A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel by Kathleen Baldwin is a fast-paced alternative historical fiction novel that offers the reader a captivating blend of adventure, romance, and mystery. This first installment in the Stranje House novels is told by Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, a young lady of noble birth and many talents. Unfortunately for her, being a brilliant mathematician with a scientist’s curiosity is not an asset to a young lady in 1814. Exiled to Stranje House by her exasperated parents, Georgiana finds herself swept up in a world rife with mystery, romance, and most importantly opportunities for a girl with unusual abilities.
In contrast to many teen novels I read (like my recent experience with “The Selection”), I actually enjoyed Kathleen Baldwin’s writing style and plot. She writes a swift moving story without sacrificing descriptive language and character development. One of the parts I most appreciated was that while Georgiana was clearly the heroine of this book, the other girls at the school also receive character development and seem to be fascinating people too. This harmonizes with one of the major themes in A School for Unusual Girls: acceptance, both of your own gifts and those of others. Each of the girls at the school is highly gifted in their own unique way, but has been rejected by society for not fitting the accepted mold for young ladies. At first Georgiana envies her schoolmates their beauty or talent in other areas, but in the end comes to peace with accepting the gifts she has been given and appreciating what her friends have without jealousy.
The main problem in A School for Unusual Girls is a typical one in secular teen novels: God and religion are left completely out of the world of Stranje House. Personally, I do not see this as a reason to utterly discount a well-written book, as long as your teenagers are noticing the void. In the area of sex, parents need to know that the “romance” in this novel borders on sensual at times, with some passionate kisses. There is also a point in the plot where one of the girls dresses seductively to distract some soldiers. For these latter reasons, I would suggest parents use their judgment in determining the appropriate age for their teens to read this. I would not this book recommend for a girl younger than fourteen.
THE BOTTOM LINE A School for Unusual Girls may not be great literature on par with Leave It to Psmith, but it a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some encouraging themes for teenage girls. I do not see boys enjoying this book at all, but it will resonate with teenage girls who may not quite fit in easily for some reason, whether that be introversion, unusual interests, high intelligence, or something else entirely. I hope this book will encourage girls to explore and develop their individual, God-given gifts.
My post Good Catholic Books for Catholic Preschoolers and Kindergarteners is one of the most searched and read on this site, so today I was inspired to write a similar post aimed at Catholic teens. If you are looking for confirmation gift ideas or just good books about the Catholic faith, inspiring saints, and captivating conversions to add to your library, here is the list for you.
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For older teens, Louis de Wohl’s biographies of saints are great inspirational reading. He does a fine job of portraying the saints as fallible human persons who achieved sainthood by responding to God’s call in their lives. A note of warning: Louis de Wohl’s books do contain occasional mild sexual content, so I recommend them for older teens only at parental discretion.
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George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic is a fascinating tour of important historical Catholic sites, combining architecture, history, and faith into a seamless, captivating series of letters.
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Jason and Crystalina Evert’s books Pure Manhood and Pure Womanhood are fantastic, short and sweet answers to questions teenagers have about dating and sex.
All Things Girl: Truth for Teens is a spectacular gift for a Catholic teenage girl! This book offers chapters on everything from modesty and fashion to social media and peer pressure. An awesome resource for Catholic moms as a discussion starter also.
Youcat by Cardinal Schonborn was designed with the input of high schoolers on the design team to create a visually appealing version of the Catechism to appeal to a teenage audience. If your teenager wants color images and is turned off by the weight of the full Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition, then this would make a great Confirmation gift.
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I AM_ by Chris Stefanick is an awesome book to give a teenager or young adult. Stefanick leads the reader to recognize that they are beautiful, courageous, strong, fearless, precious, and lovable. This is a message teenagers desperately need to hear. Each word has a short anecdote and meditation or prayer. Chris Stefanick writes in a very simple, conversational tone that will easily appeal to teenagers, even those with a short attention span!
