Although only time will tell what books of the last century last through the centuries as true classics, I’ll venture to predict Kate Seredy’s The Good Master and The Singing Tree will be on that short list. Hungarian born Kate Seredy was a brilliant children’s author who lived from 1899-1975. She wrote prolifically and was also a talented artist who illustrated her own books. My favorite books by Seredy are the The Good Master and its sequel. Both books were Newberry Honor books and much lauded. Best of all, these books tell an engaging story: a story about two cousins and a farm and a war and a lost way of life. They’re a window that gives a glimpse into the early twentieth century your family will never forget.
These books are living history at its best!
The Good Master tells a simple story of Hungarian farm life in the early twentieth century. Jansci’s father is a successful farmer known far and wide as “The Good Master” for his gentle but firm way with animals and children. When Jansci’s difficult city cousin Kate comes to visit, the peaceful farm life is thoroughly shaken up. But in the end, the magic of animals, country life, and never ending family love cure Kate of her willfulness. Mostly. This first book showcases the simple beauty of country life and the Hungarian traditions throughout the year.
In sharp contrast, The Singing Tree begins with the advent of The Great War: World War I. Jansci and Kate are barely in their teens, but suddenly having to take charge of the farm as Jansci’s father must leave for war. In this sequel, Seredy draws a poignant picture of the challenges the impoverished Hungarian farmers and peasants faced, their confusion about the war, and how they survived by helping one another. This book, though sad, is even more beautiful than The Good Master. If you’re studying the early twentieth century or World War I, The Singing Tree is a must-read.
Anything parents should be aware of?
No violence, sexual content, language, and so on. These books are squeaky clean and beautifully written! There is some dramatic tension in the second book about whether Jansci’s father will come home. Other soldiers from their village die in the war. There are orphans and homeless who shelter on Jansci’s farm. Undeniably, the Singing Tree is a very sad book at times. But it’s also a story of strength and courage and heroic charity. I recommend reading these books in the middle grades, around age 10-12. But like true classics, they’re very enjoyable read aloud as a family also!
Living History Books blend fiction and historical events in a unique way that captures kids’ interest. The chapter books on this list are a great springboard for getting your kids interested in learning more about the American Revolutionary War and the great men who helped found our country!
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Ben and Me is a unique biography of Benjamin Franklin, cleverly written by his trusty sidekick Amos the Mouse. This book is hilarious, memorable, and easy to read. Perfect for 8-10 year olds.
Scheherazade the chesnut Mare used to belong to a cruel British officer. When she begins a new life with Paul Revere she ends up playing a pivotal role in helping the American patriots when Paul makes his famous ride to sound the alarm. After your children read Mr. Revere and I, your whole family can enjoy reading Longfellow’s fantastic poem Paul Revere’s Ride aloud.
On the other side of the Atlantic, George III of England seemingly inexplicable treatment of the American colonists gets a fresh look in Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? Newberry Winning author Jean Fritz draws on amusing anecdotes of King George’s childhood to help children understand this man who drove a country to revolt.
10 year old Ellen bravely takes her ailing grandfather’s place in a dangerous spy mission to help the American patriots in Toliver’s Secret. A thrilling story of a shy girl’s courage and patriotism.
The Childhood of Famous Americans series has over 50 volumes that teach history through engagingly writing about the childhood and young adulthood of famous Americans. For a Revolutionary War character study, I recommend their biographies of George Washington, Martha Washington, and Benjamin Franklin.
The Reb and the Redcoats follows the American Revolution from the perspective of a British family. When they are forced to house an American POW, it changes everyone’s perspective. A thought-provoking book that gives “both sides” of the story.
Guns for General Washington retells the story of a courageous 19 year old who transported 183 guns across a state to help General Washington win an important battle in Boston.
In True to the Old Flag, prolific historical fiction writer G. A. Henty focuses on a young British soldier’s experiences fighting in America and Canada during World War II. I found this book gave a fascinating and often unheard perspective, focusing on the Loyalist American arguments and the British cooperation with the Native Americans. 10+
Johnny Tremain is a young silversmith who tragically injures his hand, ending his budding career. But soon, he finds himself working for the Patriot newspapers and being drawn into the fight for independence. 10+
A centuries old feud and some friendly ghosts lead orphaned Peggy on a journey back in time to interact with her American Revolutionary War ancestors. A touch of mystery, a touch of Romance, and a lot of masterful historical fiction make The Sherwood Ring a favorite of mine. 12+
From Catholic publisher Te Deum Press comes this translation of Fr. Hublet’s novel Our Boy. Set at the onset of World War II, this book follows the adventures of an orphaned Belgian boy, Jackie. Never before printed in English, this beloved Belgian book has great themes about family, friendship, and temptation.
Material versus Spiritual Wealth
10 year old Jackie comes from a world of wealth and privilege, but finds happiness with the poorer, holy Arcueil family. When Jackie is offered a return to a comfortable but Godless life, he has to make a tough decision. Will he choose to stay with the family that loves him and continue learning about Catholicism? Or will he choose material possessions and a life spent pursuing pleasure?
Great for 10-14 year olds
10-14 year olds will enjoy Our Boy. There is moderate suspense in the beginning as the Germans invade France. There’s also a violent car accident that kills Jackie’s grandfather and aunt. The most mature content is when a troubled Jackie briefly contemplates taking his own life. No graphic violence, language, or inappropriate content, so overall this is quite appropriate for a young audience. The historical fiction setting in occupied Belgium makes this book an interesting addition to learning about occupied Europe during World War II.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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!
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!
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.”
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!
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!
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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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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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.
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.