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!
Thinking about Easter yet? Or concentrating on participating in Lent to the fullest? Here are some wonderful books to assist all ages in entering into these seasons of penitence and rejoicing.
The Story of Easter is a sweet little board book for the smallest children. It ties together spring, new life, and Jesus rising from the dead neatly, stressing that Easter is really about Jesus loving us through his death and resurrection.
The Easter Cave tells the Easter story in a simple, rhythmic style inspired by “The House that Jack Built.”
In The Easter Swallows, children see the Passion and Resurrection through the eyes of two kind little swallows.
There are many great versions of the Stations of the Cross for Children. Here is wonderful one for ages 5-10 from Word Among Us Press: Walking with Jesus to Calvary: Stations of the Cross for Children. For each station, there is a description of what happened, then a personal prayer to encourage the child to speak straight to Jesus.
Little Colts Palm Sunday is the perfect story to read on Palm Sunday. The author fancifully imagines Palm Sunday through the eyes of the colt that carried Jesus into Jerusalem.
Also perfect to begin on Palm Sunday, The Easter Story Egg is a book and nesting egg. Each day between Palm Sunday and Easter, your family opens an egg and reads the accompanying Bible verses and meditation.
Looking for the Easter story as recounted in the Gospels? Fiona French’s beautiful book Easter may be the perfect fit. She uses colorful pictures inspired by stained glass windows to bring the Passion and Resurrection to life in a luminous way.
Little Rose of Sharon is a poignant story which explores themes about true beauty and self-sacrifice. A vain little rose eventually chooses to give up all her beautiful petals to keep an egg warm, thus imitating the total self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
In this folktale retold, three trees dream about their future. Each tree finds its dreams achieved, but in a different way than they ever could have expected.The Tale of Three Trees is a lesson in divine providence and self-sacrifice.
Rechenka’s Eggs is a story about giving, friendship, and how eggs are a sign of the miracle of new life.
The Drovers Road Collection by Joyce West could be described as a New Zealand Little House on the Prairie. I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy, yet sadly it is little known in the United States. Tweens and Teens who love adventures, a story with a strong female protagonist, and a generous dose of humor, will enjoy Drover’s Road.
These adventures are narrated by Gay Allan, a lively and adventurous girl growing up on a New Zealand sheep station. The trilogy begins with Gay and her three cousins’ humorous escapades as they “help” their Uncle Dunsany on his ranch, deep in the Maori country. The cousins may be far from civilization, but life is never quiet at Drover’s Road with its colorful cast of characters both human and animal. In Cape Lost, Gay describes growing into a young woman, experiencing first loves and heartbreaks. But don’t worry; Gay, true to her name, is always resilient and able to see the humorous side of her adventures as she comes of age. The final book, The Golden Country, is Gay’s story of taking over a sheep station of her own as a young adult.
What makes these stories so worthwhile and memorable is Gay’s worldview, wise beyond her years yet still joyful. Growing up on a sheep station, she is used to hard work and responsibility. Yet she is also gentle-hearted and merry by nature. In each chapter, whether funny or poignant, a disaster or celebration, she provides a lesson for the reader without moralizing.
Drover’s Road is a story of a different era a century ago, when cell phones and the internet were not even imagined. Gay and her cousins fill their days taming wild horses, building a hideaway under a waterfall, hunting treasure, and playing matchmaker to their various relations. I think reading about their adventure-filled, joyful lives is a great inspiration to today’s teens and tweens to turn away from their screens and consider what real adventure might look like.
Despite being an old story when it comes to technology, Gay’s atypical family situation may strike a chord in today’s kids. Gay and her three cousins are all being raised by their young uncle and a distant cousin, “Aunt” Belle. Their parents all either died or abandoned them. Though they have an idyllic life on the cattle station, the cousins still experience a sense of missing and emptiness over their lost parents. Later in the books, Gay delves into her difficult relationship with her father, whom she struggles to forgive.
The romance is light and clean, and there is no language or violence. This wonderful book is perfect for twelve and older. The only sad part is that it is out of print so you have to buy it used here, or you can buy it as an e-book from publisher Bethlehem Books or on Amazon.