Resisting Happiness by Matthew Kelly explains how to break past our own procrastination and laziness and choose the happiness we all desire deep in our hearts.
The Truth Is Out There is the first volume of a wonderful new comic book style Apologetics series. This action-packed sci fi series melds interplanetary travel with spirited arguments about the important questions in life: does God exist, why is the Catholic church the one true church, what happens we die, and so many more!
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Fr. Gereon Goldman tells his own incredible story of life as a German soldier, becoming a priest secretly, and the miracles that he has experienced in his life. A moving and exciting account of Divine Providence at work.
Parent Warning: plot includes a Nazi plan to seduce seminarians by forcing them to live in households with beautiful young women.No explicit content.
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The Song at the Scaffold follows 16 Carmelite nuns as they face the guillotine during the French revolution. An inspiring story based on true events.
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The Robe by Lloyd Douglas is the fascinating story of a Roman centurion whose life is changed forever when he acquires Christ’s robe.
For more ideas of great books for Catholic teenagers, check out some of my other book lists such as:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Colllins was a smashing success, inspiring a plethora of dystopian young adult novels, none of which are remotely as gripping in my opinion. For Hunger Games is undeniably a well-told story with captivating characters. Collins uses the first person present tense: an unusual choice, but unexpectedly successful in drawing in the reader and providing a memorable voice for the heroine, Katniss.
To fill you in on the plot, Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who is chosen as a “tribute” or contestant in a mandatory “game” (fight to the death) between 16 children imposed as a punishment on the 12 districts of post-nuclear war Panem by its authoritarian government, the Capitol. The first book focuses on the two tributes from District 12, Katniss and Peeta’s, preparations, the game, and its aftermath. Book Two, Catching Fire, brings Katniss and Peeta back for another round of the games, and introduces a new plot line about Rebels working to overthrow the Capitol. Book Three, Mockingjay, describes Katniss’ uneasy alliance with the rebels, ostensibly to overthrow the Capitol, but in reality to get revenge on those she holds responsible for destroying her life.
There are a good number of problems with these books on a philosophical and moral level, some serious, so this is a series which it is important to discuss with your teenagers and encourage them to read with analytical attention. A first theme to have them watch for is the attitude towards religion. Or rather, the lack of any attitude towards religion. In fact, make that no mention of religion or God at all. For Panem apparently came to exist in a vacuum in which no one even thinks of a creator or supreme being, even to curse him. This complete and intentional refusal to even allow the characters to mention any religious sensibility is a glaring moral problem with the series, but honestly I also think one can see a theme here that a world that has no religion and no recognition of God is a harsh, barbaric world. Little wonder that one ends up with the horror of the Hunger Games when mankind is making up its own morality based on no objective moral standards. The real wonder is that Katniss, Peeta, and others actually do show loyalty, kindness, and compassion. In my opinion, despite an obvious attempt to remove God from the picture, Collins’ portrayal of good and bad characters and default to natural law morality still reflects the reality of God.
Another problematic theme in this series is revenge. Katniss cares deeply about friends and family, and spends much of the later books motivated by her desire for revenge on those who harmed her loved ones. Collins sometimes even portrays her desire for revenge as a somewhat laudable motivation. The question for Collins is not whether revenge is the answer, but who is ultimately responsible for the pain and suffering and deserving of death. Not should one take revenge, but upon whom should one wreak vengeance? Katniss, deeply damaged by her experiences, declares she wants the Hunger Games played out again by the Capitol children as a punishment. Readers need to realize that her desire for vengeance is disordered, again pointing back to the problems with removing God and eternity from the worldview. A fitting companion book to read is The Count of Monte Cristo, which has a powerful theme about revenge not ultimately bringing fulfillment or happiness.
