scenic view of rainforest

Review of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life”

These two lovely books from Catholic author Diana Gonzalez Tabbaa are a breath of peace in a stormy world. With a simple and gentle voice, Tabbaa takes on the difficult question of children facing the problem of suffering. (Have you noticed I love books about the question of suffering?) The Tree of Healing and The River of Life are the perfect books to help tweens and teens grapple with the problem of pain.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

The River of Life

Twelve year old Anthony lives on a beautiful estate with his loving and holy parents. But when his father dies suddenly, Anthony’s faith and trust in God are shaken. He sinks deeply into grief and loneliness. But soon, he rediscovers God’s love and goodness through the healing power of nature, hard work, and a little help from a mysterious young man named Raphael.

“God has been using all creation to draw me to Him.”

The River of Life

The Tree of Healing

Thirteen year old Rose, Anthony’s daughter, can’t remember her deceased father. Her mother is broken by the loss of her spouse and emotionally distant with Rose. This is a moving story of a lonely young teen who finds love in the right place: God’s arms. As in The River of Life, Tabbaa weaves in themes about Creation, mysticism, and heavenly help.

Beautiful and Moving Books

I can’t say how much these beautiful stories moved me. The lovely art and poetry round out the stories and provides a spark to encourage contemplative prayer. The mystical undertones are unusual to find in fiction- a wonderful surprise. I imagine The Tree of Healing and The River of Life will help draw many young people closer to Christ through contemplation of suffering and Divine Providence.

“It is within Your Heart, open at the cross, that I may pour myself out with You and share in Your Life, the Life of God.”

The tree of healing

I received a copy of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Review of “Shadow in the Dark”

Shadow in the Dark book cover. Catholic book review.

Step straight into Medieval England as you open Shadow in the Dark, the first volume in a brand new series by Antony Kolenc. With a meticulous attention to the historical setting and thoughtful insight into Medieval Catholicism, Kolenc weaves a fascinating and exciting tale. The story begins with young Xan’s dramatic conflict with a band of robbers, which results in Xan losing his family, memory, and feeling of identity. While packing in plenty of action, what makes Shadow in the Dark really stand out among middle grade historical fiction is Xan’s insightful search for the meaning of his suffering and journey of faith.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

What is Identity?

12 year old Xan loses his memory completely at the beginning of the book which leads him to question who he is, and seek a purpose in life. Although most tweens and young teens don’t have to deal with amnesia, they will identify with Xan’s quest to define himself and his place in life. A major theme in Shadow in the Dark is Xan’s quest for identity. He looks to his new “family” of monks at Hardwell Abbey for assistance in his search.

A wise nun tells him: “If you find our purpose- where you fit into this new life of yours- then you will find your joy again.” One of the monks suggests that Xan may find meaning in learning to read and write and study. Later, Xan begins to see himself as an integral part of God’s plan for the Abbey: the boy who can solve the mystery. When Xan begins to see himself as following God’s plan, he begins to find peace. This message about identity being found in your vocation, in doing God’s will, is a great one for young teens to read!

Meaning in Suffering

Twined with Xan’s search for meaning is his struggle to understand his own suffering: why did his parents die? Why did he lose his memory? Difficult questions, and Shadow in the Dark doesn’t give a trite answer. Eventually, with prayer and thought, Xan accepts that his parents are in heaven and, in a way, better off, though he will always miss them. As he sees his purpose in God’s plan for the Abbey, he begins to glimpse meaning in his own suffering. The question of suffering is another great subject for tweens and teens to begin to ponder, since this is an inevitable question in any Christian’s life.

Bullying and Friendship

When Xan joins the other orphan boys at the Abbey, he immediately runs afoul of the bully, John. Shadow in the Dark does a wonderful job depicting Xan’s initial attempts to avoid trouble and eventual rise to the occasion to protect the younger boys. Even better, Xan later works as a peacemaker and gives John a role in solving the Abbey mystery. In the end, Xan and John are striking up a friendship.

Reading Historical Fiction Critically

Although I loved Shadow in the Dark as a whole, there are a few points parents may want to be aware of for an advance discussion with their children. Author Kolenc definitely agrees with this; he provides a handy preface that encourages his young readers to notice historical differences in practice and attitude and evaluate whether these differences are positive or negative. For example, there’s one old monk who has special permission from his Abbot to engage in self flagellation to unite himself with Christ’s sufferings. The other monks emphasize that this is a “dangerous” practice and only to be undertaken with special permission from a religious superior.