What Should Danny Do? is the first book in the new Power to Choose series by husband and wife team Ganit and Adir Levy. I love so many things about this book, starting with the fact that “Danny” is inspired by their nephew, the real Danny. Ganit and Adir have four children themselves, and their experience as seasoned parents shows clearly throughout this clever story.
What Should Danny Do? is such a neat concept: a story which engages young readers by offering them choices which change the course of the story. One book with a very basic plot about the ups and downs Danny experiences on one summer day. But kids are fascinated with this book because every few pages, they get to choose what Danny does. And each choice changes the story completely. In essence, this is a story about free will explained in such simple terms a four or five year old gets it.
Danny loves superheroes, so his dad tells him he has a special superpower: the Power to Choose. As he goes through the day, he has many opportunities to use his superpower. Will he yell about not getting his favorite plate or ask politely if he can have it tomorrow? When his brother drops his snow cone, will Danny gulp his own down or choose to share? Your children get to choose for Danny and then flip to the page number corresponding to the choice to see the result.
I appreciated how the authors portrayed Danny’s parents. They are proactive and intentional in trying to teach Danny virtue. His Dad makes him a special cape to help him remember his power to choose. At the end of a bad day, they encourage him to think back on how his choices impacted his day. His mom suggests he sets up a lemonade stand to earn his own money to buy a skateboard.
Overall, our whole family loved this creative book. Though probably not intended to be Catholic, I think the concept of teaching young children about their power to choose, or free will, is in essence a very Catholic concept. I would judge this book is best for ages 4-8, though our 2 year old actually enjoys it too.
Comic Books and Graphic Novels are the reading material of choice for many kids these days, especially boys. Fortunately for Catholic parents, there are some awesome options being published in this genre by Catholic publishers. Check out these great options which teach about Saints, the Bible, the Catechism, and apologetics! Also included are a few clean, enjoyable comic books just for fun!
I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing “The Saints Chronicles, Collection 1”, the first in a great new series being published by Sophia Institute Press. For more details, check out my review here.
The Adventures of Loupio chronicle the escapades of Loupio, a young troubador whose life is forever changed when he meets Saint Francis of Assisi.
The Action Bible is one of the most professional looking graphic novels on this list. Little surprise since its illustrator works for Marvels Comics! This Bible isn’t specifically Catholic, but it sticks fairly close to the Bible stories and is a great way to get kids interested in reading God’s word.
The Picture Bible, which inspired The Action Bible, is also a great resource for bringing to the Bible to life for kids! It points out themes and has some discussion questions for the major stories.
The Illustrated Parables of Jesus is published by Ignatius Press, which also publishes an entire New Testament by the same illustrator and author. We love these versions of the Bible with their gentle pictures which even toddlers enjoy pouring over.
I’ve included the Catechism of the Seven Sacraments on other book lists already because I can’t say enough good things about this brilliant idea for a Catechism. The information is simply presented, yet somehow touches on information many adult Catholics don’t know. For example, my six year old understands the Four Cups and how they relate to the Mass after reading this book. He had to explain it to me because I barely knew what he was talking about!
I was extremely impressed by the caliber of apologetics presented in The Truth Is Out There: Brendan & Erc in Exile, Volume 1. This book, and its sequel, The Big Picture: Brendan and Erc in Exile, Volume 2, present arguments for Christian and Catholic doctrines in a format that will be accessible and memorable for tweens and teens. Volume 1 deals with big picture questions about God’s existence, heaven, and happiness. The presupposition is that you are talking to someone who is an atheist or agnostic, which will resonate with teenagers as they begin to interact more with secularists. In Volume 2, The Big Picture, Brendan and Eric begin to learn about God’s plan. Again, there is an outspoken agnostic character who challenges the RCIA teacher about everything from Galileo to the Trinity. All this hard core apologetics is set against an appealing Sci Fi backdrop complete with junky space ships and villains.
The Zita the Spacegirl Trilogy is an award winining series from Catholic graphic novelist Ben Hatke. His books are clean, age-appropriate, fun, and definitely worth buying!
