white notes beside a pencil on brown wooden surface

Review of “Educated”

Educated is the emotional and thought-provoking memoir of a young woman who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Tara Westover’s family was physically abusive, emotionally abusive, and verbally abusive. This makes her memoir a poignant and inspiring story about a girl who fought her way out of the backwoods to Harvard.

In many ways, Tara’s story parallels J. D. Vance’s story in Hillbilly Elegy, a similar modern rags to educational riches story. But in a fundamental way, Tara’s story differs from Vance’s. These two young authors’ interpretations and take-aways of the dysfunction they grew up with differs dramatically. Tara fixates on homeschooling as a fundamental problem in her childhood, whereas Vance admits his problem was an unstable family life.

Educated?

You see it in the title. Tara sees her fundamental triumph as overcoming her educationally neglectful background. Educated is peppered with comments along the lines of “I never knew about the Holocaust- because I was homeschooled.” With typical liberal distaste, she dismisses homeschooling as a poor education.

The notion that homeschooling is an inferior education has been so thoroughly debunked Tara’s blanket dismissal is almost laughable. Really, the only question up for debate is whether homeschooling provides an equal or better education to public school. The only way I can explain her disdain for a well-respected method of education is to believe she is projecting her own experience onto the many, many thousands of homeschooling families in America.

Homeschooled or not Schooled

From Tara’s account, her family did not engage in much formal education. You might better say she was not schooled than home schooled. Yet she self-admittedly had high reading comprehension skills and enough education to prepare for and pass the ACT’s with minimal help from an older sibling.

Would it have been better for her parents to provide her with a more structured and aided educational experience? Definitely. But is a public school style, teacher-directed education actually necessary for educational success? Tara herself, about half of her other siblings, and many other famous homeschoolers such as Abraham Lincoln show that learning, and the thirst for more learning, can be awakened in a variety of ways.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say Tara’s non-traditional education was a large part of the reason she did succeed academically. Assuming she had been in a typical public school, most likely she wouldn’t have had such an impressive higher education trajectory. Would a typical public school education have given her such an uncommon interior drive and thirst for education? Maybe, but maybe not. And what caught her instructors’ interest? That she was different because she had been homeschooled. Would they have pulled strings, finding her scholarships and study abroad opportunities, if she had been exactly like everyone else? Probably not.

Hillbilly Elegy Life Lessons

J. D. Vance’s memoir is a fascinating counterpoint to Tara’s. Vance came from a comparable abusive background, but spent his years in public school. Does he credit public school with any of his success? Nope. In fact, he repeatedly emphasizes that he struggled academically despite having every possible opportunity for success at school. What does Vance say made the difference and turned around his downward academic trajectory? It was when he finally moved in permanently with his grandmother in high school and entered a stable living situation for the first time in his life. For Vance, having stable relationships and peace at home were key to academic success.

You can see how Vance’s thoughts apply to Tara’s situation. He might say that her fundamental problem was not that she grew up homeschooled, but that she lived with an abusive, mentally unstable family. Vance would say that like himself, Tara wouldn’t have thrived academically in the public school system either. Her academic success began when she began to put physical and emotional distance between herself and her family.

Still Processing

Is Tara’s story inspiring? Absolutely. But is her portrayal of homeschooling problematic for the average American reader? Yes. I would almost call this book anti-homeschool propaganda, except for the raw pain that bleeds out of Tara’s words, showing her very real wounds. This poor young woman is still reeling from a terrible childhood. Fixating on homeschooling as the problem and education as the solution may help her not focus on the real problem in her life: an abusive family that she struggles to come to terms with. It’s just a shame that she is choosing to vilify homeschooling. I hope that such an intelligent person as Tara will eventually process and accept that her own experience of homeschooling (or not schooling at all) is far from a typical American homeschooling experience.

Should you read Educated?

Be warned: Educated has quite a bit of domestic abuse and violence. Tara’s abuse from her older brother is particularly painful to read. If you can get past the violence and anti-homeschooling theme, then it is a well-written memoir about a young girl’s self transformation and will to survive. Alternatively, check out Hillbilly Elegy for a thought-provoking story sans the anti-homeschooling themes. (Note that Hillbilly Elegy is heavy on language.) Both these memoirs are absorbing and popular recent books: great for book club discussion or personal reading and reflection.