Emotional Cliff Hanger Conclusion

Although I loved the emphasis on identity and meaning in suffering, and Xan grew a lot over the course of the book, he still has a long way to go in his spiritual journey! In the poignant conclusion, Xan witnesses the Abbot forgive and spare the life of a bandit. This bandit not only tried to kill the Abbot, but is also responsible for the death of Xan’s parents and many others. The Abbot, with infinite wisdom and holiness, extends forgiveness and touches the bandit’s heart, moving him to repentance. However, Xan, furious still about his parents’ deaths, feels no forgiveness towards the man who is responsible. Clearly, Xan still has a long way to go on his spiritual journey! Hopefully the second volume will follow soon so we can find out how he learns to forgive!

Great for the Middle Grades

5th-8th grade tweens and teens will enjoy this masterfully constructed historical fiction novel. There’s adventure, there’s mystery, there’s justice, there’s friendship. Xan is a relatable hero grappling with common coming of age problems. The overall positive depiction of a medieval Abbey as a center of learning and charitable works is refreshing and inspiring. I look forward to seeing the future volumes in this series!

Shadow in the Dark is available for pre-order now!

I received a copy of “Shadow in the Dark” from Loyola Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Book cover "Shadow in the Dark" book review Catholic kids

Review of “The Princess Diaries”

Princess Diaries review book cover

This book starts out with an epigraph from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a true classic about acting like a princess inside even in the worst of circumstances. Unfortunately, The Princess Diaries does not live up to the epigraph or remotely inspire princess-like behavior in its young audience. I really dislike it when books marketed for tweens and young teens are full of sexual content, so prepare for a rant!

The premise

This diary is clearly intended to appeal to the 12-14 year old crowd. It’s the secret musings of Mia, a 14 year old high school freshman with tough hair and a phlegmatic personality. Used to hanging out with the school misfits, Mia becomes unexpectedly popular when she finds out she’s actually a European princess. Positives in this book? There are some basic positive themes about good friendships and anti-bullying and Mia is a reasonably likeable heroine.

But really, who wants their 12 year old reading about sex stuff?

This book is chock full of a completely unnecessary amount of content focused on sex. For example, right off the bat Mia speculates about her mother’s new boyfriend: “he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.” Mia goes on to wish that the cool boy in school would put his tongue in her mouth though. Throughout the book, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about whether her mom is sleeping with her new boyfriend, and at one point does discover him in her apartment in boxers.

Another highlight is a long conversation between Mia, her best friend Lilly, and Lilly’s 18 year old brother. They talk about condoms and spermicidal fluid, losing their virginity, and who they’d choose to have sex with if they were the last person alive.

Other highlights include joking about her best friend’s brother sexually harassing her, and also Mia brushing off a creepy blind guy who gropes her as unimportant. Mia also laughs at herself for not knowing what “frenching” was when she was 11, like her cousin did. At one point, Mia’s grandmother the Princess Dowager calls her a hooker. At another point Mia describes a woman who inspired her; the inspiring part seems to be that the woman has plastic surgery lips made from her vagina.

What’s the big deal with lying again?

Like other modern “children’s” books, The Princess Diaries sadly normalizes lying and deception as a part of life. Mia frequently lies to her parents. At first, she tells herself in her diary to “stop lying.” But then she seems to “grow” in her view on lying and her self-coaching becomes: “tell the truth except when doing so would hurt someone’s feelings.” And later, “stop lying, and/or think of better lies.”

Political Bent

Another issue of note is Mia’s rather anti-religion, “open-minded” worldview. She admires Madonna because she “revolutionized” fashion by dancing in front of burning crosses and “wasn’t afraid to make the Pope mad.” Mia is proud that she refuses to go to church because she “refused to pray to a god who would allow rain forests to be destroyed in order to make grazing room for cows who would later become Quarter Pounders.”

Mia is also anti-gun, and pro-propaganda. She tells her readers that a stalker is allowed to buy a machine gun “in this country thanks to our totally unrestrictive gun laws.” Fact check: you can’t just buy a machine gun in America. That’s been illegal since 1986.