Mighty Jack is the first in another great series by Hatke. With nods to Jack and the Beanstalk, Hatke creates an exciting world inhabited by dragons and biting pumpkins. I love that one of the characters is a (mostly) mute autistic girl. I found the themes about having a sibling with a disability timely in our current day with autism rates skyrocketing.
The Adventures of Tintin by Herge. What can I say? TinTin is a classic boy-sleuth series that every boy (and lots of girls) inhale. These books are clean, fun, and funny. Lots of adventure and quirky characters. Note that there is some drug and alcohol use, not portrayed favorably. Also some rather humorous swearing along the lines of “Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles in a Thundering Typhoon.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came highly recommended from no no less than three reliable sources, so I had to read it as soon as possible. As soon as possible turned out to be after 16 other library card holders saw fit to read and return it. But better late than never, I come to add my approval to that of the many fans of this charming historical fiction novel.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written as a collection of letters, mostly to and from Juliet Ashton, a young woman finding her path in life immediately after World War II. Juliet is a writer, a successful newspaper columnist and authoress, and altogether a sweet and spunky heroine. She learns of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands which was occupied during the war from Dawsey. Dawsey is a shy, intelligent islander who reaches out to Juliet by letter after finding her address in his favorite used book. A correspondence leads to friendship between Juliet and Dawsey, and a book idea for Juliet. Juliet visits Guernsey and ends up falling in love with the island, its inhabits, and most of all Dawsey.
Literature Lovers Delight
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is rife with references to classic literature. Juliet shares fascinating details about Charles Lamb’s life with Dawsey as the basis for their early correspondence. Various members of the Society share in their letters to Juliet how the works of famous authors from Seneca to Emily Bronte impacted their lives and brought them hope and respite during the war. A drunk, a lady, a pig farmer, a carpenter, a rag man, an aristocratic impostor are all saved on a soul-deep level by great literature. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at root a celebration of books’ magical ability to bridge gaps in class, education, race, language.
Enjoyable Historical Fiction
Through reading Juliet’s correspondence, the reader learns a great deal about how World War II affected the Channel Islands, and particularly Guernsey. By focusing on one small island, the authors paint a painful, even heart-breaking picture of life for inhabitants of an occupied country, albeit a tiny one. The islanders spend five years cut off from all news of the outside world, separated from most of their children (who were evacuated), facing severe food, clothing, and firewood shortages. Their pain is captured in glittering shards of memory scattered throughout their letters. But well interspersed with the pain is the balm of friendship and loyalty and hope for a better future. I found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be historical fiction at its best: a captivating story which also managed to impart a great deal of information about its historical setting.
Friendship and Love
Although undeniably having a love interest as a subplot, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is more focused on friendship. Of course one reads of Juliet’s many friendships, both old ones from girlhood and new ones with the Islanders. However, I found the most fascinating themes about friendship to center around the friendships between the Islanders. People who might otherwise have barely nodded in acquaintance became co-conspirators due to the war. Even some of the German soldier become friends with the Islanders as occupied and occupiers both face starvation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society shows the truth of hard times leading to friendship.
I also appreciated the slow, gradual evolution of Juliet and Dawsey’s romance. This is no “love at first sight” affair. Their relationship begins with months of letters which forge a friendship. After they meet, the friendship slowly blossoms into love. This is an unusual portrayal of an unfolding relationship in a historical fiction novel, but one I found utterly refreshing and applaud.
A Few Notes for Parents
I think many older teens would enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was exceptionally clean, so I have just a few caveats for Catholic parents. One, there is a a neutral to somewhat positive reference of an affair between an unmarried German soldier and an Islander, both deceased. Their illegitimate child is a major character and I found the Islanders’ attitude of support and material help quite pro-life.
The only other quibble I have is that Syndey, one of Juliet’s best friends, and her most frequent correspondent, is a secret homosexual. This is again presented as basically a simple fact without much slant positive or negative. It is really a minor detail and there is no mention of his having homosexual relationships. I honestly think the authors made him a homosexual so Juliet wouldn’t be in a love triangle.