Unsurprisingly given the lack of any belief in God or afterlife, suicide receives a troubling treatment in the Hunger Games. In the climatic final scene of the Hunger Games in the first book, Katniss and Peeta defy the Capitol by threatening to kill themselves rather than kill each other. This solution is cleverly designed by the author to portray suicide as a noble course of action in certain circumstances. Of course, as Catholics we know that suicide is never acceptable, and a discerning reader can point out that there were other options for Katniss and Peeta. For instance, they could have simply refused to fight at all and let themselves be killed by the mutant dogs that had been attacking them. Defying the Capitol did not need to involve a suicide threat.
One final negative influence I will point out is the theme that adults are incapable or unreliable. Almost without exception, the adults in the story disappoint Katniss and thrust her into taking an adult role herself. Her mother suffers from severe depression and her father is dead, so she is the head of her family from the age of 12. Her mentor for the games is a drunkard. The authority figures in the Capitol are the sick individuals who ordered the Games. The head of the Rebels proves to be as heartless and scheming as the Capitol rulers. Collins places Katniss into a world where every adult fails her, forcing her into the role of heroine and Rebel figurehead as a sixteen year old. The real wonder is that Katniss seems to understand intuitively how to be a leader given her complete dearth of positive role models.
Now while I clearly do not wholeheartedly embrace the Hunger Games as a moral tale, I do think there are some worthwhile positive themes that cancel the negative and make this series acceptable reading material. A first positive moral in this series is the theme that violence is bad. There is an odd dichotomy between the amount of violence described in the series, and the theme that violence is wrong: that violence is never the answer. In the first book, Katniss finds herself forced into scenarios where she must kill or be killed, but what sets her apart from most other players in the Games is her attitude that the violence and killing is wrong. Katniss sees killing human beings as horrible, and through her perspective so does the reader. This positive message about violence does become murkier as the series progresses, with the third book particularly devolving towards more gratuitously described violence and a damaged Katniss starting to become numb. I do think that Collins’ conclusion of the series with Katniss portrayed as a troubled, haunted woman who cannot move past the violence and trauma she has witnessed and endured is accurate and an important point to emphasize.
The overarching redeeming theme in the Hunger Games series is the positive message that human beings are persons to be valued, not objects to be used. Katniss’ charisma comes from her ability to see the people she meets as human, her compassion for them, her humanization of those she meets. The moments that everyone in the entire country loves her, such as her flower burial of a murdered 12 year old in the arena, are the moments when she combats dehumanization and makes everyone see the dignity of each person. Similarly, Peeta, the “good” character, is first seen as such for his kindness to Katniss and other people, even trying ones. His goodness is that he treats Katniss as a person from childhood onward. In contrast, the other character in the love triangle, Katniss’ friend Gale, loses her to Peeta because she cannot bear that he begins to treat people like animals. Likewise, the evil Capitol devalues human life, sentencing children to a sick game of slaughtering one another. The goodness or badness of persons and entities in the Hunger Games series is closely tied to their recognition or dehumanization of human persons.
Another theme that makes Hunger Games beautiful and memorable is that even in a brutal, dehumanizing totalitarian regime, people find the courage to help one another, treat each other as human beings, and resist, even if only by their silence. Several poignant scenes involve a protest where an entire District refuses to cheer, or offers a silent salute to Katniss’ human dignity-affirming actions. The message that evil flourishes when good people do nothing is strongly affirmed. All that it takes to begin to overthrow the Capitol’s power is a couple teenagers who refuse to kill one another. Their small resistance leads to silent protests, then to full out revolution.
The Hunger Games Trilogy teeters on the brink between truly worthwhile literature and sensational young adult fiction. The three books in the series vary greatly in coherency, theme, and merit. The first book, The Hunger Games, is the best in my opinion, and certainly worthy of having a high schooler read and discuss or write a paper on. Yes, there are some moral problems with the series, but with a little guidance, high schoolers can recognize the bad, take away the good themes, and enjoy a creative story.