Mia’s a proud child of divorce. She lives primarily with her doting Bohemian mother and spends summers with her filthy rich royal father. Her parents are friendly to each other, but Mia confides that “things would majorly suck, I think, if they lived together.” She’s “perfectly happy” with her divorced parents.

Turning over in her grave

I doubt that Frances Hodgson Burnett and her heroine Sara are grateful for the tributary epigraph, which really doesn’t fit this teen novel. Unlike Sara, who strives to be a princess, Mia spends most of the book either complaining and acting out because she’s a princess or obsessing about boys and sex. I found little to redeem this book. It really reads like an intentional attempt to indoctrinate young girls into a certain political and sexual mindset.

There are so many better princess books out there! Shannon Hale’s fantastic Princess Academy series is a great example of a modern princess book which focuses on female friendships, sacrifices, and coming of age.

For other worthwhile Princess books, check out this list!

For better romances for teens, check out this list!

Review of “Princess Academy”

princess academy book by Shannon Hale

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is an exciting, character-forming book about friendships, overcoming hardships, and true happiness. A Newberry Honor book in 2006, this popular fantasy series aimed at tween and teen girls seemed too good to be true. But Princess Academy completely surprised me-in a good way!

This review may contain Amazon affiliate links.

A Fantasy World

Fourteen year old Miri lives on Mount Eskel, the linder stone quarry of Danland. Utterly uneducated, her life consists of struggling alongside her poverty-stricken family for basic survival. But one day life on Mount Eskel changes forever. The next Princess of Danland will be selected from among the 20 girls on Mount Eskel. A Princess Academy opens to provide them with education and ideas that change their mindsets and way of life forever.

The Power of Education

So obviously, the power of education, especially reading books, is a huge theme in Princess Academy. Miri learns something from each course she takes: etiquette, poise, history, diplomacy, economics, and, of course, reading. Over the course of the book, Hale cleverly shows how Miri needs the lessons she learned at the Academy to conquer various challenges. Notably, Miri learns from her economic lessons that her town on Mount Eskel is being systematically underpaid for their stone by the traders. Then she uses her diplomacy lessons to advocate for her town with the traders to come to a better arrangement.

Friendship & Forgiveness

The lessons in diplomacy also help Miri work past the initial ostracism she experiences from her fellow classmates. With the help of a little diplomacy, and thanks to her cheerfulness and resourcefulness, she begins to forge real friendships. There’s a great theme running through the book about forgiving wrongs, not harboring anger, and second chances.

Virtues

Another great theme in Princess Academy is that being virtuous is more important than money, power, or winning. The other girls learn to admire and accept Miri due to her positive character traits: her kindness, cheerfulness, helpfulness, and courage. When Miri focuses on winning the title of Academy Princess, she feels restless and unsure. When she focuses on her own self-improvement and helping her friends, she finds peace and clarity.

A True Twist in the Tale

Just from the title, Princess Academy, you think you know how this book is going to end. Surely Miri will end up graduating top of the academy and being chosen by the Prince and living happily ever after. But in a masterful twist that really elevates this book to classic status, author Hale has Miri instead choose to help all her friends graduate, help her best friend be chosen as the Princess, and find happiness in improving life for her family and tiny community.

A Great Fantasy Series for Young Girls

Princess Academy and its two sequels, Palace of Stone and The Forgotten Sisters, are great book options for girls who love fantasy. The messages about the importance of family, friendships, and virtue-growth are powerfully conveyed by the story itself. The writing is solid, and the song snippets “from” Mount Eskel which begin each chapter add some needed depth.

Looking for more fantasy titles? More books for girls? Check out my other lists:

25 Great Books for Children Who Love Animals

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Do you have a dog lover in the family? A horse crazy daughter? A budding naturalist? The child who loves all creatures great and small? I was one of those children, and here is a list of some of my very favorite children’s stories about dogs, horses, and more exotic animals! This list is for the books with animals which act like, well, real animals.

If your children also love talking animals, check out my list of 20 Great Books about Talking Animals!

Books for Dog Lovers

If you’re familiar with the movie Homeward Bound, you’ll already know the basic plot of The Incredible Journey. Three animal companions set off on an incredible cross-country journey, determined to return home to their family. Unlike the movie, in the book the animals don’t actually talk.