To be enjoyed by…
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a joy to read for women, will be lapped up high school girls, and probably leave most men bored senseless. So don’t try to make this your next couples read! But do read it and savor the simple goodness of a sweet story of friendship and love and hope. Then pass it on to your teenage daughters, since this would be a fine book for a high schooler to write any of a variety of essays on: a character analysis of Juliet or Dawsey; an exploration of how friendships are forged through letters; a contrast of post-war life in London versus Guernsey. I think the title is creative enough that teenagers will want to read it just to find out what The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is. I know I did!
A 2018 offering from reputable Sophia Institute Press, Saints Chronicles Collection 1 is obviously an attempt to make the stories of saints from ancient and modern times compelling to today’s tweens and teens, who often prefer graphic novels and comic books to traditional chapter books. This is the first volume of four collections that Sophia is publishing, all similar comic book style volumes of about 120 pages. Each collection contains the stories of about five saints. This first collection tells the stories of Saint Patrick, Saint Jerome Emiliani, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, Saint Henry Morse, and Saint Joan of Arc. Saints Chronicles Collection 2 relates the stories of Saint Nicholas, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Brigid of Ireland, Saint Pachomius, and Saint Anne Line.
These collections are visually arresting and fast-paced. I appreciated the focus question at the beginning of each story which hints at the theme to carry away. Though the stories themselves are not heavy on details, each one concludes with a one page summary of the life of the saint with important dates and life events in a timeline format.
The selection of saints is a thoughtful blend of the well known Saint Patrick and Saint Francis of Assisi combined with the unknown Saint Henry Morse and Saint Anne Line. I do wish the publisher had picked a few saints from more recent times like Saints Jacinta and Francisco Marto or Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Maybe in a later collection.
This collection is appropriate for children as young as 7 or 8 in most regards, though if you have a sensitive child be forewarned. The saints are often in mortal danger or actually die in the course of the story. However, the pictures are not gory or gratuitously violent at all. For example, Saint Henry Morse is last shown at the gallows about to be hung, but not after he is hung. Saint Joan of Arc is not shown burning at the stake; the book simply says she was.
I am not personally a huge fan of the comic book style, but I know it is very popular these days! Overall, I think most people, especially tweens and teens, will find Saints Chronicles Collection 1 to be an enjoyable, informative comic book. I imagine this volume and its sequels will capture the imaginations of many children who might otherwise find the lives of the saints dull and dreary.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was written back in 1991, but like several other books I’ve reviewed, it enjoys new popularity due to the successful TV series of the same title. Outlander is the first of a series of lengthy novels by Gabaldon which combine historical fiction, romance, and time travel. I truly enjoyed large sections of this novel. Claire, the narrator and protagonist, is a memorable character: a woman who possesses both a nurse’s healing instincts and a warrior’s strength and courage. Her account of time travel to 18th century Scotland and subsequent fast-paced adventures in that picturesque setting are entertaining, even fascinating, reading. Authoress Diana Gabaldon is actually a Roman Catholic, and I loved her overall positive portrayal of Catholicism. However, as much as I found to appreciate in Outlander, I also found several troubling themes and much distasteful content.
A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY
To sum up a novel over 600 pages in a few sentences: Outlander is the story of Claire (Beauchamp) Randall, a World War II nurse, who accidentally travels back in time to 18th century Scotland. To escape imprisonment by her husband’s ancestor Captain Randall, she ends up forced into marriage with a charming young Scot named Jamie Fraser. They spend the remainder of the novel alternating between violent quarrels and steamy reconciliation scenes, all while trying to avoid capture by the sadistic villain Jack Randall.
POSITIVE PORTRAYAL OF CATHOLICISM
The best part of Outlander for a Catholic reader is the wonderful, positive portrayal of Catholicism and monastic life in the last few chapters. Earlier in the book, a parish priest is portrayed as uneducated, superstitious, and vindictive, but the later chapters dealing with many holy monks and priests more than counterbalance the one caricature of a peasant priest. Towards the end of the book, a wounded Jamie and Claire seek refuge in this French monastery. Though a lifelong agnostic, Claire is impressed by the devout monks and befriends one priest, Fr. Anselm, who offers her some beautiful explanations of various Catholic practices such as perpetual adoration and Extreme Unction.