Ideas for discussion questions or book report topics:
1. Does the author intentionally never mention God or religion? Is that a realistic picture of human nature: are people religious by nature? Despite attempting to remove God from the picture, does the author still acknowledge the natural law by creating good and bad characters? Does the author’s Godless world seem to need God?
2.Apply three of Peter Kreeft’s arguments for God’s existence to the world of Panem.
3. Are there any positive adult role models in Katniss’ life? Why would the author create a book where all the adults are deeply flawed? Does this play on a common teenagers’ assumption that they are wiser than adults?
4. Is violence portrayed as negative or positive? Killing? How well does Katniss recover from her ordeal? Peeta?
5. What are the moments Katniss most touches the world of Panem? Why do her compassionate, personhood-affirming actions resonate so strongly? Is it in contrast to the view of human dignity the Capitol takes?
6. How do people resist the Capitol regime? What does Catniss do (give examples) that is a catalyst for people waking up and refusing to allow the brutality of the Hunger Games any longer?
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These book recommendations are intended for high schoolers of all ages, but should contain nothing inappropriate for those high schoolers on the younger side. I have divided the books into three rough categories: literary classics, Catholic fiction, and just for fun. Concentrating on reading the great classics at an early age gives your teenager a solid foundation in and appreciation of the literary riches of western civilization. The books under Catholic fiction range from saint biographies to apologetics disguised as fiction. The books under “for fun” are exactly for that purpose!
Every girl needs to read Jane Austen! Pride and Prejudice and Emma offer an education in the weaknesses and follies of human nature, but also a tribute to people’s ability to change and grow. All of Austen’s books belong on a teenage girl’s bookshelf!
Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton is best known for his non-fiction such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, but he is also the author of many fanciful, delightful fictional works. The Complete Father Brown Stories, short mystery stories starring a humble Catholic priest, is a great introduction to the genius of Chesterton. Another loosely connected set of short stories, The Club of Queer Trades, offers thought-provoking ideas about work and leisure wrapped up in captivating stories. Chesterton was also a skilled poet, and his The Ballad of the White Horse and Lepanto are inspiring ballads with themes about Catholic heroes trusting in God in seemingly hopeless battles.
Of course, a familiarity with the major works of Charles Dickens is essential for a well rounded literary education. I recommend beginning with A Tale of Two Cities , both for its riveting historical fiction storyline and its enduring fame as one of Dicken’s greatest works. Likewise, A Christmas Carol is another perfect first Dickens story due to its relative brevity and famous plot. Over the course of the high school years, I also recommend encouraging your child to readOliver Twist , Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, and David Copperfield .
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote a plethora of entertaining works, but as an introduction, I recommend The Prince and the Pauper, the classic story of two boy swapping places and learning and growing through the adventures that ensue. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are classic works of American fiction, simply entertaining on the surface but containing poignant themes about human dignity, the value of each person, societal norms versus natural law, and slavery.
Two Years Before The Mast is Richard Henry Dana’s gripping account of his voyages around Cape Horn, to California, and up and down the New England coast in the mid-nineteeneth century. This American classic showcases travel writing of the best caliber.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is a fictional biography of a castaway who spent twenty eight years on an island. Written over 300 years ago, this adventure story is still relevent and captivating to young readers of today, particularly for the cell phone generation which has almost no concept of being alone.
Rudyard Kipling may be best known as the author of The Jungle Book . However, I highly recommend also reading Kim , the story of an Indian street boy, Captains Courageous, in which a spoiled rich boy learns character through life as a sailor, and The Complete Stalky and Co., which chronicles the escapades of an irrepressible trio of English private school boys.
The Boy Knight of Reims by Eloise Lownsberry is a captivating account of an apprentice goldsmith inthe Middle Ages growing up in the shadow of the great cathedral at Reims. Action and historical information blend together and the reader closes the book knowing a great deal about cathedrals, Joan of Arc, the 100 Year War, and goldsmithing.