Jim Kjelgaard, one of my favorite childhood authors, is best known for Big Red, the story of a boy named Danny and the friendship with an Irish Setter that changes his destiny. Kjelgaard was a prolific author who wrote a plethora of adventure stories about the outdoors, animals, and boys. I can recommend everything I’ve read by him, including: Snow Dog, Irish Red, Stormy, Wild Trek, Trailing Trouble, and Swamp Cat.

Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune is heaven for dog lovers. Lad’s big, gentle heart and courage are guaranteed to make the reader want a collie. Terhune’s other collie books are all excellent. I particularly love Bruce, Gray Dawn, and Treve.

James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories are a delightful introduction to this beloved Yorkshire author. This is a collection of some of the funniest, and most poignant, dog stories Herriot wrote.  

Follow My Leader is a heart-warming story about a middle school boy whose life is shattered when he loses his eyesight in an accident. Thanks to his supportive family and friends, Jimmy soon bounces back and learns to navigate life blind. But the real game-changer is when he meets Leader, his guide dog. Great book that offers a window into life with a disability.

Where the Red Fern Grows can be a love-hate experience for dog lovers since it has a bittersweet ending. If your child is sensitive to animal dying, steer clear of this one. Otherwise, it is a great story about grit, loyalty, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard. 

Along Came a Dog is an out of print treasure by Meindert DeJong. A homeless dog encounters a little red hen and a lonely man, and all their lives are changed. This one is worth buying a used copy!

SeaMan is based on the true story of the dog who explored the west with Lewis Clark. The gentle Newfoundland is always a favorite with dog lovers who appreciate his loyalty, courage, and personality. Historical fiction fans will also enjoy the attention to historical detail in this book.

Did you know 101 Dalmatians was originally a novel? This classic story about Pongo the Dalmation father’s fight to find and rescue his kidnapped puppies is sure to be a hit. 

Scout by Julie Nye is a lovely story about a boy, boats, horses, and a dog set in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula. When Scout appears half dead in the water, no one knows where he came from. Jeff nurses him back to health but eventually has to make a tough decision about where Scout really belongs. Warning: there is a slight fundamentalist Christian flavor to this book since the family is Baptist. Nothing anti-Catholic or heretical though.

Beverly Cleary’s classic humorous stories about Henry and Ribsy are always popular with animal lovers! Everyone cracks up at Henry’s schemes and Ribsy’s escapades.

Books for Horse Lovers

Marguerite Henry is the queen of horse writers. A prolific authoress, she wrote many of the most beloved  children’s books about horses, including Misty of Chincoteague, Sea Star, Stormy, Misty’s Foal, Misty’s Twilight, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, King of the Wind.

Part of the wonderful Little Britches series The Home Ranch has always been a favorite of mine since it’s all about horses, really. Barely a teenager, young Ralph goes to work as a hand on a cattle ranch. He soon learns that the key to sucess is having the right string of horses and learning to work with them.

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley is a beloved classic about a boy and a horse. Shipwrecked on a desert island, Alec and the Black forge a friendship that survives their return to civilization. The themes about resilience, self-reliance, trust, and friendship always resonate with kids.

Smoky the Cowhorse was a 1927 Newberry Medal Winner about a wild mustang and a cowboy. Will Smoky give up his freedom in return for friendship?

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold is another old equestrian classic, this time about a girl and a horse. Horse-crazy Velvet breaths all things equine but money is tight. Very different from the more famous movie, this is a book about an awkward adolescent girl’s determination to ride.

I love My Friend Flicka more as an adult than I did as a kid. Although often recommended for young horse lovers, this book is more appropriate for teenage and up readers due to some serious marital strife between Ken’s parents and some sensuality. If you have an older horse lover, though, it’s the perfect book! The sequel https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060809035/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0060809035&linkCode=as2&tag=gbfck-20&linkId=825eeaec60ceca4023bb54b964eb9718">ThunderheadThunderhead is excellent too!

Books for Lovers of Unusual Animals

Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat is a hilarious, delightful memoir of the author’s boyhood in rural Canada with a veritable zoo of pets. His fond memories of the escapades of his animal friends are strung together into an engaging book. The reader also learns quite a bit about the likes, dislikes, and peculiarities of Great Horned Owls. 

My Side of the Mountain is a true modern classic by Jean Craighead George. Teenaged Sam flees his overcrowded city life and decides to learn to survive on old family property in the wilderness of the beautiful Catskill Mountains. He wouldn’t be able to survive without the assistance of his Peregreine Falcon, Frightful.

