never redemption. There is no sunrise. This is a dark and deeply problematic book, and definitely not one I recommend for Catholic teens or even adults.
I consider Swallows and Amazons and its sequels to be one of the greatest series ever written for children. In these 12 books, author Arthur Ransome presents tales of stirring adventure and ingenious discoveries, all written in the most beautiful yet accessible English prose. Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and the rest of the series chronicle the holiday adventures of the four Walker children and their friends. Not fast-paced in the modern sense of violence and high drama, these books nevertheless are chock full of age-appropriate adventures involving (for a small sampling) exploring deserted islands, sailing, gold mining, boat races, and wilderness survival. Ransome is a master writer, and these books are pure joy to read, even as an adult. But the are intended for children, and impart many great lessons quite subtly.
Every book revolves around the children’s adventures in the great outdoors. Sometimes sailing through the English lake country, sometimes trekking across the moors, sometimes exploring the China Sea, each book offers an example of how exciting and fascinating the outdoors can be. The children are always active, never lazy, because there is always something to explore or build. They show that camping, boating, and roughing it can be fun and invigorating. There is never a bored moment on a Walker holiday.
CURIOSITY AND INGENUITY
Several of the children have an ardent curiosity about how things work. They model ingenuity and creativity as they research, experiment, and learn as they go. In one book alone, Pigeon Post, they discover how to use carrier pigeons, dig a well, make charcoal out of peat, prospect and pan for metals, build a blast furnace, and do chemical assays for gold. In other books, they gain extensive knowledge about sailing boats both small and large, navigation, astronomy, ornithology, a variety of codes, and survival skills. Nearly everything they learn is on their own initiative during holidays. These books definitely inspire kids to be inquisitive and innovative!
Friendship is a major theme in the Swallows and Amazons series. Parents will appreciate how broad and inclusive the friendships in these books are. Siblings of various ages work and play harmoniously together. The Walker and Blackett children range in age from six to twelve in the first books, and all get along wonderfully most of the time. There is no pettiness, exclusion, or cliquishness. No silly immature romances spoil the simple camaraderie these children share. Diverse in interests and personalities, they are united in their friendship by a shared love for outdoor exploration and adventure.
POSITIVE PARENT FIGURES
Another wonderful theme in these books is their positive portrayal of parents. The Walker children adore their mother, who is at once properly caring and concerned yet willing to give them the space and freedom to foster their independence and creativity. The Walker father is absent in the first few books for work, but always in conctact via letter and telegram and clearly respected and admired by the children. Later in the series, Captain Walker returns and makes sure to prioritize taking his children on sailing adventures. The Blackett girls are being raised by their widowed mother, who, like Mrs. Walker, combines a motherly spirit with respect for her children’s individuality and independence. She gets extra points for being a patient and understanding mother to Nancy, the headstrong child in the series. The parents of the third sibling set, Dick and Dot, are archaeologists who feature little in the series, but their relationship still seems connected and loving. So many modern books embrace the theme of misunderstood child and flawed parent, it’s refreshing to read a story where parent-child relationships are natural and loving.
For reading order, it’s best to start with Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and Winter Holiday in that order, then read the rest as you can find them. Some of the books are hard to find or out of print, but these stories are really worth buying and adding to your family library. One of the best things about this series is the entire 12 books are appropriate for all ages. That makes this a wonderful series to read aloud as a family or listen to as an audio book in the car. Of course, they are also enjoyed read solo by a competent reader; around ten years old is usually perfect. I hope you find and enjoy these marvelous children’s classics!
Have an emergent reader in the family? By definition, the text in an easy reader has to be very simple, but that’s no reason for the illustrations to be poor quality! Here are some great options of both readers from programs and fun, simple books which combine short and sweet stories with good quality illustrations. We use a combination of both types of books to provide plenty of practice for our young readers.
The All About Reading beginner readers are favorites at our house. There are several books in the series such as Run, Bug, Run!, The Runt Pig, and Cobweb the Cat. These are quality hardcover books which each include a whole collection of funny stories. Note that some older, used editions may be in black and white, so opt for a newer version if you want a color edition.
Seton Press has reprinted the Faith and Freedom Readers, a series of beautiful readers beginning with This is Our Family. These charmingly illustrated stories are sight-word style reading, which I find helpful to include along with the phonics-based books we typically use. Cheapest place to buy is from Seton directly: This is Our Family.
Speaking of sight words, remember Dick and Jane? Here is a great set of four beautiful hard-cover reprints of the classic Dick and Jane stories. These short, simple stories quickly inspire confidence in young readers.
The Little Angel Readers are part of a phonics based program available at Stone Tablet Press, but they can be used independently of the program for simple practice. They feature short, easy stories ranging from retellings of folk and fairy tales to Catholic-themed stories.
We love The Princess Twins Series with their sweet illustrations, simple stories, and marvelous messages. Each story highlights a different virtue which Princesses Emma and Abby learn to model.
We all laugh at the adventures and misadventures of Charlie the Ranch Dog in these easy readers inspired by the Ree Drummond books.
I dislike the illustrations in many of the Dr. Seuss beginner books, but others like these two by Mike McClintock are actually quite charming: Stop that Ball! and A Fly Went by .
Biscuit. Okay, yes, it is ironic that the title character’s name is not actually an easy word to read. But otherwise, these adorable books are very, very basic on the vocabulary with big font and only a sentence or two a page. We love the sweet illustrations in these stories.