BaronessOrczy’sThe Scarlet Pimpernel is a superb blending of a touching love story and the suspense of the French Revolution. This famous novel is always a favorite with high schoolers, especially since it is a shorter read than many classics!
Animal farm: A Fairy Story by GeorgeOrwell is a dystopian novel of lasting fame due to its on point satire about the rise of Communism.
Shane by JackSchaefer is an American western classic about coming of age, manhood, and sacrifice.
Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe and Rob Roy have been ill represented in abridgments. Buy or borrow an unabridged version for your children, especially your sons, and let them be entranced by the chivalry of a different age, the grandeur of Scott’s language, and the noble themes of sacrifice and honor.
William Shakespeare. Get his The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Enough said. But really, read Shakespeare aloud to your protesting teenagers if need be. Exposure to Shakespeare cannot fail to improve a high schooler’s writing and language.
Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic which should be read for English literacy is, of course, Treasure Island. I also recommend The Black Arrow , a fascinating historical fiction novel about justice, revenge, and honor set during the War of the Roses.
I dare to count The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien as classics. Someday I will write an entire post on why this story of sacrifice and friendship, real love and twisted evil, should be read by every teenager.
Jules Verne‘s adventurous novels are as thoroughly enjoyable and readable for today’s high schoolers as they were for readers of the 1870’s when they were published. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be his most famous, but also read Around the World in 80 Days, a fascinating globe trot by a most unlikely duo: a straight-buttoned Englishman and his free-thinking French servant. My favorite Jules Verne, though, is The Mysterious Island , a spin off of sorts to the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which a group of Union prisoners of War escape their jailers in Richmond only to find themselves marooned on a very mysterious island.
I realize Willa Cather is a well-regarded author, but I never can muster up much enthusiasm for her famous My Antonia. I much prefer Death Comes for the Archbishop , a slow, gentle story about the sacrificial life of a Catholic missionary priest in the southwest.
Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly is both simple and magnificent. Mr. Blue is a modern day Saint Francis of Assisi, rejecting a vast fortune for a life of self-giving, which makes him joyful. If you love G. K. Chesterton, you will adore this book.
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith has been so referenced in literature that reading it seems inevitable. A bit slow going, with a decidedly didactic tone, this story of a poor vicar and his family in the eighteenth century is more for literacy than enjoyment.
Both fiction and nonfiction from C. S. Lewis provide excellent reading material for high schoolers, but focusing on fiction here, I recommend his Space Trilogy, which begins with Out of the Silent Planet, which explores the question of intelligent life of non-human origin on another planet. Perelandra posits the interesting scenario of a second Genesis-style temptation on a new planet, but with the Eve figure receiving advice both from a devil and a human. The final book, That Hideous Strength , is a powerful apocalyptic-type novel. I also highly recommend The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters purporting to be from an experienced demon explaining how to tempt and destroy humans.
O. Henry is a master of the short story and the twist in the plot! The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is a collection of 38 of his most famous and best loved stories, but he wrote over 600 stories in total so if possible find a complete works at a used book store or library.
Gene Straton Porter‘s Freckles is a heart-warming story of a disabled boy overcoming the odds and making a success of himself by hard work and good character. Porter’s works are notable for their emphasis on natural beauty and themes of nature leading people to God. However, be warned that not all her books are appropriate for younger teen readers! In addition to Freckles, I can recommend Laddie, a charming story of family life and love as told by the youngest in a large midwestern farm family.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini is a swashbuckling tale about an unassuming Irish physician whom circumstances turn into a successful pirate in the Caribbean. This book raises fascinating questions about honor and duty in the face of injustice and adversity, while also being by turn exciting and downright hilarious.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is the play on which the famous My Fair Lady was based. Inspired by a Greek myth, this is a story about what makes gentility, a love story, and a comedy, all at the same time.
Five travelers from diverse backgrounds die in a bridge collapse in Peru. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is a fascinating examination of their lives and the circumstances which placed them on the bridge together for the accident.