Click to buy these books through my Amazon affiliate links: Hillbilly Elegy and Educated.

Or, buy these books through my affiliate page on Bookshop.org.

Disclaimer: Affiliate links mean that I receive a small fee for book sales when you buy through my links, at no additional cost to you.

golden monstrance against blurred church interior

Review of “Giorgio’s Miracle”

Giorgio's Miracle

Giorgio’s Miracle by Laurie Schmitt is a charming little story about a Eucharistic Miracle. Giorgio is a sweet, devout boy who loves our Eucharistic Lord and is troubled by the lack of faith he sees around him in Turin. He begins to pray for a miracle to reignite the faith of the townspeople of Turin. Little does he know that his beloved donkey friend Franca will play a part in the miracle!

Giorgio’s Miracle is a wonderful book to read to 4th-6th graders to inspire a love of Jesus in the Eucharistic. I think some aspects of this book would be great for first communicants, but can’t recommend for that young an age due to some violence from the two villains in the story. These two thieves are cruel to each other and to Franca the donkey; sensitive children may be upset by this part of the story.

This book is an imagined version of how the the Eucharistic Miracle of Turin in 1453 occurred. It will be sure to inspire faith and interest in Eucharistic Miracles. Overall, Giorgio’s Miracle would make a great addition to a Catholic library or study of the Eucharist.

Giorgio’s Miracle is available to purchase here at Shop Mercy, where purchases help support the Marian priests and brothers at the National Shrine for Divine Mercy.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Giorgio’s Miracle” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

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.

love heart flowers spring

Review of “The Plans God Has for You”

The Plans God Has for You

The Plans God Has for You: Hopeful Lessons for Young Women is a fantastic new book from Amy Smith and Emmaeus Road Publishing. Our modern world is fast-paced, stress inducing, and confusing for teens. Teenage girls desperately need to hear Amy’s message about hope, trust, and being a Christian in a fallen world.

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

Jeremiah 29:11

The heart of Amy’s message is found in Jeremiah 29:11, a perfect verse for teenage girls to memorize.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.

Jeremiah 29:11

The Plans God Has for You dives deep into this verse, applying it to friendship, the sacraments, family, dating, and more. Amy urges girls to internalize this message of hope and love from God to us. She explains how this verse can carry girls through suffering, how it helps us approach our friendships and relationships, and how it calls us to shine Christ’s light in the world.

What Makes This Book Special

Amy speaks directly to teen girls with a voice they will easily connect with. She keeps her points short, sweet, and poignant. In The Plans God Has for You, teens will find references and quotes from their favorite Christian bands, classic movies, and popular modern saints. Of course, my favorite part was Amy’s generous quoting of classic books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Jane Austen. The best chapter, in my opinion, is the one where Amy delves into Austen’s themes about happiness, marriage, and true love. There’s deep wisdom in these classic novels that can teach modern day teens that true love waits, is patient, is hopeful.

Perfect for Teen Girls

I would happily gift this book to teenage girls I know. It’s inspiring, it’s easy to read, and it’s clean! The only mention of sex is a paragraph that affirms the value of chastity and the goodness of sex, when used as God intended between husband and wife. Parents will appreciate Amy’s effort to focus teens on enjoying friendships, family, personal growth, and their relationship with God. Although I think the target audience is teens, there is a lot of wisdom for college aged women too. And I enjoyed it as a mom! The Plans God Has for You is a breath of fresh air!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “The Plans God Has For You” from Emmaeus Road Publishing in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

The Plans God Has for You

For more great books for Catholic teens, check out my lists!

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 “Catholic Children’s Treasure Box” Series

 The Treasure Box books are a sweetly illustrated, old-timey series reprinted by Tan Books. Dating back to the 1950s, the Treasure Box series was published as a Catholic children’s magazine. Written and edited by the Maryknoll Sisters, this series is a throwback to a more innocent time in primarily good but occasionally troublesome ways.