“The purpose of the sacrament is twofold,” Anselm went on, murmuring in my ear as the preparations went on. “First, it is intended as a sacrament of healing; we pray that the sufferer may be restored to health, if that be God’s will for him. The chrism, the consecrated oil, is used as a symbol of life and healing.” “And the second purpose?” I asked, already knowing. Anselm nodded. “If it is not God’s will that he should recover, then he is given absolution of sins, and we commend him to God, that his soul may depart in peace.”
On Anselm’s advice, Claire begins to attend perpetual adoration, eventually admitting that she is not alone and recognizing God’s presence. I began to be excited that Gabaldon was leading up to a conversion or miracle, but then was utterly baffled as a few pages later Claire turns to witchcraft to help heal Jamie.
WITCHES AND WITCHCRAFT
The witchcraft motif begins in the first few chapters of the book with a casual interlude of palm reading with the vicar’s cook. From there the observant reader finds an ongoing insinuation of two contradictory themes about witchcraft. A first theme is an attempt to normalize witchcraft as not particularly different than herb lore, divorce it from Satanism, and paint those who fear witchcraft as superstitious and uneducated. Claire notices the witches she meets are wise, reasonable women who by extension take a reasonable attitude towards the occult.
“Perhaps it was an attitude they shared, a pragmatism that regarded the occult as merely a collection of phenomena like the weather. Something to be approached with cautious respect, of course—much as one would take care in using a sharp kitchen knife—but certainly nothing to avoid or fear.”
Claire undergoes a witch trial when she is arrested along with a friend and accused of dabbling in the occult. Her friend, who is a self-proclaimed witch, ends up sacrificing herself so Claire can escape, emphasizing the motif that witches are basically good people. Up to that point, Claire has regarded witchcraft with leeriness, but eventually she turns to witchcraft herself, as mentioned above, to save Jamie in the last extremity. She decides to “summon a ghost” by using a reflection pool as her witch friend had taught her to assist in exorcising Jamie’s nightmares. Afterwards, she leaves her room “with a prayer for the soul of the witch Geillis Duncan.” This whole interlude of Claire using the occult is particularly troubling because of its placement in the plot. Jamie has been given Extreme Unction, the monks have commended him to God’s providence … and then Claire turns to witchcraft to save him. The second theme about the occult seems to be: God is a comforting idea, but witchcraft works better.
Another aspect of Outlander that I found very troubling was that the great romantic relationship in the story between Jamie and Claire skirted dangerously close to a domestic abuse situation. Both hot tempered, they frequently engaged in shouting matches, hurling verbal abuse at each other. Jamie threatened Claire with physical abuse on several occasions. For example: “Try that again and I’ll slap you ’til your ears ring.” And on one occasion, he does follow through with a threat and beat her with his sword belt. Worse, he confesses to enjoying it:
“Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so … God, you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time … Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes, I did enjoy it.
LANGUAGE & LYING
Taking the Lord’s name in vain is frequent throughout Outlander. Claire is the worst in this regards, blaming her foul mouth on having served in field hospital. Jamie is at first held up as a fundamentally good, moral character; it is disappointing as the book progresses and he curses regularly too. Lying is also commonplace. Jamie and Claire make a pact not to lie to each other, but otherwise Claire sees no problem with lying. In fact, the book opens with her flippantly lying to her landlady.
PEDOPHILIA A LAUGHING MATTER?
There are at least two homosexual characters. One is the Duke of Sandringham, who has a reputation for preying on teenage boys. Now this is not represented as a positive, but it is presented as fairly amusing. The Duke is a jolly, intelligent man whom Claire says she rather likes. An interesting way to draw a sexual predator, isn’t it? Jamie tells humorous anecdotes about the Duke’s attempts to assault him as a teenager. I find making a joke out of pedophilia at best offensive and at worst an effort at normalization. I do not know the author’s intentions of course, but humor is a great way to normalize deviant behavior.
THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS
The final and insurmountable difficulty with Outlander for a Catholic reader is that it is, simply put, too explicit. Unless you are willing to skip large sections of the text, you find yourself reading intimate details about Claire’s lovemaking with Frank and Jamie that no one needs or should want to know. Even worse, Gabaldon spends page after page describing Jack Randall’s sadistic homosexual tendencies in great detail. This was completely unnecessary to the plot and simply revolting to read. Skimming over a few paragraphs of such unnecessary explicit details about lovemaking and sadism is one thing, but the novel is simply rife with such passages.
The curious combination of accurate Catholic knowledge mixed with witchcraft, domestic abuse, and explicit sex scenes is honestly more disturbing than a run of the mill romance novel. Gabaldon has clearly been catechized, and yet writes a book that seems set on muddying the waters about witchcraft, romanticizing domestic abuse, and swimming with sex scenes. To quote some Jane Austen, “Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.” Outlander could have been a great book without the smut and witchery. But as it is in actuality, my advice is: this book is certainly not appropriate for teenagers, and adults should be forewarned that this is not a clean novel.
Where do I like to shop for books? Amazon, library book sales, and used book stores are all places I like to watch for deals on fiction, especially out of print classics. When it comes to Catholic books though, I like to browse catalogs from these trusted Catholic publishers.
Ignatius Press is one of the largest and most trusted American Catholic publishing houses. They are Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s publisher, and also publish works by other recent popes. They have a huge selection: lots of books on apologetics, commentaries on modern culture and topics, some new Catholic novels, and old classics like Lewis and Chesterton. I’m very happy that they are actively publishing new Catholic children’s books such as Maite Roche’s beautiful children’s Bibles. They also offer Bibles, missals, DVDs, music, and much more.
Sophia Institute Press has less selection, but still offers a good range of non-fiction and fiction choices. They have a clearance section of $5 and $10 books which is a great place to look for Christmas gifts! Sophia is a great place to look for books on marriage, the sacraments, apologetics, and heaven. They also reprint titles, such as this gem from the real Maria Von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame.
TAN Books markets itself as a classic Catholic book publisher. TAN offers Bibles, devotionals, and books on a variety of Catholic subjects, primarily non-fiction. I especially appreciate the books they print as Neumann Press with the goal of reviving beautiful,out-of-print Catholic classics. We love our copy of Saints for Girls: A First Book for Little Catholic Girls.
The Word Among Us Press has a small selection of new books, and a lot of Bible studies, missiles, and prayer resources. I was excited to see thaty they recently published a new women’s personal Bible study and prayer journal from Elizabeth Foss focused on inspiring women in the Bible.
Dynamic Catholic is aptly named. It is, indeed, a dynamic company on fire to re-energize American Catholics. One aspect of its mission is making inspiring Catholic books accessible and affordable to everyone, so you can actually order free books on their website. I recently read Moving in the Spirit from Dynamic Catholic and it really helped me understand and begin to implement Ignatian spirituality.
Magnificat Bookstore publishes a wonderful line of Catholic children’s books through Ignatius. Magnificat is best known for its subscriptions of easily-formatted daily meditations and readings. They also publish a kids’ subscription, Magnifikid, which helps children follow and comprehend Sunday Mass.
Catholic Answers publishes a wide range of wonderful Catholic books ranging from spirituality to saints to current issues to apologetics. Their books are very readable and applicable to modern topics.
Pauline Books and Media is a major Catholic publishing house run by the Daughters of Saint Paul. They support the new evangelization and offer a wide selection of titles on Catholic topics for adults, teens, and children. They offer a particularly good assortment of books on Theology of the Body, including the original book by John Paul II: Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.
Ave Maria Press offers primarily non-fiction titles on spirituality, Catholic culture, and ministry to both youth and adults. They also print some old classics like Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World: A Novel.
Emmaus Road Publishing publishes a number of non-fiction titles on catechetics, apologetics, scripture, and more. They publish several famous converts such as Scott Hahn.
Ascension Press specializes more in other media areas, but it does publish a small but good list of books, mostly on Theology of the Body and other topics highly applicable to modern life.