The Virginian by Owen Wister is my favorite western. Soft-spoken and mischievous, gallant and mostly good, the Virginian is a cowboy of the best sort. A thoroughly enjoyable look at cowboy life.
One of my favorite authors of all time is P. G. Wodehouse. He is inimitable in his mastery of the English language and ability to create a side-splittingly hilarious story. Even my very not-a-reader husband will read Wodehouse just for comedic relief after a tough work week! Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories, such as The Code of the Woosters, starring Bertie Wooster, an independently wealthy, idle, charming, good-natured young gentleman, and his ever-stoic, stupendously intelligent valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse also wrote a series set in the country at Blandings Castle. A Bounty of Blandings: Summer Lightning / Heavy Weather / Blandings Castle and several other loosely connected novels are my favorite Wodehouse books, full of wry humor, hilarious misunderstandings, and the society’s own water. The best in this series, and my favorite Wodehouse novel ever, is Leave It to Psmith!
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is the real Maria Trapp‘s wonderful, funny account of her family’s amazing story. A touching and inspiring story of trust in God, hope amid hardship,and love for all things Catholic, this is one of my favorite biographies.
A Philadelphia Catholic in King Jamess Court by Martin de Porres Kennedy is Catholic apologetics wrapped up in a fictional story about an average, Catholic teenage boy forced to live in the Bible Belt with his passionately Protestant relatives. His relatives’ challenges to the Catholic faith have the unforeseen result of causing the boy to deepen and study his Catholic faith in a new way.
Lord of the World: A Novel by Robert Hugh Benson is a dystopian novel about the coming of the anti-Christ and a Catholic priest who resists him. Teenagers love dystopia these days (think of the general obsession with Hunger Games) so this novel from over a century ago should be popular again.
The Song at the Scaffold: A Novel by Gertrud von Le Fort follows the fate of sixteen carmelite sisters as they face martyrdom during the French Revolution. Will they persevere in faith and joy to the scaffold?
The Robe by Lloyd Douglas is a fascinating interweaving of the story of a Roman Centurion’s search for truth with the fate of a seamless robe Jesus wore. A classic conversion story sure to captivate the imagination of the reader.
All Creatures Great and Small: The Warm and Joyful Memoirs of the Worlds Most Beloved Animal Doctor by James Herriot is the first of his many collection of anecdotes about his life as a vet in the English dales. James Herriot is a sheer delight to read. His insight into human nature is as deep as his understanding of animal nature. Funny or moving, all his stories are imbued with a love of God’s creation that is reminiscent of Saint Francis of Assisi. Warning: There is a decent amount of “gentle” swearing in Herriot’s books. If this is not something you want your children reading, I recommend arming yourself with a black permanent marker and editing!
Penrod by Booth Tarkington is a series of side-bustingly funny anecdotes about young Penrod, the all American mischief maker from midwest USA at the turn of the twentieth century.
Between the Forest and the Hills by Ann Lawrence is a “historical fantasy” according to the author, blending Roman Britain’s history with Christian tradition and a generous measure of humor. A thoroughly enjoyable book which defies categories.
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is a side-splittingly funny account of life in a huge family as told by two of the oldest children.
My Heart Lies South The Story of my Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino is a true story of a young American who finds herself marrying a Mexican despite herself, and the sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving story of their journey to blend their different backgrounds and attitudes into a harmonious marriage.
Stephen Lawhead‘s In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first in his fantasy Dragon King series. Not great classics, but still an enjoyable coming of age fantasy story about courage, honor, and friendship. There are some interesting themes about Christianity versus paganism which you can direct your teenager to try to identify.
I believe there is some merit to reading at least the first book in the The Hunger Games trilogy. Read my review here for my reasoning and discussion questions/book report ideas.
If your high schooler is over 16, check out Part 2 of my high school reading list!