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

The Positives

Following in the steps of the Good Shepherd, Treasure Box uses original parables to teach Catholic doctrine and virtues in a way a 3-6 year old can readily understand. For example, one story is about a rich, selfish man who dreams he goes to heaven and finds his clothing there tattered and holey because of his selfish behavior on earth. Other stories have messages about lying, rumors, hard work, honoring the elderly, and stewardship.

Each Treasure Box has an installment in at least one or two serial-style stories, which kids love to follow from volume to volume. My kids’ favorite serial describes the efforts of a charming guardian angel to care for his young African charge and bring missionaries to his remote village. This serial has some great themes about spiritual warfare, supporting missionaries, and devotion to your guardian angel. Other serials follow St. Therese of Lisieux, the story of Creation, and the story of the Holy Family.

Each Treasure Box contains a fun nostalgic section of toy-free play activities, games, and crafts with everyday items. There are also a short poetry selection, fun rhymes, and prayers. Each volume is full of beautiful illustrations and vintage charm.

The Negatives

Overall, we love the Treasure Box books, but there are a few areas where the old-school flavor isn’t an unmitigated positive. There are a few places I either skip a story or provide careful commentary.

For example, Volume 3 has an installment in the St. Therese story where little Therese’s father asks her for a kiss, and she says “No!” Then her father goes inside sadly and her sisters tell her how naughty she was to say no. You see where I’m going with this. I’m sure that back in 1950, this was an entirely innocent story that was supposed to be about listening to your parents or being polite or something. However, in our modern world with our greater awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse, we definitely don’t want our kids to get the idea it’s wrong to say “No” when someone in authority asks for a kiss, or more! So this part of Volume 3 I either skip or explain carefully that her sisters meant Therese said “No” in a sassy way and she should have said “No, thank you!” And we talk about how it’s always okay to say no to someone touching you, bodily autonomy, and so on.

Another place that 1950’s norms don’t exactly match with modern sensibilities is when it come to corporal punishment. There are a few occasions over the 20 volumes of Treasure Box where someone gets a spanking or is threatened with a spanking. A lot of families nowadays are anti-corporal punishment so this is another place where a simple omission or commentary might be needed.

There’s also the rare intense story with a little violence that might disturb sensitive children. Notably in Volume 17, there’s a German folk tale about Shepherd Honest, who is coerced by a scheming courtier to kill the king’s favorite white lamb and deliver the heart to be eaten. My sensitive daughter was quite upset about the fact that the lamb was killed and it’s heart eaten. No illustration of this scene thankfully, but even hearing about this upsets some children!

All things considered

Overall, I do recommend the Treasure Box books. Their sweet vintage illustrations, virtue-building stories, and fun activities make them great for bedtime read-alouds or as a bi-weekly “magazine” to surprise your little ones with. The 2 serial stories per volume make using these as a “magazine” particularly enjoyable. It’s fun waiting to hear what happens to Therese or Wupsy next! With just the few issues I mentioned above which are sections easily omitted, these volumes are very enjoyable for little Catholic children. I think the ideal age to read these aloud is 3-6, though slightly older siblings often enjoy listening in too!

Review of “The Letzenstein Chronicles”

Cover "The Letzenstein Chronicles"

In turbulent mid-nineteenth century Europe, a young English girl is summoned to visit her dying grandfather, the Grand Duke of Letzenstein. Letzenstein is a fictional tiny European country, clearly inspired by Luxembourg. The young girl is Catherine Ayre, a lonely orphan. Her visit is to determine the future of a country on the brink of revolution. The Crystal Snowstorm is the exciting introduction in Meriol Trevor’s magnificent Letzenstein Chronicles.

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

An Authentically Catholic Series

Meriol Trevor was a prolific twentieth century Catholic author. Originally from England, she helped in Italy during World War II as a relief worker. She eventually converted to Catholicism and wrote a wide variety of books for children and adults. Several of her children’s books have been republished in recent years by Bethlehem Books.