How’s Inky? is the first in the Living Forest series by naturalist and philosopher Sam Campbell. Fun for adults and children alike, this series follows the escapades of the orphaned baby animals Sam cares for in his wilderness sanctuary. 

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Animals You Will Never Forget is a wonderful collection of excerpts from articles and books by the best animal writers and naturalists of the 20th century. An anthology that is worth tracking down a used copy of for your family library!

When a down-on-his-luck painter receives a mysterious package from an Arctic explorer, life takes an unexpected turn. Mr. Popper’s Penguins have soon taken over the Popper house!

Beyond Narnia: More Great Fantasy Series for Catholic Kids and Teens

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What kid doesn’t love The Chronicles of Narnia? As an 8-12 year old, it was one of my favorite series, and I still enjoy re-reading it as an adult.

The question is: what to read after Narnia? What other fantasy books can satisfy after such a wonderful series?

This question is particularly tricky given the murkiness about magic, magical powers, witches, and sorcerers commonly found in popular contemporary fantasy series. More insidious but even more harmful is the dualism and Gnostic worldview often normalized in fantasy series.

But don’t lose hope! Today I bring you an entire list of wholesome series for your kids and teens to devour after finishing Narnia.


The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander tell a wonderful coming of age story and adventure. Over the course of the five books, a young man named Taran grows from being a rebellious teen to a valiant and courageous warrior, in the process forging friendships, finding love, and helping save a kingdom.
Recommended for 10 and older.


It is hard to be surpass On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and its sequels in The Wingfeather Saga in the category of edge of your seat fantasy adventure. Check out my Review of the Wingfeather Saga for plot summary, discussion points, praise, and cautions.
Recommended for 12 and older.


Redwall by Brian Jacques has delighted generations of children with its amusing animal heroes, high feasts, and epic battles. This series is satisfyingly long: a whopping 22 books. Some of the later volumes drag, but be sure and buy the first six books at least, which are excellent!
Recommended for 10 and older.


In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first of Stephen Lawhead’s Dragon King Trilogy. Complete with heroic quests, giant serpents, fair maidens to rescue, and a chilling necromancer to defeat, this series is guaranteed to please fantasy lovers. But it also has a solid plot, well-developed characters, and a Christian worldview.
Recommended for 12 and older.


The Green Ember Series by S. D. Smith is a Narnia-like series of epic adventure and talking animals that gets bonus points for being written with a clearly Christian world view. Best of all, it is free to download as an Ebook so you can preview it before deciding whether to buy a paper copy.
Recommended for 10 and older.


E. Nesbit’s classic children’s books that blend magic, adventure, family, and outdoor fun are coming back into print. Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet are just two of her many fine books, which make great read-alouds or independent reads.
Recommended for 8 and older.


The Ruins of Gorlan is the first book in John Flanagan’s captivating 12 volume Ranger’s Apprentice Series. These exciting tales follow teenage Will and his friends as they grow from impulsive teens into capable adults. Battling evil creatures, they learn to rely on one another. Each possessing a different talent, they must learn to cooperate. The characters do grow older during hte series, so this is a great series to dole out a book at a time as your child gets older.
First book recommended for 10 and older.


Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis are the clear must-reads on this list in my opinion. Similar to Narnia in that they are allegorical, they are written for an adult audience and explore deeper questions about creation, the nature of man, and the will for power.
Recommended for 14 and older.

    
To conclude with the master, everything by J. R. R. Tolkien is naturally recommended for fantasy fans. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy should be a part of any home library. Don’t forget The Silmarillion and The Great Tales of Middle-earth also! They provide fascinating details about the making of middle earth and the tales of many of the heroes mentioned in passing in the Lord of the Rings.


Review of “All Creatures Great and Small”


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.

 

Review of “The Mysterious Benedict Society”

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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 ThingsEthics 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!

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS

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!

OVERCOMING FEARS

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?

RECOMMENDATIONS

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.

You can find more of my favorite books for 10-11 year olds and 12-13 year olds here at Good Books for Catholic Kids!

Review of “The Wingfeather Saga”

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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.

CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW

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.

PRO-FAMILY

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.

MAGIC

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.

DRAGONS

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.

Review of “The Weka-Feather Cloak”

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!