Cynthia Rylant has written several great series of easy readers. Our favorites are the Mr. Putter & Tabby stories. Not only do these books offer lessons about friendship and kindness, they show children that elderly people can be funny, happy, sad, or lonely too. You will love kind-hearted Mr. Putter and his fine cat Tabby, and smile at his eccentric neighbor Mrs. Teaberry and her crazy dog Zeke.
We also find Cynthia Rylant’s Poppleton stories funny and enjoyable.
Have a facts-oriented child? Consider the DK Eyewitness Readers. They feature high-quality photos and four different levels of difficulty to choose from, and are available on a multitude of subjects. Most libraries have lots of these!
The Weka-Feather Cloak: A New Zealand Fantasy is a fairly recent young adult fantasy set in New Zealand. Author Leo Madigan attempted to produce an engaging fantasy story which stretches the limits of time and space, while also writing a book deeply imbued with a Catholic vision. Catholic parents can rejoice that Madigan succeeded in his mission. Here is a young adult novel that parents can happily hand to their teens without fear of excessive violence, inappropriate content, or a secular agenda. On the contrary, teens will glean a wealth of positive lessons and experience a deeply Catholic worldview.
The Weka-Feather Cloak is the story of Danny Mago, a Maori boy coming of age in New Zealand. Quiet, artistic Danny’s life is forever changed when he meets the mysterious new student at school, Zelia, and begins to work for a strong-willed nun, Mother Madeleine. Danny finds himself suddenly involved in an angelic mission, experiencing time travel, and helping Zelia recover a precious relic lost for centuries.
EXCITING ADVENTURE AND FANTASY WITH A CATHOLIC FLAVOR
This book is not a fantasy in the common sense of taking place in an imaginary world such as Middle Earth or Narnia. Instead, it takes place in New Zealand; the fantasy element comes from an elevator which can bridge time and space. Instead of elves or wizards, this book’s nonhuman characters are angels and demons. I loved the uber-rational angel who helps Danny understand his mission, and shuddered at the demon who attempts to thwart it.
Sometimes, The Weka-Feather Cloak is reminiscent of Indiana Jones adventures. Danny and Zelia are racing to save a precious relic of Christ from the villain William Kydd. The exotic New Zealand locale, quest for a precious historical artifact, and other-worldly elements of angels and demons impacting human events are sure to intrigue teenagers as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But unlike an Indiana Jones film, in The Weka-Feather Cloak Danny must turn to spiritual weapons to defeat the demon. He finds strength in saying the rosary, protection in wearing a crucifix, and eventually defeats the demons through a liberal use of holy water. Because Danny is a small, shy teenager, he must learn to turn to God for help. He is a great example of what St. Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he talks about God’s power being made perfect through human weakness. If Danny had been less frail, he might not have realized how much he needed God’s help.
A final particularly Catholic flair to this book comes from the intriguing glimpses Danny gets into eternity. Danny gets to see what angels may be like. He gets to experience some of the attributes of a glorified body. Most of all, he gets to see history from a perspective outside of time.
APPRECIATING GOD’S CREATION
New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful: a fitting setting for this story which has major themes dealing with art and beauty. The book contains some truly beautiful descriptions of nature and what it reveals about our Creator:
“These vast continents with their mountains, deserts and rain forests, were a letter written by the Creator to mankind, a letter which told of his tender good-will, of his greatness and of his capacity to be little, of all his infinite variety of shade and color and light and impenetrability, it said everything mankind needed to know about him until he was ready to tell more.”
Little gems like this paragraph are tucked into this exciting adventure, making the reader pause and revel in the beauty of creation.
Another theme about beauty is that spiritual beauty is more important than mere physical beauty. Danny has a certain clarity of vision which allows him to see the beauty in a humongous, elderly nun, or in his disabled sister.
SEEING SPECIAL NEEDS ADULTS THROUGH GOD’S EYES
Danny’s older sister Angela has a neurological disability which renders her mute and confined to a wheel chair. From the beginning of the book, Danny’s attitude towards Angela is truly beautiful. He says that having a sister like her is a “strange, mysterious gift.” Danny and Angela have their own private sign language to communicate. Danny confides his deepest secrets to Angela, who sometimes gives him amazingly wise advice. Yet it is not until Danny experiences a miraculous journey outside of the normal time-space continuum that he sees Angela in all her beauty and potential as she will be in heaven.
ENCOUNTER INTERESTING SAINTS AND RELIGIOUS
Both while traveling through time and at home in New Zealand, Danny meets fascinating saints and religious who are friendly, fascinating people. He meets Lady Juliana of Norwich in 1399 and learns about the Eucharistic and God’s will while enjoying her hospitality and kindness. He also gets to meet Fra Angelico and the Silvestrine monks, learning how to create a fresco and participating in a snowball fight.
Back in current-century New Zealand, Danny becomes acquainted with the redoubtable Mother Madeleine and her eclectic order of nuns. Sister Eileen is admired and respected even by bullies. Sister Paula has a dry sense of humor and a practical bent. Mother Madeline herself is wise and simple, extroverted and shy all at once. From all of them, Danny learns that the path to sainthood is for everyone.
CAVEATS AND CONCLUSION
This wonderful novel is great for teens and even mature tweens. One aspect for parents to consider is that it features some truly disturbing demons, clawed, hooded, and fire-breathing that terrorize Danny on several occasions. Beware these descriptions if you have an extremely sensitive tween or young teen. The only other potentially problematic point is that there is a decent amount of bullying described. Danny is called a “maggot” and threatened by the bigger kids at his high school on multiple occasions. However, on the positive side, these same bullies do eventually cooperate with Danny to save the day so there is some redemption here. Other than these two areas, the The Weka-Feather Cloak is a joy to read! And it’s on a steep discount at Amazon right now: half off!