Meriol Trevor is that rare Catholic author whose books inspire virtue and love for truth and beauty so subtly you almost don’t see her trying. Like its inspiration Luxembourg, Letzenstein is a predominantly a Catholic country. Catherine Ayre gets to enter a city and country imbued with Catholic culture and art. She gets to encounter a variety of Catholics: some who strive to live their faith and some for whom faith is a facade. Tweens and young teens will appreciate the authenticity of Trevor’s depiction: there are corrupt Catholics, even corrupt clergy, in Letzenstein. But there are also Christ figures and repentant sinners who will lay down their lives to protect the innocent.

Trevor is truly a master of gently nudging her readers towards the path of virtue. The good characters in Letzenstein are compassionate and admirable, and the villains are slippery and scheming. No young reader wants to imitate devious Julius; everyone loves Rafael le Marre, the repentant sinner.

Exciting, but not just about the Action

The Letzenstein books certainly do have plenty of action. You will find daring escapes, fast-paced pursuits, clever disguises, sieges, and schemes and plots galore. Yet Trevor manages to avoid any graphic violence. Further, she manages to portray the villain’s acts of violence as truly deplorable and revolting.

Really, the Letzenstein Chronicles are about relationships: between friends, relations, rivals, families. Each character leaps from the page as if alive. Trevor is such a master storyteller she leads the reader to feel deeply invested in the fate of her characters. She tells each story from the viewpoint of a 10-12 year old child, which draws her readers into the story in a compelling way.

Any Content?

The Letzenstein Chronicles are very clean with no sexual content. There is no graphic violence or foul language. On the other hand, there is some light alcohol use. Remember this is a European book by a European author so children drinking a little wine is culturally normal. There is one episode where an adult character is given drugged alcohol by the villain in an attempt to extract information. This perfidy is portrayed as very reprehensible behavior on the villain’s part.

A Treasure Worth Finding

I highly recommend The Letzenstein Chronicles for 9-14 year olds. They also make a wonderful read-aloud for 3rd-6th graders.

The bad news is, these books can be a bit hard to find. All four Letzenstein Chronicles are available as E-Books. And you can buy the paperback of The Crystal Snowstorm from the publisher, Bethlehem Books. But to buy the paperbacks of Following the Phoenix, Angel and Dragon, or The Rose and Crown, you will have to settle for a used copy. Consider emailing publisher Bethlehem Books and asking for them to reprint this wonderful series!

For more great books for Catholic Kids, check out my book lists!

Review of “Dune”

Dune book review

Dune is often called a Science Fiction masterpiece. Now, in 2020, it’s coming out as a movie that will probably be a major hit. After the release of the movie, I’m guessing the Dune books will enjoy a new wave of popularity, so I recently read them with a view to determining their level of appropriateness for teen readers. In order to make this review a manageable length, I will concentrate on the issues I found in the first book.

Premise

Dune‘s setting is a futuristic interplanetary society where noble houses, a corrupt emperor, a power-hungry pilot’s Guild, and big-business CHOAM vie for power and wealth. There’s also the Bene Gesserit, a warrior-nun group which pursues its own agenda striving for racial purity and power. Wealth in the world of Dune is measured in terms of Melange, also called Spice, a drug which has whole universe under its thrall.

The plot centers around Paul Atreides, a teenager coming of age in one of the noble houses. Paul’s family takes charge of Arrakis, the planet which produces all the Spice. Paul is a unique combination of visionary, genius, and leader. With the aid of his Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica, he becomes the leader of the Fremen, a nomadic warrior tribe who control the Spice fields. At the head of the Fremen, Paul takes control of the Empire.

There’s no denying that the scope and richness of the Dune series is captivating. The insights about greed for power and wealth and its results are commendable. I even appreciated the first book simply as a literary work. But as a parent, I found several concerning aspects with this book on multiple levels.

Concerns

Drug Use: the entire planetary system in the world of Dune is addicted to Spice, their drug of choice. Many are well aware of this fact, but choose addiction because they want the heightened senses and visions the Spice brings. There is a heavy emphasis on the powers and enhancements the drug provides. A recipe for encouraging teens to try drugs, anyone?

Sexual content: Lady Jessica is a concubine. There is a scene where another Bene Gesserit “sister” is sent by her husband to sleep with a teenage boy whose DNA they want for their breeding program. Paul takes a concubine from among the Fremen and has a son with her. None of this is particularly graphic; it is more stated than described.

Anti-Catholic content: The Bene Gesserit are basically nuns. Well, except they’re obsessed with preserving the best genes, so frequently become concubines, commit adultery, and so on. They use terms like “Reverend Mother” for their leaders. They send “Missionaries” to other planets to sew seeds of “storylines” in case one of the sisterhood is ever in need. The concept of an “awaited Messiah” is one of these intentionally created legends.

Both the depiction of Bene Gesserit and use of Messiah motif are troublesome. In the world of Dune, the coming of a Messiah is basically a big hoax carefully planned for millennia. “Religion” is an intentional manipulative force used by the Bene Geserit to further their own secret goals of racial purity.

Conclusions

I really dislike it when authors take Catholic terms and intentionally try to pervert the mental connotations, seeding doubt and reversion in the reader’s mind when they hear terms like “Reverend Mother,” “Messiah,” or “Missionary.” In Dune, this agenda extended to the entire concept of religion. For me, that largely ruined the Dune books so I wouldn’t recommend them for teens.

But, if you have an older teen who loves science fiction and really wants to read them, I recommend encouraging an analytical approach. For example, ask your teen to intentionally try to spot all the examples of twisting Religion and Christian terms in a negative way. Or ask them to form an opinion on whether author Herbert was intentionally normalizing drug use and free love. A mature teen can gain a lot of benefit can by this kind of intentional analysis.

Looking for better books for your teens? Check out my book lists, especially my lists for high schoolers!

Review of “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”

This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links .

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Novel by [Bradley, Alan]

70 year old Alan Bradley’s debut mystery novel quickly became an international bestseller- and with reason. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce brings something completely fresh and new to the mystery scene. Amateur chemist Flavia is all of 11 years old, but when a stranger gets murdered in her family’s garden, she is instantly determined to solve the murder. Precocious and cynical and lovable, Flavia is a one-of-a-kind sleuth in these charming, well-plotted mysteries.

In the Great Tradition of Golden Age Mysteries

Author Bradley seems to have intentionally created a Golden Age of Mystery atmosphere in these novels. Like most Golden Age detective fiction, these books are set in English country houses and cozy villages. Each book opens with Flavia becoming involved in a murder investigation. The clues are provided for the reader so there’s actually hope of figuring out whodunit. The theme is always about bringing justice and restoring order to the house and village.

Surprisingly Clean

With an 11 year old protagonist, this series easily avoids many of the common racy relationship scenes common in mystery novels. There are a few plot points here and there involving adultery or promiscuity, but no explicit details. Since they’re so clean, this series is actually appropriate for teens too.

A Troubled Family

The sad part of these books is Flavia’s troubled family life. Her mother was absent, then dead. Her father is depressed and disinterested. Her sisters are frequently quite cruel. Flavia’s cynical nature is better understood after she explains how her sisters play cruel pranks such as leaving her tied up and locked in a dark cellar. Paradoxically, these same sisters do show loyalty on occasion, even saving Flavia’s life in one novel. The evolving relationship between the sisters is one of the threads that connects the books together and a reason to read them in order.

Given her troubled family situation, it’s no surprise that Flavia is no angel. She frequently lies, manipulates, and prevaricates. She disobeys adults habitually, breaks rules, plays malicious pranks and generally tries to get attention. She’s somewhat disturbingly obsessed with poisons. But despite all this, it’s easy to see this brilliant, lost adolescent’s potential, and you quickly begin rooting for her- not only to solve the mystery but to grow as a person.

A Mystery Series for Teens and Adults to Enjoy

Fans of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Sherlock Holmes will really enjoy these clever mysteries which reach back to the Golden Age for inspiration. Given Flavia’s troubled, precocious personality and the violent murders, I wouldn’t recommend them for younger teens. The books are intended for adults, but I think older teens would also enjoy them. Enjoy a little escape time as you peruse The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.